Government’s Fact-Checking Unit Raises Concerns of Censorship in India

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The Indian government’s recently introduced fact-checking unit, as part of the amended Information Technology Rules, has stirred controversy and drawn criticism from journalists’ bodies, rights activists, and advocates for internet freedom. The unit, comprising two officials from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and an independent expert, has been accused of approaching censorship. Previously, the Press Information Bureau had been empowered as the fact-checker under an earlier version of the rules. However, due to widespread criticism, the government modified the rules, granting itself the power to establish a fact-checking unit through the new Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2023. This unit now possesses extensive authority to determine what content is deemed “fake or false or misleading” in relation to any aspect of the Central Government’s affairs. Furthermore, the unit can issue instructions to intermediaries, including social media platforms, to refrain from hosting such content. According to the Economic Times, the fact-checking unit will consist of representatives from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and government-appointed experts. The report also quotes top officials stating that the unit will solely verify news and fact-based information, assuring that it will not assess or screen opinions presented by publications.

The government has reiterated this claim in court, asserting that the fact-checking unit’s primary objective is to eliminate false and misleading information concerning government policies and programs. It emphasized that the unit will not remove any opinions, satirical content, or artistic impressions from the internet. In an alarming development, India’s press freedom ranking has dropped significantly, falling to the 161st position out of 180 countries, according to Reporters Without Borders. This decline is a troubling 11 ranks lower than the previous year, placing India among the countries with the most restrictive press environments.

Critics argue that the establishment of the government-led fact-checking unit raises concerns about the erosion of freedom of expression and independent journalism in India. The requirement for transparency in the unit’s decision-making processes and the assurance that it will adhere to the principles of free speech and diverse opinions are crucial in mitigating fears of censorship and ensuring a vibrant and unrestricted media landscape in the country.

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