Indian Prime Minister / AFP PHOTO / SAJJAD HUSSAIN
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday reversed an order to punish journalists found guilty of reporting “fake news”, after an outcry over a perceived government crackdown on the press.
The media sanctions, issued late Monday, stated that the government would withdraw the official accreditation of any journalist responsible for repeated reporting of “fake news”.
India is the latest government to act against what it calls “fake news”. Malaysia is passing a law allowing for up to six years in jail for publishing allegedly misleading information.
The government said it needed to curb the spread of misinformation in the media. But Modi’s office rescinded the directive just hours later amid allegations India’s vibrant press was being muzzled.
“PIB (Press Information Bureau) Press release titled ‘Guidelines for Accreditation of Journalists amended to regulate Fake News’ issued on 02 April 2018 stands withdrawn,” the information and broadcasting ministry said in a statement Tuesday.
Under the withdrawn guidelines from the ministry, a first offence would have led to a six-month suspension of government accreditation.
A second case would attract a year’s suspension followed by a permanent withdrawal for a third offence.
About 2,000 journalists with leading Indian media have a Press Information Bureau card from the information ministry, which eases access to government departments and ministries.
The Indian Express newspaper in a front-page headline on Tuesday said, “In the name of fake news, govt frames rules to blacklist journalists.”
“Move comes in election year,” it added.
Several journalists and activists, while acknowledging the problem of fake news, criticised the government intervention.
Audrey Truschke, assistant professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University in the United States, called the sanctions “a shocking and unacceptable attack” on freedom of the press in India.
“It’s not about #fakenews. Rather, it’s about controlling a notably vibrant press that often sheds light where those in power would prefer darkness,” Truschke posted on Twitter.
“Accreditation is not essential to the practice of free journalism but to me this debate is Trumpian in its othering of the media as enemy,” Barkha Dutt, a veteran Indian journalist and editor of the Mojo digital news platform, told AFP.
“I don’t deny that fake news is a hugely valid concern and the media should take steps to weed it out,” she said, adding self-regulating industry bodies, not the government, should decide penalties.