By Robin Gomes
The round-about turn from Narendra Modi’s government came following an outcry from journalists and opposition politicians who said the measure was to stifle press freedom, especially in the run-up to next year’s general elections.
Late Monday, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry had announced the government would withdraw its accreditation to journalists who peddled "fake news". The withdrawal of accreditation would be either for a limited time or permanently, depending on the frequency of infringements.
Such accreditation is required by journalists seeking to visit ministries and attend news conferences or government seminars. It also establishes their identity at other news events.
In less than 24 hours on Tuesday, Modi ordered the withdrawal of the rules, giving no reason for the change.
Fake news, ethical journalism?
Smriti Irani, the minister for Information and Broadcasting, tweeted on Tuesday afternoon that new media rules unveiled late on Monday had “generated debate”. She said the government would now engage with media organizations “so that together we can fight the menace of ‘fake news’ & uphold ethical journalism”.
"The prime minister has directed that the press statement regarding fake news be withdrawn and the matter be addressed in the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters Association," a senior official in Modi's office told Reuters.
Media bodies welcomed the decision but cautioned the government against trying to control the media.
"The government has no mandate to control the press," said Gautam Lahiri, president of the Press Club of India, adding that the media were also worried about growing incidents of "fake news". "The Press Council is the right platform to deal with complaints regarding any fake news."
India’s poor press freedom record
India slipped three places last year to rank 136 among 180 countries rated in the world press freedom index of the watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
The non-profit group that promotes and defends information and press freedom worldwide, noted that India’s Hindu nationalists, on the rise since Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power in 2014, were "trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate. It lamented that the most radical nationalists are increasingly targeting journalists with online smear campaigns, vilifying them and even threatening them with physical reprisals. “Prosecutions are also used to gag journalists who are overly critical of the government, with some prosecutors invoking Section 124a of the penal code, under which “sedition” is punishable by life imprisonment.”