The order stated that a scribe’s accreditation could be permanently cancelled if he or she is found generating or propagating fake news.
IMAGE: Earlier in the day, Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani said she was more than happy to engage with any journalist to fight the menace of fake news. Photograph: Arun Sharma/PTI Photo
Faced with widespread criticism and outcry, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday ordered the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to cancel its contentious guidelines on fake news, seen as 'muzzling' the free press.
Soon after, the ministry issued a statement, saying guidelines issued late on Monday night by it 'to regulate fake news...stands withdrawn'.
In a press release on Monday night, the I&B ministry announced punitive measures like cancellation of accreditation to contain fake news, a decision which was dubbed by journalist and opposition parties as an attempt to curb press freedom ahead of the general elections due by 2019.
"(The) PM has directed that the press release regarding the fake news be withdrawn and the matter should only be addressed by the Press Council of India," a senior PMO official said.
The prime minister was also of the view that the government should not interfere in the matter, the official added.
Amending the guidelines for accreditation of journalists, the ministry announced norms to contain fake news which said if the publication or telecast of fake news was confirmed, accreditation of the journalist would be suspended for six months in case of first violation and for one year in case of a second violation.
In case of a third violation, his or her accreditation would be cancelled permanently, the ministry had said in a press release.
The I&B ministry decision drew sharp criticism from opposition parties as well as from press bodies.
The Congress said fascism has touched its peak as it sought to 'muzzle' independent voices through 'fallacious' rules.
The Aam Aadmi Party and the Communist Party of India-Marxist likened the situation to the 'emergency'.
"The government has no mandate to control the press. The media were also worried about growing incidents of fake news but the Press Council is the right platform to deal with complaints regarding any fake news," president of the Press Club of India Gautam Lahiri said.
The I&B ministry norms had also said any complaint of instances of fake news would be referred to the Press Council of India, if it pertains to print media, and to the News Broadcasters Association, if it relates to the electronic media, for determination of the news item being fake or not.
This determination is expected to be completed within 15 days by these agencies, the ministry said.
Once the complaint is registered for determination of fake news, the accreditation of the journalist, whoever 'created and/or propagated' the fake news, will be suspended till the determination regarding the fake news is made, the ministry had said.
'Fascism reaches its 'nadir' as a shaky Modi Government, caught in its web of lies, seeks to muzzle all independent voices in media through fallacious rules!' Congress communications in-charge Randeep Surjewala tweeted.
Senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel also questioned the government's attempt to check fake news asking whether it is an attempt to prevent reporters from reporting news uncomfortable to the establishment.
West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee termed the attempt as a 'brazen and draconian' move to curb press freedom and said it showed the government 'has lost its way'.
"What about fake news spread by a political party on a regular basis?" she asked on Twitter without naming any party.
Recalling the fight for press freedom during days of the emergency (imposed for 21 months between 1975 and 1977), CPI-M leader Sitaram Yechury said his party condemned the 'duplicitous' move.
He accused the government of attacking the media in the garb of fake news over news it finds 'uncomfortable'.
'We stand for, and are committed to a free and independent press,' the Left leader tweeted.
"It is like an undeclared emergency. The Government wants to gag the press. They want the Press to write what the Government wants," said CPI-leader Mohammed Salim.
AAP leader Ashutosh said, 'Till now there was an informal emergency on media, except few all were scared, and fell in line. Now formal emergency. Who is govt to regulate press? And will journalists raise their voice against this draconian rule? Like they did against Rajiv Gandhi on defamation law ? I doubt !!'