Editors Guild of India warns govt against punishing journalists for ‘fake news’


NEW DELHI: The Editors Guild of India on Tuesday condemned the “arbitrary” penalties proposed by the Indian information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry on journalists publishing fake news, even as it acknowledged the intervention of the Indian Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) that led to the withdrawal of the rules.

“It would have opened the door for frivolous complaints to harass journalists and organisations to fall in line,” the Guild said about the ministry’s press statement about the rules yesterday.

The government said the accreditation of a journalist could be permanently cancelled if the scribe is found generating or propagating fake news. As per amended guidelines for journalists’ accreditation, if the publication or telecast of fake news is confirmed, the accreditation of the journalist responsible for it would be suspended for six months in the first violation and for one year in case of a second violation.

The Guild stressed that “news organisations are not the only source of generation of fake news with the country awash with digital platforms of all hues and opinions that operate without constraints and have the potential to cause far more damage.”

“‘Fake news’ is a process that cannot be left to governments to initiate action when, on many occasions, the governments and the parties in power – both at the centre and states – are charged with propagating fake news themselves,” it charged.

The Guild also cautioned against the Press Council of India (PCI) – the regulatory body for print journalism – being the authority to address issues of fake news, as specified by the PMO.

“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,” it said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday ordered the withdrawal of rules punishing journalists held responsible for distributing “fake news”, giving no reason for the change, less than 24 hours after the original announcement.

The move followed an outcry by journalists and opposition politicians that the rules represented an attack on freedom of the press. Late on Monday, the information ministry had said the government would cancel its accreditation of journalists who peddled “fake news”.

After Modi’s intervention, the ministry announced the withdrawal in a one-line statement.

Journalists said they welcomed the withdrawal, but could not rule out the possibility that it was a “trial balloon” to test the waters for putting more restrictions on the press.

“A government fiat restraining the fourth pillar of our democracy is not the solution,” a statement issued by the Press Club said.