Can Print, TV Media’s Digital Arms Be Excluded from IT Rules? 

The DNPA argued that television and print media are already adhering to existing sectoral regulatory guidelines. 

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A meeting between the Union I&B Minister and a legacy media body over the issue of digital news media’s regulation under the new IT Rules has raised a pertinent question.

Since print and television news media are already adhering to their sectoral regulatory guidelines, should the digital arm of traditional media publications be excluded from the IT Rules’ regulatory ambit?

According to a Ministry press release, members of the Digital News Publishers Association (DNPA) unanimously demanded they should be excluded from the guidelines under the recently notified IT Rules, 2021.

They argued that television and print media have already been adhering to the regulatory guidelines of the Cable Television Network Act and the Press Council Act for a very long time.

Experts say legacy media will find it difficult to claim exemption for their web properties since they also include additional editorial elements like podcasts, videos created exlusively for digital consumption.

The virtual meeting, on Thursday, 11 March, was attended by Union Minister Prakash Javadekar and representatives of the DNPA. Member publications like India Today, Dainik Bhaskar, Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, The Times of India, ABP, Eenadu, Dainik Jagran among others were present at the meet.

Moreover, print publishers pointed out they already follow the exisiting guidelines while publishing the digital versions of print copies. They felt that they should be treated differently than those news publishers who are only on the digital platform.

Tweeting about the meeting DNPA stated it “made suggestions that preserve freedom of the press and emphasised that all its members are bound by – and follow – the regulations of Press Council of India and/or NBSA.”


What Do the IT Rules Say Regarding Digital Media?

The 30-page document, titled ‘Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021’, places a host of strict obligations on online platforms and provides for a three-tier mechanism for regulation of all online media, which confers blocking powers to an inter-ministerial committee.

Along with guidelines for social media platforms, the rules also contain within them a ‘Code of Ethics’ for digital news media as well as streaming platforms. Defining digital news media, the IT Rules say The Code of Ethics applies to “publishers of news and current affairs content”.

The digital news publishers will also be required to publish periodic compliance reports every month mentioning the details of grievances received and action taken.

Experts have also expressed concern that the purview of the Information Technology Act, 2000, does not extend to news media. Importantly, the guidelines do not have the legislative backing to regulate news media.

Section 79 of the IT Act, within which these rules have been brought, applies to intermediaries who do not author or exercise editorial control over content. News media does not fall under this classification and the Act does not apply to them.


Can Print & TV Media’s Digital News Be Excluded?

Given the definition of digital news media in the IT Rules as “publishers of news and current affairs content,” can the digital arms of legacy media houses be exempt from the regulatory scope of the IT Rules?

Further, would their existing compliances with guidelines of the Cable Television Networks Act and the Press Council Act serve as valid grounds to gain exemption?

“The unanimous demand of the entire DNPA members on the virtual call with your (Javadekar) good self today was to exclude the digital news sites/ arms of the traditional news media,” Bharat Gupta, CEO, Jagran Group stated in a tweet on 11 March.

Apar Gupta, executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation, says legacy media will find it difficult to claim exemption on this ground as several additional types of content specific to digital media also exists alongside replica e-paper versions.

“As per my reading of the rules, legacy media will find it difficult to claim exemption for their web properties from the application of the rules on the basis of pre-existing compliance,” Gupta told The Quint.

“The reason for it arises from the additional elements that go beyond both e-newspapers and replicas or television news broadcast. A cursory view of the web properties evidences that several additional elements exist such as web exclusives that are content specific but also often editorial excisions and additions to existing content.”
Apar Gupta, executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation

Prasanth Sugathan, Legal Director, Software Freedom Law Centre, India explains that the rules regulate 'Digital Media' which covers a publisher of news and current affairs content, “which by definition includes an online paper, news portal, and news agencies etc.”

“The exclusion applies to newspapers and replica e-papers,” Sugathan said.

“As per the definition, in relation to online content, media houses can claim an exemption to the extent of publication of replica e-papers. An online paper or a news portal would still be covered by the rules,” Sugathan added.

What is the Govt’s Stance?

In a virtual meeting, a delegation of DNPA members spoke to Union I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar on the issue.

However, Javadekar is reported to have made the same arguments, stating that traditional media houses also create content exclusively for digital platforms.

According to ministry press release, he stated that print media and TV channels have digital versions whose content is almost the same as that on the traditional platforms.  “However, there are contents which appear exclusively on the digital platform. This apart there are several entities which are only on the digital platform.  Accordingly, the rules seek to cover the news on digital media so as to bring them at par with the traditional media.”

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