PM Modi snubs Smriti Irani, forces U-turn on ‘fake news’ move

The Asian Age.

India, All India

The I&B ministry decision drew sharp criticism from the Opposition parties as well as from press bodies.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: AP)

New Delhi: In a snub to information and broadcasting minister Smriti Irani after a controversial “fake news” directive, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stepped in and ordered that the order be withdrawn.

The I&B minister’s order on taking stringent measures against journalists, including cancellation of their accreditation if they were found generating “fake news”, had led to a major uproar in the media. The Opposition parties, including the Congress, also attacked the government for its attempt to “scare and gag” the media.

However, hours after the controversial directive by the I&B ministry, the PMO stepped in and in a damage control bid ordered its immediate rollback. “The PM has directed that the press release regarding the fake news be withdrawn and the matter should only be addressed by the Press Council of India,” a PMO source said. The PM felt the government should not interfere in the matter, and asked the ministry to let media-related issues be dealt with by the Press Council of India.

The I&B minister was further embarrassed as the PMO’s withdrawal directive came while Ms Irani was asking for suggestions on Twitter to fight the “fake news” menace, apparently to uphold ethical journalism. “Interested journalists and/or organisations may feel free to meet me at @MIB_India”, Ms Irani had tweeted.

Soon after the PMO directive, the ministry issued a statement saying that the guidelines issued by it late on Monday night to regulate fake news “stands withdrawn”. In a late-night development on Monday, the I&B ministry announced punitive  measures like cancellation of accreditation to contain fake news, a decision which was dubbed by journalists and Opposition parties as an attempt to curb press freedom ahead of the 2019 general election.

Amending the guidelines for accreditation of journalists, the ministry had announced norms to contain fake news which said if the publication or telecast of fake news was confirmed, the accreditation of the journalist would be suspended for six months in case of a first violation and for one year in case of a second violation. In case of a third violation, his/her accreditation would be cancelled permanently, the I&B directive stated.

A protest against the draconian measure was also held at the Press Club of India, where representatives of several media and print journalist associations were present. “The government has no mandate to control the press. The media were also worried about growing incidents of  fake news, but the Press Council is the right platform to deal with complaints regarding any fake news,” Press Club of India president Gautam Lahiri said.

The I&B ministry norms had also said any complaint of instances of fake news would be referred to the Press Council of India (PCI) if it pertains to the print media, and to the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) if it relates to the electronic media, for determination of whether the news item was fake or not. This was expected to be done within 15 days by these bodies, the ministry said.

Once the complaint was registered for determination of fake news, the accreditation of the journalist, whoever “created and/or propagated” the fake news, would be suspended till  the determination regarding the fake news was made, the ministry had said.

The I&B ministry decision drew sharp criticism from the Opposition parties as well as from press bodies. The Congress claimed the move had shown that fascism had touched its peak as it sought to “muzzle” independent voices through “fallacious” rules, while the CPI(M) likened the situation to the Emergency.

“Fascism reaches its ‘nadir’ as a shaky Modi Government, caught in its web of lies, seeks to muzzle all independent voices in the media through fallacious rules!” Congress communications in-charge Randeep Surjewala tweeted.

Senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel also questioned the government’s attempt to check fake news, asking if it was an attempt to prevent reporters from reporting news uncomfortable to the establishment. West Bengal chief minister and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee termed the attempt as a “brazen and draconian” move to curb press freedom, and said it showed the government “has lost its way”. “What about fake news spread by a political party on a regular basis?” she asked on Twitter, but did not name any party. Recalling the fight for press freedom during the 1975-77 Emergency, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said his party condemned the “duplicitous” move. He accused the government of attacking the media in the garb of fake news over news items that it finds “uncomfortable”. “We stand for, and are committed to a free and independent Press,” the Left leader tweeted.