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Fears in India grow over state-run ‘fact-checking’ units

A move by several Indian states to set up fact-checking units aimed at countering media misinformation has raised concerns among activists about a potential administrative overreach and threat to free speech.

The Tamil Nadu government is the latest state to establish such a unit. At least four other states – Karnataka, Kerala, Telangana, and Uttarakhand – are at various stages of running fully-fledged fact-checking entities under their administrations.

Notably, Uttarakhand’s fact-checking department will directly fall under the police administration, its government said.

These state-level initiatives follow the fact-checking unit instituted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s central administration. The central government modified existing legislation to establish an exclusive department dedicated to combating false information in the media.

Geeta Seshu, founder of the media watchdog Free Speech Collective, said: “We have a very alarming scenario before us. If there is a dispute between the state and central government’s fact-check units over allegedly misleading news, what will prevail? Will the media be caught in an information war between these governments, penalised by both?

“This is intimidatory and can pave the way for pre-censorship, as the media may be forced to seek clearance for the publication of any information,” Seshu added.

The Tamil Nadu government’s order unveiled in early November is shrouded in mystery, with no specific details about the newly established fact-checking unit. Allegations from media critics and political opponents have surfaced, claiming that essential procedures have not been adhered to.

Notably, there have been no public announcements regarding the selection process of personnel overseeing the unit, a mandatory requirement for such appointments under the state’s regulations.

Furthermore, the establishment of the unit is facing a legal challenge from a public interest litigation filed at the Madras High Court.

Many of these concerns around various governments’ fact-checking units stem from an amendment in April by the federal administration’s Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeITy), allowing the government to set up the unit with sweeping powers, including ordering social media takedowns over posts that it considers as fake news.

The amendment specifies that only the federal government’s fact-checking body can fact-check information related to the New Delhi administration, excluding non-government entities.

This amendment faces a legal challenge from multiple petitioners including the political satirist Kunal Kamra, Association of Indian Magazines, and Editors Guild of India at the Bombay High Court, with a verdict expected on December 1.

While the Modi administration staunchly defends the move, rights groups and press freedom bodies, including the Editors Guild of India, argue that the amended rules threaten media freedom.

Jency Jacob, the managing editor of Boom Live, a fact-checking organisation, said, “Why call it fact-checking when governments already have press information bureaus or other bodies? Calling it fact-checking confuses people about what fact-checking is supposed to mean.”

These developments have come on the heels of a hot election season in the country. Five Indian states go to the polls in November and December, followed by parliamentary elections in 2024 in which Modi is seeking a third term.

Fact-checking landscape in India
Fact-checking processes are still fragmented and at an early stage of development in a country where more than 700 million people own smartphones. This digital boom has also led to an influx of falsehoods and fake news being disseminated online.

While independent fact-checking news organisations and legacy news outlets have emerged to combat misinformation, they face political pressure, raising concerns about press freedom.

The International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), run by the Poynter Institute, has accredited 20 organisations in India as formal fact-checkers – all of them have no links to state and federal governments.
On November 7, about 10 of these organisations formed a self-regulatory body under the umbrella group Misinformation Combat Alliance (MCA).

Prateek Waghre, policy director at the New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation, highlighted the difference in incentives between government-run fact-checking units and independent newsrooms.

“The problem with government steps is they are highly susceptible to control, misuse, and selective application, especially when they bring in a policing element,” he said.

“You cannot criminalise false information without broadly criminalising information itself. It’s not easily distinguishable,” Waghre said.

In the case of Karnataka, its proposed fact-checking unit would initially operate under the Home Department before it comes under police administration.

The state’s Chief Minister Siddaramaiah said: “Fake news is a threat to democracy and has been the cause of social polarisation. We need to take strict measures to control this menace.”

Jency Jacob of Boom Live expressed concerns about the appropriation of the term “fact-checking” by law enforcement.

“The moment the government says it will add a layer of fact-checking and hand it over to the police to take legal action, fear begins whether such initiatives will be used to stamp down political opposition,” Jacob said.

“Once you give these powers to cops, there’s no looking back. When you take this fact-checking ability from journalists and hand it over to law enforcement, I don’t know where it’ll head, and it will be extremely ugly.” SCMP

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