FREEDOM OF PRESS is a vital freedom. In India, it is also a prickly subject with a history of efforts by governments to tame it. But it is the nature of its robust democracy that any attempt—real or perceived—at muzzling the media fizzles out fast. The fate of the ill-conceived guidelines on ‘fake news’ by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry is a good example.
These guidelines were issued without careful thought and, more damningly, without any consultation with journalists or regulatory bodies like the Press Council of India or any broadcasters association. The penalties for professional transgressions were harsh: withdrawal of accreditation in a graded fashion from temporary suspension all the way to permanent expulsion. In India, accreditation is not a badge of privilege, but one of getting access to various functionaries in the Government for work. Ending it is a sure-fire way of throttling the flow of information. It is this aspect of the guidelines that made the exercise dubious. Fortunately, the plan was nipped in the bud before it could go into practice. Withdrawal instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office ended it.
Compared with other democracies, fake news has not assumed a pernicious dimension that threatens the quality and integrity of journalism in India. The real issue is different. In the past half decade or more, political polarisation has begun to afflict professional journalism as well. The trend has been pronounced since 2014. Far more than fake news—which exists, of course—it is polarisation that affects the quality of journalism. The original firewall between reportage and opinion broke down a long time ago and now even reports are biased in many cases. It is this aspect of public life that threatens journalistic independence more than any ham-handed attempt by the Government to police the news. Biased journalism poses the danger of resulting in the latter in what many may consider a ‘natural manner’. The first step is a loss of credibility. If that happens, readers and audiences will lose faith in what is written or broadcast by the media. Signs of this have been in evidence in India: the extreme polarisation seen on social media is a corollary of what is happening in formal media.
Can the Government do anything about that? And more importantly, should it do anything? The answer is clear: unless the dissemination of news leads to an extremely exceptional breakdown, governments should steer clear of what the press does.