So finally it came. The I&B Minister moved forward, then backward and then, forward again. The Minister announced that any journalist found involved in propagating ‘fake’ news would lose his government accreditation. The Prime Minister’s Office moved in promptly and the order was struck down. Was he unaware when the Minister sent the order? Nobody knows. The PMO said that there were other bodies who could decide better what fake news is and then action could be taken against the erring journalists. Quickly another body was formed to detect and decide upon fake news circulating in the social media. It included members from the Press Council of India, The Broadcasting Council, and several government officials.
Fake news is certainly a major problem in media today worldwide. But who creates it? The journalists? The Editors’ Guild reacted sharply when the Minister initially moved the order stating the fake news mostly originates from the political parties and then they are circulated through certain sites whose origins can also be traced back to politics. Can the government take action against the real originators of fake news?
The Indian media was asking for it. While fake news proliferated and some efforts were being initiated elsewhere in the world to detect it and curb it, the Indian media houses sat tight oblivious of its impact on genuine news and on the credibility of the media in general. While we debated on the “freedom of the press”, the efforts to retain it were half-hearted, to say the least. Mere debates were not enough. If ‘self-regulation’ was an answer to keep the media free, what did the Indian media do to control fake news? The inaction of the Indian media against the proliferation of fake news was an open invitation for the government to step in. All governments try to control the media, if not openly (as in the case of the emergency of 1975-77) then covertly. In many cases, the present government has been accused of “shrinking the democratic space”. The first order of the Minister to threaten the journalists to take away the government accreditation could have been construed as direct intervention of the government on the freedom of the media. But the PMO’s action has been wise enough to mollify the intervention by asking the Minister to include members of the Press Council and the Broadcasting Council in the committee to monitor fake news. The committee will be majorly run by government officials under the I&B Ministry.
So, the media freedom goes for a toss. You can’t blame the government fully. The media has played into the government’s hands – meekly. These ‘autonomous’ bodies like the Press Council, the Prasar Bharati, the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (which is soon to become a media university)- have already been filled up with government ‘favourites’ (this has always been done, whichever party is in power).
What is left of media freedom? The social media was being touted as a ‘democratic public space’ against the mainstream media that was struggling under the pressures of the business owners. But now, the social media also comes under the government scanner.