On April 6, the government made It amply clear that what it thought of India’s abysmal position in the World’s Press Freedom index. It took a big step that would ensue that the Indian media falls further from its embarrassingly low 150 th position, after the government decided to bring in further amendments to the IT (intermediary guidelines and media ethics code). The code not just regulates gambling in India, but also resurrected a moribund Press Information Bureau (PIB) into a fact checker with the authority to decide conclusively not just fake news, but also ensuring that the content is removed forthwith by, both, the publication and the intermediary e.g. social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. This ways, the government not only took it upon itself the responsibility to decide on fake news, but may have struck a body blow to investigative journalism in a country. The amendment seeks to treat the consumers of any news as zombies who do not have critical thinking or the sense to separate the grain from the chaff- a skill that bizarrely only the PIB and its yet to be formed fact checking unit will have.
Although the new amendments have been critiqued by the lawyers, but the people who could really come to grief maybe the journalists and those who live off spoofing the government or the ministers. Understandably, it was a standup comedian and satirist, Kunal Kamra, whose adversarial performances have upset the ruling party, who decided to visit the Mumbai High court to seek clarification about the fake news law. The High Court saw merit in his petition and despite the government’s protestation to the contrary that the law did not apply to satirists like Kamra, the HC wanted to know whether the amendment had put any guardrails for them.
While Kamra as a standup comedian certainly deserved to seek clarifications from the government about how the new fake news laws will hurt him, but it is, however, journalism that will be seriously challenged by these laws. Not just the profession, but our struggling democracy will be poorer when every little fact about the government will be challenged by the faceless people that populate the fact checking team of the PIB. It’s an Orwellian nightmare with a 2023 spin.
Fake news is just not an innocent introduction of accidental misinformation by stray individuals flaunting smart phones, but it is far more subversive. According to a “Guide to counter Fake News”: ” Fake news is untrue information that has been deliberately created and introduced to obscure truth and promote false narratives by vested interest.” Fake news weaponises information to questions history, science that one reckons the enormity of the threat to democracy. This subversion of this mindset- largely facilitated by an explosion of Television media and social media outlets that feed on each other for sustenance. In the process the vast ecosystem has been created to contest established narratives and influence voting behaviour. The endeavor of those who live off fake news narratives is to change the context by which the people judge the work of the governments- past and present.
In an ideal situation, the media- especially the investigative journalists, put their knives into many of those issues that have scandalous import- if judged by pre-fake news standards. Unfortunately, though, many of these media probe have not been allowed or followed up or discouraged through threats and blandishments. Many a times, they have also been denied due to the inability of the writers to verify information from any government agency. Government officials are largely inaccessible to journalists. Under these circumstances, it would have been difficult to have an expose like the case of the purchase of Bofors gun deal, or Telecom scam that put governments in the dock. If at every stage then the government of the day, would have insisted that the allegations of the scam that have been beveled against ministers was fake news and an then the exposure of the scam would have been short-circuited. Indian democracy would have been poorer without these media reporting.
In the new circumstances, the biggest contradiction is that in a data dense world, the journalists will not have verifiable information on many indicators. This situation has been aggravated by conscious attempts of the government to either create data, which is seriously contested, or not have at all. For instance, the government has not undertaken the exercise to hold the Census 2021 reportedly due to pandemic. Though the world has moved on since then, but government has not expressed any intentions to restart this process compelling many political leaders ( including Sonia Gandhi) and subject experts to wonder what the government is trying to conceal. There are key indicators that have not been updated for a long time including those who are unemployed. So whenever any writer is talking about the ,jobless, then the spokesperson of the government can always reject these figures as ‘fake’, and demand from intermediaries to pull it down ASAP. After these figures have been trashed, how does any writer or an economist defend their own assertions, which go contrary to the view of the PIB?
The possibilities of how the entire information industry can be devastated, cannot even be imagined. Big tech companies have woken up to the threat subsumed in this amendment. Asia Internet coalition as quoted in website “Medianama” says: “Using a government agency such as the Press Information Bureau as the sole source to fact-check government business without giving it a clear definition or providing clear checks and balances, may lead to misuse during implementation of the law, which will profoundly infringe on press freedom.”
India is not the only country that is fighting the scourge of fake news. Many societies that have seen the rise of populism have struggled to preserve their history and past to make sense of the present and future. In democracies, governments are responsible for creating circumstances in which free media prospers. Journalists and writers need to have access to government officials for information, which is generated in a transparent manner. Instead we are witnessing in our country an environment that encourages opacity. This attitude is visible, now, both, at the level of the centre as well as at the state. Government agencies are using the phenomena of fake news to impose new censorship norms. During the pandemic, this attitude climaxed when reports of migration or deaths when highlighted by journalists, were termed as ‘fake news’ by the administration. Some journalists were arrested and media houses got midnight knocks from the tax agencies for reporting the truth of excessive deaths.
How have other countries fought fake news? Not by doing what India is doing? Without consultation in a patriarchal manner? In UK, the government recognizes the importance of critical thinking amongst the masses to identify fake news and is promoting it by greater access to the government and through explainer journalism. In US fake news is being fought by taking recourse to strong institutions, which are missing in fragile illiberal democracies like ours.
It is time, Indian government withdraws these amendments and probes on from where the fake news is flowing into the system.