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Modi has a little lamb, little sacrificial Smriti lamb

Retreat on 'fake news' order

MITRON, HOPE YOU GOT THE JOKE: Smriti Irani with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. File Picture

New Delhi: The Centre on Tuesday tried to cut its losses on the information and broadcasting ministry's bid to blacklist accredited journalists in the name of "fake news", withdrawing the late-night announcement and seeking to insulate Prime Minister Narendra Modi from criticism by projecting it as a decision of minister Smriti Irani alone.

The government blinked in the morning after it got wind of media organisations' decision to contest the move, and even the usually friendly television channels took a grim view.

By noon, official sources had put out that the Prime Minister had ordered the withdrawal of the news release issued by Irani's ministry on Monday night.

In a terse one-line release, the ministry said: "PIB Press Release regarding Fake News uploaded last evening stands withdrawn."

I&B ministry sources told The Telegraph the Prime Minister's principal secretary, Nripendra Mishra, called the principal director-general of the Press Information Bureau (PIB), Frank Noronha, and asked him to withdraw the release.

Simultaneously, the media management machinery of the government sought to send out the message that the decision was taken at the ministry level without clearance from the top. However, this was questioned not only by the journalists' fraternity but also officials privy to the overly centralised manner in which the Modi dispensation functions.

At least a dozen ministers had over the weekend built a chorus against "fake news'', using links to one particular website that claimed to have busted four major fake stories. Irani and junior I&B minister Rajyavardhan Rathore had tweeted the link on April 1 in the kind of orchestration that usually accompanies any major decision of the Modi government, which calibrates its messaging carefully.

Till the government decided to step back, Irani batted for the amended accreditation rules. Through Monday night and Tuesday morning, she was active on Twitter, countering criticism from the media and politicians, including senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel. She welcomed the debate and invited journalists' associations to suggest ways to fight the "menace of fake news'', in a case of putting the cart before the horse.

While the media welcomed the withdrawal of the press release, they went ahead with the protest action to warn the fraternity that this was just another attempt by the government to test the waters. Parallels were drawn with then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's Defamation Bill in 1988, which he had to drop in the face of joint action by the media.

This is the second time the Modi government has blinked on a media-related issue. The first was in November 2016 when the ministry put on hold its order to shut down NDTV India for a day in the face of a strong and united opposition by the media.

If there was one spin-off for the headlines-conscious-and-managing government from the furore, it was the success it got in shifting the narrative from the Dalit anger over the dilution of the Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and the CBSE paper leak.

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