The Kerala High Court on Friday ordered that no coercive action should be taken against the News Broadcasters Association, which has challenged the new Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, reported Bar and Bench. The High Court also sent a notice to the Centre as it provided the interim relief.

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, which were enforced from May, regulate social media companies, streaming and digital news content, virtually bringing them, for the first time, under the ambit of government supervision.

Media outlets have argued that the rules will allow the government to directly control their content.

During Friday’s hearing, senior advocate Maninder Singh, representing the journalists’ body, cited the High Court’s order in legal news portal Live Law’s plea against the new rules for digital media. In that petition, the court had restrained the Centre from taking coercive action against the legal news website.

The News Broadcasters Association on Thursday said it had filed the plea against the new Information Technology Rules. The journalists’ body said that the new rules are ultra vires (beyond the powers) to the Information Technology Act, 2000, and violate Article 14 (Right to Equality) and 19(1)(g) (right to freedom to practice any profession) of the Constitution.

In its plea, the News Broadcasters Association said that it sought to challenge Part III of the new rules, which the organisation said, “create an oversight mechanism giving the executive unfettered, unbridled and excessive powers to regulate content of digital news media”.

Part III of the rules, titled ‘Code of Ethics and Procedure and Safeguards in relation to Digital Media’, brings publishers of news and current affairs content on online platforms under the government’s ambit.

Media organisations challenge new IT rules

Several media organisations have challenged the Centre’s new IT rules. The High Courts of Delhi, Bombay, Madras and Kerala have been hearing petitions challenging the IT rules.

On Wednesday, news agency PTI challenged the rules in the Delhi High Court. PTI’s plea said that the rules would “usher in an era of surveillance and fear, thereby resulting in self-censorship, which results in abridgment/ violation of Fundamental Rights as enshrined under Part III of the Constitution of India”.

The Delhi High Court had on Wednesday refused to provide interim protection from coercive action to digital media organisations The Wire, The Quint and AltNews in connection with their pleas against the new rules.

On Tuesday, the central government urged the Supreme Court to transfer petitions filed in High Courts against the new Information Technology rules to itself.

On June 28, the Delhi High Court had refused to stay the Centre’s notice to digital news portals to comply with the new Information Technology rules.

Meanwhile, on June 23, the Madras High Court heard a petition filed by Digital News Publishers Association, an organisation of 12 digital media outlets, along with journalist Mukund Padmanabhan. Their plea stated that organisations that only run online publications should fall under the ambit of the new information technology rules.

Social media and the new IT rules

For social media platforms, the new rules mandate the appointment of nodal officers to coordinate with law enforcement agencies and compliance and grievance officers. They also state that platforms with over 50 lakh users must help identify the originators of messages upon the government’s request.

The regulations have created tensions between the Centre and microblogging site Twitter. The Centre has repeatedly criticised Twitter for not fully complying with the new IT rules. It told the Delhi High Court on Monday that Twitter had lost its “safe harbour immunity” because of that. Twitter will be stripped of the protection social media websites have against legal proceedings for unlawful content posted by users if the court accepts the Centre’s submission.