Law regarding fake news in India

Reading time: 8-10 minutes.

Fake news, also known as junk news, refers to the mal-information which is spread in a country through the informal exchange of words and traditional media in the form of edited videos, memes, unsubstantiated ads and web-based life which engenders bits of gossip. Having its existence before the invention of the printing press, this hoax news has become a serious social challenge to our society.

This news has poisoned the atmosphere of the web and is resulting in causing riots, lynching, mob violence and hatred among people. Gossipy tidbits, edited pictures, misleading content sources, spurred and planted stories spread like a forest fire among 564.5 million internet users in India through social media platform, like- Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter. Some popular examples of fake news in India are- Muzzafarnagar riots of 2013, Najeeb Ahmed missing JNU student to have joined ISIS, video on a dying woman molested, etc.

In Today’s situation, where the epidemic like coronavirus (COVID-19) has grasped the world into its hands, the internet-based life is overflowing with a wide range of posts, extending from data about the malady’s flare-up to bogus news about its starting point and spread, also offering untested ‘treatment’. Seeing this critical situation of our society, The Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) published a step-by-step manual for law enforcement organizations to recognize “fake news” which proposed to spread anxiety through contempt and savagery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Union Home Minister of India, expressing his views on “Yellow Journalism”, commented that “these are published with the intent to damage an agency, entity or a person and gain financially or politically by often using sensationalist, dishonest or outright fabricated headlines to increase readership”. The guidelines refer to several suggestive clues which officials must go through to identify fake news.

Websites and links having spelling mistakes, outrageous headlines, visuals or captions which do not support the content are some of the points on which the emphasis is laid for the officers to identify fake news. The guideline also ensures officials to consider the sensitivity of case before addressing these tools as there is a risk of data leakage which may eventually mislead an investigation. It also suggests the officials refer reliable news sources to check whether the story reported elsewhere; and if a story is reported in multiple places, then it is considered to be true. The guide also suggests the investigating agencies to use open domain tools to gather more and more information on fake news and videos. Thus,-

“Alternative facts and fake news are just other names of propaganda”.

Significance of this development

This development is significant as it has reduced the spread of fake news to some extent on the internet and it is determined that the proper enforcement of the guidelines of this manual would certainly stop the creation and spread of fake news in the coming future. The manual grants punishment to people who by creating fake news, spread hatred and violence in the society. This has also activated the investigating officials and agencies to collect more and more information on fake news and videos. Termed as “infodemic” by the Director-General of World Health Organizations (WHO), fake news has become a serious issue for our society and is needed to be curbed.

Laws regarding fake news in India

There is no such specific codified law against fake news. In India, there is a free publication of news under Article 19 of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech, but still, there are some provisions in the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Information Technology Act (IT Act), and the Disaster Management Act which controls the effect of fake news in India to an extent. These provisions are-

  • Section 66D of Information Technology Act- “Whoever, by means for any communication device or computer resources cheats by personating shall be punished with the imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine which may extend to one lakh rupees”.
  • Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act- “Whoever makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic shall be punished with the imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine”.
  • Section 505(1) of Indian Penal Code, 1860- “Whoever by making, publishing or circulating any statement, rumour or report which may cause fear for an alarm to the public, or to any section of the public shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years, or with fine or with both”.
  • Section 153 of Indian Penal Code-  “Whoever malignantly, or wantonly, by doing anything illegal, gives provocation to any person intending or knowing it to be likely that such provocation will cause the offense of rioting to be committed, shall, if the offense of rioting be committed in consequence of such provocation be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both; and if the offense of rioting be not committed, with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine, or with both”.
  • Section 499 and 500 of Indian Penal Code- “ Whoever, by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs or by visible representations, makes or publishes any imputation concerning any person intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm, the reputation of such person is said, except in the case hereinafter expected, to defame that person” and “Whoever defames another shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine or with both”.

Apart from the above, there are certain legal resources available for people affected by fake news:

  • If any kind of fake news is telecasted in news channels, one can file a complaint with the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) which represents the private television news and current affairs broadcasters.
  • There is another body called the Indian Broadcast Foundation (IBF) where one can file complaints against contents aired by 24*7 channels for promoting smoking, abuse, or any violent action by online or offline.
  • There is also the Broadcasting Content Complaint Council (BCCC) which deals with complaints relating to the TV content which is objective or fake news, where the Broadcaster incites communal hatred, encourage violence against woman, child abuse or promotes consumption of drugs.
  • There is also a statuary body called The Press Council of India who can warn newspaper agencies, the news agency, the editor or the journalist or disapprove the conduct of the editor or the journalist if it finds that a newspaper or a news agency has violated journalistic ethics.

