Damage control by PM Narendra Modi, orders Smriti Irani’s punish-journalist directive withdrawn

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday ordered the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to withdraw its order laying down new guidelines punishing journalists for fake news after widespread criticism that these norms were an attempt to intimidate and muzzle the free press in an election year.

Soon after, the I&B Ministry issued a statement, saying its press release regarding fake news put out by it last night “stands withdrawn.”

In the press release last night, the I&B ministry had cited rising fake news to announce that it had amended guidelines for journalists’ accreditation stating that if a journalist is found to have “created and/or propagated” fake news, the journalist’s accreditation will be suspended for six months or a year for a second violation or permanently cancelled.

It had said that the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters Association, the two regulatory bodies for print and TV media respectively, will determine whether the news is fake or not. And that the journalist’s accreditation would be suspended once a complaint is registered until either body decides — within 15 days — if it is fake or not.

Media bodies and Opposition parties slammed this order calling it an attempt to curb press freedom ahead of the general elections in 2019.

Clearly, the order from the PM was a snub to I&B Minister Smriti Irani who, until past midnight Tuesday, was stridently engaged on social media defending and explaining her ministry’s directive that was issued at 8.55 pm.

Sources said that the PMO was “not consulted” and was unaware of Irani’s directive until it became public. “A fuming Prime Minister told his office to direct the I&B Ministry to withdraw the directive with immediate effect,” said an official.

The Prime Minister, sources said, was annoyed with the “timing and tone” of the directive. “The feeling was that this is a time when the ministry should have been working with the media given the Dalit protests and the CBSE exam goof-up. Instead of protecting the government’s image, the I&B ministry dented it,” said a source in the government.

Asked if the PM’s move was an embarrassment to Irani, the source said: “There’s no embarrassment when you correct an error.”

At 12.02 am, Irani had tweeted to a journalist: “Accreditation committee comprises of editors, journalists and reps of PCI & NBA; do you think they will victimise one of their own? Also a celebrated senior journalist such as your kind self should support ethical journalism & not ‘fake news’.

To another tweet that pointed out fake news websites and questioned why the ministry had issued an order when the mandate was for self-regulation, Irani replied at 12.17 am: “I think Sir you need to study accreditation guidelines along with Code of Conduct as ascertained by PCI & NBA for journalists working with / aligned to them …”

When senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel (at 12.06 am) asked what was the guarantee that these rules would not be misused to harass honest reporters and who would decide what constitutes fake news, Irani replied (12.24 am): “Glad to see you awake…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.”

This morning, however, there was a distinct shift in tone. Around 11.47 am on Tuesday, Irani offered to “engage with journalist body or organisation/s wanting to give suggestions so that together we can fight the menace of ‘fake news.’”

At 12.17 pm, Irani toned down her pitch: “PIB Accreditation Guidelines asking Press Council of India & News Broadcasters Association to define & act against ‘fake news’ have generated debate. Several journalists & organisations have reached out giving positive suggestions regarding the same… .@MIB_India is more than happy to engage with journalist body or organisation/s wanting to give suggestions so that together we can fight the menace of ‘fake news’ & uphold ethical journalism. Interested journalists and/or organisations may feel free to meet me at @MIB_India.”

Within minutes, news broke that the Prime Minister’s Office had asked the ministry to withdraw the directive.

The Editors Guild of India registered its strong objection to the I&B Ministry’s order. In a statement issued on Tuesday, it said, it “strongly condemns the arbitrary manner contemplated” by the I&B Ministry “ostensibly to penalise any journalist or media organisation publishing fake news”. The Editors Guild said that “by notifying that the I&B Ministry will initiate such proceedings, the Government was arrogating for itself the role of policing the media. It would have opened the door for frivolous complaints to harass journalists and organisations to fall in line.”

It acknowledged the PMO’s intervention but said that it “remains deeply disturbed that faith continues to be reposed on the Press Council of India to deliver justice on such issues”.

“The recent reconstitution of the Press Council of India has been done in a manner that gives rise to doubts over the independence of the institution and its ability to play neutral umpire”. Its own nominees, it said were disallowed on “technical grounds”.

Further, the Editors Guild said that the recent reconstitution of the Central Press Accreditation Committee — that decides on the Press Information Bureau (PIB) accreditation of journalists — has “raised questions over the non-transparent processes being followed” by the I&B Ministry and the Editors Guild’s application was ignored, it said.

In response to the ministry withdrawing the amended rules, President of NBA, Rajat Sharma said in a statement that his organisation “welcomes the decision of the Prime Minister’s Office to withdraw” the I&B Ministry’s press release.

Chairman of the Press Council of India Justice C K Prasad told The Indian Express that “fake news is an ethical issue and deliberations do take place” and are held with the I&B Ministry “on such issues on a regular basis”.

The Editors Guild pointed out that fake news “is a process that cannot be left to governments to initiate action when, on many occasions, the governments and the parties in power – both at the Centre and states – are charged with propagating fake news themselves”. It added that news organisations are not the “only source of generation” of fake news. “With the country awash with digital platforms of all hues and opinions that operate without constraints and have the potential to cause far more damage.”

It added that it was willing to work with Central and state governments on the issue, and define what can be constituted as “fake news” and “take action against those found guilty of propagating such news without compromising on the independence and freedom of the media”.

A statement issued by Press Club of India, Indian Women’s Press Corps, Press Association and the Federation of Press Clubs of India, welcomed the retraction of the order. “There is ample scope for introspection and reform of journalistic practices; yet, a government fiat restraining the fourth pillar of our democracy is not the solution.”