India’s Anti-Fake News Initiative is a New Gun to Fire at Journalists

In the name of preventing the spread of fake news, old tactics have been renewed to silence the “anti-national” media.

By Nikita Lamba / Raipur, Chhattisgarh

“They called me ‘Facebook User Masrat Zahra’ and didn’t even say I’m a journalist,” said Masrat Zahra on a phone call the night before she had been asked to report to the police station because of a formal complaint filed against her. Zahra, a photojournalist, had been charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a law meant to charge and try terrorists. One of her pictures had grabbed the attention of the cyber police in Jammu and Kashmir who charged her under this act alleging she spread fake news. She was not the only one.

Peerzada Ashiq, a Srinagar (Kashmir)-based special correspondent for The Hindu, was also called by the police for questioning. The story responsible for this was about the burial of the bodies of two militants. The police claimed that Ashiq had not quoted officials in that story. “It’s a big story to pursue for a journalist. However, the police accused me of not getting an official version. I have already shared screenshots of the SMS, WhatsApp and Twitter messages sent to the deputy commissioner of Shopian (area) on that day. The officer did not respond and I decided to go ahead with the family’s version,” said Ashiq.

Both the journalists were called during the coronavirus lockdown. At a time when all are trying to stay indoors as much as possible, these Kashmiri journalists were running to the police station.

In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the story was a little different. A few men travelled all the way to Delhi to tell Siddharth Vardarajan, one of the founding editors of The Wire, that he was to appear in a court in Ayodhya area on April 14, a date that was well within the lockdown. The story for which he had a complaint filed against him had wrongly attributed a quote to the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath. A mistake that had been corrected and due apologies asked for.

The problem is simple. The coronavirus pandemic or not, the government doesn’t seem to allow any reportage that would reflect badly on it. “Defamation laws and the UAPA have been used to a chilling and intimidating effect on journalists,” said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, journalist, author, documentary filmmaker and the erstwhile editor of Economic and Political Weekly.

Considering that, Reporters Sans Frontières, an international organization that monitors attacks against journalists, has ranked India at 142 out of 180 countries. These ranks show how (un)safe the country is for journalists. “Ever since the general elections in the spring of 2019, won overwhelmingly by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party, pressure on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line has increased,” its website states.

But why is this important? Journalism and journalists are responsible for keeping a democracy alive by publishing different reports and opinions.

What is journalism?

It’s time to revisit and go back to the basics.

While addressing a group of young journalists, Vishal Arora, an independent journalist and an Editorial Director at StoriesAsia, explained that journalists are associated with change. Wherever change is needed or is happening journalists are there, telling others about it.

The media is the fourth pillar of democracy. Reporting on the ground reality of society and holding governments accountable wherever necessary is an important function of journalists. Thakurta explained, “The job of a journalist is asking questions that are critical in nature. A State cannot be called a democracy if journalists cannot be critical.”

News, therefore, is for the most part about policies that are not working well for the masses, or other problems that common people face on a daily basis. Journalists move towards a conflict, a war or a disease (for instance during the COVID-19 lockdown) while other people move away. This is so that information about what is happening can be given out to the people.

Take Masrat Zahra for instance. First braving the opposition she faced from her family for her choice of career, she went to cover spaces that are difficult to be in. “The first time that I went to cover clashes in the Jamia area of Kashmir, a boy came up to me and said, Didi aap chale jaao, aapko lagegi (You should leave, you’ll get hurt),” she recalled.

Three principles are fundamental for the media to function in a healthy manner. They are – a free press, the right to information, and the freedom of opinion, speech and expression.

Curbing the Right to Information to Stop Fake News

Let’s take a look at hindrances journalists face while reporting on issues surrounding the novel coronavirus.

On March 31, the Supreme Court directed the media to report only the official (read government) versions about the virus. This stemmed from a move to combat fake-news that had led to numerous migrant workers covering hundreds of kilometers on foot to reach their homes.

While cracking down on fake news is necessary, the court’s directive makes it impossible to question whether the government figures indeed reflect the reality.

“This brings a worrying level of oversight and power toward the government version, which can lead to instances of censorship when the reporting may not be favourable and may be in contrast to the ‘official government version’ of events,” said Apar Gupta, a lawyer and the executive director of Internet Freedom Foundation, in an interview with the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The Supreme Court directive, with provisions for punishments if journalists fail to report official figures, keeps the media limited to one source for all information.

