Governments Attempt to Curb Fake News: An Empty Rhetoricby Opinion Express April 13, 2018 0 comments
The attempts of the government to curb fake news is just an empty rhetoric. The BJP is claiming to fight issues while supporting one of its advocates, which is all-in-all astonishing.
Freedom of the Press has not been explicitly provided for in the Constitution of India. Instead, the freedom of the Press is derived from the freedom of speech and expression which has been enshrined in Article 19 of our Constitution. Under this Article, each and every citizen has been guaranteed the right to exercise his/her right to free speech, subject to certain reasonable restrictions that have been prescribed under the Constitution.
In this week’s column, I will attempt to look back on how this Government went about in an ill-advised and hurried manner to tackle the issue of fake news and in reality ended up attacking the right to freedom of speech and expression. I will also try to examine how such moves are characteristic of an insincere Government and lastly examine how this Government is part of the problem of fake news.
How not to solve a problem: As stated above, free speech is a fundamental right that has been provided by our Constitution. Typically this right can only be curtailed in certain prescribed situations, including, inter alia measures to ensure public order and maintaining the sovereignty and integrity of India. It must be remembered, however, that the curtailment of this right to free speech can and should only be taken with great care and deliberation. In the case of tackling ‘fake news’, it is clear that the problem of sharing of mass misinformation either intentionally or recklessly must be curtailed.
While this problem of ‘fake news’ is a significant and complicated problem that requires a deft touch and thorough deliberations, the manner in which Smriti Irani and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) has gone about attempting to tackle it would be laughable if it were not so terrifying. The notification issued by the MIB provided no definition of what would be considered as fake news and alarmingly mandated that the accreditations of a journalist be suspended as soon as an accusation is made against the him/her. Therefore, instead of acting with great care and deliberation, the Government adopted all the deftness of a sledgehammer.
While tackling the problem of ‘fake news’, the priority of any responsible Government must be to first ensure that freedom of speech is not unduly restrained. The notification passed by the MIB seemed to go out of its way to ensure the opposite. The obvious fear behind such a move is that it could work to suppress free speech by characterising any piece of news that is not in favour of the party at power to be fake news.
This Government has always found criticism of its policies and its rhetoric difficult. This was another example of its ‘touchiness’ towards bad news. The move was so ill-conceived that the only surprise was how long it took to roll back this howler by the Government. Mild critics of this notification have said that it misses the forest for the trees but in reality, the Government missed the forest because it was too busy cutting down the trees.
An insincere Government: The decision of the Government to roll back the MIB’s proposed move has been taken by some as another indicator of an indecisive Government. However, in reality, it is similar to its moves in the past that lends credence to the argument that it is, in fact, another indicator of an insincere Government.
I had stated in my previous columns about the various jumlas of this Government, including its attempts to modernise India through the ‘Smart Cities Initiative’ or to help tackle the issues related to waste management and our dirty cities through the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. In relation to both, while the claims are tall and lofty, the actual facts make for grim reading.
This attempt to ‘tackle’ fake news is another such empty initiative. The reason that I doubt this Government’s resolve to tackle the problem is because it is astonishing that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can claim to tackle the issue of fake news while also supporting a proponent of it.
In the case of Postcard News, the police in Bengaluru arrested its co-founder Mahesh Vikram Hegde for allegedly spreading false information through a social media post. It was reported that Hegde claimed that a young Muslim had assaulted a Jain monk. In reality, the police state that the monk had been injured in a road accident.
In fact, Postcard News has a history of making dubious claims and one would think that this kind of false, malicious rumour is the exact kind of misinformation that the Government should target.
One would expect the BJP to distance itself from such outlets, instead, however, a number of BJP leaders came out in support of Mahesh Hegde, including Union Minister Anant kumar Hegde who tweeted his support for him. Therefore, you can understand my scepticism about this Government’s intentions when it states that it aims to tackle the problem of ‘fake news’.
Practise what you preach: Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently claimed at a rally in Motihari, Bihar, that the State had build 8,50,000 toilets in a week in April and congratulated the State Government on this achievement. This implies that 84 toilets were built every 61.5 seconds. It is this kind of information that is part of the problem of fake news. This Government is known to be fast and loose with facts, figures and statistics.
I have previously written about the various jumlas of the Modi Government where the primary motive seems to distract us with glittering statistics and marketing campaigns about various schemes and programmes that seem too good to be true. It is only when you spend five minutes looking into the claim that you realise it indeed is too good to be true.
It is this kind of Olympian-level of gymnastic flexibility with the truth that seems to be a hallmark of the BJP and the Government. There is so much information that is being peddled by the BJP and the Government either directly or through its support of proponents of fake news. The fact is that there has always been some amount of misinformation that has existed. However, with the advent of social media channels and free messaging applications like Whatsapp, this misinformation is being spread at a viral rate.
The obligation of any responsible Government is then to first look inward and ensure that it is not part of the problem. This can be done by minimising misinformation and lack of transparency within its ranks.
Instead, what we have is a Government that made an ill-advised attempt to target journalists who are required to keep the Government in power, in check.
One would hope that in the coming days, weeks and months, the BJP Government takes a serious look within rather than without to tackle the spread of any misinformation. However, I am more inclined to believe that any such announcement is likely to be fake news.
(The writer, Jharkhand PCC president, is a former MP and IPS officer. Views expressed are personal)
Writer: Ajoy Kumar
Courtesy: The Pioneer