Every day we are bombarded with hundreds of news items. From our favourite news channels to our daily messaging apps, there is no place left in the media where people do not try to step in to direct some kind of information. From stories about criminal gangs on the hunt for children abduction and robbery to alleged cures for the coronavirus, the media has become a deluge of solutions and alerts. Most of us, as a rule, have been conditioned since birth to trust in the people in positions of authority and our own friends and family- perhaps because of this, people generally accept media claims in good faith. But how many times do we fact-check things that we consume through the media with credible sources? Have you ever tried understanding why that viral concoction of vitamins would lead to higher immunity in you? Or was this cross-check also done via the internet? Have you ever reconsidered the fact that the media could lie to you? Have you considered the idea of Fake News?
What is Fake News?
Simply put, Fake News deals is any piece of information that is not true and is spread to the masses at large. The information is made with a malicious intent to instigate, misguide or misinform the public through articles, advertisements, programs, videos, messages, and more recently, even memes, causing havoc and/or dissatisfaction amongst the public.
Fake news has been existing in the world even before the advent of the modern press system. They were a big part of the propaganda that led to lynching, riots, violence, and various other hate crimes. However, they were comparatively difficult to spread during the older times and were more so limited to political and cultural propaganda. In the twenty-first century, and with the thriving growth of the internet, the growth of fake news has had no limits. From cultural propaganda to scientific blunders, fake news now has a whole new arena to play at. In the past, the easiest manner of spreading fake news was the mainstream media. Now the internet, especially social media sites, has become the flag bearer of the show.
It however remains undisputed that mainstream media still plays a crucial role in spreading such unsolicited news. People who believe that the internet could be filled with false information turn their attention towards their favourite news channels. They nevertheless forget that mainstream media has always played with fake news to establish the propaganda of their sponsors and beneficiaries. Clips have been surfaced where mainstream media houses even create fake scenarios with false witnesses to create news and remain ahead of their competitors. The truth is almost impossible to ascertain.
What are the laws against them?
Unsurprisingly, India does not have any specific, singular legislation that deals with fake news. Article 19 of the Indian Constitution guarantees everyone the freedom of speech. Though these rights come with certain limits, a prohibition to disturbing public speech among them, propagators of fake news always try to find a leeway through them. Moreover, arguing over Article 19 is likely to be a long and costly procedure. Therefore, there are a few provisions in some legislations that help deal with fake news.
To begin with, we have the Disaster Management Act, which under Section 54 states that any person who circulates a false alarm or warning with regards to a disaster or its magnitude and causes havoc amongst the public shall be punished with imprisonment of one year or with some fine. This provision becomes particularly important in our tough times against the pandemic.
We then have the Indian Penal Code, which takes a much broader view of punishments for fake news. The code under Section 505 (1) states that any person who causes fear or chaos amongst the public through any statement, report, etc. shall be punished with imprisonment of up to three years with/or fine or both. Section 153 further states that if any person, through his malicious actions, provokes a riot, he shall be punished with imprisonment of up to 1 year or fine or both. In case he fails in causing such a riot, but had attempted to do so, he shall be punished with imprisonment of up to six months with/or fine or both. Finally, Section 499 and 500 of the code look into criminal defamation. It states that a person shall be liable for imprisonment of up to two years with/or fine or both if the person causes another person harm or harm to reputation through words, signs, visuals, etc.
These laws work better with individuals or groups of individuals who decided to spread false news. In addition, there are some other organizations as well that look into curbing fake news by regulating media houses. An example of the same is the Press Council of India, which can take away the license of a journalist, channel, etc. if they violate the general ethics of journalism. We also have the News Broadcasting Association that looks into the misconducts of electronic media. The Indian Broadcast Foundation looks into the malformation published by channels. Finally, the Broadcasting Content Complaint Council looks into fake news and questionable content broadcasted by TV channels.
What is the current scenario?
As we can understand by looking into the laws of our country, there are no airtight provisions that govern the aspect of fake news in a comprehensive manner. There is a strong need for a push for the same in the legislature so that misinformation, especially during the rough times of this pandemic can be ceased. But until such steps are not taken, the general public will have to become more aware of what to consume from the media and what not to.
People need to start looking into credible sources that are not so difficult to verify and start bursting these racquets of fake informers. It is not difficult to look into the sources of fake news and understand whether they are speaking the truth or not. Ignorance and placid belief are what feeds the fire of misinformation in the media. Education and awareness are the biggest weapons to end the cycle of propaganda. Before reacting strongly to a piece of news and losing our control, we should find out a credible source and determine whether the facts are checked or not. Our awareness can stop fake news faster than any legislation can.
Author: Maitreyi Shishir, Legal Intern at PA Legal.
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