Fake news issue: PM Narendra Modi cancelled the order issued last evening on PIB accreditation
New Delhi: After it was widely attacked as a brazen attempt to curb freedom of the press in an election year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi today cancelled an order that sought to punish journalists for fake news. The order was issued late last night by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, which is headed by Smriti Irani. After top editors and opposition parties accused the government of trying to control the media, Ms Irani tweeted this morning that she was open to suggestions on how to modify the order and tackle fake news. It wasn't enough. Around 10 minutes later, the Prime Minister's Office said the controversial order was withdrawn.
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Here's why Smriti Irani's move triggered such a backlash. The need to stop fake news is widely acknowledged, but the order said that any complaint against a journalist accused of running fake news meant that their government accreditation would be immediately suspended.
The two main regulatory bodies for the print and broadcast media would have 15 days to decide whether the journalist was guilty.
Senior editors said the move was designed to give the government more control over the news. They said suspending a journalist's access to government events and news conferences before the inquiry against them was completed was unfair. Journalists also questioned the deadline for the inquiry because it was decided without consulting those who regulate print and TV media.
The Editors Guild of India, strongly condemning the fake news order, said, "The Guild acknowledges the intervention of the Prime Minister's Office to withdraw the I & B Ministry's notification but remains deeply disturbed that faith continues to be reposed on the Press Council of India to deliver justice on such issues. The recent reconstitution of the Press Council of India has been done in a manner that gives rise to doubts over the independence of the institution and its ability to play neutral umpire."
The ministry did not define "fake news" but said complaints about it in print would be referred for determination to the Press Council of India, with suspected cases on television going to the National Broadcasters Association.
Shekhar Gupta, a former editor of the Indian Express newspaper, said it was "a breathtaking assault on mainstream media", and urged journalists to resist it.
Congress leader Ahmed Patel questioned whether the guidelines were aimed at preventing journalists from reporting news uncomfortable to the establishment.
"What is guarantee that these rules will not be misused to harass honest reporters? Is it not possible that motivated complaints will be filed to suspend accreditation until enquiry is on?" Ahmed Patel tweeted.
Smriti Irani responded: "Glad to see you awake Ahmed Patel ji. Whether a News article / broadcast is fake or not will be determined by PCI & NBA; both of whom I'm sure you know are not controlled/ operated by GOI."