Guidelines on fake news: Why would govt put curbs on handful of journalists with access to its inner workings?

An unprecedented decision and even more unprecedented speed leading to its withdrawal.

Within 24 hours of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting announcement of a new guideline of suspending a journalist’s accreditation the moment, there is a complaint of fake news, the Prime Minister’s Office intervened and withdrew the ill-conceived order that posed a threat to the functioning of democracy. The Smriti Irani-led ministry had issued a press release on Monday that amended guidelines for journalists’ accreditation, stating that if a journalist is found to have ‘created and/or propagated’ fake news, his or her accreditation will be suspended or permanently cancelled.

“The accreditation will be suspended till such time the determination regarding fake news is made by regulating agencies,” the ministry had said. As per the order, which now stands withdrawn, if a journalist was found guilty of publishing or propagating fake news, his or her accreditation would be suspended for six months for the first violation and if the instance recurred, then the accreditation was to be suspended for a year. If it happened a third time, then the accreditation would be cancelled permanently.

The Press Club of India, a Delhi-based organisation of 3,800 journalists, objected to the I&B press release specifically on two counts, that the government was to suspend the accreditation of a journalist caught spreading fake news and only after bodies like the NBA and the Press Council of India were to intervene. The other objection against the press release was the point that once the person has been convicted, the trial was to start. Gautam Lahiri, who is serving his second term as the president of the Press Club of India, said that the government was attempting to impose restrictions on journalists who have earned the right to access ministries and officials.

“Access to the news source is a right earned by journalists and this decision would have curbed it,” he said. Quite strangely, I&B’s order pertained only to accredited journalists who, as per the Press Information Bureau’s website are 2,403 in number. So, was the government trying to curb fake news, which is massively spread online, by putting limits on the rights of a hand few journalists with access to the government’s inner workings?

The Press Information Bureau is also the government’s nodal agency to facilitate private media. The pre-requisite for the PIB-accreditation, as stated on the website, is five years of experience as a full-time journalist. Nearly 800 of the PIB-accredited journalists formed a body called the Executive of Press Association in 2017. Jaishankar Gupta, its elected president told Firstpost that the accreditation badge is more of a facilitator, granting the reporters’ access to ministries and government officials. “It has no co-relation with fake news and cannot in any way measure or monitor quality,” he said, adding that the withdrawal of the draconian decision by the I&B ministry is a welcome move.

Harsh Vardhan Tripathi, a Hindi journalist and national executive of the National Union of Journalists (a federal organisation with branches in various states and 2,800 journalist members just in Delhi) said that digital and online media doesn’t fall under the purview of the Press Council of India and that is where the problem lies. He feels that now, more than ever, there is a need to set up a media council that has the power to impose bans and penalties. He also pointed two distinct structural problems in the press council – that non-working journalists are also made members and the fact that all decisions are taken by one jurist and not a panel of two or three.

Each medium currently has a separate structure for monitoring quality and instilling accountability in reporters. When it comes to an organised dissemination of news through online websites, it must be known that there is no Press Information Bureau accreditation required to start an online news website. Until last year, I&B ministry was still considering recommendations of the industry on the said issue. The I&B ministry’s press release had stated that the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters’ Association (NBA), which are the regulatory bodies from print and television respectively, were to determine whether the news is fake or not.

When it comes to electronic media, the NBA has a body funded by it, called the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA). This is an independent body whose task is to consider and adjudicate upon complaints about broadcasts. This is not a content regulatory body, as the name suggests, it is a standard monitoring body and it was put in force after instances of fake sting operations surfaced in 2007.

The case of Prakash Singh, a reporter of Live India, was arrested for carrying out a sting operation that claimed to expose a sex racket involving a woman teacher in Delhi. The media reports spurred widespread violence by people demanding that the teacher be suspended. In that case, the Delhi High Court has issued notices to the state government and the police after taking suo motu cognisance that the story was fake. The Delhi Crime Branch was ordered to investigate the matter. The perils of fake news go beyond damaging an organisation or person’s image. There are monetary losses and legal complications involved. The NBSA comprises jurists, members of civil society and editors.

Qamar Waheed Naqvi, a well-known Hindi journalist, was a member of the body for two years. He said since the body has come into existence, it has instilled a greater degree of accountability in the minds of journalists. But the limitations in its case are that it is not a statutory body and its jurisdiction is limited to its members.

“In my time, there were about 50 news channels that were members. Today, the number of news channels is more than 300. Aligning everybody with the body through primary and associate membership plans is a challenge,” he said, adding that the government needs to display political intent to set up a statutory body that is “independent, autonomous and self-regulatory” and has the funds to monitor quality on channels operating in several languages and across the length and breadth the country.

These are the objectives and functions of the NBSA:

One of the main reasons why the I&B ministry’s press release invoked sharp reactions because there is a mechanism in place to self-regulate, which doesn’t require the intervention of the government. In case the existing mechanism needs to be strengthened, it might be done so by the stakeholders without the government’s interference. Presently, the members of the  NBSA are 25 leading news and current affairs broadcasters, comprising 65 news and current affairs channels.

When it comes to newspapers, the background of a person wanting to start a newspaper is checked through a police registration. According to the Registrar of Newspapers for India, a statutory body of the I&B ministry for the registration of the publications, such as newspapers and magazines, the total number of registrations of newspapers were 99,660 by 2013-14. Earlier, RNI had offices in other states but since 2016, there is only one office in New Delhi. Applicants can now be submitted to the office of district collectors and forward to the RNI office in New Delhi and in metropolitan cities, this role has been given to the police.

Prashant Kumar works as company secretary in Delhi and Associate of the Institute of Company Secretaries of India. He gives corporate advice to those applying to the RNI to start their own papers. In conversation with Firstpost, he said that everybody who submits all required documents ends up with a license in three months.

“We receive applications from all kinds of places, be it Malda in West Bengal or Vaishali in Bihar or Karnal in Haryana or Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. In the last three years, ever since I have started working in this area, I haven’t seen a single application being rejected except on the grounds that the title of their paper was already registered by somebody else,” he said that half the applications received by the social activists and the other half who want to start papers are business houses. One basic police verification is conducted. Prashant said that he receives nearly 200 calls a month for information about how to go about applying for a licence.

“The instances of the newspaper licenses being misused for extortion and blackmailing in small towns are well known. The problem here is that the district magistrate and the bureaucracy that deals with issuing and rejecting licenses do not have media people in it, those who can understand the problem more democratically,” said Tripathi.

Finally, who defines fake news and charts the parameters for measuring what is propaganda, for or against the government, in the garb of a news item. When it comes to the internet, a part of the problem stems from the strength that now lies in the hands of social media networks like Facebook and Twitter to make a person, a statement or an instance go viral; inflation of a single issue at a single time and then a quick replacement of it with another issue is the fatal design of disseminating news which makes it harder to monitor what is fake and what isn’t because everything flies past too quickly. Even if a thorough fact check is done, it happens after the issue is off the trending charts.

As the media, which is rapidly changing form, a law that makes journalists committed to the truth and honest fact-finding must change rapidly too but only in a manner that it doesn’t threaten the core essence of the media: free speech.