The Bombay High Court on Friday asked the Centre what was the need to introduce the recently-notified Information Technology rules without superseding the existing IT legislation that is in effect since 2009, reported Bar and Bench.
The High Court reserved its verdict on pleas filed by digital news website Leaflet and journalist Nikhil Mangesh Wagle, seeking an interim stay on the new IT rules till their petitions are decided.
On February 25, the Centre notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, under the Information Technology Act, 2000. The rules, which were enforced from May, regulate social media companies, streaming and digital news content, virtually bringing them, for the first time, under the ambit of government supervision.
Media outlets have argued that the rules will allow the government to directly control their content.
The petitioners in the case before the Bombay High Court have argued that new IT rules are in contradiction to the fundamental rights under Articles 14 (equality before law), 19 (freedom of speech and expression) and 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) of the Indian Constitution.
The petitioners have also contended that the new guidelines unlawfully give judicial powers to the Executive.
One of the provisions of the IT rules for digital news media and video streaming platforms says that a self-regulatory body and an inter-departmental committee have been provided with wide-ranging punitive powers over digital news media and over-the-top platforms, including the power to warn/censure/admonish/reprimand the publisher, require a warning card or disclaimer, require an apology, reclassify ratings, or even censor the content as it deems fit and recommend action under Section 69A of the IT Act.
During the hearing, the High Court observed that it was inclined to grant interim relief to both the petitioners on the provision of the IT rules related to adhering to a code of ethics, reported PTI.
Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh, appearing for the Centre, contended that even the Press Council of India, a self-regulatory watchdog of the media, has a code of ethics that journalists need to follow. To this, the bench pointed out that the guidelines by the Press Council of India were advisory in nature and did not carry any serious punishment for breaching them.
The High Court further asked Singh if people were liable for action if they have published some content that may not adhere to the journalistic code of conduct but at the same time do not violate the freedom of speech and expression, reported Live Law.
To this, the additional solicitor general said that there is a possibility of misuse but it can be contained and argued the IT rules do not need to be struck down for it as they have been framed in the larger public interest.
Senior Advocate Darius Khambata, representing The Leaflet, told the High Court that the new rules were in violation of the right to freedom of speech as it made publishers to justify their writing, which may not reflect both sides of an argument.
“In a constitutional democracy, that right to be wrong or inaccurate, to speak freely is important. It is an assault on the democracy,” Khambata added.
After hearing both sides of the arguments, the High Court said it will pronounce the verdict on Saturday at 5.30 pm.