Curbing fake news doesn’t impinge on press freedom, writes Prakash Javadekar
There is always a debate about how much freedom the press enjoys in a country. But, in India, the only time when press freedom was muzzled was during the national Emergency in June 1975. At the time, I was a student activist and protested the censorship of the press; many of us were arrested on December 11, 1975, and kept in prison until all the political prisoners were released on January 26, 1977. During that time, a government officer was deputed to each newspaper; this person screened all news items that were to be published the next day. He enjoyed unbridled powers to allow or disallow publishing of any news item without ascribing any reason. My father, then a sub-editor at Daily Kesari, founded by Lokmanya Tilak, was on night duty on June 25 when the Emergency was clamped and on the morning of June 26, he told me that press freedom was over.
During that period, many petitions were filed before the Supreme Court of India for restoring all freedoms, but in vain. Though millions fought against the Emergency for 18 months, this dark era concerning the freedom of press remained.
In the elections held soon after the Emergency was lifted in 1977, the Janata Party won, and its first decision was to restore complete press and media freedom, which has remained unhindered since then.
But I want to focus on something that poses as big a threat to freedom of the media: Fake news.
During the lockdown, there has been a marked increase in the circulation of fake news pushed through print, electronic, and especially social media such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.
To check this menace, we established a Fact Check Unit in the Press Information Bureau (PIB) that started taking immediate cognisance of fake news. Our efforts have started showing positive results. At least some platforms are retracting these fake news items, and placing facts before viewers and readers.
The initial response from some quarters to the initiative was to term it the muzzling of the media. But fake news can never have anything to do with freedom of the media.
Let me highlight some of the things we have had to combat. On Twitter, a famous advocate said that a woman in Uttar Pradesh threw her five children into the Gomti river because the family had no food. But, when the facts were checked, it was found that there was enough food in her house; she took this extreme step following an altercation with her husband.
An even more mischievous piece of fake news circulated on social media, and nearly triggered a clash between migrant workers and the police at the Bandra station in Mumbai. A large number of migrant workers gathered at Bandra Railway Station based on a fake story that flashed on a TV channel about a special train for migrant labourers. There was no such plan.
In another instance, a popular channel reported that all staff of Bikaner Government Hospital in Rajasthan tested positive for the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). This was absolutely wrong.
There has been a clear pattern of spreading rumours as news, particularly on social media. Many of these have to do with the schemes of the central and state governments. In some cases, these are about non-existent problems with schemes or plans: “Only 2% of the poor are getting food from ration shops”; or “There will be 30% salary and pension cut for government employees”. In other cases, they are about non-existent schemes and plans: “The government will provide free Internet till June end’; or “Hotels will remain closed till October”. Many of these were widely circulated. All are wrong; they were subsequently withdrawn when countered with facts.
Fake news also creates panic. After India exported hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) to the United States and other countries, a narrative spread that the country was left with no stock of HCQ for its own people. There were many such stories — one claimed that Jammu and Kashmir was short of medical supplies. Another said that Manipur’s Churachandpur district had no rations. A large newspaper even projected that Mumbai would see 40,000 cases of Covid-19 by April-end, and that the number would reach 650,000 by mid-May.
All these were fake. The platforms had to retract the news.
While PIB’s Fact Check Unit managed to crack down on these and present the true picture, it is clear that there is a deliberate attempt to create fake news.
That cannot be allowed in a pluralistic democratic set-up like India, not even if the purveyors of fake news try to portray it as a crackdown on the freedom of the press.