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Fake news and an unperturbed Press Council of India

The Tamil Nadu-versus-Bihar narrative had its genesis in local disputes, which have been spiced up and seasoned. Initially the Dainik Bhaskar treated rumours as news, but changed its tone once the truth behind these rumours surfaced, writes Anil Chamadia

People usually do not believe rumours, and the rumours soon lose steam. But once rumours are elevated to the level of news, they grow wings and can serve to create an atmosphere of fear. Rumours spread fast – fast enough to rattle the most powerful of institutions. 

Who are those that give wings to rumours by presenting them as authentic news? We have always had faith in our media to sieve the truth from the rumours, but today such faith may be misplaced. Nowadays, the media as an institution lends credibility to rumours. 

The rumours of attacks on and exodus of Bihari labourers from Tamil Nadu have rekindled the debate on the role of the media. Over the past three decades, circulation of rumours as news leading to strife and at times even threatening the very edifice of the parliamentary system have become a new normal. Rumours masquerading as news are exploited by many other players, including power-hungry politicos. This was exactly what a Bharatiya Janata Party leader in Tamil Nadu did and what the same party’s leaders in Bihar tried to replicate on a larger scale.  

The Tamil Nadu-versus-Bihar narrative had its genesis in local disputes, which have been spiced up and seasoned. Initially the Dainik Bhaskar treated the rumours as news, but changed its tone once the truth behind these rumours surfaced. The Dainik Bhaskar had initially claimed that 15 Bihari labourers have been killed in Tamil Nadu. Later, the newspaper revealed that a dispute over smoking at a tea shack in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu, about a month and a half earlier had been blown out of proportion. Some local residents chased away some people who were believed to be migrants. The video of this incident was made viral. And then, some Tamil organizations made it their issue and wove an entire narrative. Vijay Kumar Sinha, the leader of opposition in the Bihar Vidhan Sabha, said that the Bihar government wanted to hide these incidents, and that Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Yadav had misled the people by claiming that nothing of the sort had happened, exposing his anti-labourer position. “Those who cut cakes on aircraft can never feel the pain of the labourers,” he said. 

The PCI has not been taking cognizance of fake news

DMK leader T.K.S. Elangovan said that the BJP was playing politics of rumours, and that all labourers are safe and sound in Tamil Nadu. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar dispatched a team of officers to Tamil Nadu to investigate. 

Press Council of India ignoring fake news 

The Dainik Bhaskar is not alone in this business of converting rumours into news. Dozens of media companies make profits from this practice. Some use newspapers as their vehicles, others use the web and still others, the television. But their modus operandi is the same – confirm rumours as true and secure your pound of flesh.

Weak institutions 

This incident shows how circulating rumours in the garb of news and playing with facts has become the norm in Indian media. In such cases, the stance of the political parties depends on what the spreading of truth – or falsehood – would lead to. For instance, rumours can bring a government under pressure and it may become politically vulnerable. The BJP claims that it is a national political party and the most powerful among its rivals, But it finds nothing wrong with circulating a rumour as news. 

Against this backdrop, the role of the Press Council of India (PCI) becomes crucial. But it seems that the institution is all but dead. The PCI is the only statutory body in the country mandated with the responsibility of playing the role of a sentinel in the news industry. The PCI was constituted to act as a catalyst in developing a culture and a structure that fosters responsible journalism. But it seems it is content with essaying the role of a silent spectator to all sorts of irresponsible behaviour. The PCI was nowhere in the picture in the recent episode involving Tamil Nadu and Bihar. But yes, we do keep on hearing about its cozy relationship with the powers that be. 

My personal experience

I repose great faith in the PCI. I knocked on its doors with a variety of complaints and suggestions. I persisted even when the door didn’t open, and I have still not given up on it. But sometimes I do feel that there is no door at all and wonder if I’m wasting my time. My latest brush with the PCI was on July 21 when it did not take suo moto cognizance of the goings-on, and when complaints raised by the likes of myself were rejected on technical grounds. The matter pertains to publication of paid news during the assembly elections in Assam. 

