The Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry ought to know that it has better things to do than seek to regulate the media, which is a free enterprise in a democracy such as ours. Its directive on punishing pedlars of fake news by withdrawing their Press accreditations was both ill-timed and uncalled for, even if one assumes for the sake of argument that it was well-intentioned. Fortunately, before the issue could snowball into a major controversy, hitting the Union Government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a rare intervention and annulled the order.
The Bharatiya Janata Party had, along with many others, opposed the assault on the media on several past occasions by various Governments, with the Emergency period being the most prominent. For it to be seen now as moving to curb Press freedom is akin to scoring a self-goal, and that too at a time when the Modi regime is faced with other challenges, some motivated like the Dalit agitation. Hopefully, with the intervention of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the issue on media freedom will be settled, though one can expect the opposition parties to continue raising the matter to suit their ends. Here at least the Congress, whose Government had curbed media freedom during the Emergency, has no moral right to protest too much.
The issue of fake news is real and it needs tackling, but there are better ways of doing so than issuing blanket orders. It is best to leave the matter to self-regulating agencies such as the Editors Guild of India and the News Broadcasters Association. Incidentally, both these bodies have admitted to the phenomenon of fake news and are working to address it. Fake news is factually wrong news in its simplest definition. It can be an inadvertent error on the part of the person reporting the news and the organisation using it. Here, the term ‘fake’ cannot be applied. However, it is certainly fake when a media person or anyone else on the social media, either concoct or promotes such unauthentic material as genuine news. This is usually done with mala fide intent and needs to be dealt with. Most responsible media organisations have internal filters to detect such material and take appropriate measures. However, there is still room for improvement and the media houses must take stronger steps in this direction. Besides, there are laws to deal with the menace, and which can be invoked by affected parties. The Government would do well to keep a distance in this regard.