File photo of Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar | PTI
File photo of Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar | PTI
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Chandigarh: Fatehabad has joined half a dozen other districts in Haryana in banning hyperlocal news channels on social media, looking to “protect” the mental health of people from being affected due to dissemination of “unverified” and “misleading” Covid-19 information.

Earlier this week, the Fatehabad district administration issued orders under the Epidemic Diseases Act to completely ban news channels on social media from dissemination of information, said the order, which has been accessed by the ThePrint.

The decision came as some channels allegedly shared false information about Covid patients and the spread of the disease in these districts.

The first of these orders were issued in May in Charkhi Dadri, followed by Bhiwani, Narnaul, Karnal, Sonipat and Kaithal.

However, the affected journalists allege that the move is a clear attempt by the Manohar Lal Khattar government to target the independence of press.

Karnal journalists took up the issue with Khattar last week. While the CM assured that a policy will soon be formulated to regulate the working of news portals and social media channels, no district was asked to withdraw the ban, said sources.

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What the government says

The deputy commissioner of Charkhi Dadri was the first to issue an order banning these outlets on 12 May. The order said several persons were involved dissemination of news on social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, Telegram and LinkedIn, etc. It said their work amounted to “journalistic activity” subject to certain norms and requirements.

None of these channels were authorised to disseminate news and the possibility of intentionally or unintentionally carrying false news remained, the order said, adding that since there was no mechanism to enforce accountability, the administration is banning them from these activities.

Other districts followed suit, with deputy commissioners issuing similarly worded orders.

One of the deputy commissioners who issued on such order said the administration was getting information that unqualified and “sometimes even uneducated persons” were moving around as self-proclaimed journalists armed with only a mobile.

“They went to the houses of Covid patients and started showing all kinds of new stories on their YouTube channels and Facebook pages. On one occasion, one YouTuber went to a wrong house and declared a normal family as Covid positive,” said the official, who didn’t wish to be named.

The official said the order aimed to stop such “rumour mongering”.

A senior official of Haryana public relations department said no media house was named in the ban orders, adding that the aim was to allow the administration to take necessary action if rumours are spread in the name of dissemination of news.

P.C. Meena, Director, Public Relations, Haryana, said a policy for social media news channels is being formulated and will be finalised after consultation with all the stakeholders, including social media journalists.

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What the journalists say

Haryana Patrakar Sangh president K.B. Pandit said the deputy commissioners issued a blanket ban instead of initiating action against those specific persons who had acted irresponsibly.

“The fact is that social media channels have been very active in highlighting the various flaws in the activities of the government and that is why such orders have been issued,” he said.

Somesh Dhaka, who runs the VTS Live channel on YouTube from Charkhi Dadri, said the district deputy commissioner was told that social media channels were giving wrong information about Covid patients.

“That gave the deputy commissioner an opportunity to interfere in our working and issued the ban orders. It was most unfair because most of us were working ethically and giving the correct information to the public,” said Dhaka.

Yogesh Sood, who runs the Surya News page on Facebook from Sonipat, said the order is to ensure that the media is “under the control of the administration”.

Other journalists running hyperlocal outlets said even if they wish to register themselves with the competent authority, there was no policy under which they could.

Dhaka said his channel is already registered. “We were told that the policy of the government is going to be released soon regarding social media channels, but nothing has come out,” he said.

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