The Centre has decided to set up a “fact-check body” that will flag false information posted online about the Union government, The Indian Express reported on Friday.
Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook and other intermediaries will have to take down any information marked as “fake or misleading” by the body if they want to retain the “safe harbour” protections, which provide legal immunity to them against content uploaded by their users.
On Thursday, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology notified amendments to the Information Technology Rules, 2021.
In January, the ministry had published draft rules that said intermediaries will have to remove any post that is tagged as “fake news” by the Press Information Bureau or any other agency authorised for fact-checking by the government.
But the amendment has removed the reference to the Press Information Bureau.
The Union government’s information dissemination wing has on several occasions faced criticism for putting its “fake news” stamp on statements that authorities themselves subsequently affirmed as being accurate. The Press Information Bureau has also faced criticism for merely issuing denials to news articles critical of the government, rather than fact-checking how the claims are false.
On Thursday, Union minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar promised that the upcoming government organisation that will fact-check content will work in a credible manner, The Indian Express reported.
“When we notify the agency, we will certainly be very clear that any doubts in the mind of people that the power will be misused on behalf of the government will be addressed,” the minister of state for electronics and information technology added. “There will be a list of dos’ and don’ts that it will have to adhere to.”
Chandrasekhar also told The Times of India in an interview that the government will create the fact-check unit within the Press Information Bureau and these measures are meant to prevent amplification of misinformation.
“The media and journalists should never be concerned about this because the rules say that the rights under Article 19 [that guarantees freedom of speech] should never be infringed upon by the government or the platforms,” he added. “These obligations are directly cast on the intermediaries and not the media who are anyways regulated by other laws, including defamation.”
The Editors Guild of India, however, said it is “deeply disturbed” by the amendments and urged the IT ministry to withdraw the notification.
“In effect, the government has given itself absolute power to determine what is fake or not, in respect of its own work, and order take down,” the association said in a statement.
The Guild said the amendments will have “deeply adverse implications” for press freedom in the country.
“There is no mention of what will be the governing mechanism for such a fact checking unit, the judicial oversight, the right to appeal, or adherence to the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court of India in Shreya Singhal v Union of India case, with respect to take down of content or blocking of social media handles,” the statement said. “All this is against principles of natural justice, and akin to censorship.”
The Editors Guild of India said it is surprising that the IT ministry notified these amendments without consulting media organisations and press bodies, which it had promised to do after the proposed changes in January caused an uproar.
Digital rights body Internet Freedom Foundation also raised concerns, saying that assigning any unit of the government such “arbitrary [and] overbroad powers” to determine what is correct “bypasses the principles of natural justice”.
The amendments allow the government to bypass Section 69A process for blocking content, the body added in a statement. “The notification of these amended rules cement the chilling effect on the fundamental right to speech and expression, particularly on news publishers, journalists, activists, etc,” the statement said.