New Delhi: The Delhi high court on Friday sought the Centre’s response on a plea challenging the new Information Technology rules which seek to regulate digital news media, filed by Quint Digital Media Ltd which publishes The Quint.
A bench of Chief Justice D.N. Patel and Justice Jasmeet Singh issued notices to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and granted them time to file their responses.
The court listed the plea filed by Quint Digital Media Ltd for further hearing on April 16, along with another similar petition which was filed earlier by the Foundation for Independent Journalism (which runs The Wire).
The new rules seek to regulate media portals, over the top (OTT) streaming platforms and social media intermediaries. They grant sweeping powers to the Centre, including the right to demand removal of content. The rules have come under criticism from news portals, journalists bodies and internet freedom advocates.
The petition filed by Quint challenges the constitutional validity of the IT rules – particularly Part III of the rules, which seeks to regulate digital media publications. The petition is limited to the rules’ application on digital media platforms. Part III of the rules, the petition argues, goes beyond the jurisdiction laid out by the IT Act (under which the rules have been frames) and is also ultra vires the Constitution.
The matter was argued by senior advocate Nitya Ramakrishnan, who had also represented The Wire before the high court earlier this month.
The petition reads:
“The present Petition challenges the constitutional validity of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (“IT Rules, 2021” or “Impugned Rules”) under the provisions of Information Technology Act, 2000 (“IT Act”), inasmuch as they purport to apply to ‘publishers of news and current affairs content’ (“digital news portals”) as part of digital media, and consequently regulate these entities under Part III of the Rules (“Impugned Part”) by imposing Government oversight and a ‘Code of Ethics’ which stipulates such vague conditions as ‘good taste’, ‘decency’, prohibition of ‘half- truths’ etc. – matters nowhere within the contemplation of the IT Act; and draconian consequences for perceived non-compliance, including blocking, modification and deletion of content, compulsory publication of apology, which may be ordered and enforced by Central Government officials.”
“Not only is it impermissible for subordinate legislation to go beyond the purpose of the parent Act, it is far worse that it does so in a manner that affects Fundamental Rights vitally. This is precisely what the IT Rules, 2021 do,” the petitioner has said.
The rules impose unreasonable restrictions on digital media houses, the petition says, arguing, “The right to freely criticise the government is an essential and an inalienable part of the right to practice news journalism and a regulatory mechanism with the government at its apex is a manifestly unreasonable interference with the said right, especially if subjective and vague criteria like ‘good taste’ and ‘decency’ can be invoked to lead to Government interference.”
The Foundation for Independent Journalism (which runs The Wire), M.K. Venu and Dhanya Rajendran had together filed the first legal challenge to the new IT rules. On March 9, the Delhi high court had issued notice to the Centre on this petition, which argues that “The Impugned Part of the Rules, to the extent that it seeks to achieve such special regulation or control of digital media including online news platforms, is manifestly ultra vires the parent Act”.
LiveLaw, a legal news website, has also challenged the rules in the Kerala high court. The petition said the rules notified on February 25 impose “arbitrary, vague, disproportionate and unreasonable” restrictions on digital news media and social media intermediaries.
Read the full text of Quint‘s petition below.