Price of freedom

The government has withdrawn rules to control “fake news” less than 24 hours after announcing them, following an outcry that the regulations could be used by the government to curb press freedom.

The Information & Broadcasting Ministry withdrew plans to temporarily or permanently cancel government accreditation of journalists found to be spreading fake news, after the Prime Minister’s Office over-ruled its initial announcement. The accreditation is required to access government offices, news conferences and seminars and serves as security clearance at many other events.

Co-opted by US President Donald Trump, the term “fake news” has quickly become part of the standard repertoire of leaders in several countries to describe media reports and organisations critical of them.

Little wonder regimes across Asia in an attempt to curb press freedom are introducing laws to crack down on fake news or are in the process of setting them up.

Malaysia has passed a law which sets out fines of up to 500,000 ringgit ($123,000) and a maximum six years in jail for offenders who spread fake news inside and outside Malaysia, including foreigners, if Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen are affected. The law, which comes ahead of a general election, covers news outlets, digital publications and social media.

In Singapore, a parliamentary committee has been reviewing possible measures to prevent “deliberate online falsehoods”. An eight-day hearing — the longest in Singapore’s history — drew to a close on March 29. The committee will prepare a report on possible new legislation in May, after parliament’s mid-term break, its chairman Charles Chong, told the final session.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has “lost trust” in news site Rappler and barred it from covering his official events, his spokesman said in February. Duterte has called Rappler a fake news outlet, making no secret of his annoyance at its reporting, which has heavily scrutinised his polices and the accuracy of his statements. Additionally, anti-fake news legislation, which would impose fines and prison terms of up to 20 years for spreading false information, is under consideration in the Philippines.

Thailand already has a cyber-security law under which the spread of false information carries a jail sentence of up to seven years, and the military government strictly enforces lese majeste laws that shield the royal family from insult.

In India, ironically, the  rules to curb fake news and thereby control the press and media are being laid down by those who opposed the imposition of the Emergency 43 years ago by former prime minister Indira Gandhi, when the Indian media saw unprecedented curtailing of its independence. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party repeatedly refer to the dark days of 1975 when many a BJP leader including the likes of Finance minister Arun Jaitley and LK Advani (a journalist himself) spent months in imprisonment fighting on behalf of the journalist community then.

Now that the BJP is in power it finds all criticism and negative media reports unpalatable. India has Already already slipped three places last year to rank 136 among 180 countries rated in the world press freedom index of the watchdog Reporters Without Borders. Just last week, three journalists were killed in a day in deliberate hit-and-run accidents for their reporting work. So much so that in 2016, the International Federation of Journalists listed India as the eighth most dangerous country for journalists”. While killing every journalist may be difficult, curbing his freedom to report in the garb of fake news is a handy stick in the hands of the government. 
  —With Reuters inputs