The Central government on Wednesday notified a fact-checking body under the Press Information Bureau that has the power to flag any information about the Union government and its workings as “fake”.

This came hours after stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra and the Editors Guild of India moved the Supreme Court seeking an interim stay on the formation of the fact-checking unit, reported Live Law.

The petitioners have argued that the formation of such a unit will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and expression in the country.

The Supreme Court will hear the matter on Thursday.

In April last year, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology amended the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, to regulate news that pertains to the Union government, in addition to online gaming.

The rules said that the ministry would 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”.

Intermediaries, which include social media platforms, e-commerce companies and web-hosting services, will then be obligated to ensure that no user hosts, displays or shares such information if they want to enjoy the safe harbour privilege, which protects social media intermediaries from legal action for content posted online by their users.

According to the 2023 amendments to the Information Technology Rules, if a court or the government notifies an intermediary that certain “fake news” has been hosted on their platforms, the intermediaries will have to then take down the content within 36 hours.

The amended rules had attracted criticism from several quarters, with the Editors Guild of India saying that it was “deeply disturbed” by them.

“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 [of the content],” the association had said in a statement.

The guild had said that the amendments will have “deeply adverse implications” for press freedom in the country.

Digital rights organisation Internet Freedom Foundation had said the amendment would “cement the chilling effects on the fundamental right to speech and expression, particularly on news publishers, journalists [and] activists”. It also pointed out that the words “fake or false or misleading” are undefined and vague.

Amendment challenged in High Court

The amendments to these rules were challenged in the Bombay High Court last year by Kamra, the Editors Guild of India, the Association of Indian Magazines and the News Broadcast and Digital Association.

In his petition, Kamra argued that the identification of what is “fake and false news” cannot be left to the Centre as this would amount to the government becoming a judge in its own cause.

The Editors Guild of India contended that this provision violates the Information Technology Act, 2000, as well as the right to freedom of speech and expression under the Constitution.

The press body’s petition said that the presence of such a fact-checking will “obliterate the publisher’s freedom to publish and citizen’s right to access such information”.

On March 13, the High Court rejected an application seeking a stay on the formation of a fact-checking unit under the Press Information Bureau.

Also read: Explained: How the Centre’s amendments to IT Rules will throttle press freedom