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Narendra Modi government's plan to police fake news is problematic, a huge step towards censorship

The problem with the government taking upon itself the authority to police fake news is that it will now have the key to the closet. The recent announcement to that effect is intimidating. It is like handing over the security of a distillery to an alcoholic seeing as how much of the fake news emanates from the political corridors of power.

Be it the shards of broken election promises, failure to follow manifestos, delayed development plans, slanging matches, hints and tips and semi-clues or simply employing corruption, nepotism and deception to line one's pockets, politicians are the purveyors of falsehood without challenge. Not even filmstars can match them.

Consequently, this sudden warm desire to save the nation from the clutches of the mean-spirited media rings a false note. And it is profoundly dangerous since this extraordinary authority can and will be supremely misused to muzzle the fourth estate and conduct witch hunts at will.

 Narendra Modi governments plan to police fake news is problematic, a huge step towards censorship

FIle image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. AFP

Consequently, not only can the threat be used as a bargaining chip to cower the media but every unpleasant report against the powers that be can be categorised most conveniently as fake news and the book thrown at the 'erring' individual.

Fact is that despite the current negative image of the media, most journalists are still professional in their attitude, abhor errors and mistakes and are conscientious in the pursuit of uncovering the truth. Chasing fake news is not a priority and they do put their jobs, their convictions and occasionally their lives on the line.

More importantly, in a working democracy, the estates have to enjoy a separation of powers and one cannot sit in judgement upon the other. To have the government interpret the media's efforts to play watchdog is a gigantic step towards censorship and this exercise should be curtailed right here before it becomes a weapon.

If anything, pretty much like the physician, media might do well to heal itself and pull in its renegades. That would be a good first step in the war on fake news. In this age of instant gratification and the torrent of trivia masquerading as hard news on social media platforms, there is clearly a need for monitoring and chastising those who have given the media per se a bad name.

Today, Google is spending $300 million to rid itself of fake stuff on Twitter and Facebook but it is a tough battle. The European Commission wants to take punitive action against those who spread canards. In April this year, the BBC had to deny a report that Russia had engaged in a nuclear war when a false story went viral.

And yet, fake news, be it of a VIP death kept quiet, the landings in Normandie on this day in 1944 or deception as a ploy has been used effectively through history. The Trojan horse epitomises the use of the lie for the greater good.

Those were war tactics. These are plain self-indulgent acts of vengefulness. And the conspiracy to allow it to flourish is collective and universal. It was permitted.

In this context, in all fairness, even the outdated Press Council is a better bet than the government and its agencies to stop the rot. When it suited the political firmament, they allowed fake news to turn into a game and be legitimised. TV stations even began to run programmes dedicated to fake news as a bit of a joke.

But funny 'ha-ha' turned into not so funny pettiness when it began to lacerate reputations but by then the dedicated fake news columns and the last page takeoffs had escaped the stable and were galloping about unrestrained. The labelling was seen as an escape to hurt and wound and this has become the weakest link in the media chain with the majority paying the price for a small minority that chose to discard the basic tenets of journalism. The confusion between downright nonsense and healthy satire and lampooning became so overwhelming that there was no line in the sand.

And that is a problem the media must settle from within. By discouraging any in-house efforts to ginger up fake news as a viable information option. To censor its own who use this cop-out to market falsehood. To have the journalist associations sit down and create a body that has the authority to penalise and punish. Anyone but the government.

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Updated Date: Jun 06, 2018 16:18:53 IST

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