The ‘fake news’ storm

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AS the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry has discovered, the global menace of fake news can hardly be countered by a knee-jerk executive order targeting 2,400-odd accredited journalists whose credentials are anyway unfailingly vetted every year. There can be no justification for fake news defined as any news, story, information, data and report that is wholly or partly false. But whether at the Centre or in the states, the government can hardly become the arbitrator of fake news. Not only will this lead it to the temptation of policing the media, but also open the doors for frivolous complaints to harass journalists. The biggest purveyor of fake news, despite what US President Donald Trump has to say about CNN and New York Times, is social media (SM) where screenshots of patently false news jump from one smartphone to another. India too is not immune to the disruptive potential of fake news on SM. Hardly a day goes by when the Internet is not switched off in some trouble-torn area to prevent SM from further aggravating the situation. Even if the government felt justified in suddenly springing the notification, there were accentuating circumstances that explain the media fraternity’s more-than-vigorous pushback. Of the two bodies originally asked to identify fake news, one has no legal mandate and the other has seen an erosion of faith after a run-in with journalist organisations.  Curiously, there are some parallels with similar efforts in the past: Rajiv Gandhi’s Defamation Bill, the Rajasthan Government’s Criminal Laws Bill, and the Bihar Press Bill. Perhaps it was the comfortable majorities of each of these regimes that sowed the seeds of keeping a watchful eye on the media. It is just that the governments of the day had to eat humble pie in each case. Union Minister Smriti Irani has sought to bring down the curtain on the u-turn by offering to engage with journalist organisations so that “together we can fight the menace of fake news”. A welcome offer but the government ought to have considered that option before surprising the accredited journalists with the notification.

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