On 3 May 2021, the PCI replied to my emailed complaint dated 31 March, informing me of the requirements for making a complaint to it. I was told that I should:

  • Make available the original printed copy of the newspaper in which the said news has been published (Please note that clippings downloaded from the web edition of the newspaper are not admissible)
  • Provide a copy of the letter written to the editor in connection with the news story and also a copy of the reply (if any) received. 
  • Furnish complete addresses of the respondents.

On 8 May 2021, I gave the following reply to the communication, pertaining to case number 211-215/2021A:

“I am in receipt of your letter regarding the complaint filed by me by email on 31-03-2021. 

“I have the following requests to make:

“Firstly, I would like to draw your attention to a factual mistake in your letter (dated 3 May). I haven’t lodged any complaint against The Telegraph, as mentioned in the subject line of your communication. 

“I would like to let you know that the entire world is reeling under the Covid-19 pandemic. Lakhs have died and crores have been infected. The situation in India is precarious. The government is advising the citizens not to leave their homes. In these times, when humanity is facing a tragedy of catastrophic proportions, I am not in a position to travel from Delhi to Assam. You have demanded the original copy or a readable photo copy of the newspapers against which complaint has been lodged. I have already informed you that I live in Delhi and you have already made it clear that copies of web editions won’t be acceptable.    

“I lack the financial wherewithal to travel to Assam to fetch the original copies of the newspapers against which complaints have been lodged by me. I am not aware if the copies of those newspapers are available in Delhi. 

“In view of the aforementioned circumstances, can the PCI mandate the presenting of original copies of the newspapers against which complaints have been lodged? The complaint pertains to such content published in the said newspapers for which the editor alone cannot be held responsible. The entire management of the newspaper is responsible, and the publication of the content concerned was not due to oversight but was the result of a conscious decision. 

“The published content was in contravention of the provisions of the Representation of People’s Act, and the managements of newspapers concerned had obtained an assurance that a particular amount of money would be paid to them in return. This content can fall in the category of paid news.”

I also drew the attention of the PCI to the report of the Second Press Commission (1980-82), appointed by the Government of India. Comment number 2 in Part I of the report says that the editors have no role in the publication of advertisements in newspapers. The commission found that the editors’ permission is not sought for publication of advertisements on the first and other pages of the newspaper. The editors only take a call on the content to be published in the space left after accommodating the advertisements. Thus, the editors are not the final decision-makers in newspapers.  

As such, the legal and procedural provisions that make writing a letter to the editor binding before raising a complaint cannot be sustained in such cases.

The complaint was made because the newspapers, flagrantly and consciously violating the guidelines and the directives of the Press Council and the Election Commission, did something that harmed democracy. The content was not published due to oversight or carelessness.    

These days, newspapers are not only about printed editions. They are registered as print publications but they use the registration to bring out digital editions. They circulate their content using digital means. Definitions change with time. Today, “print” cannot be taken to mean only content printed on paper using printing presses. Modern technology has changed the very meaning of “publication”. Today, newspapers are printed on paper but also published on websites, and both the versions are considered published. Newspapers published on websites are also considered printed. 

I requested the PCI to consider my complaint and take appropriate action in the interest of Indian democracy. It may be recalled that polling was held in two phases in Assam and after the first phase, newspapers carried stories (advertisements) saying that the BJP’s victory was certain. 

Today, the situation is that the villains who want the people to believe rumours are becoming increasingly powerful, while those manning democratic institutions believe that they are doing a great service by just looking on. 

(Translated from the original Hindi by Amrish Herdenia)

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About The Author

Anil Chamadia

Anil Chamadia is a senior Hindi journalist focusing on media analysis and research. He edits 'Jan Media' and 'Mass Media', which are Hindi and English journals, respectively, on media issues

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