The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology on Wednesday suggested that the Union government should set up a council to check irregularities in print, digital and electronic media, PTI reported.

In a report submitted in the Parliament, the committee led by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said the efficacy of the existing regulatory organisations was limited.

The parliamentary panel said that the Press Council of India, which governs print media, can rebuke newspapers and news agencies, but its advisories are not enforceable in a court, PTI reported.

In case of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, its regulatory powers apply only to the organisations that are members of the News Broadcasters’ Association, the panel led by Tharoor said. The panel added that the broadcasting authority’s efficacy “depends on voluntary compliance with its orders”.

The parliamentary panel observed that media, which was once the “most trusted weapon in the hands of the citizenry”, is slowly losing its integrity and credibility.

“In view of the above, the MIB [Ministry of Information and Broadcasting] should explore the possibility of establishing a wider Media Council encompassing not just the print media but the electronic and digital media as well, and equip it with statutory powers to enforce its orders where required,” the parliamentary panel said.

It added that with statutory powers, the Media Council would be able to take measures to “check irregularities, ensure freedom of speech and professionalism, and maintain the highest ethical standards and credibility”. The panel said these were critical for the media, which is the fourth pillar of democracy.

The panel also recommended that a Media Commission should be set up. It would be comprised of experts for consultations on establishing the Media Council.

The parliamentary committee said the commission should look into matters related to the media and submit a report to it within six months of its formation, PTI reported.

The parliamentary panel said it was concerned about the “disturbing trend” of fake news. It said that the Ministry of Law and Justice should soon put into effect the Law Commission’s recommendation to make paid news an electoral offence.

The standing committee said in its report that it hopes the new digital media rules “will go a long way in regulating digital media content”, The Indian Express reported.

The government had in February introduced the Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules. The sweeping set of regulations for social media companies, streaming and digital news content virtually brought them under the ambit of government supervision for the first time.

The guidelines require social media platforms to set up a three-tier framework for redressing grievances. The platforms will also have to provide details about the origin of a tweet or a message on being asked by either a court or a government authority.

For digital news media and video streaming platforms, a self-regulatory body and an inter-departmental committee have been provided with wide-ranging punitive powers to “warn/censure/admonish/reprimand the publisher” or even censor content as they deem fit.

Several media outlets have challenged the new rules in courts. They have argued that the guidelines will allow the government to directly control their content.

No check on internet shutdowns

The parliamentary panel led by Tharoor observed that there were no checks on internet shutdowns in the country and suggested that the Centre should analyse whether they even work, the Hindustan Times reported.

The committee observed that there were no clear definitions of “public safety” and “public emergency”, which the Centre and states use as grounds to suspend internet services, according to The Indian Express.

“The result is that even though internet shutdown can be ordered strictly on grounds of ‘Public Emergency’ and ‘Public Safety’, it is reported that Governments have resorted to telecom/internet shutdown on grounds not so pressing and have been regularly using this as a tool for routine policing and even administrative purposes,” the committee said.

The Ministry of Home Affairs, in its reply to the panel, said that “public emergency” has not been defined under Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act but “contours broadly delineating its scope and features are discernible from the section”.

“[An] appropriate authority has to form an opinion with regard to the occurrence of a public emergency with a view to taking further action under this section,” the ministry said.

The panel suggested that the Centre come up with a system to decide on the “merit or appropriateness of telecom/internet shutdowns”, The Indian Express reported.