The Draconian IT Rules Will Infringe On Press Freedom

The Draconian IT Rules Will Infringe On Press Freedom

In the UK, the government recognises the importance of critical thinking amongst the masses to identify fake news and promotes it through greater government access and explainer journalism. It is time the Indian government withdraws these amendments and probes where the fake news flows into the system.
First Published: Apr 27,2023 07:10PM
by Sanjay Kapoor

Press freedom infringement | Representative Image | Photo Courtesy: Special arrangement

On April 6, the government made it amply clear what it thought of India’s abysmal position in the World’s Press Freedom Index. It took a big step that would ensure that the Indian media fell further from its embarrassingly low 150th position after the government decided to bring in amendments to the IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code).

The code not just regulates gambling in India but also resurrected a moribund Press Information Bureau (PIB) into a fact checker with authority to decide conclusively not just fake news but also ensure that the content is removed forthwith by both the publication and the intermediary, e.g. social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. This way, the government not only took it upon itself the responsibility to decide on fake news but also struck a body blow to investigative journalism in a country that had a glorious tradition of adversarial media asking tough questions from the government and ferreting out information that was being suppressed by the amendment that sought to treat the consumers of any news as zombies who do not have the sense to separate the grain from the chaff – a skill that bizarrely only the PIB and its yet to be formed fact-checking unit will have.

Pawan Duggal, Supreme Court lawyer and cybersecurity expert speaks on IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2023.

Although the lawyers have critiqued the new amendments, the people who have really come to grief are the journalists and those who live off spoofing the government or the ministers. Understandably, it was a standup comedian and satirist, Kunal Kamra, whose adversarial performances upset the ruling party, who decided to visit the Mumbai High Court to seek clarification about the fake news law. The High Court saw merit in his petition, and despite the government’s protestation to the contrary that the law did not apply to satirists like Kamra, the HC wanted to know whether the amendment had put any guardrails for them.

While Kamra as a standup comedian, certainly deserved to seek clarifications from the government about how the new fake news laws will hurt him, it is, however, journalism that will be seriously challenged by these laws. Not just the profession, but our struggling democracy will be poorer when every little fact about the government is challenged by the faceless people that populate the fact-checking team of the PIB. It’s an Orwellian nightmare with a 2023 spin.

Fake news is not just an innocent introduction of accidental misinformation by stray individuals flaunting smartphones but is far more subversive. According to a “Guide to Counter Fake News”: Fake news is untrue information that has been deliberately created and introduced to obscure truth and promote false narratives by vested interest.” Fake news weaponizes information to question history and science that one reckons the enormity of the threat to. This subversion of the mindset is largely facilitated by an explosion of television and social media outlets that feed on each other for sustenance. In the process, a vast cosy ecosystem has been created to contest established narratives and influence voting behaviour. The endeavour of those who live off fake news narratives is to change the context by which the people judge the work of the governments – past and present.

In an ideal situation, the media – especially investigative journalism, would have put their knives into many of those issues that have scandalous import – if judged by pre-fake news standards. Unfortunately, many of these media probes have not been allowed, followed up, or discouraged through threats and blandishments. Many times, they have also been denied due to the inability of the writers to verify information from any government agency. Government officials are largely inaccessible to journalists. Under these circumstances, it would have been challenging to have an expose like the case of the purchase of Bofors gun deal or the Telecom Scam that put governments in the dock. If, at every stage, then the government of the day had insisted that the allegations of the scam that have been levelled against ministers were fake news, then the exposure of the scam would have been short-circuited. Indian democracy would have been poorer without these media reportages.

In the new circumstances, the biggest contradiction is that in a data-dense world, journalists will not have verifiable information on many indicators. This situation has been aggravated by conscious attempts of the government to either create data which is seriously contested or not have at all. For instance, the government has not undertaken the exercise to hold the Census 2021, reportedly due to the pandemic. Though the world has moved on since then, the government has not expressed any intentions to restart this process, compelling many political leaders and subject experts to wonder what the government is trying to conceal. Some key indicators have not been updated for a long time, including those who are unemployed. So whenever any writer is talking about joblessness, then the spokesperson of the government can always reject these figures as ‘fake’ and demand intermediaries to pull it down ASAP. After these figures have been trashed, how does any writer or an economist defend their own assertions, which go contrary to the view of the PIB?

The possibilities of how the entire information industry can be devastated cannot even be imagined. Big tech companies have woken up to the threat subsumed in this amendment. Asia Internet coalition, as quoted in the website “Medianama”, says: “Using a government agency such as the Press Information Bureau as the sole source to fact-check government business without giving it a clear definition or providing clear checks and balances, may lead to misuse during the implementation of the law, which will profoundly infringe on press freedom.”

India is not the only country that has been fighting the scourge of fake news. Many societies that have seen the rise of populism have struggled to preserve their history and past to make sense of the present and future. In democracies, the government is responsible for creating circumstances in which free media prospers. Journalists and writers need to have access to government officials for information which is generated in a transparent manner. Instead, we are witnessing in our country an environment that encourages opacity. This attitude is visible now, both at the level of the centre and the state. Government agencies are using the phenomena of fake news to impose new censorship norms. During the pandemic, this attitude climaxed when reports of migration or deaths, highlighted by journalists, were termed ‘fake news’ by the administration. Some journalists were arrested, and media houses got midnight knocks from the tax agencies for reporting the truth of excessive deaths.

How have other countries fought fake news? Not by doing what India is doing – without consultation in a patriarchal manner? In the UK, the government recognises the importance of critical thinking amongst the masses to identify fake news and promotes it through greater government access and explainer journalism. It is time the Indian government withdraws these amendments and probes where the fake news flows into the system.

Sanjay Kapoor is a Senior Journalist based out of Delhi. He is a foreign policy specialist focused on India, its neighbourhood and West Asia. He is the Founder and Editor of Hardnews Magazine. He is a Member of the Editors Guild of India (EGI) and, until recently, served as the General Secretary of EGI.

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