Publishing news based on information from credible, unidentified sources is a global journalistic practice. This allows critical facts to surface even if sourcexsce afraid of repercussions. In India, though, the government is creating an atmosphere in which journalists will be afraid of publishing such material.

On Sunday, the Delhi Police summoned an Indian Express reporter, Mahender Singh Manral, for questioning. The trigger: a report by Manral on Saturday, based on information from anonymous officials, that the Delhi Police’s initial investigations had revealed that an audio tape of the Tablighi Jamat head Muhammed Saad Kandhalvi may have been doctored.

Narrative buster

The article was a political hot potato. For weeks, a clip had been doing the rounds purporting to demonstrate that Saad had advises his followers not to heed physical distancing norms and prohibitory orders. It was a key element in the widespread narrative that sought to primarily blame the spread of the coronavirus in India on the Tabligh, a Muslim group that had held a large meeting in Delhi in March, before prohibitory orders were in place. Pushed by media outlets favourable to the Bharatiya Janata Party, this narrative has flooded through social media groups. If the clip itself had been tampered with, however, this media messaging would be dented.

On Saturday afternoon, the Delhi Police put out a statement claiming that the “news is not only factually incorrect but seems to be based on wholly unverified sources and purely conjectural imagination”. The Indian Express denied this, leading to the police forcing the reporter to come in for questioning or face legal action under Indian Penal Code Section 174, which could even result in a jail term. In fact, the Indian Express had asked for a response from the Delhi Police before publishing the article but did not receive one.

Ironically, a booklet of the Bureau of Police Research and Development, a think-tank of the Union home ministry to which the Delhi Police reports, on “how to spot and investigate” fake news, listed to the clip under the headline “Fake news and disinformation vectors”, the Indian Express reported.

Thus, rather than have any basis in logic or fact, the harsh action by the Delhi Police smacks of intimidation, given that this leak is politically inconvenient for the ruling party.

Crying wolf

This isn’t the only instance of the Indian government using the “fake news” label to try to evade media scrutiny. A similar process was witnessed for a report in Caravan on how the Modi administration did not consult Indian Council of Medical Research-appointed Covid task force before making key decisions. Like in the case of the Express’ Saad story, the Caravan made sure to contact officials concerned for comment – only to be met by silence. But once the report got published, the Modi government quickly – and without any explanation – moved to brand it “fake news”.

In Kashmir, expectedly, this logic has been taken much further. News reports have summarily and without explanation been branded “fake news” and reporters booked, in once case under the draconian anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

Incidentally, even as the ruling party is summarily branding news “fake” without any proof, maliciously false mass messaging is often let off the hook. For instance, television anchor Arnab Goswami falsely insinuated that the April 16 Palghar lynching in Maharashtra was a communal incident, masterminded by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. In spite of this allegation being factually incorrect, the Union’s government’s Solicitor General supported Goswami’s position in the Supreme Court that his case be transferred away from the Mumbai Police.

Taking advantage

In India, disinformation often has an organised character, with propaganda units affiliated with parties pushing false information in order to influence the political narrative. Rather than correct that, the Union government is using the label of “fake news” to escape scrutiny and browbeat the press.

That this is happening during a pandemic, when free flow of information is critical to saving lives, is doubly unfortunate. More than ever, India needs a free press. The government’s intimidation tactics do the cause no favours.