Last week the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government in Tamil Nadu, in a contentious move, announced the setting up of a state-level unit for fact-checking online information.
The whole process to set up the Fact-Check Unit (FCU), which will come under the Special Programme Implementation Department headed by Chief Minister's son Udhyanidhi Stalin, is already copping criticism for being opaque and partisan.
While the unit will be under the watch of the Special Programme Implementation Department, the government order announcing the details of the FCU and its operation has been issued by the State Information Department. This anomaly aside, the glaring aspect of the putative FCU is the appointment of Iyan Karthikeyan as its Mission Director.
Karthikeyan’s claim to journalistic credentials, if that is the word, is that he had headed a YouTube channel called Youturn.in. But it is no secret in journalistic and social media circles that he is a DMK man and operated as an extended arm of the party's IT wing.
Who were the other contenders for the job and what clinched Iyan Karthikeyan this powerful post, with a hefty salary of Rs 3 lakh, are all things that are mired in a cloak of secrecy.
That he himself announced, through a tweet, that he has been appointed as the head of the FCU was bizarre but quite revealing of how things are proceeding.
"I am appointed as Mission Director for the Fact check unit under the administration of SPI, Tamil Nadu," Karthikeyan wrote in his post.
Journalists who tried to reach him for further comments have said that he was unavailable. Well, you could say that journalists couldn’t carry out their fact-check.
Tamil Nadu Exchequer To Pay Dearly For These Fact-Checkers
Karthikeyan will have 80 staff members to work under him, and the central task force of the FCU will function from Kalaivanar Arangam in Chennai.
That such a big team is being lined up has also triggered allegations that this is a backdoor method to offer official jobs to those who are in the payroll of the all-powerful DMK IT wing.
Almost as if adding credence to unsavoury allegations, is the fact that the FCU has been allocated a substantial amount for expenses.
The government order said that the FCU was being set up with an initial investment of Rs 1.42 crore, and an annual expenditure of Rs 3.55 crore has been sanctioned for the unit. If you have been in journalism you will know that it is indeed a huge outlay for a mere fact-check unit.
The controversy-ridden announcement of the setting up of the FCU and its chief is already under fire. The DMK's arch-rival, the AIADMK, has already moved the courts, stating that the government order setting up the unit was unconstitutional.
The plea, moved by the joint secretary of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)’s Information Technology department R Nirmal Kumar, also sought a stay on FCU's Mission Director from continuing work and alleged that the ruling party had appointed a party sympathiser as the unit head.
The plea's argument is that the government lacked the authority to set up the unit outside the police department’s existing censorship framework.
The AIADMK plea recalled that in another case filed in 2020, the Madras High Court had directed the state DGP to constitute 'special cells' across police stations to crack down on misleading and mendacious social media posts about 'Constitutional functionaries and other dignitaries'.
As it happened, the police had confirmed that the said cells had been set up, following which the High Court had closed the case earlier this year.
If indeed this is the case, why this FCU now, with such untrammeled powers and huge budget?
Aside from the politics of it, what is of major concern to journalists is the fact that the FCU can take suo moto cognisance of any information, on any media platform, related to the government for fact-checking or acting on complaints from various sources.
When a similar set-up was mooted in the the union government’s Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, journalist organisations were up in arms as they saw it as an attempt to curb media freedom.
DIGIPUB, And The Joke That It Is
Even though the centre's attempt was merely part of a 'draft amendment' to the Information Technology Rules, 2021, journalists saw red.
DIGIPUB News India Foundation, which comprises 11 digital news outlets, was the most vocal:
"The proposed amendments can potentially become a convenient institutional mechanism to muzzle the press," it thundered then. "The media (electronic, print and digital), information activists, civil society, etc. are equally invested in a democracy’s wellbeing and in upholding constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and expression. Therefore, the government should not appropriate powers to legitimise what information/news is real or fake," it said.
If DIGIPUB were this voluble to a draft amendment, imagine how strong and strident it would be in its opposition to a move which has already setup such a unit, that is fully vested with draconian powers, that it was so worried about.
Here comes the plot twist: The DIGIPUB, with its self-anointed feeling of guardian angel of news websites, has reacted with loud silence to the DMK government's move so far. In a sense, it is also not surprising to those who have been witness to the state of media in Tamil Nadu.
The plenipotentiaries of the DIGIPUB are widely alleged to be sympathetic to the DMK. News outlets that are part of DIGIPUB are known to treat the Dravidian government's repeated overreach with kid gloves.
One journalist who was till now part of a news outlet (which drives the DIGIPUB) has joined a powerful DMK Minister as an officer on special duty.
Such is the symbiotic relationship as they exist between some of these journalists and the DMK. So to expect DIGIPUB to call out the DMK government's excesses is not backed by reality. In any case, DIGIPUB, in a sense, is the equivalent of a whippersnapper, typically presumptuous and overconfident of its own self.
But why have bodies like the Editor's Guild sealed their lips?
The Guild had in the month of August voiced concern over the Karnataka government’s proposed fact-checking unit. The Guild said the efforts to check fake content have to be by independent bodies that are not under the sole purview of the government, lest they become tools to clamp down on voices of dissent.
But when such a governmental unit is all ready to go functional in Tamil Nadu, none of these organisations are out with their signed statements of protest. Whither media freedom?
It is also revealing of why no one is attaching any amount of seriousness to bodies like DIGIPUB.
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