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Curbing fake news does not affect press freedom, writes Prakash Javadekar – analysis


There is always a debate about how much freedom the press enjoys in a country. But, in India, the only time that press freedom was silenced was during the National Emergency in June 1975. At the time, I was a student activist and protested the press censorship; many of us were arrested on December 11, 1975 and held in prison until all political prisoners were released on January 26, 1977. During that time, a government official was dispatched to each newspaper; This person reviewed all the news that would be published the next day. He enjoyed unbridled powers to allow or refuse publication of any news without attributing any reason. My father, then deputy editor in Daily Kesari, founded by Lokmanya Tilak, was on duty on June 25 when the emergency was closed and, on the morning of June 26, he told me that press freedom had ended.

During that period, many petitions were filed with the Supreme Court of India to restore all freedoms, but to no avail. Although millions fought against the Emergency for 18 months, this dark era in relation to press freedom remained.

In the elections held shortly after the Emergency was lifted in 1977, the Janata Party won, and its first decision was to restore full freedom of the press and media, which has since remained unimpeded.

But I want to focus on something that poses such a huge threat to media freedom: fake news.

During the shutdown, there has been a marked increase in the circulation of fake news through print, electronic and especially on social media such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.

To verify this threat, we established a Fact Verification Unit in the Press Information Bureau (PIB) that began to immediately become aware of the false news. Our efforts have begun to show positive results. At least some platforms are retracting this fake news and presenting facts to viewers and readers.

The initial response of some sectors to the initiative was to call it the murmur of the media. But fake news can never have anything to do with media freedom.

Let me highlight some of the things that we have had to combat. On Twitter, a famous advocate said that a woman in Uttar Pradesh threw her five children into the Gomti River because the family had no food. But, when the facts were verified, it was discovered that there was enough food in his house; She took this extreme step after an altercation with her husband.

An even more mischievous fake story circulated on social media and almost sparked a clash between migrant workers and police at Bandra station in Mumbai. Large numbers of migrant workers gathered at the Bandra train station based on a false story that appeared on a television channel about a special train for migrant workers. There was no such plan.

In another case, a popular channel reported that all staff at the Bikaner Government Hospital in Rajasthan tested positive for coronavirus disease (Covid-19). This was absolutely wrong.

There has been a clear pattern of spreading rumors as news, particularly on social media. Many of these have to do with the schemes of the central and state governments. In some cases, these are non-existent problems with schemes or plans: “Only 2% of the poor obtain food from ration shops”; or “There will be a 30% reduction in salary and pensions for government employees.” In other cases, these are non-existent schemes and plans: “The government will provide free Internet until the end of June”; or “Hotels will be closed until October”. Many of these circulated widely. They are all wrong; they were later withdrawn when they were countered with facts.

Fake news also creates panic. After India exported hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) to the United States and other countries, a narrative spread that the country had no stocks of HCQ for its own people. There were many such stories: one claimed that Jammu and Kashmir had few medical supplies. Another said that the Churachandpur district of Manipur had no rations. A large newspaper even projected that Mumbai would see 40,000 Covid-19 cases by the end of April, and that the number would hit 650,000 in mid-May.

This was all false. The platforms had to retract the news.

While the GDP Fact Check Unit managed to crack down on these and present the real picture, there is clearly a deliberate attempt to create fake news.

That cannot be allowed in a pluralistic democratic configuration like India, even if fake news providers try to portray it as an offensive against press freedom.

Prakash Javadekar is the Union Minister for the Environment, Forest and Climate Change; information and dissemination; heavy industries and public companies

The opinions expressed are personal.

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