Latest Amendments to IT Rules Amount to Censorship by Another Name

The one time the media in India did experience direct censorship was during the Emergency. Now, a government-appointed committee has the power to label information as “fake”, “false” or “misleading” and ask them to be taken down.

Are we heading towards another period of direct censorship, like the one some of us experienced first-hand between 1975 and 1977 during the Emergency?

We have to ask this after the government’s recent amendments to the IT rules.

The Editors’ Guild of India has issued a strong statement against what it calls “draconian rules” that will permit a government-appointed committee to label information relating to the Union government as “fake”, “false” or “misleading”. It can ask social media intermediaries like Facebook and Twitter, and internet service providers to take them down. The Guild states: “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.”

There are two sides to this development. One is the legal aspect and there could be challenges to the legality of this amendment. As the Internet Freedom Foundation has pointed out, “Assigning any unit of the government such arbitrary, overbroad powers to determine the authenticity of online content bypasses the principles of natural justice, thus making it an unconstitutional exercise.”

The other aspect is the intent behind the move. Given the Union government’s record on issues relating to freedom of expression, it is not unreasonable to conclude that this move is not just “akin to censorship”, as the Editors’ Guild has stated, but is censorship through other means.

The one time the media in India did experience direct censorship was during the Emergency. Initially, the government issued “guidelines” that had to be followed. They were vague and non-specific. But before long, these “guidelines” morphed into random advisories from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting communicated verbally to the chief censor sitting in Delhi, who would then pass them on to censors operating in different states. The only record of these instructions is in the logbook of the ministry, which has been reproduced in the Shah Commission report. 

Reading some of these orders is important today because what stands out above all is the arbitrary nature of this kind of censorship and the consequences of handing over the power to control the flow of information to the government and its functionaries.

Indira Gandhi. Photo: PTI

How censors worked during the Emergency

During the Emergency, I had first-hand experience of such arbitrariness. At that time, I was looking after Rajmohan Gandhi’s Himmat Weekly in Mumbai. Every week, I had to take the typed copy of the contents of this small magazine to the office of the censor in Mantralaya.

The censor in Mumbai was a former resident editor of Indian Express. He was friendly and courteous. But when it came to the copy, he acted like an editor. He would go through the article and strike out, with a blue pencil, either sections of the article in a way that rendered the entire piece unusable, or the entire piece. And when asked what guideline had been violated, he would refuse to engage in discussion. I was told that I had no right to ask, and he was not expected to explain.

So, from one week to the next, as editors and journalists working with Himmat, we had no clue what would survive this “super” editor’s blue pencil and what would be knocked off.  Sometimes it was a comment, sometimes it was a report and sometimes an article on foreign affairs.  

This happened because “guidelines” were issued at various times and publications had no idea what they were until they were told that they had violated them. 

As the Shah Commission’s report notes:

“In practice censorship was utilised for suppressing news unfavourable to the Government, to play up news favourable to the Government and to suppress new unfavourable to the supporters of the Congress Party.”

The advisories from the government, as listed in the Shah Commission’s report, might appear ridiculous today. But at that time, no one could either question or defy them. 

For instance, instructions were sent out to the press on how parliamentary proceedings could be covered. They could not report, “ruling party members moving to the opposition benches or vice-versa,” remarks made by the chair in either House, and no “reference to some of the empty seats in the opposition benches” or “names of members who were absent.” Obviously, the absent members were those in jail.

The media was also not permitted to report statements by opposition leaders. In Gujarat, where there was a non-Congress government, the advisory specifically stated:

“All the statements made by the Janta Front Leaders alleging that the Centre or Congress was out to topple their ministry or that the Janta Front would take to agitation etc should not be allowed… Anything which is unhelpful to the present plan of the Centre should be killed.” 

Also “killed” was a report on the Allahabad high court judgment “upholding MISA detenues’ right to move high court under Article 226”.

None of these, and scores of other similar missives, fell within the scope of the restrictions on freedom of expression permitted by the constitution. They illustrate the randomness of how censorship works in practice when the power to manage information is placed in the hands of the government. 

Representative image. Photo: Piotr VaGla Waglowski/Wikimedia Commons, Public domain

Today, even though IT minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar has clarified that a government-appointed fact-check committee, rather than the Press and Information Bureau (PIB) as mentioned in an earlier version of the amendment, will do this job, what is the difference? Who will be on the committee? Surely not people who genuinely believe that “fake” news should be restricted to proven falsehoods and not material critical of government policies? How is it different from the government-appointed censors during the Emergency?

Just as the interpretation of the “guidelines” was left to the censor, today a committee will be given the power to determine what is “false” or “misleading”. And challenging its decision will be difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. 

Also Read: The Amendments to the IT Rules Approach Censorship But Are More Complicated Than Apparent

A disproportionate effect on independent media

While the amendments to the IT Act will affect any person or entity putting out information using the Internet and social media, independent media will be disproportionately affected. 

During the Emergency, the government censored all publications and kept a close eye on those that tried to dodge the “guidelines”. But it followed another strategy that virtually crippled smaller publications. The big newspapers had their own printing presses. But small journals like Himmat did not own one. In our case, the printer with whom we had been associated for several years was told informally that if he continued to print Himmat, there was a chance that his printing press could be shut down. We were politely asked to go and find another printer, something that was virtually impossible – but somehow, we managed.

Today, independent digital platforms rely on access to the Internet and social media intermediaries to distribute their content. If something they produce, a news item or an investigation into a government programme, is labelled “false” or “misleading”, their reach will be severely impaired. Much like printing presses refusing to host smaller independent publications, these orders will restrict the impact of such platforms. Although even legacy print media outlets also push content online and use social media networks, they will suffer to a degree but will not be crippled. 

Under the guise of “checking misuse” of the freedom afforded by social media and the Internet, the government is trying to tame those who are effectively using this space to report uncomfortable truths.

The third similarity to those times, although not linked to the change in the IT rules, is the way the government allocates its advertising. 

During the emergency, the government classified publications as positively friendly, hostile, and continuously hostile. The bulk of government advertising went to the first, the second received a bit but the third received none. For many smaller publications, this meant death. For instance, Himmat decided the number of pages to print each week depending on the advertising that came in. When banks and public sector companies were instructed not to release ads to publications in the “continuously hostile” category, the weekly struggled to keep its head above water. 

Today, you only need to look at daily newspapers to see the significant increase in government advertising. Publications that are occasionally critical are fully aware that this largesse could be withdrawn at any time. Toeing the line is a safer business strategy.

As we move into election season, information, especially that available to millions through the Internet, will be crucial. With powers to label anything that exposes the hollowness of government promises as “misleading”, the government has entered the arena of direct control of information. This is precisely how censorship is defined – a system that checks the spread of information that is inconvenient to the rulers.

Kalpana Sharma is a journalist and author.