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How to tackle fake news legally without a law in India

  On the just gone by April Fool's Day, WhatsApp groups were abuzz with messages claiming that the occasion was a creation of "English Christians" to make fool of Indians who celebrated their New Year Day on the first day of Chaitra (of Vikram era based on lunar calendar). However, the real story of April Fool's Day traces its origin to Europe. And, the first day of Chaitra invariably falls on March 22.

Another widely circulated email and WhatsApp message is a "new item" breaking that the Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) has recognised Jana Gana Mana (India's national anthem) as the best anthem in the world. The fact is Unesco does not do any such thing.

The examples can be endless as dissemination of misinformation and fake news is widespread over social media. The sheer vastness of the internet (over 35 crore users in India) and social media users (an estimated over 20 crore WhatsApp users alone) makes tracing the origin of fake news almost impossible.

The government yesterday said in a now-withdrawn notification that the accreditation of a journalist could be permanently cancelled if the scribe is found generating or propagating fake news. The development came close on the heels of the arrest of a news editor in Bengaluru for allegedly publishing fake news.

The amended guidelines for the accreditation of journalists said that if the publication or telecast of fake news was confirmed, the accreditation of that journalist would be suspended for a period of six months for the first violation and for one year in case of a second violation. The third violation would lead to cancellation of accreditation permanently.

Are there any laws to tackle fake news in India?

The answer is no. There is no specific law to deal with fake news. Free publication or broadcast of news in India flows from the fundamental right to freedom of expression as enshrined under Article 19 of the Constitution. However, there are certain legal recourses available for people affected by fake news.

Complaints can be lodged with the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) which represents the private television news and current affairs broadcasters. It is funded by its over 60 members. The NBA is the credible voice of news broadcasters to the government. It is self-regulatory in nature and probes complaints against news broadcasters in a fair manner.

There is another body called the Indian Broadcast Foundation (IBF) which was created in 1999 to look into the complaints against contents aired by 24x7 channels. Over 650 news channels are in operation today in the country. Complaint against any broadcaster can be filed in English or Hindi to IBF online or offline for promoting smoking, abuse or any violent action.

Then there is the Broadcasting Content Complaint Council (BCCC). A complaint relating to objectionable TV content or fake news can be filed to the Broadcasting Content Complain Council if a broadcaster incites communal hatred, encourages violence against women or child abuse, airs contents having gory scenes of violence, promotes superstition or consumption of drugs and other contraband substances.

There are some statutory bodies too.

The Press Council of India, created by an Act of Parliament, is a statutory body. Withdrawing the notification on fake news, the government said that the matters relating to fake news should be dealt within the ambit of the Press Council of India.

According to the Press Council Act, 1978, it can warn, admonish or censure the newspaper, the news agency, the editor or the journalist or disapprove the conduct of the editor or the journalist if it finds that a newspaper or a news agency has offended against the standards of journalistic ethics or public taste or that an editor or a working journalist has committed any professional misconduct.
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