The Indian Newspaper Society has said it is “deeply disturbed” by the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, that extend sweeping powers to the government to determine “fake news”.
“As per the newly notified rules, the ministry will enjoy the power to constitute a fact-checking unit, which will have sweeping powers to determine what is ‘fake or false or misleading’ with respect to ‘any business of the central government’. The said fact-checking unit will also have the power to issue instructions to intermediaries, including social media platforms, Internet service providers and other service providers, to not host such content and take out the content if it has been published,” the Indian Newspaper Society (INS) said in a statement signed by its secretary-general Mary Paul.
The INS feared that the amendment would give “absolute power” to the government or its designated agency “to determine what is fake or not... and order it to be taken down”.
“Such power is seen to be arbitrary, as it is exercised without hearing the parties, and thus a violation of all principles of natural justice and has the effect of the complainant acting as the judge,” the statement said.
“It is also to be noted that the so-called fact-checking unit can be constituted by the ministry through a simple notification published in the Official Gazette. The notified rules do not specify as to what would be the governing mechanism for such a fact-checking unit, what sort of judicial oversight would be available in the exercise of its powers, whether there would be the right to appeal and so on. All this, we are constrained to say, tantamounts to censorship of the press, and thus a violation of the principle of freedom of expression,” the INS said.
The INS reminded the IT ministry that it had promised to hold consultations with media organisations and media bodies after it withdrew draft amendments in January 2023 in the face of widespread criticism.
“It is a matter of regret that no attempt has been made by the ministry to hold any meaningful consultation with the stakeholders i.e. the media organisations or practitioners, before notifying this amendment. With the result that the new set of rules, notified on April 6, 2023, show hardly any significant improvement from the draft amendments putout in January 2023,” the INS said.
“...In adherence to the principles of natural justice and the guarantees of freedom of speech and expression enshrined in our Constitution, the Indian Newspaper Society urges the government to withdraw this notification and hold widespread and meaningful consultations with stakeholders such as media organisations and press bodies before coming out with any notification which would have serious implications on the profession of media and its credibility,” the INS said.