Faced with severe criticism from the media and the opposition, the Prime Minister’s office has directed the Information & Broadcasting ministry to withdraw the ‘fake news’ directive.

The ministry had, last evening, issued a statement that envisaged provisions to punish journalists who reported ‘fake news’.

According to the press release issued yesterday, action — including the de-accreditation — would be taken against journalists for sharing or spreading untrue news.

However, even though the opposition and mainstream journalists have often complained about fake news as well, the move by I&B minister Smriti Irani raised questions about who gets to decide what is fake news and what is not.

Globally, the issue of fake news has caught a lot of attention, as it has become a tool in the hands of political parties and intelligence agencies to attack their rivals with.

However, defining ‘fake news’ legally has turned out to be very difficult as even the most well-established journalists can occasionally go wrong in their reporting.

Typically, ‘fake news’ usually refers to the publication of news that the author or publisher knows to be false.

However, trying to tackle the problem through legal means has the potential to tie-up even the most respected journalists in legal tangles.

When a news report is subsequently found to be wrong, the author and publisher would have to prove before a court that they did not know, at the time of producing the report, that it was untrue. This would also require them to disclose their sources of information to the court, something most are loath to do.

The move to withdraw the press release was welcomed by prominent journalists in the country.

“The prime minister must be congratulated for taking such quick action and responding to journalists’ concerns. I hope this will never happen again,” said Jyoti Malhotra, consulting editor to the Indian Express.

“The prime minister realized that something was very very wrong.. and (that) he absolutely cannot (do) something like this.. where there was a smell of the government trying to control the media even very vaguely,” she added.

Saba Naqvi, another senior journalist, wanted to know how the press release come to be issued in the first place.

“These are important things that impinge on the freedom of the press.. Did the I&B minister come up with this on her own or did she consult the Cabinet? We need to know,” she said, speaking to a television channel.

Prominent journalist Shekhar Gupta, who termed the press release “a breathtaking assault on mainstream media” soon after it was issued, welcomed the move.

“It was a completely indefensible move. It was morally, politically and constitutionally indefensible,” he said.

Gupta had urged the media to ‘bury their differences’ and oppose the bill. “It’s a moment like Rajiv Gandhi’s anti-defamation bill,” he had tweeted yesterday.

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