👍A step too far | Business Standard Editorials

Clipped from: https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/a-step-too-far-123012200811_1.html

‘Fake news’ rules will damage press freedom

The Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, or MeitY, has shared a draft proposal that aims to combat fake news in the country. The ministry has suggested that the Press Information Bureau, an agency of the Union government, be given the powers to determine that certain pieces of information hosted by online intermediaries — in other words, on social media and other web sites — are “fake”. This information, which the ministry indicated would be related to the government and its functioning, would then have to be taken down. This proposal was introduced as a postscript to rules being framed to regulate online gaming, which is an odd place for something with such far-reaching implications. Nor does it have to be only the PIB that is granted such powers because the draft proposal also suggests that “any … agency authorised by the government for fact-checking” could do this.

This has led to understandable fears of governmental overreach and the stifling of free speech. The Editors Guild of India has put out a statement that expresses “deep concern”, and correctly noted that the determination of fake news “cannot be in the sole hands of the government”. Even if there is a laudable aim in mind here, to control the dissemination of misinformation and disinformation, the methods being used are at best poorly thought through. Once the powers to have information about government actions removed from the internet are put in the hands of officials, they are certain to be misused. As the Editors Guild puts it, the inevitable consequence of such powers is the censorship of the press, which runs contrary to India’s constitutional tenets. In the past such attempts to introduce censorship — for example, Rajiv Gandhi’s anti-defamation Bill — had caused a major backlash and had to be withdrawn.

As it stands, the government certainly has the ability to get its side of a story out into the public square. There is no need to force any negative or even inaccurate information down through statute, when government denials carry weight and the media gives them due prominence. Certainly, the government cannot expect that it will sit in judgement over its own actions, as would be the case if it assigns to one of its own agencies the ability to determine the accuracy of reports about its actions. India’s history, and the world’s, shows that this task is best performed by a free and inquiring press, and that robust democracies can not only survive the onslaught of information and misinformation associated with a free press but thrive in it. India as a democracy is built on the notion that voters have the ability to make judgements about how effectively the government is performing. That ability depends upon them being provided access to free and fair information. The Indian citizen should also be trusted to be able to tell, in the end, what news is fake and what is not, based on the credibility or vice versa of the outlet putting out the information.

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