As the first Parliament session under the new National Democratic Alliance government gets underway on Monday, some observers have suggested that the compulsions of working with coalition partners will act as a safeguard against the Bharatiya Janata Party bulldozing bills through the Houses. While the BJP has emerged as the largest party in the Lok Sabha, it failed to win a majority and will have to secure the consensus of its partners to govern.

However, this will do little to blunt the edge of several contentious laws that cast a shadow on free speech and press freedom that have already been passed by the BJP government in recent years.

Contentious laws

Among these legislations is the new Press and Registration of Periodicals Act, which came into force on March 1 just before the elections. The Act has been criticised by news associations for widening the powers of the state to allow for more arbitrary, intrusive checks on the functioning of newspapers and magazines.

The law empowers the Press Registrar, as well as any other “specified authority”, to enter the premises of a periodical to “inspect or take copies of the relevant records or documents or ask any questions necessary for obtaining any information required to be furnished”.

The government is also pushing ahead with the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2023. This allows the Centre to set up a fact-checking body with the power to label any information about the Union government and its workings as “fake or false or misleading”.

In March, the Supreme Court in March stayed the Centre’s notification forming the fact-checking unit. It noted that the constitutional validity of some provisions of the rules had been challenged in the Bombay High Court and halted their implementation pending the final resolution of the petitions.

According to the rules, if a court or the government notifies an intermediary (which includes social media companies and web-hosting services) that something labelled “fake news” has been hosted on their platforms, they will be required to take down the content within 36 hours. If they do not comply, they would lose the safe harbour privilege that protects intermediaries from legal action for content posted by their users.

In effect, this allows the government to completely block access to any piece of news tagged as fake by ordering internet service providers, social media companies and search engines to remove it, critics say.

This would hamper unbiased reporting, lead to self-censorship in the media and severely hurt news reporting and free speech, experts had told Scroll earlier.

Rules awaited for controversial legislations

In August, Parliament passed the controversial Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2023. The rules under the new Act are a top priority and will be released for consultation soon, the Hindustan Times quoted Union information technology minister Ashwini Vaishnaw as saying on June 15.

When the legislation was passed, experts warned that it could force journalists to reveal their sources to the government and enable the authorities to censor news stories on vague grounds.

The law says that if a journalist or a news organisation has been penalised monetarily for violating any provisions as a data fiduciary on at least two previous occasions, the government can block the content of the journalist or the news organisation from public access “in the interests of the general public”.

A “data fiduciary”, according to the Act, is any entity that processes personal data. They are the subject of most of the obligations imposed by the Act.

In addition, activists and experts have told Scroll that they fear the law undermines the Right to Information Act as all personal information can now be denied under the new Act.

The Editors Guild of India noted in February that some of the earlier iterations of the draft legislation had exempted data processing for journalistic purposes from complying with most of the provisions in those versions, including the obligation to provide notice and obtain consent.

But now, the lack of exemptions for journalistic activities in the new Act will bring journalism in the country to a standstill, the Guild said. Journalists will have to rely on consent to process any personal data in the course of their journalistic activities, the guild added.

Another object of contention is the Telecommunication Act, 2023, which was passed in December. The Act governs telecommunication services and networks in India.

It has generated concern, particularly regarding the Union government’s expanded powers and its potential adverse impact on internet freedom. The new legislation continues colonial-era surveillance and control of telecom services without any safeguards, digital and media rights experts say.

Further, the legislation has ambiguous definitions about what constitutes telecom services, digital rights experts told Scroll in December. As a result, it could potentially be extended to cover online communication services such as emails and messaging platforms that are traditionally not considered telecom services.

Critics also argued that the legislation provides no checks on the government’s powers, including on matters such as internet shutdowns.

The Act will partially take effect on Tuesday and the Department of Telecom’s focus will be on notifying the remaining rules within the next three months, according to reports.

What comes next

Besides these laws being rolled out, the Centre is expected to push ahead in Parliament with the new Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, which seeks to create a consolidated legal framework for India’s broadcast sector.

The inclusion in the draft bill of digital news published by individuals under the regulatory ambit raises concerns for online free speech and the freedom of journalistic expression, experts told Scroll in December. The bill also gives the government a tool to censor content broadcast by over-the-top content platforms such as Netflix, they said.

Further, the definition of news and current affairs programmes in the bill is also vague enough to extend to content creators that may not fit the traditional notion of broadcasters, according to experts. Therefore, independent YouTube journalists, news analysts and digital news websites would come within the ambit of this definition.

The bill provides for penalties ranging from censorship of content to the broadcaster being kept off-air for some hours or days, in addition to a fine, if there is a failure to comply with its provisions. Repeated non-compliance could lead to cancellation of the broadcaster’s registration.

It is unclear if the bill will be introduced in Parliament during the first session between June 24 and July 3 or during the Budget Session a couple of weeks later.

But the ministry has already sought to inform tech companies and social media platforms of their new proposal to bring user-generated content on the internet put out by “professionals” within the ambit of the proposed legislation, The Hindu Business Line quoted unidentified officials as saying on June 17.

Some social media users view this as an attempt by the government to control independent YouTubers such as Dhruv Rathee and journalist-run channels such as that of Ravish Kumar.

On May 28, Indian news associations and digital rights organisations passed a resolution urging the government to withdraw some of these legislations that they said are “aimed at curbing” press freedom.

Also read: A decade under Modi: Terror laws against journalists, creeping digital censorship