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Law against fake news is need of the hour: Media can’t hide anymore behind the freedom of speech

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Article 19.1  of the Indian constitution deals with the fundamental rights of the Indian citizens. These fundamental rights are–

a.   to freedom of speech and expression;
b.   to assemble peaceably and without arms;
c.   to form associations or unions;
d.   to move freely throughout the territory of India;
e.   to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India; and
f.    to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business

Article 19.1.a b which deals with freedom of speech and expression is universally applicable to all the citizens, including journalists. There is no special provision under the constitution for freedom of speech to the media. Media derives its power to report and write, from the article 19.1.a.

Even though these are fundamental rights, subclause 2 of the same article 19, says the following –

“Nothing in sub clause (a) of clause ( 1 ) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub clause in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”

From article 19.2 it is clear that the freedom of speech isn’t absolute and subject to reasonable restrictions, and the state (read central government) can make a law to protect the country’s interest.

Therefore the central government urgently needs to bring in the law to curb the menace of the fake news. Just like there are restrictions on the free speech of a citizen like you defame a person, you can’t raise inflammatory slogans against the country (sedition), similarly media can’t get away with reporting blatant fake news.

Since Modi government has come to the power, there has been countless instances of fake news reported by so called mainstream media, which has been called out by Opindia as well as the government. Press Information Bureau has even setup a twitter handle in December 2019 to counter the government related fake news. However this is not enough. Media can’t get away without impunity for reporting fake news and apologising, which also in most cases is not forthcoming easily. Fake news damages the reputation of individuals, and the governments alike. Media has no right to defame a person or the government by reporting incorrect facts.

Smriti Irani during first tenure of the Modi government briefly held the portfolio of the Information and Broadcasting, which is the parent ministry for communication industry (including cinema) which is responsible to make rules, and regulations for media, and also act as the official spokesperson of the Government of India.

To curb the menace of the fake news, she came up with new rules to cancel PIB accreditation of the journalists reporting the fake news, after the inquiry by Press Council of India (PCI) for the newspapers and National Broadcasters Association (NBA) for news channels, if found guilty of spreading the fake news. Proposed cancelation was six months for the first offense, one year for the second offense and the permanent cancellation for the third offense, giving enough chances to the reporters concerned to mend their ways. Also this is to note that both the PCI and the NBA are autonomous bodies without any government control or interference. Also the PIB accreditation only ensures, cardholder reporters direct entry into government buildings, without taking a separate entry pass. Apart from this, there is no benefit associated with the PIB accreditation cards whatsoever for the reporters.

Even then the media criticised this decision tooth and nail as if heavens have fallen down, and government has snatched their right to report freely and independently, which was absolutely not the case, and it certainly didn’t attract any kind of monetary penalty or a criminal case. Coming under the pressure, I&B ministry buckled down, and retracted the order after the PMO intervention, giving a sense of impunity to the media to report as they please, and with no action taken on them for reporting the fake news.  Media became the judge, jury and the executioner in the above instance, as it was media which took a barrage under ‘freedom of speech’ argument.

However, the time has come to make a law to curb the menace of fake news. This government has constantly battling the menace the fake news, since it came to the power, and yet has done very little to curb it. Recently Indian Railways is under the constant fire with numerous fake news reported on the plight of the migrants, returning to their native states via Shramik Special Trains. Government is on the backfoot, for no fault of theirs, because a lie told 100 times becomes a truth, no matter how effectively you counter it. So a fake news reported by one or two media organisations, gets further amplified through social media, with millions sharing the fake news, and criticising the government. This is not to say that there should be ban on criticising the government. One should definitely criticise the government, when needed, and that’s a citizen’s right, but definitely not on the basis of the fake news. 

Similarly during the first tenure of the Modi government, the government had to fight menace of fake news on the Rafale jets, which was started by the Congress party, and amplified by the media acting as its echo chambers. Even the Supreme Court clean chit on the deal failed to satisfy them. It’s a different matter that, it didn’t have an impact on the results of Loksabha elections, however this issue had enough potential to snatch the victory of the BJP. BBC always uses the word ‘Indian administered Kashmir’ in its reports concerning to the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir with impunity. Should any self-respecting democratic country tolerate this? Will BBC refer Scotland or Ireland as England administered territory? 

With the advent of the social media it has become very easy to spread fake news, and just like government acts against individuals spreading fake news on social media like Whatsapp, there is no reason to not to act against media for spreading the fake news.

(About the author: This article is written by Keshav, a media graduate, who left journalism for an alternative career. Traveler, Aviation Enthusiast. Indian, Marwari, Marathi in that order)

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