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Does India need a law to criminalise fake news?

Between safeguarding the freedom of speech and expression on one hand and punishing miscreants for proliferation of misinformation on the other, India needs a balanced act between rights of the citizens and their safety.

By: Gunjan Naik, 2nd Year student at RDVV University, Jabalpur

Fake news has been defined differently by different institutions. The common factor among them being – false stories that are spread via traditional news media or online social media, usually with an intent to mislead. Against the popular notion, that the incumbent US President was the one who coined the term, Sharyl Attkinson, an investigative journalist, has revealed that Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt was the mastermind behind it.

To mislead, when no serious harm is done, seems alright. But when a false remedy of corona virus takes lives of 300 people in Iran, the harm done is beyond imagination. Misinformation like chicken being a carrier of corona virus, or that some vegetable vendors were licking and spitting on vegetables to spread the corona virus, have been used in the recent past, intending to create panic and hate. Given how gullible masses are and their predilection for such hoaxes, false rumours are easily spread through social media.   

Misinformation like chicken being a carrier of corona virus, or that some vegetable vendors were licking and spitting on vegetables to spread the corona virus, have been used in the recent past, intending to create panic and hate.

Given the ever-expanding network connectivity around the world, social media is now easily accessible to everyone. The social media platforms which were initially made for the integration and socializing of people, are now used for malicious purposes. 

The number of incidents where fake news has caused disruption of law and order have been increasing so much our country that the National Crime Record Bureau had recorded the number of cases for the first time, in the last few months. It is not the number that is more troublesome but rather the consequences of these incidents– hatred, fear, violence and the most disturbing is the cost to humanity. Due to these fabricated stories, innocent people are often beaten and killed for no fault of theirs. With the cover of anonymity provided by the internet, it is difficult to trace from where they began.

With the cover of anonymity provided by the internet, it is difficult to trace from where they began.

Given the diversity of our nation, with many factors that range from superstitions to communalism ailing our society, it has become imperative to enact a law criminalising fake news. The mishaps caused due to fake news adversely affects not only the law and order, but also the economy. How would we progress if our resources are employed in redundant activities? Also, in an era where social media is becoming the medium to spread awareness and education among the masses, this blatant misuse of these platforms poses a far greater danger than one could account for.

Many countries like Singapore, Russia, Germany, Malaysia, have enacted laws against fake news. Singapore’s law gives government ministers the authority to determine what defines fake news. This leaves the law open to abuse. Similarly, Russia and Malaysia have often been accused of using this law to censor free speech. 

Many countries like Singapore, Russia, Germany, Malaysia, have enacted laws against fake news. Singapore’s law gives government ministers the authority to determine what defines fake news. This leaves the law open to abuse. Similarly, Russia and Malaysia have often been accused of using this law to censor free speech. 

It is imperative for India to enact a law criminalising fake news. But it is also important for us to learn from the experience of these countries. It is equally necessary to make sure that our laws do not stifle our hard-earned freedom of speech and expression. Media being an important pillar of our democracy should not be choked using such laws. The laws should ensure that there is room for genuine mistakes and also protection for the rights and interests of whistle-blowers. To ensure this, suggestions, recommendations and active participation from all stakeholders in the society should be welcomed. In short, they should have a say in the formulation of the law as it would govern their daily lives and livelihood. Unlike in the case of Masrat Zahra, a photojournalist, where she was charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, (a law generally meant to charge terrorists), this would ensure that journalists are not tried in an unjust manner.    

The Section 505(1) of Indian Penal Code 1860, Section 66D of Information Technology Act 2000 and Section 54 if the Disaster Management Act 2005 are those laws which the government is presently using to tackle the menace of fake news. The existing legal provisions do cater to penalizing creation of false content and malicious distribution thereof, but in the absence of any designated legislation which enables for timely removal of such content, once it has been published, prompt corrective action is much needed.  

India needs to meticulously put up a balanced act, while safeguarding the freedom of speech and expression on one hand and punishing miscreants on the other. The onus of safeguarding the public against fake news should not only be on the authorities, but also on us as individuals to check the authenticity of what we choose to believe and share on our social platforms. Since it is the masses that face the most negative effects of fake news propaganda, it is our duty to ensure that we do not contribute to it.  

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