'New IT Rules Against Fundamental Principle of News': Digipub Writes to Prakash Javadekar

The largest group of digital news publishers in India says that the Rules not only limit freedom of expression but also strike at the principle of separation of powers.

New Delhi: An association of digital publications of news and current affairs, including The Wire, has written to Union Information and Broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar, expressing strong reservations against the newly formulated Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.

On February 25, Javadekar’s ministry unveiled a plan to enact greater oversight over social media platforms and also bring digital media and streaming platforms into a stricter regulatory net. A detailed analysis of what the rules entail can be found here.

Under the aegis of Digipub News India Foundation, the largest collection of digital news publishers in India, the online publications have called the new rules unfair, the process of their formulation undemocractic and the method of their implementation an infringement upon the freedom of expression.

“From the early 1950s, with the setting up of the Press Council, the idea has been that the written medium be kept away from all executive interference in the interest of not just the publication, but of the wider public to ensure the widest possible dissemination of news and ideas,” the letter notes.

As early as November, 2020, Digipub had released a statement on how the Centre’s plans to bring digital news under its purview would harm the free dissemination of news.

The latest letter points out several instances where the implementation of the new rules by the Centre would mean that the powers of the judiciary would be subsumed and exercised by the bureaucratic arm of the executive.

Also read: Modi Govt Announces New Rules to Tighten Oversight Over Social Media, Digital Media Platforms, Streaming Services

Noting that an online current affairs publication is essentially like a newspaper in digital format, the letter mentions that the IT Act does not and need not drag digital media into its ambit, considering that rules are already in place to regulate news content on digital media.

Highlighting the absence of consultation in the process, the group mentions that it wrote to the minister in December, asking to take part in discussions before the formulation of the rules, but never heard back.

The letter is produced below in full:


1. Shri. Prakash Javadekar
The Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting
Shastri Bhavan.
New Delhi 110001

2. Shri Ravi Shankar Prasad
The Union Minister for Electronics and Information Technology
Shastri Bhavan.
New Delhi 110001
Electronics Complex
CGO Complex
Pragati Vihar.
New Delhi

February 26. 2021.

Sub: Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 notified on 25.02.2021 purportedly under S. 87(2)(z) & (zg) of the Information and Technology Act, 2000.

Dear Shri. Prakash Javadekar and Shri Ravi Shankar Prasad,

We (DIGIPUB) are an association of digital publications of news and current affairs representing the largest collection of Digital News Publishers in the country. We welcome the initiative and statements by the Minister of Information and Broadcasting stressing the need for self-regulation of all media including digital news media. It is imperative and the need of the hour. We would be happy to participate in a process by which we can come to an appropriate mechanism to make this happen.

However we have some concerns about some specifics of the Rules (Rules) that have been notified and announced yesterday the 25th of February 2021.

These Rules in some places appear to go against the fundamental principle of news and its role in a democracy. While rules and laws already exist to hold news media accountable, the aforesaid rules enable the executive government to even remove content published as current affairs or news (Rule 14.) among other things.

We draw your attention to the well settled jurisprudence on news media. A publication relating to current affairs represents not only the author or publisher’s fundamental right to expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution but also the citizen’s right to be informed and to have access to differing viewpoints. For the executive to have the absolute power to regulate the content of news portals or publications would be to strike not only at the constitutional scheme but at democracy itself.

There are some other anomalies in the rules as formulated. In the Rules as drafted, expression may invite adverse consequential action, such as in the case of defamation. Such action should only happen after adjudication by open courts of law, on legal principles. This entire legal process is bypassed by the Rules, in as much as, upon a complaint of defamation, a body consisting of bureaucrats and controlled by the Central Government may decide the merits and block access to the content of any current affairs publication.

Also read: Centre’s Moves to Regulate Content Could ‘Inhibit’ Digital News Companies: Digipub

Likewise, whether or not a publication is pornographic or offends any other law, is a matter of due process and adjudication by an open and independent judiciary. All these powers will now be wielded by a Government of India body. This also goes against the principle of separation of powers.

While it is recognised that the freedom of expression is subject to reasonable restrictions, these restrictions must be demonstrably and strictly necessary to the interests enumerated in Article 19(2), and must also be reasonable, fair and just. To empower a body of government servants to do so could inhibit the news media for doing its job.

For the written medium, the emphatic jurisprudence has been that it should remain free of all executive control. Even proscription of books under S. 95 of the CrPC is subject to a right of review by a Special bench of the High Court consisting of three judges.

A current affairs portal is by and large, a written newspaper in the digital format. From the early 1950s, with the setting up of the Press Council, the idea has been that the written medium be kept away from all executive interference in the interest of not just the publication, but of the wider public to ensure the widest possible dissemination of news and ideas.

Even the small-screen has been left by and large to regulate itself without any executive interference, i.e., through the NBSA. We believe to subject the digital medium to executive control in the manner provided for by the rules would be unfair and overarching.

While digital media may be multimedia and use visuals, those are anyway subject to all penal and other laws and subject to regulations already in place.

Having said the above, we draw your attention to a matter of very important detail.

Also read: India’s Information Technology Act Is Set to be Changed – What Should be Reworked?

The IT ACT, 2000 does not at all take within its ken – digital media. ‘News and current affairs content’, ‘newspaper’ and a ‘publisher’ of the same, are not recognised by the IT Act at all. When the parent statute does not comprehend these operations, the delegated legislation within these Rules need not take into its ambit digital news.

More so if one views, the sections under which these Rules have been formulated, i.e. S. 87(2) (z) & (zg). Sub clause z refers to blocking of access to the public under. S. 69A, IT Act, which is limited to concerns of national security. Sub-clause zg is limited only to intermediaries. Even the Rules recognise that publishers of content on current affairs are not intermediaries at all but entirely distinct.

As an association of digital news portals, we recognise the need for maintaining journalistic standards and for self-regulation, and are happy to contribute in evolving the means to achieve this.

We offer once again to have consultations with stakeholders before notifying these Rules. We ourselves wrote to the Honourable Minister for Information and Broadcasting on December 2, 2020, requesting to be part of a consultation process, but never received a reply. We believe it is still not too late. We request you to repeal these Rules, or at least put them on hold, until meaningful consultations are undertaken with all the stakeholders.

With warm regards on behalf of DIGIPUB.

Dhanya Rajendran – Chairperson
Prabir Purkayastha – Vice Chairperson
Ritu Kapur – General Secretary
Abhinandan Sekhri – General Secretary