A journalist in Manipur, Paojel Chaoba, on Monday received a notice from the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state government under the recently notified Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. This is reportedly the first time that a notice has been issued under the new guidelines that the Centre announced on February 25.
The notice, according to Chaoba, was issued for an online discussion that was held and uploaded on the Facebook page of the organisation, The Frontier Manipur, on February 28. The discussion was on the new rules for digital media platforms, and titled “Media Under Siege: Are Journalists Walking a Tight Rope.”
“...it has come to the notice of the undersigned that you are providing online services on news and current affairs on social media platform through the Facebook page...,” the notice from Imphal West District Magistrate Naorem Praveen Singh read. “...you are directed to furnish all the relevant documents showing that you ensure compliance of the provisions...failing which steps as deemed fit shall be initiated without further notice.”
The notice was addressed to the “publisher/intermediary...Khanasi Neinasi” – the name of the online discussion.
However, a day after it was issued Singh told Scroll.in that it was withdrawn after “considering all the technicalities”.
The notice was likely withdrawn after Union Information and Broadcasting Secretary Amit Khare wrote to the Manipur Chief Secretary Rajesh Kumar. Khare stated that Part III of the new rules, under which the district magistrate issued the notice are to be administered only by the Union ministry of information and broadcasting.
“These powers have not been delegated to the State Governments/District Magistrates/Police Commissioner,” the letter said.
Chaoba, who is the The Frontier Manipur’s executive editor, was among the panellists along with independent journalist Grace Jajo, and columnist Ninglun Hanghal. The Frontier Manipur’s Associate Editor Kishorchandra Wangkhem hosted the event.
After receiving the notice, Chaoba questioned the reason behind it. “Who is the appellate officer who is overseeing the furnishing of information?” he told The News Minute. “Why is the magistrate sending notice? And if you are verifying information in general, do you send the police? Why do the police have to come and deliver this to our house? We are not breaking any laws. This shows we are being oppressed by the regime, we are being slapped with such notices. It is intimidation, systematic harassment and repression.”
The police in Manipur have charged several people, including journalists, under sedition in the last few years for their social media posts. The most well-known of these cases are the ones filed against Wangkhem. He was charged under the National Security Act, and with sedition in 2018 after he posted a Facebook video critical of Manipur Chief Minister Biren Singh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He spent over four months in jail.
In 2020, Wangkhem was charged with sedition again. This time, he spent more than two months in prison.
In January, Chaoba along with The Frontier Manipur’s Editor-in-Chief Sadokpam Dhiren were charged with sedition and arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for publication of an article that was a critical indictment of Manipur’s many armed groups who have waged an armed secessionist movement since the 1960s. Both of them were released on January 18.
New rules for digital media
On February 25, the government issued the new set of sweeping rules to regulate social media companies, streaming and digital news content that will virtually bring these platforms, for the first time, under the ambit of government supervision.
Last week, the Internet Freedom Foundation had said that the new rules could likely mean “government oversight and more censorship”. Meanwhile, DigiPub, an 11-member digital-only news association, has written to the Centre suggesting that the rules seem to “go against the fundamental principle of news and its role in a democracy”.
The Congress also criticised the new social media rules, saying they were “non-statutory” guidelines that the government was attempting to bring without the Parliament’s assent.