In recent times India has seen serious erosion in key institutions which form the scaffolding of her constitutional democracy. Indians have lived through acute anxiety over the deterioration in the functioning of parliament and the judiciary. To this one can now add the media, which is regarded as the fourth pillar of our democracy.
The new Information Technology rules notified by the government give unprecedented powers to the executive to summarily take down content from digital news media platforms on vague grounds, and without so much as giving the publisher a hearing. And this is being done in the name of regulating all internet-based media platforms across the board – including news, entertainment, OTT Apps like Netflix, Hotstar and big social platforms like Facebook, Twitter etc.
The government has disingenuously extended the Information Technology Act 2000, which governs online platform accountability, to control digital news content through the backdoor, without subjecting it to legislative discussion. This is clearly an affront to parliament. Worse, the new rules give emergency powers to the secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to censor digital news content without consulting the publisher.
In short, the bureaucrat will become the super editor and super censor, with wide ranging powers. The move has shocked the entire news media fraternity which had presumed the new regulations would cover mainly social media platforms and entertainment segments like OTT players who have been in a dialogue with the government for some time now. Even these players are smarting from a new three-tier regulatory structure which envisages an inter-departmental committee at the top tier which has bureaucrats from various relevant ministries of the government who will monitor them closely. Industry players are describing this as the government’s way of “regulating self-regulation”.
While regulation of these other segments was being contemplated, the news media segment never expected it would get clubbed within the same regulatory regime. Legal experts opine that putting online news content in the same basket as those governed under the IT Act is ultra vires the act and a clear violation of free speech guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a)of the constitution. More importantly, such a paradigm shift in the media freedom landscape has come without any discussion in parliament or consultation with the stakeholders. Only parliament can enact a law to regulate speech and even that has to satisfy the basic structure of the constitution.
The government has also created false categories of news media entities. For instance, print newspapers are exempt from the draconian new rules but their digital content is not exempt even though much of the content is common. So an article which the I&B secretary may take down by exercising his emergency powers can legally continue to exist in the newspaper. The new regulations are riddled with such contradictions.
Traditional newspaper readership and revenues will mostly be from digital in a few years. So exempting print media from the new draconian media rules has no meaning really. All news media will be affected by the emergency powers to take news content down without giving publishers a hearing.
In no other mature democracy has the executive given itself so much power to regulate news media content. At best, they are only subject to self-regulation with the executive keeping a strict distance. Prime Minister Modi would do well to roll back the government’s decision if he does not want India’s democratic credentials to suffer even further.