Courts, protect media: IT rules attack media’s core freedom. Judges should see legal challenges to rules in that light

Clipped from: Edit

Times of India’s Edit Page team comprises senior journalists with wide-ranging interests who debate and opine on the news and issues of the day.

New IT rules that apply indiscriminately to all digital content are facing a slew of legal challenges. This is exactly how it should be, given that government rules didn’t make some basic distinctions. Digital news and current affairs publishers are correctly questioning why the news media is treated on a par with social media and OTT platforms. Recently, in a petition brought by the National Broadcasters Association, the Kerala HC shielded broadcasters from coercive action. The Digital News Publishers Association, which includes the Times of India, has also challenged the constitutionality of these rules in the Madras HC. News agency PTI has moved the Delhi HC. Let’s also note here that, strangely, there was no consultation with the news media before these rules were made, contrary to normal practice.

Unlike social media platforms, news is already regulated by the Press Council, the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act and the National Broadcasting Standards Authority. Therefore, additional rules were unnecessary in the first place. In fact, the IT Act, which deals with digital intermediaries, does not even apply to news publishers. Nor does it deal with any content regulation except in cases of cyberterrorism, sexually explicit and obscene material, child pornography. Note that these simply do not apply to news media.

Therefore, IT rules, as subordinate legislation, cannot roam widely beyond the scope of the parent act. These rules, with their three-tiered grievance redressal system, place heavy compliance burdens and ultimately empower the central government to hold the media to a ‘code of ethics’, with vague and subjective notions like ‘half-truths’, ‘good taste’ and ‘decency’. They have been shoehorned in as rules, to obviate parliamentary scrutiny and debate. As they stand, these rules seem like an attempt to intimidate the news media into self-censorship, apart from vesting government with overreaching powers over news content. News publishers are right to fear arm-twisting and coercion.

India lacks an explicit First-Amendment style provision for press freedom. However, when other ill-considered media gagging legislation was proposed in the past, the SC has strongly protected media rights with its interpretation of Article 19(a) as part of the fundamental right to free speech and expression. It should not be just the SC, though. All courts must demonstrate robust commitment to media independence. As some of the challenging petitions say, these rules will bring in surveillance of news outlets and fear of government diktats. That’s unacceptable and anti-democratic.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.


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