Information & Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani proposes and the PMO disposes! But not to her liking. Late on April 2, Irani directed that journalists who “create and publish fake news” will face six months’ suspension for the first violation; one year for a second and will be permanently iced after the third. On April 3, the PMO held that the PIB and NBA are supreme and that the “punishment regime’ suggested by Irani stands discredited, her order withdrawn.
News is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself strode into the PMO to axe Ms Irani’s diktat. The question then is: Did Smriti Irani takes a unilateral decision? Or, did the PM realize it better than her that PIB accreditation allows journalists only to cover government functions and entry into government buildings? A journalist needs no government accreditation to cover news on the ground; he/she is a free-bird.
Ms Irani had delivered her diktat on April 2, 2018. If it was April 1, everyone would have taken it as an attempt to ‘April Fool’ journalists and she would have been in the news for creating ‘Fake News’. Now, she is in the news for being fooled the day after April Fool Day!
That said, if ‘Fake News’ sat in front of Smriti Irani and told her its story she wouldn’t know it from Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. Ms Irani is a byproduct of Bollywood, that ultimate dream factory, India’s soft-power, which weaves fantasies and puts actors in the role of journalists knowing zilch about journalism, real journalism. With few exceptions, filmy-journalists have portrayed journalists in hack-roles, the butt of ire and derision.
Some of Smriti Irani’s directions and orders in recent months, ever since she was reinstated by PM Narendra Modi in his cabinet, has done ‘real’ damage to journalist morale in Doordarshan, cutting to the quick the autonomous Prasar Bharati. Smriti Irani has no idea the effect her one thoughtless diktat can have on the journalist-fraternity.
There is no two ways that this latest one was out and out an attempt to crack down on journalists. It was an unalloyed threat to self-censor or else. Sure, there are ‘fake journalists’ with PIB accreditation; journalists who haven’t written or even concocted a news story in two decades and more but get government accreditation only because they have links to a unheard of publishing house in some remote location which purportedly brings out a ‘newspaper/magazine’ that nobody has read or heard about. That is another story and not fake!
Anyway, the real story on April 3 morning was that Smriti Irani had amended the ‘Guidelines for Accreditation of Journalists’ with the ostensible reason that there were rising instances of fake news across media, in newspapers and on TV channels. In her wisdom, Irani left websites and social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp – out of the ‘Wake’. That was good news for the likes of Cambridge Analytica.
Amended, the Irani-guidelines said that ‘fake news” in print media would be referred to the Press Council of India (PCI) and those in electronic media would be sent to the News Broadcasters’ Association (NBA) for action taken. That PCI and NBA would decide in 15 days’ time if a piece of news was fake or not. And for those 15 days the journalist who wrote or propagated the news item would sit on his rump and play Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
True, Press Information Bureau (PIB) accreditation entitles journalists to several benefits, including access to government buildings and official functions. On April 1, Smriti Irani and several of her cabinet colleagues tweeted an article from a website, which claimed to have busted four major fake news stories in a week. The real news was that the I&B ministry was turning into a fact-checking outfit and that was not fake news!
But while declaring war on journalists Irani left unclear what news qualified for ‘Fake News’, in other words, without any fake inputs from the government. What was the definition and nature of ‘fake news’ in the government’s eyes? There was nothing on that in Smriti Irani’s statement.
The fact of the matter is a journalist is accredited to PIB after he/she has completed five years of full-time journalism. Freelance journalists need to have 15 years of the same. Foreign journalists should have five years and a valid work visa to report news from India. Smriti Irani has her office in the same building which has the PIB office and journalists are a ubiquitous presence in Shastri Bhavan. In 70 years, nobody who graced the chair she holds had attempted to ‘gherao’ journalists the way this minister did.
In this year of the “unprecedented”, honest journalists – and there are thousands of them in the country who work without PIB accreditation – should tell Smriti Irani to take a hike, to Bollywood!
Ms Irani looked like she has agenda. And just because PM Modi has rescinded her order doesn’t mean she will sit quiet. The mass of journalists should boycott every Smriti Irani presser/meet. At the same time scrutinize every one of her actions and non-actions and come to definite conclusions backed with facts and figures to expose her agenda. Let Smriti Irani be the focus of news. Uncover Irani’s motives behind every one of her actions, such as this one. The big fact is fake news is the preserve of politicians and political parties. They are the ones who concoct news and spread it by whatever means to ‘far and wide’. (IPA Service)