The Editors Guild of India on Monday said it has asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to pause the implementation of the new rules to regulate digital media. The association urged the government to consult all the stakeholders in the matter.

On February 25, the Centre notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, under the Information Technology Act, 2000. The rules are framed to regulate social media companies, streaming and digital news content, virtually bringing them, for the first time, under the ambit of government supervision.

Online platforms will now have to be much more responsive to complaints about posts on their networks, including giving the government details about the “originator” of content – effectively breaking end-to-end encryption – as well as setting up verification systems that could have a major impact on individual privacy.

The Editors Guild said it had written to Modi and the Union ministers on March 6, expressing concern about the guidelines. However, they have not received any response from the government yet.

In its letter to Modi, the association said the rules will “fundamentally alter” and put “unreasonable restrictions” on digital media. “These rules have been brought in without due consultation with the stakeholders and deepen the worry that freedom of press in India is being seriously compromised,” it said. “The most alarming aspect of these rules is the cumbersome three-tier structure to regulate digital media, with an ‘inter-departmental committee’ at the top, and excessive powers being given to a government officer to block, modify and delete content.”

The Editors Guild said various other provisions can also affect the media at large. “Given your public commitment towards protecting freedom of speech and expression in India, we urge your urgent intervention in revoking these rules and for facilitating meaningful consultations with all stakeholders for a constructive approach, which is in line with the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and expression,” the letter to the prime minister said.

In its letter to Javadekar and Prasad, the association acknowledged the challenges created by the digital age and the need for self regulation. But it raised “grave concerns” about the government’s new guidelines.

“We believe that the question whether any speech violates any law in force, or be bound to a Code of Ethics, or whether it should be evaluated in accordance with Article 19(2) of the Constitution, is a complicated question of not only facts but also of law,” the letter said. “Therefore, any action on such speech should be taken only after adjudication by an independent judiciary, rather than the executive.”

It added that the parent Information Technology Act does not have provisions to control digital news media. “Our concern is that the government has introduced a regime to regulate the functioning of digital news media which impacts freedom of speech and expression, without the Parliament’s approval,” the association said.

The Editors Guild urged the government to initiate consultation for a more “equitable self-regulatory system”. “A consultation before notification of any rule ensures that concerns of stakeholders are addressed prior to the notification of the rule and that no stakeholder is disproportionately affected,” it added. “In this case, consultation was critical as this is the first time the Government is regulating publishers of news and current affairs and online curated content.”

Petitions have been filed before the Delhi High Court to challenge the Information Technology rules. These have been filed by The Quint, Foundation for Independent Journalism, a trust that owns digital news portal The Wire, Dhanya Rajendran, the founder and editor-in-chief of The News Minute, and The Wire Founding Editor MK Venu.

The matter will be heard on April 16.

Also read:

  1. Here are key excerpts from the petition challenging Centre’s new rules to regulate digital news
  2. Four reasons to be worried about India’s new IT rules that are supposed to regulate Big Tech