The Centre on Thursday told the Bombay High Court that a proposed fact-checking body with the power to tag any information about the Central government as “fake, false or misleading” will not be notified till July 5, Live Law reported.
A bench of Justices GS Patel and Neela Gokhale was hearing a petition by stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra challenging the constitutional validity of the new amendment to the Information Technology Rules. The amendment, notified on April 6, regulates online gaming and news related to the Union government.
Kamra argues that the amendment violates free speech under Article 19 of the Constitution and will have a chilling effect on the citizens. In his plea, he told the court that the identification of what is fake and false news cannot be done by the Centre as it would amount to the government being a judge in its own cause.
Several civil society organisations have also expressed concern about the potential misuse of the provision pertaining to the government-notified fact-check unit. The Editors Guild of India has described the move as draconian and akin to censorship.
However, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Central government maintains that false and misleading information could adversely damage electoral democracy, the economy and the social fabric of the country in many ways.
It justified the fact-checking unit saying that most of the news shared on social media in India is produced by common users who do not have the means to verify the information.
During Thursday’s hearing, Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh urged the court to list the case on June 8.
Senior Advocate Darius Khambata, representing Kamra, opposed the adjournment saying that once the notification is published it will apply to the content retrospectively, reported The Indian Express.
“If he [Singh] is being so fair to say that the fact-checking unit won’t be notified till June he should also say it will apply prospectively,” Khambata said.
The bench, however, said that it does not find any reason to immediately hear the plea seeking a stay on the amended rules and agreed to Singh’s demand, according to Bar and Bench.
“The rule will not be operable for the fact-checking unit till it is notified,” the court said in its order. “Even if the matter is heard for ad-interim, it will require a full hearing, covering all ground and that is likely to be heard for final disposal. We do not see why the same material has to be heard twice when it can be disposed of at the stage of admission .”
The court also allowed Kamra to amend his petition by May 2 to challenge the Centre’s competence to amend the rules.