The Supreme Court on Thursday stayed the Centre’s notification of a fact-checking unit under the Press Information Bureau that has the power to flag any information about the Union government and its workings as “fake”, Live Law reported.

The notification has been stayed till the Bombay High Court passes a final order on the petitions challenging the validity of the fact-check unit.

The High Court is hearing petitions filed by stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra, the Editors Guild of India and the Association of Indian Magazines.

They have challenged the validity of amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2023, which gave the Centre the power to set up a fact-checking unit.

On March 13, the High Court rejected an application seeking a stay on the formation of a fact-checking unit. A division bench of Justices Gautam S Patel and Neela Gokhale pronounced the interim order after Justice AS Chandurkar on March 11 refused to stay the formation of the fact-checking unit saying that prima facie, no case was made out to not notify the setting up of the body.

The Centre had notified the fact-check unit on Wednesday.

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.

In April 2023, the Centre had argued in an affidavit before the Bombay High Court that false and misleading information can adversely damage electoral democracy, the economy and the social fabric of the country in many ways.

The Centre had told the court that the rules do not prohibit expression of opinion or critical analyses against the government.

The content flagged by the fact-checking unit to an intermediary such as Facebook and Instagram will not be removed automatically, the Centre submitted before the court. The intermediary has a choice to either remove it right away or add a disclaimer that the content has been flagged, Bar and Bench quoted Solicitor General Tushar Mehta as having said.

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.

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