At least 2100 digital news media publishers and OTT platforms furnished their details to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), despite the Bombay High Court’s stay on certain rules of the much-criticised IT Rules 2021. This was revealed in a reply to an RTI query filed by Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF).
Under Rule 18 of the IT Rules 2021, publishers of news and current affairs content, and online curated content are required to inform the MIB about their entities and furnish information. This Rule is pursuant to a 3-tier structure established by the IT Rules, and a Code of Ethics contained within the IT Rules. However, the Bombay High Court on 14 August 2021 and the Madras High Court on 16 September 2021 have stayed the operation of this 3-tier structure and the Code of Ethics.
Journalist bodies and digital rights groups have been alleging that the IT Rules 2021 have serious implications on the independence of news media and press freedom in the country.
IFF filed an RTI Application to find out whether the Ministry has indeed issued such notices and to which publishers. The Union government has admitted that it has indeed issued two such notices and that more than two thousand publishers have responded to these notices.
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting admitted that it did issue such notices – on 26 May 2021, and again on 9 September 2021.
The second notice dated 9 September 2021 was issued after the Bombay High Court’s stay on certain rules of the IT Rules 2021, which conferred authority on the MIB to regulate digital news media.
When asked how many of these 2100 publishers furnished their details after 14 August 2021, the MIB refused to provide the data stating that this information does not exist at all, Internet Freedom Foundation said.
The Bombay High Court, in its order had found that Rule 9(1) prima facie violates the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and expression conferred by Article 19(1)(a) and that the Code of Ethics in the IT Rules had tried to exalt the Norms of Journalistic Conduct (which have a moral sanction, but not statutory obligations) to the status of mandatory compliance.
“For understandable reasons, the petitioners are wary of the oversight mechanism of the Central Government indicated as the final tier of the process of regulation. Prima facie, there is substance in the petitioners’ grievance that an oversight mechanism to control the media by the government may rob the media of its independence and the fourth pillar, so to say, of democracy may not at all be there,” read The Chief Justice of the Madras High Court’s order.
“It is surprising that the MIB has ignored these judgments of constitutional courts, and issued a notice on 09.09.2021, requiring digital news publications to furnish their details,” said IFF.
“Some of our requests for information were denied, refused or flat out ignored, such as our question regarding how many publishers furnished their information after the Bombay High Court’s order. Other than this, we also sought a list of publishers to whom these notices were issued, and a list of publishers who responded to this notice with their details. Not only were reasons not provided for MIB’s refusal to provide these lists, but the MIB did not even explicitly refuse to provide these lists – the MIB simply ignored those parts of our questions!,” IFF said.
In June last year, experts at United Nations Office of the Human Rights Commissioner had said in a communication sent to the Indian government that it is concerned that Indias Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, in their current form, do not conform with international human rights norms.
“As noted in previous communications sent to your Excellency’s Government, we are concerned that these new rules come at a time of a global pandemic and of large-scale farmer protests in the country, where the enjoyment of the freedom of opinion and expression, including the right to receive information, and the right to privacy, is particularly important for the realization of several other civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights,” read the letter which is authored by Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and Joseph Cannataci, Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy.
According to the UN letter, India’s new IT Rules are in violation of rules laid down in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a key international human rights treaty.
“removing content that may “mislead” and cause “any” injury to a person is excessively broad. As social media intermediaries deal with a huge amount of content, a rigorous definition of the restriction of freedom of expression is critical for them to protect speeches that are legitimate under international law, such as the expression of dissenting views. A sufficiently precise definition is essential to prevent the possibility that legitimate expressions is taken down on political or other unjustified grounds. It will ensure that the new rules do not have a chilling effect on independent media reporting,” read the letter.
Meanwhile, in response to the UN letter, the Union government told the international organisation that the IT rules are “designed to empower ordinary users of social media” and that the government had held broad consultations with civil society and other stakeholders in 2018.