Modi Government's Draft Press Registration Bill May Restrict Digital Media's Freedom

Ambiguous definitions leave it unclear if publications that are not printed on paper will be counted as 'e-papers'.

New Delhi: Dropping the ball on serious concerns like paid news which were the subject of earlier draft amendments to the archaic Press and Registration of Books (PRB) Act, 1867, the Modi government is now proposing a souped-up version of the colonial-era law that could bring news websites under the purview of official regulations for the first time.

Section 18 of the provisions of the draft Registration of Press and Periodical (RPP) Bill, 2019 – released by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on Tuesday – stipulates:

“The publishers of news on Digital Media shall register themselves with the Registrar of Newspapers of India in such manner and giving such particulars as may be prescribed.”

Until now, no news or current affairs website in India – and there are tens of thousands of them since even blogs and social media pages which carry news or opinion would be considered publishers of news on digital media – has had to “register” with the government or follow any rules or regulations other than what are normally applicable for any form of speech or expression.

This is the second step the Modi government has taken to get a grip on the digital media in India, widely seen as a more independent space than traditional media platforms. In August this year, the Union cabinet said it was introducing a 26% cap on foreign direct investment for news websites subjecting to official approval on a case by case basis.

According to the I&B ministry, the RPP Bill is intended to replace the PRB Act. But like the old act, the new Bill will penalise the publication of a “periodical” without conforming to the act.

Thanks to poor and ambiguous language in the draft law and its definitions, however it is not clear if the proposed regulations will cover only the “e-newspapers” of existing newspapers and magazines – i.e. the digital version of the printed copy, usually in PDF – or will include standalone news websites.

Although the Bill defines “news on digital media” as “the news in digitized format that can be transmitted over the internet, computer or mobile networks and includes text, audio, video and graphics,”, its definition of  “publisher” and “publication” makes it clear the term applies only to publications printed on paper:

“publisher” means a person authorized in this regard to publish any publication

“publication” means anything which is printed on paper and is meant for public
distribution including periodicals, newspapers & book

Given these definitions, the proposed requirement that “publishers of news on digital media” register themselves may not automatically apply to standalone websites since they do not print their material on paper.

If it does extend to standalone websites, India would perhaps be the first democratic country to insist on registration of digital media. And that they then conform to any “rules” that the government prescribes from time to time.

Ban on persons who have “done anything against the security of the state”

The draft Bill, which the ministry has asked stakeholders to submit comments on, also states that while any person “being an entity incorporated and registered in India under any law for the time being in force, or a citizen of India, may bring out a publication”, it qualifies this permission to exclude those “convicted by any court for an offence involving terrorist act or unlawful activity” or for “having done anything against the security of the State”.

While the draft says the expression “terrorist act” or “unlawful activity” shall carry the same definition given to these terms under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Bill is silent on what crimes will be covered by the phrase “having done anything against the security of the State”.

Editors must be Indian citizens

Under the new draft, the term ‘Editor’ of a periodical has been defined to specify that she or he must be an Indian citizen:

“editor” of a periodical means an individual, whether called editor, chief editor, group editor or editor-in-chief or by any other name called, being a citizen of India and is ordinarily resident in India responsible for the selection and finalization of the content of a periodical;

The PRB Act has no such provision, requiring only that the publisher and editor be ordinarily resident in India. This requirement was linked to the need to hold them accountable to an Indian court in the event that a defamation case be filed. Though an amendment was proposed in 2013 to stipulate citizenship as a condition for editorship, the matter was never pursued by either the Manmohan Singh or Narendra Modi governments.

Powers of registration to vest with Press Registrar General

While proposing a “simple system of registration of e-papers”, the draft Bill also lays down that the process of title and registration of periodicals, including newspapers, would be effected Centrally by the “Press Registrar General”.

The main controlling authority for all publications would be the Press Registrar General, who has been empowered by the draft Bill to obtain annual statements from a printer and a periodical; verify the circulation figures of newspaper; and to revise, revoke or suspend the registration of a periodical. This officer would also have the power to impose fines and penalties.

Also Read: The Fate of Press Freedom in India Over the Years

The Bill also enables the Central and state governments to frame rules to regulate the criteria and conditions for issuing government advertisements in newspapers, accreditation of newspapers and other facilities.

The Bill also enables the Central and state governments to frame rules to regulate the criteria and conditions to issue advertisements. Credit: Karnika Kohli/The Wire

No jail but fine for publishers

Though an I&B ministry note said it proposes “to do away with the earlier provision under the PRB Act, 1867 of prosecution of publishers”, the new draft still has provision for fining publishers and editors who bring out periodicals “without conforming to the provisions of the act”.

