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Why is India's fight against fake news a worry for free speech

An amended Indian law to regulate misinformation online raises fears that dissent may be muzzled

India has intensified its fight against fake news on digital platforms with an amendment to the country's Information Technology (IT) Rules earlier this year. This has revived fears of self-censorship among media outlets, think tanks and advocates of free speech. India's federal Minister for Information & Broadcasting Anurag Thakur informed Parliament last week that the government's nodal agency for press relations, the Press Information Bureau (PIB), has carried out 1,276 checks since its inception in November 2019. He said that the government has acted against 635 URLs belonging to 120 YouTube news channels since December 2021, without revealing their details.

Earlier this month, Thakur told the Parliament that the PIB's fact-checking unit has taken action in 28,380 instances involving "fake news" on digital platforms between November 2020 and June this year. Most of the instances of fake news were reported in April and May 2021 - at the height of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, when thousands of people died due to an acute shortage of oxygen and lack of hospital beds across the country. Action was taken against 5,387 in April and 1,754 in May, according to government data.

Thakur also addressed mounting rumors over alleged government plans to create a separate fact-check unit - seen as a critical factor, given next year's elections race, in which social media is likely to play a key role. The minister maintained that the PIB is the only body that is involved in the "rigorous process" of fact-checking, comprising "multiple layers of cross-checking" for all federal government ministries.

Amended IT rules in action

The actions against YouTube channels and posts on social media are carried out in line with IT rules, promulgated by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in 2021 and amended in April this year. The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 are subsumed under the Information Technology Act, 2000 in a bid to regulate misinformation on digital platforms.

The government insists that compliance with the amended IT rules is mandatory to "ensure an open, safe and trusted internet." The new norms stipulate that social media platforms must inform their users about the fact-check unit's red flag, if any, about certain posts that may have been deemed fake or false by the government. Social media platforms must also inform their users on posts related to "any business of the Indian government" that has been identified as fake or false or misleading by such a fact-check unit.

There must be full disclosure regarding the categories of content that users are barred from hosting, displaying, sharing, etc. on these platforms. Social media interfaces are tasked with "making reasonable efforts" to prevent prohibited content being hosted on their platform by users.

Giving a sneak peek into the government's hardening of stance on "fake news," Information and Broadcasting ministry secretary Apurva Chandra last year had cited massive penetration of smartphones, coupled with very affordable prices for mobile data in the country, as one of the major sources of the disinformation. India has over 600 million smartphone users, and the source of information and entertainment for the majority of young people is mobile devices rather than traditional media, Chandra had pointed out.

An 'excessive' move?

On July 14, a division bench of the Bombay High Court hit out at the amendments to the IT Rules, while hearing pleas challenging them. The court dubbed the new norms "excessive" and also asked who will be responsible in keeping a tab on the fact-checking unit. "You cannot bring a hammer to kill an ant," the court observed, adding it was not yet able to understand what was the need for the amendment and that the IT Rules were also silent on the boundaries of what is fake, false, and misleading.

Last month, the federal Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has made its stand clear on affixing the responsibility regarding dissemination of fake news in an affidavit filed in the court. The ministry said if a social media or news website seeks to continue hosting content that the federal government's fact-checking unit flagged as "false" or "misleading," then the onus will be on the digital entity to defend its decision before a court on whether any action should be taken against it or not in light of the amended law.

Where does India stand on press freedom?

The latest World Press Freedom Index released in May by Reporters without Borders (RSF), a Paris-headquartered organization that assesses the environment for journalism across countries, showed an alarming trend for press freedom in India that has gone from "problematic" to "very bad." India's ranking has plunged by 11 positions to 161 among 180 countries.

"The violence against journalists, the politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership all demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis in the 'world's largest democracy,'ruled since 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the embodiment of the Hindu nationalist right," RSF stated.

A few months before the release of the latest index, the government dismissed the country's RSF rankings, on the grounds of low sample size, little or no weightage to fundamentals of democracy, and a questionable methodology, referring to the relative rankings of other countries that were placed ahead of India. For example, in the 2022 Index Pakistan, which is battling political instability and a worsening economic crisis, climbed seven ranks since the previous index and was placed in 150th position, while war-torn Afghanistan, where the Taliban seized power in 2021, ranked number 152.

In the 2023 Index, the last three places are occupied by Vietnam (178th), China (down 4 at 179th), which is dubbed in the report as "the world's biggest jailer of journalists and one of the biggest exporters of propaganda content", and North Korea (180th).

