Recently, the Information and Broadcast Ministry under Minister Smriti Irani has issued new guidelines, which were later canceled upon PM’s directions, in order to punish accredited journalists, who peddle fake news, which suspension of their accreditation with a provision of permanently revoking their accreditation upon repeated instances of peddling fake news. I welcome the intent behind this move but I have some concerns.
There are three major concerns for me; firstly, the guideline is obviously useless against those journalists who are not accredited. Secondly and more importantly, there is no real punishment for peddling fake news. Thirdly and the most disconcerting is that the method proposed by the Ministry for determination of whether a news is fake and the duration of suspension that shall be received by the responsible person is biased against right wing leaning media persons and organisations, in my opinion.
I will explain the reasons for each of these concerns.
The reason for my first concern is self explanatory and so I will not get into the details of it.
As for the second issue, it is more to do with knowledge in the general public about accreditation. Most people do not know what accreditation is or how a journalist get accredited and what are the benefits of accreditation. And as such the general public will not know nor care if somebody’s accreditation has been suspended or revoked permanently. Thus, unless there is a provision of naming and shaming such journalists along with suspension and revocation of accreditation the guidelines will remain too soft.
Here I’d like to clarify that I am not in favour of actual punishments such as fines or jail time because free speech should be protected and free speech includes the right to lie. However, people who are charged with and have taken up the duty to bring truth out do not get this right. Therefore, fake news must be punished by way of dent in their reputation and social standing only and not actual physical punishment like jail etc.
My third concern and the one that I am most worried about is bias. And although I said earlier that there will be bias against Right leaning media persons and organisations, my concern is more to do with bias against new age media.
I say there might be a bias, due to the composition of the bodies that will decide not only whether accreditation is to be suspended but also the duration of said suspension.
For fake news in print media like newspapers, the matter will be referred to Press Council of India in which apart from the Chairman who is a retired judge and 5 MPs (3 from LS & 2 from RS) all the members are from the media (Editors of media houses and active journalist). And herein lies the bias against Right Wing ideology. As we know, most of Indian media not only has strong left wing ideological bias but also a strong connection (both familial & otherwise) to the GoP & Communist Party.
If you think my concern is misplaced, ask yourself this: does one of the major right wing magazine, which has been a mentor to many new upcoming Right Wing media, Swarajya, have representative in the PCI? Are there any other RW representatives in PCI? How can we expect fairness from such a body when, recently a journalist Aditya Raj Kaul was not allowed entry in Press Club of India by other journalists and no organisation came to support Aditya?
For fake news in electronic media, it gets even messier, because here the bias may not be only of ideology but that of medium also. The matters will be referred to National Broadcasters’ Association (NBA). NBA is a private body made up of Broadcasters. New age media and web based journalism are in direct financial conflict with traditional media (print & TV). Globally the advertisement revenue is moving towards personalized adverts on the internet through SM and individual online creators.
A recent international example of the viciousness this can bring was seen in case of massive Youtuber Felix Kjellberg aka PewDiePie when many reputed news agencies including NYT & WaPo purposefully took parts of his videos out of context and tried to portray him as a Neo-Nazi so that advertisers move away from YouTube and back to newspapers. This wasn’t an isolated incident. Felix was targeted earlier too when he accidentally said “nigger” in one of his gaming streams and a controversy was created by legacy media leading to what is popularly called ‘ad-pocalyps’ in the YouTube community which saw advertisers pulling out of YouTube on a large-scale.
Not just the financial conflict, there is also an issue of representation. The new age media has no representation in NBA. How can a private body pass orders relating to people who are not its members? This also applies to broadcasters also that are not part of NBA.
Can we expect fairness from NBA towards YouTube or internet based agencies like PostCard, OpIndia, RightLog or AltNews and TheWire etc.?
Other than these concerns there are also many other questions that I have, such as: What’s the statute of limitations on this? Can people like Shekhar Gupta who peddled fake news (fake military coup story) before these guidelines also be punished? What happens when lives are lost due to these fake news (not too long ago, a soldier committed suicide due to a story, but the journalist responsible did not face any repercussions)? Is simply suspending accreditation enough in that case? What is the complaint procedure? Can regular citizens file complains, seeing as most fake news and propaganda is busted online by regular people? What about personal SM accounts of such journalists who spread fake news, knowingly or inadvertently, as their opinions or preface it by “shocking if true”/“received via WhatsApp” or something like that?
Any law, rule or guideline cannot be subjective. Even if they become less effective, they must be made objective with the answers clear and specific for each situation related to them.
Now, how do we address these issues? Here’s my suggestions that may solve some of the many issues:
1. All proceedings related to all such cases, irrespective of the scale or magnitude of the fake news must be streamed live online on the websites of PCI & NBA. These same should be available unedited for later viewing.
2. The transcripts of all proceedings should also be available and that too without any redactions.
3. An appellate body that is separate from both PCI & NBA should be created that shall deal, in a time bound manner, with appeals against the decisions of these bodies. And its proceedings, obviously, should also be streamed and transcripts should be available.
Some other very reasonable and, in my view, more effective solutions to the fake news menace were proposed by DD News journalist and anchor Ashok Srivastava, in his change.org petition and letter to the Government that property of accredited journalists must be publicly declared and audited.