Good news is that the Union Government has taken a step back, and decided not to proceed with its just-announced plans to amend the guidelines for grant of accreditation to journalists. The original move was seen as an attempt by the Narendra Damodardas Modi government to effect new controls on news gathering and dissemination, purportedly in the name of punishing those producing “fake news”. Its target, though, was the relatively small number of accredited journalists who, at the same time, are the most-well-placed lot to disseminate information. While they do not form a big size in terms of numbers, they dominate the established media both from the national and state capitals down to lower levels. Undoubtedly, they are highly experienced, know the rules of the game and are generally expected to function in responsible ways. Although that is a point where many may not concur. This move to rein them in naturally raised suspicions of an evil intent on the part of the government, and hence protests were swift.
The government aimed at cancelling the accreditation of such journalists as are found to have released a “fake news” — meaning possibly a news content that goes against government (read ruling political party) interests and is supposedly not backed by unassailable evidence. The first time, the cancellation was to be for a period of six months, the second time for a year and the third time permanently. Cancellation of the accreditation would mean loss of government accommodation; loss of concessional travel facilities; and more importantly special access to government establishments and the status that an accreditation gives a journalist. Not only limited to personal benefits of individual journalists but the move would have debarred publishing houses access to the government’s side of any story. Most interestingly, the mechanism to judge fake news was not specified; nor the procedures to follow in respect of filing of complaints. It looked like the move was sudden, and then dropped like a hot potato. The government obviously sensed the danger involved in pursuing such an aggressive path.
A basic tenet of journalism is to be true to oneself and to the outside world. Several media establishments of the past used to prominently display their motto, such as Let Truth Prevail, on their mastheads. The very survival of a news media depended, until the arrival of the visual media, on their credibility. Publish an un-substantiated news, their reputation hits a low. Even today, reputed media establishments have mechanisms in place to ensure that fake news does not creep in and spoil their hard-earned reputation. Even if the old zealousness in maintaining such well-established norms is wearing thin, the checks and balances mechanism has moved out of the News Room. Any print or electronic media that blatantly or subtly tries to push its own agenda is immediately singled out by extra smart readers/viewers. As consumers, they are much more alert now than ever before. The moment a media loses credibility, its consumer numbers shrink and that has started affecting advertisements and eventually revenue. This kills the very purpose of this business. Owners and company bosses are always alert and outright reject untruths. The government need not bother on the misrepresentation of facts aspect of news as it should, ideally, depend on consumers to decide on such issues.
Some believe that fake news production is an industry by itself. They claim these are done mostly by small-time entities, unscrupulous elements even in the established media, and those having unholy links with shady entities. However, they do not take into account that precious reputations, built over the years, could get hurt in one swift stroke. Of course, once a so-called fake news serves its purpose, and the damage is done, there generally may not be any retraction, no regret; and life for those who disseminated it remains as usual, unless an aggrieved party approaches the court of law or files a defamation case. The government move, however, excluded these non-accredited entities, the bigger threat, with no justification.
What needs affirmation in this context is that this nation already has strong laws in these respects. Question thus was, why the government should have come up with a new stick against accredited journalists. The answer on many a lip: The Modi government was bent on further tightening the screws on front-line media personnel and establishments so as to breathe easy in a new season of financial scams and approach of general elections 2019.
An unalloyed fact is that news is ‘manufactured’ more in support of the government and less against the establishment. For, there are not many in the industry today to face governmental wrath. The revolutionary zeal in media functioning is a thing of the past. Instead, most journalists and media establishments opt to adopt a cautious approach and mostly bend over backwards to satisfy those in power, adopt a course through placid waters, and avoid rubbing the authorities the wrong way. Obviously, inferences are that the intention of the government is to rein in even the few who show courage and take on the government; and not necessarily to clean up the mess that news gathering and dissemination have come to be. Such a move, as demonstrated by the Trump administration in the US, can only hurt freedom of expression. That being a basic ingredient of any democratic society, such a move would have throttled human rights in India.