Recent developments

In the recent time when everybody in the world is fighting the pandemic, social media is filled with information about the COVID-19 outbreak. This also includes false news about its origin, spread and many fake advisories. It is said by the experts that fake news is no less dangerous than the virus.

 Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebresyesus, Director General, World Health Organisation (WHO) made the following statement regarding fake news: –

“We are not just fighting an epidemic; we are fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”

After seeing the menace of fake news, the centre had requested the Supreme court to issue directions to prevent fake and inaccurate reporting whether intended or not, either by electronic, print, or social media which will cause panic in the society. The Supreme Court of India while dealing with it held that the migration of a large number of labourers working in the cities was triggered by panic created by fake news that the lockdown would continue for more than three months. Such panic caused migration and untold suffering to those who believed and acted on such fake news.

A bench of Chief Justice S.A. Bobde and Justice L. Nageswara Rao asked the government to invoke Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 which provides for punishment to a person who makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disasters or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic.  Such person shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with a fine.

The court also directed the centre to create a 24-hour portal to curb the spread of fake news. It advised the Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, that the government must hold regular meetings to disseminate authentic information to the public.

Apart from this, the State Governments took the following actions to control fake news: –

  • In Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, a man was arrested for committing fraud and forgery, who called himself as “Corona Wale Baba” and misguided people to wear magical inscribed rings to keep corona away.
  • In Maharashtra, on 13th March, FIR was registered against the owner of a mattress company who claimed in a newspaper advertisement that his mattress could cure COVID-19. Apart from this, 51 cases have been registered in Maharashtra on those who are spreading rumours and fake news on the pandemic.
  • A man from Odisha has been arrested for spreading misinformation on Facebook  about people who have returned to Kerala.

Critical analysis

The speed at which the coronavirus is spreading all over the world, the deceiving news has been spreading at the same pace as well. Where the large portion of the human race is stuck inside their homes during the lockdown, the infodemic is infecting them more and more. To neutralize this, more than 400 researchers have deliberated their endeavours to expose hoax news about the virus. Notwithstanding validating and conveying the data, the group additionally dissects all the accessible information and offers their help to both national as well as local governments for proof-based action. Even, news sources and the press have an enhanced obligation to make individuals mindful and increase education about the hazard of fake news and falsehood. In addition to it, a case has been filed by Anuja Kapur in the Supreme Court, which is pending and is looking for bearings to the Center to outline rules and to present a legal framework for stopping counterfeit news and punishing those who are liable for creating and circling them. The petitioner commented that the endless dissemination of fake news on the online life actuates unspeakable atrocity and encroachment of citizen’s right to impartial and honest news and reports. Thus, it can be rightly quoted that-

“Separate text from context and all that remains is a con”.

Conclusion

Thus, to get rid of this “infodemic”, education, awareness and regulation are required. In terms of education, India, like Italy, should seriously emphasize on cybersecurity, internet education and fake news education in the academic curriculum at all levels. People should be aware and conscious enough to determine whether the news is fake or true. If any message incites strong emotions or outrageous claims, then such news should be verified before it is blindly shared on social media. Any future legislation to curb fake news should take the whole picture into account and not blame the media and as in this age of new media, anyone can create and circulate news for personal benefits. Countering content control and phoney news to re-establish confidence in web-based life without subverting web and media opportunity will require state-funded training, reinforcing of guidelines and exertion of tech organizations to make appropriate algorithms for news curation. Thus, controlling fake news is a tricky issue; if not controlled then it might lead to national and international instability; but if it is controlled more than it needs to be, it would harm the democratic system. As Amit Ray (an Indian author and spiritual master) quotes: –

“In this era of fake news and paid news artificial intelligence is more and more used as a political tool to manipulate and dictate common people, through a big data, biometric data, and AI analysis of online profiles and behaviours in social media and smart phones. But the days are not far when AI will also control the politicians and media too”.

Authors: Tanya Sharma from University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun and Dhairya Agrawal from KIIT School of Law, Bhubneswar.

Editor: Harinie.S from Symbiosis Law School Hyderabad.

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