The government’s move to regulate digital news and social media follows a road map chalked out during the height of the pandemic, in a report on government communication prepared by a group of ministers, or GoM, comprising five cabinet ministers and four ministers of state. One of the core concerns of the report has been voiced in an observation by Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the union minister of minority affairs, “We should have a strategy to neutralise the people who are writing against the Government without facts and set false narratives / spread fake news.”
The choice of words is revealing, as is the fact that the report does not spell out what a fake narrative is and how the government chooses to define it. Though its mandate was couched in cautious terms, the GoM’s report clearly sought to improve the image of the government in the media, and there is no ambiguity in how it proposed to go about it. The report laid out the need to identify journalists who generate negative narratives, find others who can counter them and to create events of a spectacular nature that would influence public perception in its favour.
The recently notified Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which has come under criticism for excessive government control over digital media, are clearly in keeping with this strategy. Evidently, the government’s stranglehold over the mainstream media is not reflected in its own perception of the media environment.