Media supporters reacted very strongly last week to an order by India’s Information and Broadcasting Ministry.
The government threatened to suspend the work documents of any reporter accused of spreading, what it called, “fake news.”
The new rule caused such an outcry against the government that Prime Minister Narendra Modi withdrew it in less than 24 hours.
Opponents of the order said the government was trying to control the media as the country prepares for general elections in 2019.
The government’s effort to stop what it considers fake news brought attention to a growing problem in the world’s largest democracy.
The Information and Broadcasting Ministry said fake news in different mediums, including newspapers and the internet, made the order necessary. The ministry said it would punish journalists accused of creating fake news by not permitting them to go to government offices or press events.
The Editors Guild of India protested the order. The trade group said it would lead to political pressure on journalists.
Media experts pointed out that the government order did not define what fake news was. It also did not target non-traditional media online that have grown in number.
Experts questioned the government’s ability to solve the problem.
Jency Jacob is the managing editor for boomlive.in, a fact-checking website that seeks to disprove fake stories. Jency said political parties often create fake news, not the media. Jency added that the order was an attempt by the government to confuse people about the origins of fake news.
How fake news spreads
Many senior journalists questioned the timing of the effort to stop fake news. There will be important state elections before the general elections in 2019. And some observers say Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has lost some support.
“The reversal has started. Somewhat bad press is coming up. This is overreaction to that,” said N. Bhaskars Rao, head of the Center of Media Studies in New Delhi.
The BJP has ignored the criticism. The party said the order was removed quickly because Modi wanted to reinforce his belief in press freedom.
Most fake news in India spreads through the social media platform WhatsApp. Its influence has grown as the spread of mobile phones increases internet availability around the country.
A few people have started fact-checking websites to stop the spread of fake news. They say many people, especially in the countryside, do not ask where information comes from on social networks.
They have also found that untrue information includes everything from false weather reports to bad health information.
Fact checkers can't keep up
Pratik Sinha started the website Altnews. He said the number of fake stories with political messages on social media often grows at election time.
He said December elections in Modi’s home state showed that both the ruling and opposition parties have used fake news as a campaign tool.
The biggest problem, Sinha said, is that fake news has the ability to increase religious tension and cause violence. His website has found fake news from many people who are ideologically active.
Last month, the editor of the website Postcard News was arrested for writing an untrue story about Muslims attacking a Jain monk, a religious worker who had been hurt in an accident. A year ago, untrue stories in a village about child kidnappers led to the death of seven people.
Mainstream media not immune
Jacob of boomlive.in said traditional media also is to blame sometimes because they do not check their facts as they hurry to release a story.
Jacob added that a lot of television stations and newspapers are using fake news and then saying ‘it is not my problem.’
However, many people agree that a government order is not the way to solve the problem.
I’m Susan Shand.
Anjana Pasricha reported this story for VOA. Susan Shand adapted the report for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.
Words in This Story
fake – adj. not true or real
journalist – n. the activity or job of collecting, writing, and editing news stories for newspapers, magazines, television, or radio
confuse –v. to make someone uncertain or unable to understand something
origins –n. where something begins or starts
reversal – n. a change to an opposite state, condition, decision,
platform – n. a type of media
ideological – adj. the set of ideas and beliefs of a group or political party