The Editors Guild of India on Wednesday urged the Centre to remove its proposed amendment that would require online platforms to take down any content identified as fake by the Press Information Bureau or any other agency authorised for fact-checking by the government.
The draft proposal was introduced on Tuesday by the Union information technology ministry as an amendment to the Information Technology Rules, 2021.
In a statement on Wednesday, the Editors Guild raised concerns about the move, saying that banning news identified as fake only by the government will result in the censorship of the press.
“Already multiple laws exist to deal with content that is found to be factually incorrect,” the press body said. “This new procedure basically serves to make it easier to muzzle the free press…to force online intermediaries to take down content that the government may find problematic.”
The Guild urged the Union information technology ministry to initiate consultations with press bodies, media organisations and other stakeholders on the regulatory framework for digital media, to not undermine press freedom in the country.
“This [amendment] will stifle legitimate criticism of the government and will have an adverse impact on the ability of the press to hold governments to account, which is a vital role it plays in a democracy,” the statement added.
The government has been in a tussle with social media platforms over the last couple of years after they refused to follow orders that certain content or accounts be taken down for allegedly spreading misinformation.
The Press Information Bureau’s fact-checking unit was set up in 2019. It has frequently faced criticism for merely issuing denials to news articles critical of the government, rather than fact-checking how the claims are false.
In April 2020, the Caravan had alleged that a national task force on Covid-19 had not met even once in the week before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the second lockdown due to the disease. The fact-checking unit had termed the report as false and baseless.
Reporter Vidya Krishnan had subsequently urged the PIB to share minutes of the task force’s meeting to back up its claims. However, she told Newslaundry that she did not receive the minutes.
On December 16, 2020, the PIB had claimed that an Intelligence Bureau recruitment circular that was being shared online was fake. However, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting said on the next day that the circular was genuine.
The PIB later deleted its tweet.
In June 2020, the PIB fact-checking unit had claimed that reports about a directive from the Uttar Pradesh Special Task Force directing its personnel to delete 52 Chinese applications from their phones for security reasons were false.
However, the Special Task Force’s Inspector General Amitabh Yash had told Alt News that the advisory was genuine.
On June 29, India banned 59 Chinese apps citing threats to national security and sovereignty. The ban came after tensions on the border between New Delhi and Beijing rose, leading to the deaths of at least 20 Indian soldiers during a “violent face-off” with Chinese troops along the Line of Actual Control.