Indian Government Enacts, Abandons 'Fake News' Law In Less Than 24 Hours

from the landspeed-record dept

Governments around the world think legislation is the answer to the "fake news" problem. So far, the only thing that seems certain is these laws will be used to control the press and stifle criticism. The limited rollouts we've seen of laws governing poorly-defined speech have been uniformly disastrous.

The government of India was the latest to roll out "fake news" legislation. There wasn't much debate over the law, as it was unilaterally put in place by the Indian government. The motivating factor appeared to be an attempt to quell criticism of the Indian Prime Minister ahead of next year's election. The only good thing about the decree was its extremely short shelf life.

On Monday evening, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting abruptly announced that it would penalize journalists who spread “fake news,” the term popularized by President Trump to disparage what he has regarded as unfair coverage of his 2016 American presidential campaign and first year in office.

[...]

Within hours of the reaction, Mr. Modi’s government annulled the announcement without explanation on Tuesday morning. “Press Release regarding Fake News uploaded last evening stands withdrawn,” the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting said on its website.

This is good news, but not exactly great news. Enough resistance was raised to make the law untenable, but this short-lived effort may have been a precursor for worse decrees still to come -- a test run to see how much censorship the mainstream Indian press was willing to tolerate.

And it was only the mainstream press, which is already regulated by the Indian government, that was affected. The law did not target digital news purveyors or average citizens with blogs, Facebook accounts, or other ways of spreading whatever the government declares to be "fake news." It only targeted the largest media outlets.

If it had stayed in force, the end result may have been near-direct control of the largest media outlets in the country.

The statement said a journalist’s accreditation would be revoked for six months after a first violation, one year after a second violation and permanently after three violations. It also said that once a complaint against a journalist was registered, his or her accreditation would be suspended until a determination had been made.

In other words, the Indian government would decide who was or wasn't a journalist. Accreditation doesn't prevent journalists from working, but it does prevent them for access to public officials, as well as other side benefits like subsidized travel costs. (The latter part also raises questions about press independence.)

But that was as specific as the hastily-erected (and hastily-torn down) decree got. "Fake news" was never defined and nothing in the decree stated who was able to file complaints, how complaints would be handled, and what options journalists had to challenge "fake news" charges. Supposedly, these complaints would be handled by a council composed of journalists and broadcasters, which hints at independent determinations. But both of those bodies are overseen by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which makes true independence impossible.

At this point, the law is dead. But it will probably be resurrected as the election approaches. Fake news -- however it's defined -- isn't going to go away. Neither is the innate desire to control narratives and stifle criticism.


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