New Delhi: The Centre has issued an order for bringing online news portals and content providers under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
A gazette notification issued by President Ram Nath Kovind on November 10 stated that “films and audio-visual programmes made available by online content providers” and “news and current affairs content on online platforms” would be brought under the heading “Ministry of Information and Broadcasting” in the Second Schedule of Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961.
News and current affairs content put in the category of ‘films’
The Schedule under the Allocation of Business Rules 1961 has under the “Ministry of Information and Broadcasting”, nine major categories dealing with broadcasting policy and administration, cable television policy, radio, Doordarshan, films, advertising and visual publicity, press, publications, and research and reference.
Interestingly, even the “news and current affairs content on online platforms’, has been added after entry 22, which falls under the sub-category of “Films” and not “Press”.
I&B Ministry had earlier written to MeitY for taking control over online content
Through this notification, the Ministry of I&B will get the power to regulate policies for over the top (OTT) platforms. It had earlier written to the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) about for transfer of control over the OTT platforms.
In July this year, the I&B Ministry had proposed bringing under its purview the content being streamed on such platforms. It had asked MeitY to identify ways for transfer of power so that it (I&B) could regulate online content without the need for any amendments to the Information Technology Act, 2000.
News agency PTI had then quoted I&B secretary Amit Khare as saying: “OTT being a digital platform will fall under the purview of the ministry of IT but now we are proposing a decision that the content should fall within the purview of I&B ministry.”
The official had reasoned that “there is a need for convergence of various ministries (in this regard), particularly in the ways changes are happening, (it) is extremely necessary.”
Khare had also pointed out that India did not have regulatory provisions for emerging media like OTT players. He said while print, radio, TV and films were regulated, only OTT was unregulated.
Ministry began imposing curbs on online media in 2018
The move to regulate online media was first initiated in March 2018, by then minister for I&B Smriti Irani. The following month, her ministry issued a circular saying that in order to fight the rise in fake news in print and electronic media, the government had decided that journalists who had complaints of creating/propagating fake news against them, would immediately have their press accreditation suspended.
Though the Prime Minister’s Office asked the ministry to withdraw this circular, it did not hide the fact that the thought process for curbing the freedom of online media had been set rolling.
A report by the Centre for Communication Governance (CCG) at the National Law University in Delhi had then revealed that online platforms are already heavily regulated.
The online space is governed by the Information Technology Act, 2000, some parts of which were struck down by courts as unconstitutional. However, the government is still empowered to block, filter and take down content online or even turn off internet access completely. These options have been excised regularly by the Indian government.
The CCG report said that though online media space (both news and non-news) seems like the Wild West in terms of the volume of content and the kind of transgressions which proliferate on the platform, Indian laws are already quite strict on the online space. Many punitive measures that were introduced by the UPA government have been taken forward by the NDA government, the report observed.
The report also pointed out that under Section 69A of the IT Act, online content can also be and is taken down entirely. Though this section too was challenged in court, it was upheld as constitutional. Usually, the report said, the process of issuing blocking orders is “opaque and the reasoning offered in orders is not subject to public scrutiny”.
More recently, when the Supreme Court was hearing a petition against Sudarshan News for a programme which vilified persons from the Muslim community who cracked the UPSC exam, the Centre insisted that regulation of media must begin with digital media, not electronic. The Centre argued that online and social media platforms have a “faster and wider reach”.
In an affidavit that was signed by an under secretary in the MIB, the Centre said sufficient framework and judicial pronouncements already exist with regard to electronic and print media. However, this was not the case with digital media, the affidavit said.
Censorship on platforms like Netflix, Hotstar
In October 2019, Reuters reported that the government was considering a law to censor streaming platforms like Netflix, Hotstar and Amazon Prime after several court cases and complaints were filed alleging that some content was “obscene or insulted religious sentiment”.
While the law did not come, four major players signed a self-regulation code in February this year, sparking concerns that the move is a precursor to self-censorship and “for online streaming to go down the path of TV”.