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Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ordered withdrawal of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s controversial move to black list journalists, making them liable to lose their accreditation with Press Information Bureau (PIB) on mere accusation of fake news.

As per reports, the PM office has directed Smriti Irani-led Information and Brodcasting Ministry to leave the final decision on recent law on fake news on press bodies.

The order issued last evening had said that journalists could be denied government access just on the accusation of fake news and they could lose their accreditation with Press Information Bureau (PIB).

The guidelines were seen by journalists as an attempt to control the media in an election year.

Responding to angry tweets, I&B Minister Smriti Irani had said today that she was “more than happy to engage with journalists or organisations wanting to give suggestions so that together we can fight the menace of ‘fake news’ and uphold ethical journalism”.

In its four-para statement, now withdrawn, the government said it had amended accreditation guidelines for journalists after noting “increasing instances of fake news in various mediums including print and electronic media”.

Government accreditation for journalists allows them to access ministries and enter restricted buildings or events. A journalist is accredited with the PIB of the Centre after she/he has least five years’ experience as a full-time working journalist. Freelance journalists need to have 15 years experience and foreign correspondents five years with a valid work visa.

The I&B Ministry press release on Monday, April 2, said that if a journalist is found to have “created and/or propagated” fake news, her/his accreditation would be suspended or permanently cancelled.

Without defining fake news, it said a journalist’s PIB accreditation would be suspended the moment there was any complaint of fake news.

“The accreditation will be suspended till such time the determination regarding the fake news is made by the regulating agencies,” the government order said.

The press release said that the responsibility of determining whether a news item is fake or not would lie with the Press Council of India (PCI) for print journalists and the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) for TV journalists.

The guidelines said the PCI and the NBA would decide within 15 days whether the complaint was legit.

If the journalist was found guilty of publishing or propagating fake news, accreditation would be suspended for six months for the first violation and for a year in the case of a second violation. For a third offence, the journalist’s accreditation will be cancelled permanently.

The Accreditation Committee of the Press Information Bureau (PIB), which consists of representatives of both the PCI and the NBA, would be reached out for validating any accreditation request of any news media agency, it said.

While examining the requests seeking accreditation, the regulatory agencies would check whether the Norms of Journalistic Conduct’ and Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards’, prescribed by the PCI and NBA respectively, are adhered to by the journalists as part of their functioning, the ministry said. It would be obligatory for journalists to abide by these guidelines, it said.​

As journalists protested against the press release and “fake news” became the top trend on Twitter on Tuesday, Irani acknowledged the matter had “generated debate”.

Senior journalist Shekhar Gupta described the move as a “breathtaking assault on mainstream media,” and referred to a law proposed by the Rajiv Gandhi government, which had sought to make “criminal imputation” and “scurrilous writings” a crime. Gupta tweeted: “Make no mistake: this is a breathtaking assault on mainstream media. It’s a moment like Rajiv Gandhi’s anti-defamation bill. All media should bury their differences and resist this.”

NDTV’s Akhilesh Sharma questioned whether the I&B Ministry was assuming that only accredited journalists spread fake news. “What about non-accredited journalists, editors, news portals,” he asked.

Smriti Irani tweeted in reply: “Those will be considered as well @akhileshsharma1 ji through other departments of @MIB_India . Will put information in public domain soon.”

Congress leader Ahmed Patel also questioned whether the guidelines were aimed at preventing journalists from reporting news uncomfortable to the establishment. “What is guarantee that these rules will not be misused to harass honest reporters? Is it not possible that motivated complaints will be filed to suspend accreditation until enquiry is on?” he tweeted.

In response, Smriti Irani tweeted: “Glad to see you awake Ahmed Patel ji. Whether a News article / broadcast is fake or not will be determined by PCI & NBA; both of whom I’m sure you know are not controlled/ operated by GOI.”

The term “fake news” has in the past few months become a staple charge by leaders in several countries to describe media reports and organisations critical of them.

Karnataka Congress Committee president G Parmeswara said: “Irony just died a slow death as Ministry of Information & Broadcasting issued guidelines against #FakeNews. Wasn’t the #postcardnews founder arrested for peddling fake news recently? Also, the most important question is: Who has been encouraging fake news in India? Any answers?”

Congress communications incharge Randeep Singh Surjewala tweeted: “Fascism reaches its ‘nadir’ as a shaky Modi Govt, caught in its web of lies, seeks to muzzle all independent voices in media through fallacious rules!

Will the 13 Union Ministers answer for the lame duck portal tarnishing mainstream media?#FakeNewshttp://indianexpress.com/article/india/look-who-is-busting-fake-news-for-13-ministers-site-with-exam-warriors-link-5121254/ …”

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