India to crack down on journalists publishing fake news

NEW DELHI - India will deny government access to journalists who publish fake news, the information ministry has announced, a decision that critics promptly labelled an attack on the freedom of the press in the world's largest democracy.

Journalists and opposition parties described the new rules as an effort by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government to control the press ahead of a general election due by next year.

It was the latest move by a government in Asia to tackle fake news and comes after Malaysia approved a law prescribing up to six years imprisonment for such offences.

Journalists found guilty of writing or broadcasting fake news will have their government accreditation withdrawn for a limited period or permanently, depending on the frequency of violations, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry said in a statement on Monday evening, citing increasing complaints about fake news.

Such accreditation is required by journalists to visit ministries and attend news conferences and seminars organised by government departments. Journalists use their accreditation cards to prove their identity at other news events.

The ministry did not define "fake news" but said complaints about it in print would be referred for determination to the Press Council of India, with suspected cases on television going to the National Broadcasters Association.

The term "fake news" has in the past few months become part of the standard repertoire of leaders in several countries to describe media reports and organisations critical of them.

The Indian ministry did not mention digital media, although Smriti Irani, the information and broadcasting minister, had earlier said the government would try to frame rules for digital media too.

"What is (the) guarantee that these guidelines will check fake news?" opposition Congress party leader Ahmed Patel asked in a tweet.

"Or is it an attempt to prevent genuine reporters from reporting news uncomfortable to the establishment?"

The government's decision also set off alarm bells in Indian media organisations.

Shekhar Gupta, a former editor of the Indian Express newspaper, said it was "a breathtaking assault on mainstream media", and urged journalists to resist it.

"This is an attack on the freedom of the press. The draconian order could be misused against genuine journalists," said Gautam Lahiri, president of the Press Club of India.

"The government should immediately withdraw this order," he said, adding that journalists would hold a protest later on Tuesday.