Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken the right call on the circular of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting proposing to ‘punish’ the peddlers of fake news: Government is not the entity that ought to separate genuine and misleading information. While minister Smriti Z Irani had made the point that it wouldn’t be her department but the PCI and NBA, neither of which is a wing of the government, that would separate the wheat from the chaff, the idea to withdraw the proposal is even better. For, the government should not be even seen as a party keen to intervene in a strictly journalistic matter if the world has to take India’s democracy seriously. The Union government cannot even manage Prasar Bharati properly, as is seen in the lacklustre programmes of DD News, Doordarshan National, a host of regional language channels and All India Radio. Compare a programme of National Geographic, Discovery Channel or Sony-BBC Earth with Gyan Darshan, and the anachronism that the state broadcaster is, becomes clear. That is to say that even a well-meaning government wouldn’t be competent enough to handle the domain of news. It was worse till the era of Rajiv Gandhi. The defenders of his government used to ridicule the proposal of private news channels on television by questioning whether an era of several channels would mean one broadcaster negating the news delivered by another. Those naysayers were proven wrong when people proved discerning enough to follow the right source out of hundreds available.
The proposed punitive action was funnier. The I&B ministry had presumed that the prospect of a journalist losing his or her government accreditation would scare the daylights out of the person. Professional journalists know that the state recognition serves no purpose other than gaining an entry into the offices of certain high-end ministries. The breed of journalists that are both famous and hated have long stopped venturing to those destinations of low-profile members of different newspaper bureaus. Besides being noisemakers, the chief editors and star anchors of the well-watched news channels are opinion peddlers. They enjoy a functioning relationship with the high and mighty who, in turn, couldn’t care less about these journalists’ possession or lack of Press Information Bureau cards. And even TV reporters, mostly seen outdoors accompanied by OB vans, are hardly seen diving deep into the papers of a ministry that a serious journalist would. They chase leaders and spokespersons instead, forever in the lookout for “bytes”. Who in this envied tribe needs a government card? If they don’t, how would one be punished when he/she is stripped of the recognition?
It is unfortunate that the difference between news and views is lost on the present generation that is spoilt for choice. They must be told that instances of reports that are false are extremely rare in the serious section of the media. Rather, their favourite tool of news gathering — the social media — has this dubious distinction of beating mainstream media hands down when it comes to spreading rumours of riots, for example. As a matter of fact, several Twitter and Facebook ‘warriors’ are fighting cases lodged against them in the courts of different States for provoking and inciting people — only to ensure that the sensationalism soars up their following. Close on their heels are members of the cyber cells of different political parties, whose expertise lies in doctoring videos and ‘Photoshopping’ images picked from search engines. The third in this unenviable league are websites run by the kin, friends or lackeys of leaders in political parties. They can tell you, for instance, that the Modi government had denied the jobs of yoga trainers to Muslim applicants before the observation of the first International Yoga Day, and it would turn out that the ‘news’ was entirely bogus and malicious.
For all their flaws, however, the alert section of social media must also be thanked for not letting political parties’ cyber teams get away with murder. If, in order to discredit Modi, the AAP projected a discarded, dilapidated building as Gujarat’s health centre, the BJP returned favour by claiming Hardik Patel used to be Arvind Kejriwal’s escort. Both the cyber teams got exposed when the rival in each case tweeted the real photos and explained the truths. As one can note, these were not the handiwork of mainstream media but mischief by parties’ 20-something recruits. As for the likes of a howling Arnab Goswami, a frothing Rajdeep Sardesai and his intellectually challenged wife Sagarika Ghose, a has-been Barkha Dutt, a maudlin Ravish Kumar, a discredited Sudhir Chaudhary, an unkempt Deepak Chaurasia, a ‘krantikari’ Punya Prasun Bajpai, etc, news has long divorced each one of them; they rule the world of opinions. And opinion is something the state cannot say you cannot have. So, what exactly, in the name of “fake news”, was the government trying to curb? Social networking sites? If the proposed law had been an attempt to replace Section 66A, which the Supreme Court has thankfully quashed, it would not have spoken of journalists. In all probability, the I&B Ministry wanted to posture like US President Donald Trump (whose Russian connection does not offer him a moral high ground to sermonise on the matter).
The issue of fake news is best addressed in the form of professionally made counters by rival media houses or journalists. An honest journalist alone is well-equipped, in terms of training, reach and machinery, to call the bluff of a dishonest peer. To be fair, sometimes the news that is not authentic is a result of bad education of the reporter in the subject or a poor information gathering mechanism rather than deliberate dishonesty. When they misinterpret a policy of the state, there is PIB to put the story in the right perspective. As for the bluffs by some popular Twitter handles, there are equally popular as well as little known users of the medium on the other side of the political divide to not let them pass off chalk as cheese. Finally, science says, ‘Tough luck!’