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'Govt Has Given Itself Absolute Power': Editors Guild 'Deeply Disturbed' by IT Amendment Rules

The statement also criticises and calls "surprising" the fact that the Union government notified this amendment 'without any meaningful consultation that it had promised' after it withdrew the earlier draft amendments it had put out in January 2023.

New Delhi: The Editors Guild of India has noted that it is deeply disturbed by the new IT Amendment Rules which have been notified by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on April 6, 2023.

These amendments, the Editors Guild says, will have deeply adverse implications for press freedom in the country.

The new Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2023, deal with information online and the government’s powers to take them down.

Editors Guild says in its statement released on April 7 that through the new Rules, the Union government has given itself the power to constitute a “fact checking unit”, which will have sweeping powers to determine what is “fake or false or misleading”, with respect to “any business of the Central Government”, and with instructions to ‘intermediaries’ (including social media intermediaries, Internet Service Providers, and other service providers), to not host such content.

The statement is signed by president Seema Mustafa, general secretary Anant Nath, and treasurer Shriram Pawar.

“In effect, the government has given itself absolute power to determine what is fake or not, in respect of its own work, and order take down. The so called ‘fact checking unit’ can be constituted by the Ministry, by a simple “notification published in the Official Gazette”,” the statement says.

The note observes that there is no mention of what the governing mechanism for such a fact checking unit will be. Nor does it have provisions for judicial oversight, the right to appeal, or how it proposes to adhere to the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court of India in Shreya Singhal v Union of India case, with respect to the taking down of content or the blocking of social media handles.

“All this is against principles of natural justice, and akin to censorship,” the Guild says.

The statement also criticises and calls “surprising” the fact that the Ministry notified this amendment “without any meaningful consultation that it had promised” after it withdrew the earlier draft amendments it had put out in January 2023.

These proposals, on which The Wire too had reported, had given sweeping powers to the Press Information Bureau (PIB), in a move that was criticised by media organisations across the country, including the Editors Guild.

“At the outset, determination of fake news cannot be in the sole hands of the government and will result in the censorship of the press,” the Guild had said in January this year, following the release of the proposal.

As early as 2020, the website Newslaundry had highlighted several instances in which the PIB’s fact-checking unit had not actually been on the side of facts, but instead stuck to the government’s line.

“The Ministry’s notification of such draconian rules is therefore regrettable. The Guild again urges the Ministry to withdraw this notification and conduct consultations with media organisations and press bodies,” it said.