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New Delhi: In a counter-affidavit filed before the Delhi high court which is hearing challenges to the new Information Technology Rules, the Union government has said that the Rules seek to “prevent the misuse of the freedom of press” and protect citizens from fake news in the digital media space, which used to be largely unregulated.
The Union government has defended the Rules, submitting that while the right to freedom of speech and expression, including the freedom of press, is critical for a vibrant democracy like India, citizens cannot be treated as passive consumers.
The affidavit was filed jointly by the Ministry Of Information and Broadcasting and Ministry Of Electronics and Information Technology.
The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which were notified in February, impose several obligations on online entities including an obligation to take down contentious content quicker, appoint grievance redressal officers and assist in investigations.
The high court had earlier issued notices and sought responses of the Centre on the petitions by The Wire, The Quint, Alt News and PTI. Various other news outlets have challenged the Rules in other courts across India. Earlier in August, the Bombay high court stayed two provisions of the Rules – rules 9(1) and 9(3) – which say that digital news media and publishers should adhere to the ‘Code of Ethics’ laid out in the rules. This interim relief was, however, just for the petitioners.
The pleas sought striking down of the specific part of the IT Rules on the ground that it violates Article 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(g) of the Constitution creating a chilling effect on media freedom, Article 14 of the Constitution by creating an unreasonable classification and by setting up a parallel adjudicatory mechanism to be overseen by the officials of the executive and is ultra vires the IT Act.
While submitting that there have been past incidents of disinformation on digital media leading to disturbance of public order, the Centre appeared to place the onus of misinterpreting news on the news providers, saying, “Digital media allows sensational content to be re-circulated in a different context leading to misinterpretation by the audience, making it susceptible to being used as fake news.”
“Before the notification of the Rules, digital news media was largely unregulated. It is submitted that before the notification of the Rules, no such mechanism was currently in operation with regard to news on digital media, thereby leading to a discriminatory imbalance within the news media ecosystem with respect to content on traditional media,” it added.
“IT Rules seek to prevent the misuse of the freedom of press by empowering the audience with a mechanism to raise their grievances related to the content being published by the digital news publishers through a grievance redressal mechanism with an emphasis on the self-regulatory architecture for digital news publishers, and are therefore not only within the ambit of the Act, but also fulfil the object sought to be achieved by the (IT) Act,” the affidavit said.
However, challengers to the IT Rules‘s legal validity point out that the law goes beyond the parent act, and also “go far beyond anything that is permissible in a democracy”.
“By contrast, the Information Technology Act neither intends nor provides for the imposition of a programme code, or regulation of news portals in any manner. Yet, this is sought to be done through subordinate legislation, the IT Rules, 2021,” The Wire‘s petition says.
In its affidavit, the Union government has claimed that the new rules do not provide any additional restrictions.
The Union has argued that as opposed to the traditional media, the reach of digital media is far wider “which makes it a powerful tool for information campaigns by foreign state and non-state actors to influence public opinion in any nation.”
“Online platforms, for commercial reasons, may have a tendency to retain the consumer on their platform for a longer period. This results in proliferation and spread of news content that appears to be sensational. The risk of false or misleading information is greater over the internet as the same can be spread rapidly within the society,” the affidavit said.
“It is an economic environment marked by competition for eye-balls and regulatory vacuum with respect to the content on digital media has led to spread fake news and other potentially harmful content without any accountability of digital news publishers,” it added.
The Centre has also claimed that there has been no discernible impact of the new IT rules on digital content and over 1,800 digital media publishers, over 97% of them being publishers of news and current affairs content, have appointed a Grievance Redressal Officer (Level-I), and furnished their information to the Ministry.
(With PTI inputs)