Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ordered the withdrawal of a move to crack down on journalists responsible for distributing fake news, a senior government official said on Tuesday.

“The prime minister has directed that the press statement regarding fake news be withdrawn and the matter be addressed in the Press Council of India,” a senior official in Modi’s office told Reuters. No reason was given.

The Information and Broadcasting Ministry had said the government would withdraw accreditation of journalists who peddle fake news.

Journalists and opposition parties had described the rules as an effort by Modi’s government to control the press ahead of a general election due by next year.

It was the latest move by a government in Asia to tackle fake news and comes after Malaysia approved a law prescribing up to six years imprisonment for such offences.

Journalists found guilty of writing or broadcasting fake news will have their government accreditation withdrawn for a limited period or permanently, depending on the frequency of violations, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry's statement said on Monday evening, citing increasing complaints about fake news.

Such accreditation is required by journalists to visit ministries and attend news conferences and seminars organised by government departments. Journalists use their accreditation cards to prove their identity at other news events.

The ministry had not defined “fake news” but said complaints about it in print would be referred for determination to the Press Council of India, with suspected cases on television going to the National Broadcasters Association.

The term “fake news” has in the past few months become part of the standard repertoire of leaders in several countries to describe media reports and organisations critical of them.

The Indian ministry did not mention digital media, although Smriti Irani, the information and broadcasting minister, had earlier said the government would try to frame rules for digital media too.

“What is (the) guarantee that these guidelines will check fake news?” opposition Congress party leader Ahmed Patel had asked in a tweet.

“Or is it an attempt to prevent genuine reporters from reporting news uncomfortable to the establishment?”

The government’s decision also set off alarm bells in Indian media organisations.

Shekhar Gupta, a former editor of the Indian Express newspaper, said it was “a breathtaking assault on mainstream media”, and urged journalists to resist it.

“This is an attack on the freedom of the press. The draconian order could be misused against genuine journalists,” said Gautam Lahiri, president of the Press Club of India.

“The government should immediately withdraw this order,” he said, adding that journalists would hold a protest later on Tuesday.