The world’s largest democracy is out to stifle its already docile press

Fighting for rights.
Fighting for rights.
Image: AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal
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Update: In the face of severe criticism, prime minister Modi has now reportedly asked for the press statement to be withdrawn.

Press freedom in India has taken a dangerous turn a year before the country’s next general elections.

On April 02, the Narendra Modi-led government said it had amended the guidelines for accreditation of journalists so as to punish those accused of producing “fake news.”

According to the new rules, the first instance of violation would result in the suspension of a journalist’s government accreditation for six months; the second time, it would be for a year. The third time, the journalist would lose it permanently. Press Information Bureau (PIB) accreditation entitles Indian journalists to several benefits, including access to government buildings and official functions.

Complaints would be sent for evaluation to the Press Council of India, the government said, and those related to the electronic media would be referred to the News Broadcasters’ Association. These regulating agencies can take up to 15 days to determine whether the news item is fake or not, during which time, the government added, the accused journalist’s accreditation would remain suspended.

However, the government has not defined fake news. Nor has it clarified who can file complaints and on what grounds.

The notification has also ignored the non-accredited journalists who far outnumber those registered with the PIB. At times, there are entire newsrooms in the country without a single accredited journalist, even in mainstream media. While the reportage from traditional media outfits could be put to scrutiny, there is nothing at stake for the non-accredited space, where fake-news factories thrive.

India has undoubtedly witnessed a mushrooming of platforms disseminating patently false news and information on a regular basis. Often, such “news” is politically loaded and at least on a few occasions led to lynching and riots. They frequently go viral on social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter.

Surprisingly, the government’s latest guidelines steer clear of these. Instead, they target accredited professionals, i.e., mostly mainstream media.

The government’s move is a fresh attack on press freedom in a country that was ranked 136 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index in 2017. It slipped three spots from the previous year. “With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media,” media watchdog Reporters without Borders said.

India also remains one of the most dangerous places for journalists to function. Those in the profession are routinely threatened, harassed, and even killed just for doing their jobs.

Journalists critical of powerful interests are increasingly coming under attack both online and offline. Those in the second- and third-tier towns and rural areas of the country are particularly exposed to such risks. For instance, just last month, three journalists were killed in Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, allegedly over their probing reports on corruption.

International institutions such as the United Nations have voiced concerns in this regard.

There has been one notable exception, though.

Recently, Donald Trump Jr, the son of the US president who’s leading his own war against “fake news” in the west, perhaps inadvertently lauded the new normal in India. On his recent trip to the country, Trump Jr described the Indian media as “mild and nice.” But apparently, even that’s not enough for the Modi government.