Also Read: For the Media to Regain Credibility, the Business of News Needs to Change

The PRB Act has its origins in the British Government wanting the then East India Company to keep a record of all publications in India. As the voluntary registrations of publications failed, another system of compulsory sale of three copies of each work to the government was evolved. The Bill was introduced for the regulation of printing presses and newspapers, and for the preservation of copies of books and periodicals containing news.

A number of minor amendments have been made to the Act since Independence. On the recommendation of the First Press Commission in 1953, a major amendment was made in 1955 through which the Office of the Registrar of Newspapers of India (RNI) was created. It began functioning in 1956.

Recent amendments 

Another amendment to the PRB Act 1867 was proposed in 2005. It provided for a graded penalty for various offences. Representations and comments were sought and the proposed amendments were discussed by the ministry among others with the Indian Newspaper Society (INS). The draft amendments were also discussed with various newspaper associations in 2006 and at the State Information Ministers’ Conference in 2009.

In view of the concerns raised by the stakeholders, the ministry again invited suggestions and comments from key stakeholders on the proposed amendments in 2010. The RNI then also wrote to various newspaper associations for their suggestions.

Standing committee’s concerns

In 2011, the Press and Registration of Books and Publications Bill was finally moved in Parliament. But it was referred to a Standing Committee on Information Technology that was chaired by Rao Inderjit Singh.

The committee’s report said it was informed that “due to absence of clear cut provisions, the existing Act is deficient in several respects particularly on title verification, foreign publications and circulation verification”. However, it held that on the issue of consultations, “the Ministry has not taken the entire press and newspaper industry into confidence.”

As the Bill proposed to cover online editions of newspapers too, the Standing Committee recommended expanding the word ‘electronic form’ suitably.

The 2011 Bill was referred to a parliament standing committee. Photo: Reuters

Bill dealt with FDI, foreign news content

The 2011 Bill also dealt with the issue of foreign direct investment (FDI) and limits of foreign news content. But the committee found “the provisions in the Clause are couched in such wordings that it has been left to individual interpretations as to what are the limits of FDI and syndication in print media ….” It therefore urged the ministry to reconsider the feasibility of a “maximum permissible cap”.

The panel also stated that since the proposed legislation sought to define “who may bring out a publication”, there was a need to balance “freedom of expression” with scrutiny.

It also urged the ministry to clearly define the concept of ‘known foreign publications’ as many found it to be ‘vague and subjective’.

 Paid news no longer a concern

As the Union cabinet note initially also approved the provision for furnishing an annual statement on disclosure of annual income from advertisement, which was later “dropped from the proposed legislation in view of strong objections raised by INS and The Times of India on ground of voluminous data to be furnished,” the Standing Committee noted that it could “hardly emphasize that having the provision of furnishing details of advertisement revenue by the publications would definitely address the menace of paid news to a great extent.”

It also expressed its serious anguish that the “Ministry has missed out an opportunity to curb the menace of paid news”.

Imposition of penalty, sealing of printing press opposed

The house panel also said:

“Various stakeholders have expressed serious concern on the issue of penalty i.e. suspension of publication and sealing of printing press for thirty days for contravention of clause 3 and 4 respectively. They have argued that this is violative of the Freedom of Press as guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution. They have expressed that this is an extreme form of penalty for mere technical violations.”

Sharing the concern, the committee recommended that the penalty may be imposed in stages. The first step would be to suspend the publication and then sealing of the press, which could be resorted to “only on successive violations”.

Later, the government said while there was a proposal for “graded penalty” in the first draft, it was later removed. It also claimed that the penalty clause under the new Sections 12 and 13 was ‘liberalized’ by removing the provision of six months imprisonment in the existing Act and substituting it only with suspension of publication for a period of 30 days, which would act as a deterrent to non-serious publications.

In a previous version, penalties included sealing the press after multiple violations. Photo: Reuters

Regarding the issue of ‘restriction on registration of names similar to foreign titles’, the ministry clarified that the INS had in fact considered this issue and suggested that the words ‘known’ used in the amendment needs to be explained as it is vague. This point was considered and in order to remove any vagueness, the proposed amendment provided for prescribing rules to notify as to what are ‘known foreign publications’.

In 2013, a revised draft Bill called the Press and Registration of Books and Publications Bill, 2013 was circulated but could not be passed.

In 2015, another parliamentary panel asked the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to prepare an appropriate policy so that paid news can be categorised as a punishable electoral offence, and empower the Press Council to act in cases of alleged paid news.

Modi government’s flip-flop on paid news

After the Narendra Modi government came to power, the ministry drafted the Registration of Newspapers and Publications Bill, 2017, ostensibly to crack the whip on paid news.

However, there was little progress for over a year. As reported by The Wire earlier, in late 2018, the ministry decided not to include the regulations against paid news in the proposed legislation. The Bill lapsed when the 16th Lok Sabha was dissolved in May 2019.