The Smriti Irani-led Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s order suspending the press accreditation of print and television journalists accused of reporting fake news may have been short-lived, but cartoonists across major media organisations ensured that the controversy stays on in public memory, at least for a day more.
On Monday night, the Ministry announced that journalists accused of creating or propagating fake news would lose their accreditation with the Press Information Bureau pending an inquiry by the Press Council of India for print media and the News Broadcasters Association for electronic that must be completed within 15 days. If the complaint were found to be true, the journalist would lose their accreditation for six months. For a second violation, they would lose their accreditation for a year and a third violation would strip them off it permanently.
The order sparked outrage among journalists, who viewed it as an attempt to muzzle the media in a year that will witness several Assembly elections leading up to the Lok Sabha polls in 2019. That the guidelines allowed a journalist’s accreditation to be suspended merely on an accusation was particularly worrisome, as it opened the door to frivolous complaints and harassment. Journalists criticised the fact that the circular did not specify what would qualify as fake news, that it did not cover online news blogs and other unregulated internet-based platforms that are a bigger concern from the standpoint of battling fake news.
However, just as the storm over the seemingly ill-thought-out orders was growing, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office intervened and ordered the circular to be withdrawn and said that it was up to the Press Council of India to look into the matter of fake news. Media reports cited official sources who claimed that the Information and Broadcasting Ministry had not kept the Prime Minister’s Office in the loop before issuing the circular.
The rapid back-tracking by Irani’s ministry and the seeming undercutting by Modi’s office gave cartoonists grist for satire.
One cartoon also pointed to India’s poor ranking in the World Press Freedom Index to allude to the prevailing hostile environment for journalists in the country. For the 2017 index, India slipped three points to the 136th position, out of 180 countries.