DigiPub News India Foundation, an 11-member digital-only news association, on Friday wrote to the Centre raising concerns about some provisions of the new rules to regulate social media companies, streaming platforms and digital news content.
The rules, issued by the government on Thursday, virtually bring any and every news website in the country under its ambit, and seeks to regulate them under a “Code Of Ethics And Procedure And Safeguards In Relation To Digital/Online Media”. The rules lay down a three-tier structure to ensure the new code of conduct is followed. This includes, self-regulation, “self-regulation by the self-regulating bodies” and an “oversight mechanism by the central government”.
In a letter addressed to Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, the association said that self regulation of all media, including those in the digital news space, was a welcome move, but pointed out that the rules in “some places appear to go against the fundamental principle of news and its role in a democracy”.
DigiPub pointed out Rule 14 of the new regulations which gives power to the government to remove content published as current affairs or news. The digital news body said that this could be in contravention to the right to expression of an author or publisher, as guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, as well as to the citizen’s right to be informed and to have access to differing viewpoints.
“For the executive to have the absolute power to regulate the content of news portals or publications would be to strike not only at the constitutional scheme but at democracy itself,” the letter stated.
The letter further mentioned a provision in the rules, which gives the government powers to charge news content with defamation. DigiPub held that such adjudications should only be carried out by courts of law.
“This entire legal process is bypassed by the rules, in as much as, upon a complaint of defamation, a body consisting of bureaucrats and controlled by the Central government may decide the merits and block access to the content of any current affairs publication,” the letter pointed out.
By observing that a current affairs portal was “by and large, a written newspaper in the digital format”, DigiPub said that with the setting up of the Press Council in the 1950s, the written medium has been kept away from executive interference to ensure the widest possible dissemination of news and ideas. It said that to subject digital medium to government control, as has been prescribed in the rules, will be “unfair and overarching”.
The letter further asserted that when the Information Technology Act, 2000 does not include digital news content within its ambit, there was no need for the new rules to do so. The letter made an appeal to the government to either repeal the new rules, or at least put them on hold till “meaningful consultations” are undertaken with all stakeholders.
Earlier on Thursday, the Internet Freedom Foundation pointed out, this could likely mean “government oversight and more censorship”.
‘News websites have to give details,’ says I&B secretary
Meanwhile on Friday, Information and Broadcasting Secretary Amit Khare said that digital news portals will soon be asked to provide details on their editorial head, ownership, address, and designated grievance officer, among other things, The Indian Express reported.
Khare said that the government does not have a complete picture on those involved with digital news websites. “If you log on to their websites, you won’t even find basic information on their office address or editor-in-chief,” he said, in an interview to The Indian Express.
Khare further said that while the Press Council of India governed the print medium, there was no such body for digital media.