By Caroline Mathews, International News Writer
On April 2, the Indian government abruptly announced a rule to punish journalists held responsible for distributing “fake news.” The rule, however, was quashed less than 24 hours following the original press release.
Citing “increasing instances of fake news in various mediums,” the original press release by the Indian Ministry of Information & Broadcasting announced the new authority of the government to strip journalists and media organizations of their accreditation. Journalists accredited with the Press Information Bureau (PIB) in India are allowed entry into certain events involving the Prime Minister, while journalists without PIB accreditation are forbidden entry to such events. Furthermore, accreditation allows Indian journalists to protect their sources, as PIB cardholders are not required to record their presence at most Union government ministries or with any officials at such receptions. On a personal level, PIB accreditation makes journalists—along with their family members—eligible for subsidized health services that are traditionally reserved for employees of the Union government. Following the original press release, penalties for distributing “fake news”—a term not specifically defined—include an automatic suspension of accreditation for 15 days, following an investigation suspension which could last six months for a first offense, one year for a second, and indefinitely for a third.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed the measure was meant solely to halt the spread of misinformation across the country, journalists across India swiftly condemned the decree as an assault on free speech in the world’s most populous democracy. With India’s general election on the horizon next year, many critics believe this was to quell possible negative media attention—essentially a deception tactic—by the Prime Minister. Presumably speaking for many free-speech advocates, Shekhar Gupta, one of the most prominent journalists in India, tweeted to his nearly 2 million followers, “Make no mistake: this is a breathtaking assault on mainstream media.”
A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s office confirmed Modi ordered the rule to be pulled on April 3rd. While the rule only survived for less than 24 hours, the introduction itself is troubling; especially in wake of the Malaysian Upper House passing a bill criminalizing the spread of fake news this week. Singapore is also aiming to pass legislation attempting to stop online misinformation, while two journalists in Myanmar and Cambodia have been arrested recently.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 10th print edition.
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