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Indian journalists warn of new government assault on press freedom

<i>prima91/Adobe Stock</i><br/>India is planning a state fact-checking unit that could determine what is “fake or misleading” reporting of “any business of the central government.”
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prima91/Adobe Stock
India is planning a state fact-checking unit that could determine what is “fake or misleading” reporting of “any business of the central government.”

By Anna Cooban, CNN

India’s government is planning to create a state fact-checking unit with the power to order social media platforms to take down content about its activities that it deems “fake or misleading.”

In an amendment to rules covering digital and social media published Thursday, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said that the fact-checking would apply to information about “any business of the central government” on social media platforms.

The Editors Guild of India, a nonprofit organization representing more than 200 journalists, said in a statement on Friday that it was “deeply disturbed” by the new rules, saying they had “deeply adverse implications” for press freedom in India.

Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a minister in the IT ministry, told Indian news agency ANI on Friday that the updated rules did not represent “censoring at all,” and that social media companies could choose to continue to share content that fell foul of the fact-checking process, but there would be consequences if they did.

If these companies failed to take down the offending content, Chandrasekhar said, they would lose the automatic legal protection they currently enjoy against complaints about third-party content on their platforms. That would open up the possibility for aggrieved parties, including government ministries, to take them to court.

“The dangers of misinformation, the impact of patently false information in a democracy like ours, is never to be underestimated,” Chandrasekhar said.

‘Absolute power’

The Editors Guild expressed alarm that there was no mention in the rules of “what will be the governing mechanism for such a fact-checking unit, the judicial oversight, [or] the right to appeal.”

“In effect, the government has given itself absolute power to determine what is fake or not, in respect of its own work, and order take down,” the guild added. It urged the government to withdraw the rule change and consult with media organizations.

Twitter and Facebook, which both have a significant presence in India, did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Concern has been brewing in recent months over the Indian government’s increasingly restrictive stance towards the media.

In February, Indian tax authorities searched the BBC’s offices in Delhi and Mumbai, accusing the British broadcaster of tax evasion. The incident came nearly a month after the government used emergency powers to block the release of a documentary about Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Modi has been accused of silencing his critics in recent months. A senior member of India’s opposition Congress party was arrested in February for allegedly insulting the prime minister.

And last month, the former leader of the party — Rahul Gandhi — was disqualified as a lawmaker after a court found him guilty of defamation. He was convicted over a speech he made in 2019, in which he referred to thieves as having the same surname as Modi.

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