Smriti Irani climbs down on fake news order as PM Modi steps in after outcry
Smriti Irani’s ministry had said journalists found guilty of writing or broadcasting “fake news” will have their accreditation withdrawn for a limited period or permanently, depending on the frequency of violations.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi intervened the first thing on Tuesday morning to halt the Union information and broadcasting ministry’s plans of cracking down on fake news, even as the backlash against the move, announced late on Monday night, was gaining momentum.
Four senior officials said on condition of anonymity that the I&B ministry hadn’t kept the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in the loop while issuing the statement on Monday evening.
The statement said the accreditation of journalists accused of publishing fake news would be cancelled, and that it would be suspended immediately for 15 days even while the complaint was being investigated, prompting fears that the state would use this to try and control the narrative.
“PIB Press Release regarding Fake News uploaded last evening stands withdrawn,” tweeted the Press Information Bureau, the government’s press arm, on Tuesday afternoon after PMO directed the I&B ministry to do so.
Officials said that the daily morning bulletin from the PIB to the PMO contained a long report on the adverse publicity attracted by the I&B statement on fake news.
The PMO also received independent feedback and a senior PMO official spoke to at least two ministers before informing the Prime Minister about the developments, added a government functionary who asked not to be identified. A senior BJP functionary who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the guidelines and the adverse reaction were also discussed internally in the party and the feedback was passed on to the PMO.
After the PM was shown the reports and told about the feedback, he decided that the order be revoked. The senior PMO official called the I&B ministry and advised officials there that Monday’s statement be withdrawn. “The PMO also called an officer of the I&B ministry to say that the decision to scrap the fake news statement must be shared with the media quickly. After a few minutes, a PMO official actually dictated the exact text of the message that was supposed to be spread informally. The short message said, “Prime Minister has directed that the press release regarding fake news be withdrawn and the matter should only be addressed in Press Council of India”, ” the official added. The official is also believed to have spoken to I&B minister Irani.
I&B minister Smriti Irani subsequently called a few officers into her room and briefed them about the situation, two of the four officials cited in the first instance claimed. According to them, she pointed out that “there is overwhelming support in favour” of the I&B ministry’s stand against fake news and added that she had personally clarified certain things on Twitter. But in line the PMO’s directive, it was decided to issue a separate ministry statement clarifying that its release on the regulation “stands withdrawn”.
The Congress took the opportunity to hit out at the Centre and said the order to withdraw the statement stemmed from fear of a backlash. Congress president Rahul Gandhi tweeted: “Sensing mounting anger on the “fake news” notification, the PM orders a U-Turn on his own order. One can clearly see a loss of control and panic setting in now.”
The withdrawn statement wasn’t without its supporters. The Press Council of India (PCI) , which according to the statement, was supposed to adjudicate complaints against print media journalists regarding fake news, supported the I&B ministry. PCI chairperson Justice CK Prasad said: “We have been having consultations on the menace of paid new and fake news for some time now. My personal view is that determination of paid and fake news and of the penal action depending on the severity and frequency of the occurrence should be done by an independent body such as the PCI and not by any government regulated body.”
The Editors Guild acknowledged’ the PMO’s intervention but said it remains ‘deeply disturbed’ that faith continues to be reposed on the Press Council of India to deliver justice on such issues.