By Arif Ayaz Parrey and Gursimran Kaur Bakshi
Today is Day 14 of the latest flare-up in the Israel–Palestine conflict. During this fortnight, the internet has been flooded with images and videos of flattened buildings and neighbourhoods, rockets being intercepted mid-flight, gunfights, people fleeing bombings, and injured and dead babies— so many images of dead babies!
Some of these images and videos are real, and a reflection of what is happening on the ground, but many more are fake and have become the latest tool in the hands of propagandists to sway emotions and drum up support for their favourite side.
Living here in the subcontinent, far away from the conflict, the difficulty of sifting facts from the lies is only exceeded by the importance of doing so. For it might be possible for any one or all of us, in our own small or significant way, to contribute in restoring peace and ensuring justice in the Middle East, but our ability to play a positive role is dependent on our correct grasp over the situation.
This is where fact-checkers step in. They serve an all-important role in helping to separate dangerous propaganda from plain, helpful truth. This function cannot be served by government bodies and institutions because often, they are a party to the issue at hand and their interests are best served by keeping the public in the dark. Unfortunately, this holds particularly true for democracies, where the governing political parties have a vested interest in promoting certain versions of truth to the prejudice of other versions.
This underlines the importance of independent fact-checkers who have no horses in the game except ensuring that the public is brought closer to the truth. When such fact-checkers build institutions that develop a reputation for impartiality, it is an additional motivation and ensures the durability of their commitment to truth.
Any such independent fact-checker or institution is, therefore, worth their weight in gold for a democracy. They should be promoted, protected and preserved. Which is why we must celebrate journalist and co-founder of fact-checking and news website Alt News Mohammed Zubair getting the Freedom of Expression award from the ‘Index on Censorship’. Index of Censorship is a non-profit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide. They publish work by censored writers and artists, promote debate, and monitor threats to free speech.
Freedom of Expression awards are given in four categories: arts, campaigning, journalism and the trustee award. Zubair was awarded for his work on identifying fake news, misinformation and disinformation in India. The award recognised, “Zubair faced significant threats after challenging mis/disinformation propagated by influential members of the ruling party.” Zubair was nominated last year along with Somalia’s first ever women-only media organisation and newsroom, Bilan Media, and Afghan-origin French journalist, Mortaza Behboudi.
Last year on June 27, Zubair was arrested for posting a meme on X (formerly Twitter), using a poster of a Hindi film. He was charged with promoting enmity between religious groups and prejudicing communal harmony under Section 153A and for outraging religious feelings under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.
Multiple first information reports (FIRs) were filed against him. Dormant FIRs from 2021 had been activated even as new FIRs were registered, thereby compounding the difficulties faced by him. However, he was ultimately granted bail by the Supreme Court. While granting Zubair bail, the Supreme Court noted that he was trapped in a vicious cycle of criminal proceedings where the process itself had become the punishment.
On August 28 this year, another FIR was registered against Zubair for disclosing the identity of a Class 2 Muslim boy who was slapped by his classmates at the behest of their teacher in Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh. The teacher could also be seen making communal slurs in the viral video.
On winning the award, Zubair said: “It is both an honour and privilege to receive the Freedom of Expression award, especially at a time when fake news and disinformation [has emerged] as a Frankenstein monster in my country, India. I hope that this award will serve as a flicker of hope to my young colleagues and AltNews readers. Lastly, I want to thank everyone who stood by my side when I was attacked, slandered, and jailed for doing my job.”
This year, on April 6, the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2023, pursuant to which the Union government will establish a fact-checking unit for identifying ‘fake’, ‘false’ or ‘misleading’ content with respect to ‘any business’ of the Union government.
The fact-checking unit is likely to have four members: a representative from the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, one from the Union Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, a media expert, and a legal expert. According to Electronics and Information Technology Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar, if an intermediary decides to ignore the mandate of the fact-checking unit, a legal remedy can be pursued against it by the government.
According to a statement of the non-governmental organisation Internet Freedom Foundation, which, as the names suggests, works for advocating digital rights and liberties, “Assigning any unit of the government such arbitrary, overboard powers to determine the authenticity of online content bypasses the principles of natural justice, thus making it an unconstitutional exercise. The notification of these amended rules cement (sic) the chilling effect on the fundamental right to speech and expression, particularly of news publishers, journalists, activists, etc.”
On October 16, Al Jazeera reported, “With Israel’s occupation of Palestine, disinformation often comes with a side of anti-Palestinianism and Islamophobia, turbocharged by social media amplification, especially under Elon Musk’s leadership of X.” The article further states, “But an intriguing element of the disinformation that has flooded social media since Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel is that a lot of it has been produced or spread by right-leaning accounts based out of India.” Anti-Palestine and pro-Israel propaganda, trolling, and dissemination of fake news was linked to the infamous Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) IT cell. BJP is currently in power at the Union level in India.
On October 10, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, prompted by a protest march in Aligarh Muslim University, warned against “any activity contrary to the views” of the Union on the Israel–Palestine conflict.
These two examples illustrate the dangers in making the government or the ruling regime the sole arbiter of truth and bestowing the power to fact-check on them. The examples show that such fact-checking may not be based on ground reality, and even its definition of national interest and communal harmony may be based on extremely shaky grounds.
If the government of the day can take such an extreme stand on a conflict in a far-off land, one can only imagine how they will behave on issues and events at home, especially if they have bearing on public perception and electoral politics. Fact-checkers like Mohammed Zubair are a bolt of lightning in this pervasive darkness and any recognition of this fact is good news that needs no fact-checking. (IPA Service)
Courtesy: The Leaflet