The directive seems to curb journalists’ access to diverse information that could challenge the government’s numbers on COVID-19. “It is worrying that in absence of proactive transparency, which would assist fact-based reporting, quite often, there will be a desire by the government to contour and shape the messaging of journalists towards its own version of events,” Gupta stated in the interview.

Imagine you had to make a decision about which doctor to go to for your treatment. There would be research involved. You would look at all the doctors that have studied the disease that you are suffering with. You would want to find out who has had the most amount of success rate in their treatments. The amount of fees to be paid would be weighed in as well. What if you were told that you could only make your decision on the basis of the fees that you had to pay, or based only on the knowledge of the doctors who have expertise on that disease? This would limit your options and could also result in you making a wrong choice for yourself along with the possibility of serious health implications.

This is what the right to information is all about. Journalists need access to information to write a comprehensive, well-informed report.

“The right to information is important for a democracy. It is more particularly important in times of distress. Any kind of gag on information during such times is unconstitutional,” remarked Rebecca Mammen John, a Senior Advocate and criminal lawyer practicing in the Supreme Court.

Is the Fight Against Fake News or Against the Media?

What exactly is fake news? “Fake news is invented by anonymous persons on social media and it shows no sense of responsibility towards its readers,” according to Ashiq.

Fake news does not accredit its information to any sources and when it does, those sources cannot be correctly established. It has led to many of the lynching incidents that have taken place in the country, including the most recent one in Palghar, Maharashtra state.

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“The ‘fake news’ label is a dangerous label which is being misused to dent the credibility of journalists in Kashmir,” John stated.

“Bracketing journalism in the ‘fake news’ category is disturbing for a journalist who has reported Kashmir for the past two decades,” Ashiq explained. This label has been used to charge journalists under the draconian UAPA.

“The UAPA, even if the Act can be justified in contemporary times, should be used in the most extreme cases. However, it has been invoked against tweets and posts on social media which has made its usage very pedestrian,” John said.

These actions by the Indian administration in different parts of the country have varied effects on journalists. “I cannot operate and function as a reporter if the State’s first response to any inconvenient reportage is an FIR (police complaint),” stated Ashiq. The FIRs and State action against adversarial reporting makes journalists fearful of what they write, and as a result there is a self-censorship.

“Nobody wants to be beaten up,” remarked Thakurta. “Across the world and in India, in the name of curbing fake news, governments have cracked down on the right to freedom of expression,” he explained.

Free Speech and the Media

Citizens’ freedom of speech and expression is a fundamental right is recognized in a democracy. It honours the fact that every citizen has the right to speak their minds but with reasonable restrictions. This, along with the right to information, is another fundamental principle of the media and is closely tied to freedom of the press. However, the recent activities of the government suggest that the media is not free to publish a bad report card for authorities.

“(However), a State cannot be called a democracy if journalists cannot be critical and this government has been particularly intolerant and vindictive against journalists,” said Thakurta.

“There is a continuation of the tough policy adopted towards the Press (in Kashmir) since August 5, 2019. The J&K administration continues to show no flexibility in accepting any positive criticism from the Press. There is a systemic pressure developed to only carry official versions of the issues, even on the pandemic,” said Ashiq.

With a crackdown on the very principles that enable journalists to do their job, the atmosphere for the media becomes more difficult as the days pass. Laws have been misused against journalists to instil fear within the fraternity.

“As a citizen and a lawyer, I am horrified at the breakdown of the rule of law,” stated John. “Most governments have been using the pandemic to eat away at rights of the citizens.”

Although a very important step to limit the spread of the virus, people’s right to assembly and freedom of movement were suspended as India entered a state of complete lockdown. However, if the hostile environment against journalists continues and nothing is done to rectify it, “India may enter a phase where there will be no fundamental rights,” said John.

In such a situation, said Thakurta, there is little that journalists can do. “Journalists need to be faithful to their profession. Truthfulness, fairness and objectivity are the only things that a journalist can be armoured with,” he advised.

StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists from 16 South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, seeks to replace the present-day parade of faceless numbers with humanising narrative nonfiction – a largely ignored journalistic genre in the region.

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