India issued fake news guidelines to the press. Then it reversed them.

Journalists in New Delhi panicked last week when the government issued a circular with new guidelines for regulating fake news.

The circular, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi quickly retracted after the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) released it last Monday, detailed how journalists who "created" or "propagated" fake news could lose their accreditation. According to the announcement, if the government received so much as one complaint, a journalist could be suspended for 15 days.

There’s just one problem: The circular didn’t address misinformation at all. It targeted mainstream reporters.

“There is a general mistrust between the media and the government, which exists everywhere in every country,” said Jency Jacob, managing editor of the BOOM debunking project. “In the capital, most journalists aspire to have their accreditation (since it lets them move freely through government buildings), which is why it was quite weird that the government said only accredited journalists could be the source of fake news.”

Per the guidelines, the Press Council of India and News Broadcasters Association would have determined whether or not the complaints constituted fake news. The first violation would have resulted in a six-month suspension, followed by one year for the second and permanently for the third. That elicited backlash from journalists around India — many of which feared additional obstacles in a country where the media has had a rocky relationship with the government.

“It didn’t seem like the government had put much thought behind it,” Jacob said. “They’re already regulated through the Press Council of India. There are very clear norms that, if you get it wrong as an individual reporter or agency, you can write to the Press Council and get it rectified.”

“When that is already available, why are you bringing in a new category called ‘fake news?’”

As of yet, there are no clear answers to that question.

Jacob said that it’s weird for the prime minister to shoot down a new directive mere hours after its publication and to disregard the role of platforms like Facebook in disseminating misinformation. And while there are several conspiracies floating around — including that the government was putting the press “on notice” and that it was testing the waters for a more restrictive law — it’s still impossible to determine what exactly happened.

Regardless, the incident, which India Today reported came only days after a journalist was arrested for tweeting an out-of-context photo of a Jain monk in Bengaluru, is a highly visible example of how the misinformation phenomenon has been misconstrued over the past couple of years.

Politico reported in December that leaders or state-run media in at least 15 countries have used the term “fake news” — popularized by U.S. President Donald Trump — to denounce critics. At least 15 countries around the world have taken actions roughly aimed at countering online misinformation, ranging from a rigid anti-fake news law in Malaysia to a reporting portal in Italy. Critics worry that some of those will have unintended consequences.

For journalists, a primary concern is that good-faith corrections will become the next victim of misinformation.

“There is a thin line that divides error and mistakes you make and blatant fake news,” Jacob said. “Politicians would love to use fake news as a term because it allows them to discredit journalists that are in any way a pain to them.”

Simon Chauchard researches Indian politics as an assistant government professor at Dartmouth College. He told Poynter that the MIB’s fake news circular underlines the distrust between the media and Indian government. India was ranked 136 of the 180 countries analyzed in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

“The entire English-speaking press, as far as I can tell — which tends to be more liberal than the vernacular press — was completely outraged about the thing. It was quite unanimous,” he said. “I think it was very much read as an attempt by the government to restrict the freedom of the press.”

That distrust stretches back to the 1970s, when then-prime minister Indira Gandhi declared a 21-month state of emergency and suspended the constitution, censoring the press in the process. Restrictive defamation laws only worsen matters.

“A lot of these journalists that now have newspapers were actually jailed or couldn’t do their jobs back in the ‘70s — and they remember that,” Chauchard said.

Then there’s the fact that the Press Council isn’t exactly a nonpartisan institution. Chauchard said that the body includes members of Parliament and that it would have been impossible to separate their judgments against the media from partisan motives.

Additionally, the government would have had no incentive to address misinformation, which is dominated by doctored photos on WhatsApp and fake Facebook posts, in the first place. Both Jacob and Chauchard told Poynter that a lot of fake news online seems to advocate for the ruling party.

“It’s very suspicious that that government would try to ban fake news, insofar as a lot of the fake news has been, to put a finger on it, generated by Hindu nationalist groups, websites and so on,” Chauchard said.

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar, a contributing editor and columnist for the Business Standard in New Delhi, told Poynter that while regulating harmful content online is a laudable goal, doing so in a way that targets the media is problematic.

“If they had better execution or implementation, I think you could tackle fake news far better than looking only at accredited journalists and what they do. A whole lot of non-accredited journalists do a whole lot of rubbish on the internet,” she said. “But you know what? We do not have the institutions to protect free speech the way they do in the U.S.”

Article 19 of the Indian constitution guarantees citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression — but there are several caveats, no specific protections for the press and those rights are disparately upheld by courts and government officials. With that in mind, Kohli-Khandekar said she’s worried about any attempts to legislate against what the government perceives to be fake news.

“Any regulations will simply become a total damper on free speech,” she said.

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