In a strongly worded statement, the Brihnamumbai Union of Journalists (BUJ) has deplored the Union Government’s bald attempts to censor news and views on the internet. The statement has been issued by Indra Kumar Jain, General Secretary of the BUJ.
In a gazette notification issued on April 6, 2023, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) has brought in The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2023 which empowers a “fact-check unit” only controlled and filled with government nominees, to identify any “fake or false” news which must then be taken down by intermediaries, including social media companies and service providers. Intermediaries that fail to do so are at risk of losing the safe harbour given to them, provided they observed ‘due diligence’, as hosts of content by third parties under Section 79 of The IT Act, 2000.
This notification, says the statement, follows a convoluted and incomplete consultation process and it does not specify how the unit will be set up and who will be its members, thereby leaving a cloud of uncertainty and doubt over this entire exercise.
On January 2, 2023, the government had invited public comments on draft rules with respect to online gaming as well as an amendment relating to due diligence by an intermediary under the Rule 3(1)(b)(v) of the controversial Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. Writ Petitions challenging the Guidelines are pending before the Supreme Court of India.
Just before the January 17, 2023 deadline for comments, the Government came out with an amendment to the Draft Rules which set out that intermediaries were to remove any news that was deemed to be fake or false by a fact-check unit of the Press Information Bureau (PIB). Now, the notification replaces the PIB with a “fact-check unit”.
The BUJ has in the statement issued today, April 11, asserted that such attempts constitute an unacceptable degree of interference in online content and spawn even more scrutiny, regulation and censorship of any information that the government arbitrarily deems is false, fake or misleading. None of these terms have been defined satisfactorily and there are numerous examples of verified news erroneously designated as fake by the Press Information Bureau (PIB) working under the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB).
Acknowledging that fake news is a genuine global problem, the BUJ however states that the organisation has scant confidence in this government’s efforts to tackle it, given its own track record in this sphere. Already, the present Indian government is amongst the national governments that send the highest number of take-down requests to social media platforms. The blocking of the BBC documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s handling of the 2002 violence when he was Gujarat Chief Minister; raids on dissenting media houses and the invoking of draconian laws against journalists send out a clear message that independent and critical voices will face punitive action from this regime.
The BUJ, records the statement, believes that free, frank and fearless dissemination and exchange of news and views is crucial for a democracy. In the 75 years of our independence, self-regulation has been the key principle in the government’s relationship with the media. The current trend of debunking, discrediting and criminalising dissenting voices is ominous. Added to this is the government’s stamp over the veracity of news. The “fact check unit” is one more nail in the coffin of meaningful democracy.
Meanwhile, the Bombay High Court was approached by stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra represented by senior advocate Navroz Seervai on the issue. Kamra has challenged the new amendment to the IT Rules empowering the Union Government to identify “Fake News” about itself in the social media. The matter came up before the court today, notice has been issued and the union directed to file a reply by April 19 after which the matter will be heard on April 21. Today, counsel for the petitioner submitted that certain amendments need to be made to the petition, one provision additionally needs to be challenged and a prayer needs to be added. This was permitted by the court.
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