NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been compelled to step in and cancel a controversial government order that put forth provisions to suspend and revoke the accreditation of journalists on accusations of creating and spreading fake news. The order, passed by the I&B Ministry on Monday, led to widespread criticism as it was seen as the government interfering in the functioning of a free press. The consensus that emerged was that although the Editors Guild and other bodies must work toward controlling the spread of fake news, this must be done independently of any government interference. The outroar seems to have prompted intervention by the Prime Minister, who directed the IB Ministry to withdraw the controversial order. The volte face is interesting given that it is common knowledge that such major decisions are never taken without clearance from the Prime Minister’s Office in the first place.

The Citizen had reported:

In an unprecedented move, the central government announced that journalists’ accreditation can be suspended and then permanently revoked on accusations of fake news. The move has created an uproar with the government being accused of blacklisting and curbing media freedom, especially as its definitions of what constitutes ‘fake news’ under the new provisions remains entirely open ended, creating the possibility of journalists’ being unduly harassed and intimidated.

The Information & Broadcasting Ministry announced the provisions on Monday, saying that the Press Council of India and News Broadcasters Association (NBA) -- the two regulatory bodies for print and television media respectively -- will determine whether the news in question is fake or not.

I&B Minister Smriti Irani was quick to point out that neither of these agencies are government bodies, but the fact that it’s the ministry that has set the punishment and left the definition of ‘fake news’ ambiguous has raised concerns that the provision may be used to silence journalists. Congress leader Ahmed Patel said so much when he tweeted, "What is guarantee that these rules will not be misused to harass honest reporters? Is it not possible that motivated complaints will be filed to suspend accreditation until enquiry is on?"

Smriti Irani tweeted the official response, again highlighting that the two agencies are not government bodies. "Glad to see you awake Ahmed Patel ji. Whether a News article / broadcast is fake or not will be determined by PCI & NBA; both of whom I'm sure you know are not controlled/ operated by GOI."

Nevertheless, the government has set out the procedure, which is that a journalist's accreditation will be suspended the moment there is a complaint of fake news. Within 15 days, the Press Council and NBA will decide whether the complaint against the journalist holds water. "The accreditation will be suspended till such time the determination regarding the fake news is made by the regulating agencies," the new provision says.

This provision especially has raised concern -- with many pointing to the fact that frivolous complaints can be levelled to settle scores, and the 15 day deadline can be arbitrarily dragged to harass and intimidate journalists.

If the journalist is found guilty of creating or propagating fake news, accreditation will be suspended for six months for the first violation and for a year for a second. In case of a third violation, accreditation will be permanently revoked.

Further, no media body was consulted in formulating the new rules. In effect, the provisions have raised concern that the government can interfere in the functioning of journalists and media organisations, and take punitive action in an entirely arbitrary and unwarranted manner.

The provisions have thus sparked an uproar, with criticism saying media freedom stands threatened. From a legal point of view, the Press Council of India should not have the authority to censure, admonish journalists or revoke accreditation.

The PCI is set up under Act of Parliament and gas powers to receive complaints against press from all, including central and state governments. The Act does empower specific measures like censuring/admonishment to PCI. No punishment like denial of accreditation can be meted out on the basis of PCI finding, as it is not provided under law. I&B ministry cannot dictate to PCI, but ministry can only go as complainant. Further, the NBA is a voluntary body where fines are determined. NBSA adjudication cannot lead to extra legal penalty of cancelling accreditation.

Further, there are concerns regarding how the PCI has been constituted that gives rise to doubts of the independence of the institution and its ability to play neutral umpire. The NBA is a body of owners and not journalists, and therefore, its authority to met out penalties and revoke accreditation is also questioned.

Many have also pointed out that accreditation for journalists is a clear cut procedure, and cannot be suspended or revoked based on arbitrary, parallel procedures set forth by the government. Further, criminal defamation laws and other measures are already in place, and another set of provisions, especially those framed in such an ambiguous and arbitrary manner and allowing the government to initiate proceedings, only hinder the independent functioning of the media.

All in all, the consensus emerging is that while the Editors Guild must assert its concern over the proliferation of fake news, what constitutes as ‘fake news’ and the measures that are taken to curb it is a process that needs to be entirely independent of government interference.

At the time of writing, #FakeNews was trending on the top spot on Twitter. Many of the tweets point to the fact that government ministers and websites / tv outlets that are endorsed by various BJP politicians have been at the forefront of peddling fake news. The government has failed to intervene in such matters in a bid to curb the spread of fake news, and hence, can’t entirely be trusted to keep bias and agenda out of the new provisions meant to monitor the media.