The Republic@70: Threats posed by fake news and the government     

Fake news has been of great concern. But researchers working for an European NGO ‘Euro Disinfo Lab’ discovered 265 fake news sites across 65 countries, apparently backed by the Government of India

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
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Fake news has been of great concern in the country. But when researchers working for an European NGO ‘Euro Disinfo Lab’ discovered 265 fake news sites across 65 countries, peddling pro-India and anti-Pakistan propaganda, there was no discussion on Indian TV channels or in the Indian media.

Clearly, these fake news sites, mimicking defunct media brands, were not being run by Amit Shah’s favourite ‘Tukde-Tukde gang’. Chances are that they are being run by Indian intelligence agencies to lobby for Indian Government’s interests, at the Indian taxpaers’ expense of course. Links with the obscure Srivastava Group in Delhi and one Madi Sharma, who had organized the trip to Kashmir of a group of rightist members of the EU Parliament, had been mentioned. But Indian media showed little interest in pursuing the leads.

The question is, if the government is not averse to fund fake news sites in 65 countries and pay its supporters unspecified amounts of money, what prevents it from funding similar endeavours within the country?

Indian TV news channels, some 400 of them, have in any case abdicated the responsibility of putting questions to the Government. They have opted for the safer recourse of putting questions to the opposition. They also seem committed to give live coverage to the Prime Minister’s public speeches. Even inconsequential speeches delivered at the United Nations, election speeches and road shows of the PM and even his addresses to party workers are covered with a diligence that is missing in pursuing concerns of public interest.

Although Indian news TV has low TV viewership, the channels enjoy disproportionate influence and in any case are playing a key role in magnifying the PM’s monologue. Their coverage of events in Kashmir, in Parliament, in the universities and of the anti-CAA protests have been one-sided even as the channels have been largely silent on the economy, farmers’ issues and unemployment. Several jingoistic channels have reportedly devoted as many as 70 prime time debates to Pakistan out of 200 but not a single one to the economy.

The coverage of the Pulwama terror attack in February last year and the subsequent air strike at Balakot remains a low point for Indian news TV. While TV studios were turned into war rooms and anchors dressed in military uniform---some of them dressed like astronauts while reporting on the Moon Mission---the channels unabashedly purveyed government’s propaganda.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently told BJP workers that mainstream media would never support them, advising them to connect with people directly. The PM himself makes use of Twitter, the Namo App, his monthly Mann Ki Baat on radio to lecture students on how to prepare for examinations, farmers on how to cultivate and citizens of their duties. While he does grant scripted interviews to chosen newsmen and women, with questions vetted beforehand, he is yet to address an unscripted press conference.

For the record, the Prime Minister wants to be criticised and acknowledges that criticism is the essence of democracy. But TV anchor and editor Punya Prasoon Bajpai lost his job for criticising the Prime Minister. He had been asked to refrain from taking the Prime Minister’s name, he revealed. He also claimed that the Government had employed 200 people to monitor the media and keep watch over them. Bobby Ghosh, editor of Hindustan Times, was forced to resign after he launched a ‘Hate Tracker’ to record hate speeches.

No wonder, the credibility of Indian media and TV channels are at an all-time low. And the trust and quality deficit at an all time high.

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