India dispatch: Central Government plan to decide what constitutes ‘fake news’ draws criticism from journalists Dispatches
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India dispatch: Central Government plan to decide what constitutes ‘fake news’ draws criticism from journalists

Indian law students are reporting for JURIST on law-related developments in and affecting India. This dispatch is from Rishabh Yadav, a postgraduate law student at the University of Delhi.

The Central Government of India recently released a draft of the amended Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021  (IT Rules) which, if implemented, would give the government and the institutions it approves, the power to determine what news is fake, resulting in censorship and removal from various social media platforms.

Rule 3(1)(b)(v) of the amended version of the IT Rules provides that an intermediary, for example, Facebook or Twitter, would have to make efforts to stop their users from hosting, displaying, sharing and publishing any information which has been identified as fake or false by the Fact Check Unit at the Press Information Bureau of India, which is a part of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, or any other agency authorised by the Central Government.

This week the move was criticised by the Editors Guild of India (a non-profit organization of journalists), which in a statement has contended that this amendment will make the government the sole body to adjudicate what constitutes ‘fake news’ and will give it unbridled power to take down content it finds ‘problematic.’

Fake or unreliable news in India has seen a steep increase over the year, especially when the Coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, which resulted in a 214% increase. Dealing with fake news in India is challenging because of the diversity of languages in the country, and the end-to-end encryption of instant messaging apps like WhatsApp which makes it hard to detect the origin of a rumor or hearsay. This, coupled with widespread digital illiteracy, makes it a herculean task to curb this menace. Often this so called ‘news’ is communal in nature, which may lead to social tension and violence, as has happened in the past. There is an actual need for strong laws to tackle this issue.

However, Rule 3(1)(b)(v) in its current form leaves the control over labeling of something as ‘fake’ within the exclusive domain of the government or its selected bodies, making it susceptible to abuse. A news piece which shows the government in an unfavorable light can be called ‘fake’ and be removed from social media. The Press Information Bureau is the nodal agency of the Government of India whose purpose is to disseminate information. The Bureau launched a fact-checking arm called “PIB Fact Check” in 2019. It debunks suspected WhatsApp forwards and social media posts. Its workings, however, have not been free from controversy.

The limitations of a government-sanctioned fact-checking apparatus become painfully apparent when the point of controversy is a news article that highlights shortcomings of the government itself. In such instances, the Press Information Bureau often takes a more defensive approach instead of a neutral approach ideally seen in a fact-checking organization. Standards of fact-checking established by various international organizations such as the American Press Institute and the International Fact-Checking Network demand non-partisanship and fairness. In these aspects, the Bureau falls short. The ‘fact checks’ of the Bureau, when it comes to government policy decisions, often end up being bald repudiations instead of well-reasoned and logically sound refutations.

For instance, on 21 May 2020, The Wire, an independent news organization in India, published a report about how certain ventilators procured by the government during the pandemic were of poor and substandard quality and how the company which manufactured it may have ties to the ruling government. The Press Information Bureau issued a refutation saying that the ventilators were donated not procured and that they were meeting medical standards. However, later the government admitted to orders being placed by multiple states and doctors talking to the media had adverse opinions about the ventilators. In such a scenario, the credibility of fact-checking done by the Press Information Bureau came into question.

In such a scenario, I believe that the apprehension of media outlets over this proposed change is justified. The IT Rules, in which this change is proposed, are themselves currently being challenged in the Supreme Court of India over privacy and freedom of speech concerns. While ‘fake news’ is an important issue that requires curbing, greater consultation with all stakeholders, allowing independent fact-checking organizations to also contribute, and removal of bias and the perception of bias will go a long way in allaying concerns and ensuring greater public confidence in the government and its laws.