On the just gone by April Fool’s Day, WhatsApp groups were abuzz with messages claiming that the occasion was a creation of “English Christians” to make fool of Indians who celebrated their New Year Day on the first day of Chaitra (of Vikram era based on lunar calendar). However, the real story of April Fool’s Day traces its origin to Europe. And, the first day of Chaitra invariably falls on March 22.
Another widely circulated email and WhatsApp message is a “new item” breaking that the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) has recognised Jana Gana Mana (India’s national anthem) as the best anthem in the world. The fact is UNESCO does not do any such thing.
The examples can be endless as dissemination of misinformation and fake news is widespread over social media. The sheer vastness of the internet (over 35 crore users in India) and social media users (an estimated over 20 crore WhatsApp users alone) makes tracing the origin of fake news almost impossible.
The government yesterday said in a now-withdrawn notification that the accreditation of a journalist could be permanently cancelled if the scribe is found generating or propagating fake news. The development came close on the heels of the arrest of a news editor in Bengaluru for allegedly publishing fake news.
The amended guidelines for the accreditation of journalists said that if the publication or telecast of fake news was confirmed, the accreditation of that journalist would be suspended for a period of six months for the first violation and for one year in case of a second violation. The third violation would lead to cancellation of accreditation permanently.
Is there any law to tackle fake news in India?
The answer is no. There is no specific law to deal with fake news. Free publication or broadcast of news in India flows from the fundamental right to freedom of expression as enshrined under Article 19 of the Constitution. However, there are certain legal recourses available for people affected by fake news.
Complaints can be lodged with the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) which represents the private television news and current affairs broadcasters. It is funded by its over 60 members. The NBA is the credible voice of news broadcasters to the government. It is self-regulatory in nature and probes complaints against news broadcasters in a fair manner.
There is another body called the Indian Broadcast Foundation (IBF) which was created in 1999 to look into the complaints against contents aired by 24×7 channels. Over 650 news channels are in operation today in the country. Complaint against any broadcaster can be filed in English or Hindi to IBF online or offline for promoting smoking, abuse or any violent action.
Then there is the Broadcasting Content Complaint Council (BCCC). A complaint relating to objectionable TV content or fake news can be filed to the Broadcasting Content Complain Council if a broadcaster incites communal hatred, encourages violence against women or child abuse, airs contents having gory scenes of violence, promotes superstition or consumption of drugs and other contraband substances.
There are some statutory bodies too
The Press Council of India, created by an Act of Parliament, is a statutory body. Withdrawing the notification on fake news, the government said that the matters relating to fake news should be dealt within the ambit of the Press Council of India.
According to the Press Council Act, 1978, it can warn, admonish or censure the newspaper, the news agency, the editor or the journalist or disapprove the conduct of the editor or the journalist if it finds that a newspaper or a news agency has offended against the standards of journalistic ethics or public taste or that an editor or a working journalist has committed any professional misconduct.
But not only media analyst but even lawyers consider the Press Council as a toothless body. “There is nothing that the Press Council of India can do in the case of fake news except disapproving or admonishing a news outlet found guilty of spreading misinformation,” said Supreme Court lawyer Atul Kumar.
IPC also has some sections to deal with fake news
A more potent tool is available to the victim of fake news under the Indian Penal Code. IPC Sections 153 and 295 can be invoked to guard against fake news. Seen from the prism of Sections 153 and 295, action can be initiated against someone creating or spreading fake news if it can be termed as hate speech.
In such a case, an FIR can be lodged for “wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot” under Section 153 and “injuring or defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class” under Section 295.
“Fake news has a far reaching effect in India. It can grossly disturb the communal peace in the country if fake news is not regulated. Morphed photographs to show riots, insult to religious symbols or deities can result in serious trouble. It has happened in the past,” Kumar further explained adding, “Though the government has withdrawn fake news notification, some regulation is the need of the hour.”
Conclusion: Education, Awareness, Regulation Needed
• Fake news is often created and circulated for gaining electoral currency and political gains. Often government’s own party and agencies (through the undisclosed purchase of political ads and IT cells) may be involved. It is a rising trend seen in many countries led by China and Russia where internet manipulation and control is very high.
• Any future legislation to curb fake news should take the whole picture into account and not blame the media and go for knee-jerk reactions; in this age of new media anyone can create and circulate new for undisclosed benefits.
•Controlling fake news is a tricky issue: not controlling trolls could lead to national and international instability while doing too much to control it could harm democracy.
• Countering content manipulation and fake news to restore faith in social media without undermining internet and media freedom will require public education, strengthening of regulations and effort of tech companies to make suitable algorithms for news curation.
• Italy, for example, has experimentally added ‘recognizing fake news’ in school syllabus. India should also seriously emphasize cyber security, internet education, fake news education in the academic curriculum at all levels.