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported last December that seven Indian journalists were behind bars - a record high for the country for the second consecutive year since the global press freedom watchdog started its prison census in 1992. Aasif Sultan, Siddique Kappan, Gautam Navlakha, Manan Dar, Sajad Gul, Fahad Shah and Rupesh Kumar Singh are being investigated or charged under a draconian anti-terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Three Kashmiri journalists Aasif, Fahad and Sajad, have been booked under another preventive detention law, the Jammu & Kashmir Public Safety Act, which is only applicable to the troubled north Indian state.

Kanchan Gupta, senior adviser to the Information and Broadcasting ministry, has rubbished claims of any kind of targeted action against the media. He has cited the government's consistent stand that harassment of journalists was unacceptable and illegal.

Many high-profile journalists have struggled to survive in a polarized media landscape. Barkha Dutt, an acclaimed broadcast journalist and the editor-in-chief of the mojostory, a mobile journalism platform, tweeted recently about the government's order to YouTube for blocking her organization's videos on the Manipur violence, even though she denied having put out any such "uncensored images".

Earlier in 2018, Dutt, who is seen as a bitter critic of the Modi government, had alleged that "insidious intimidations by sections in the BJP government" weres preventing her from doing her job. Last month, she complained that over 11,000 videos on YouTube were "all deleted by hackers", though they were later restored.

Complicated relationship

PM Modi's relationship with the media hasn't been easy since he assumed power in 2014. The prime minister is not known to address press conferences in India, his interactions with the press, at best, have been selective. This is despite Modi and his government being under regular attack in the media both at home and abroad.

Last month, during his first State visit to the US, the Indian leader made a rare exception and took a question from a reporter of the Wall Street Journal on New Delhi's human-rights record. The question echoed the dominant narrative in the Western media over the Modi government's alleged human-rights violations. The Indian PM had upheld India's pluralism and syncretic culture, saying "democracy flows in our veins."

Earlier this year, the matter came to a head when the Indian offices of British state-funded broadcaster BBC were raided on the pretext of "failing to respond to repeated requests" to clarify its tax affairs. The raids occurred three-weeks after the broadcaster had aired a two-part documentary that examined Modi's role in sectarian violence in his home state of Gujarat in 2002, a few months after he became the Chief Minister.

The documentary, which was only broadcast in Britain but later went viral back home, accused Modi of having encouraged the majority Hindus to act with impunity. The riots officially claimed 1,044 lives, with 223 missing and another 2,500 injured. Of the dead, 790 were Muslims and 254 were Hindus. The full death toll was estimated to be over 2,000, according to several unofficial figures.

Crack down on think tanks

Think tanks and non-profit organizations are also in the government's crosshairs, even though the amended legislation does not apply to them directly. In one of the recent cases, the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research (CPR) said it was in a dire financial situation after India's home affairs ministry in February revoked its license.

Last month, tax authorities informed the non-profit body that it had lost its tax-exempt status under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, which was introduced by former Indian PM Indira Gandhi in 1976 at the height of the 21-month Emergency rule, where all democratic rights were suspended. CPR, which is considered one of the country's leading public policy think tanks, had to let go 75% of its staff, from 240 to 60, and was reportedly struggling to stay afloat.

Yamini Aiyar, President and Chief Executive of CPR, told The Indian Express that about 75% of its funding, including from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, came from abroad. The think tank also received grants from the Indian Council for Social Science Research.

CPR has put out a statement to tide over the crisis. Many staff members saw it coming following criticisms of government policies that routinely reflected in its research and articles. "CPR reiterates that it is in complete compliance with the law and has been cooperating fully and exhaustively at every step of the process with all government authorities," it said in a statement, adding it would seek "all avenues of recourse" on the withdrawal of its tax exemption.

CPR emerged as just one of several high-profile think tanks that were simultaneously raided by income tax officials. Others include Oxfam India, part of a UK-founded organization focusing on the alleviation of global poverty, and the Independent And Public-Spirited Media Foundation, a non-profit body set up in 2015 and backed by some of the biggest names in India's corporate world. The latter is not known to have any source of foreign funding.

Prominent charities such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace have also been compelled to scale back their operations in India since the BJP's ascent to power following repeated face-offs with the government over regulatory issues, including suspension of their bank accounts.

The Modi-led government has been seen becoming increasingly sensitive to criticism coming from the West. In February it hit back at US financier and philanthropist George Soros, who had said India was a democracy but Modi "is no democrat." India's foreign minister, Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, later said that Soros' comments were typical of a "Euro-Atlantic view." "There are still people in the world who believe that their definition, their preferences, their views must override everything else," Jaishankar said.

Joydeep Sen Gupta, Asia Editor