The Bombay High Court on Tuesday directed the Centre to explain why it wants to amend the Information Technology Rules, 2021, to allow a government-notified fact-checking unit to tag Union government-related news as “fake news”, reported PTI.
The court passed the order on a plea challenging the constitutional validity of the amendments by stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra. It directed the Centre to file an affidavit stating its stand by April 19.
“Was there any factual background or reasoning that necessitated this amendment?” the court asked. “The petitioner [Kamra] is anticipating some kind of impact due to this amendment.”
On April 6, the Centre amended the 2021 Information Technology Rules to regulate online gaming and news relating to the Union government. The rules say that the Union Ministry of Information Technology will notify a fact-checking body with the power to tag any information “in respect of any business of the Central government” as “fake or false or misleading”.
In January, when the draft rules of the law were made public, it had specified that the fact-check unit of the Press Information Bureau, under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, or any other agency authorised by the Centre will have the power to tag news as “fake”.
However, the final amendments notified on Thursday do not refer to the Press Information Bureau’s fact-checking wing, which has faced criticism for putting its “fake news” stamp on statements that authorities themselves subsequently affirmed as being accurate.
The amendments could severely hurt news reporting and free speech on the internet, Scroll had reported earlier.
On April 7, the Editors Guild of India had also criticised the amendment saying that the government has given itself absolute power to determine what is fake or not. It had said that amendments will have “deeply adverse implications” for press freedom in the country and urged the Centre to withdraw it.
In his petition, Kamra said that he is a political satirist who relies on social media platforms to share his content, PTI reported.
He added that the new rules could potentially lead to his content being arbitrarily blocked or his social media accounts being suspended or deactivated.
During Tuesday’s hearing, advocate Navroz Seervai, appearing for Kamra, argued that the amendments violate free speech under Article 19 of the Constitution and will have a chilling effect, reported Bar and Bench.
“This amendment is against the interest of the public at large, but only in the interest of the government, ministers, and others in power,” Seervai submitted, according to PTI. “The amendment has no provision for a hearing or appeal. This is against the principles of natural justice.”
He also argued that the identification of what is fake and false news cannot be done by the government as it would amount to the government being a judge in its own cause.
Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh, appearing for the Union government, told the court that the amendments have not yet come into force and sought time to file the response, according to Bar and Bench.
The court will hear the case next on April 21.