Draft Press Registration Bill: How Would This Change the Law?

From a bar on foreign editors to the registration of digital news media outlets, here’s what you need to know.

Published28 Nov 2019, 01:21 PM IST
5 min read

On 25 November, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) released a draft Registration of Press and Periodicals Bill (RPP Bill) for public consultation. Once finalised, this Bill is meant to replace the existing law in place for registration of newspapers in the country, the Press and Registration of Books Act 1867 (PRB Act).

According to the MIB, the salient features of the draft Bill include:

  • doing away with requirements for District Magistrates to authorise publishers/printers to operate;

  • creating a new system of registration of periodicals (including newspapers);

  • allowing the Central and State governments to frame rules for government advertisments in newspapers, accreditation of newspapers, etc;

  • a simple system of registration of e-papers;

  • doing away with the prosecution of publishers as is allowed under the existing 1867 law.

All of which sounds reasonable enough – but is that all the new law would do? Here are the major changes the draft Bill would lead to (including registration of digital media), and which of these are a cause for concern.

Changes to Definitions

As you might expect, the draft RPP Bill includes different definitions from the old 1867 Act. Even though the old Act was amended from time to time, the language it used and the concepts it dealt with were very different.

For example, while the old Act focused on ‘newspapers’ (defined as printed periodical work containing public news or comments on public news), in the draft Bill, ‘periodicals’ (a broader term including newspapers) becomes the focus for registration. This no doubt reflects the changes since 1867, including the rise of other publications like magazines and journals.

You would think that this would also be meant to include digital media, with patterns of news consumption fast changing in favour of the online world. However, the registration requirements for periodicals do not apply to digital-only media houses – the definition of ‘periodical’ notes it has to be a ‘publication’, and ‘publication’ is defined as “anything which is printed on paper and is meant for public distribution including periodicals, newspapers & books” (emphasis supplied).

The registration and regulation of digital media is a controversial issue – an idea for this during the previous administration was shelved following widespread condemnation. And while this is not sought to be done under the regular registration of periodicals, the draft Bill does include a definition for ‘news on digital media’, and opens the door to registration of those who publish this – in a very unsatisfactory and potentially dangerous way.

Editors Have to be Indian Nationals

When it comes to the definitions, however, the most controversial new definition is that of an ‘editor’ of a periodical. The 1867 Act only defines this as “the person who controls the selection of the matter that is published in a newspaper”. It then went on to specify certain provisions which involved an ‘editor’, including those on the declarations to be provided by a newspaper to the authorities.

The draft RPP Bill, however, specifies that an ‘editor’, by definition, means “an individual, whether called editor, chief editor, group editor or editor-in-chief or by any other name called, being a citizen of India and is ordinarily resident in India responsible for the selection and finalization of the content of a periodical” (emphasis supplied).

It is unclear why an editor of a periodical cannot be a citizen of a different country – indeed, the provision seems a violation of the equality clause in Article 14 of the Constitution (which applies to any person, not just citizens). This definition harks back to the controversy over whether Siddharth Varadarajan could be editor of The Hindu, created by Subramaniam Swamy.

The Delhi High Court dismissed a petition seeking such a restriction, noting that the old law had no such restriction. The court did not rule on the legality of such a provision, if it were to be added.

However, what’s perplexing about the draft Bill is that it does not include any provisions which actually relate to the editor of a periodical. Subsequent regulations or rules may no doubt apply to an ‘editor’, necessitating the definition, but it emphasises the arbitrariness of this classification.

Vague Bar on Certain Convicts From Bringing Out Publications

Section 4 of the draft Bill says that any person, whether an individual citizen of India or a registered Indian entity, can bring out a publication.

The proviso to this section, however, says that this will not apply to any person convicted by any court of an offence:

  • involving terrorist act or unlawful activity (as defined in the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967); or

  • for having done anything against the security of the State.

According to Section 12 of the draft RPP Bill, this is also grounds to cancel or suspend the registration of a publication.

There are several problems with this restriction on publishers:

First, why should a person convicted of such offences not have a right to bring out a publication? It would have to comply with the law, with regulations against terrorism hate speech, etc, so why the blanket restriction?

Second, what about someone who has served their time, finished any sentence handed down to them by a court – why should such a person, who cannot be punished for the same offence as per the law of double jeopardy, not be allowed to bring out a publication?

Third, while at least there are definitions of ‘terrorist act’ and ‘unlawful activity’ under the UAPA (which can also be quite vague), there is no definition of this concept of “anything against the security of the State”. Such an ambiguous, over-broad and indeterminate definition is ripe for misuse.

Registration of Digital Media

And of course, there’s the big one, on registration of publishers of ‘news on digital media’, ie, “news in digitized format that can be transmitted over the internet, computer or mobile networks and includes text, audio, video and graphics”.

The draft Bill does not have any details on the registration process and how it works – these details are provided for periodicals (which as mentioned earlier, have to be printed).

Nevertheless, Section 18 of the draft RPP Bill says that “publishers of news on Digital Media shall register themselves with the Registrar of Newspapers of India in such manner and giving such particulars as may be prescribed.

This clearly envisages that the MIB wants digital news media outlets to be registered, something which was not required at all till now. However, by leaving all the specifics to delegated legislation “as may be prescribed”, this move looks like it could prove a very dangerous one, as it allows the government to prescribe any new rules it feels like, without any scrutiny at this point during the consultation process.

The vagueness of the definition of news on digital media is also all set to create a great deal of confusion. For instance, will digital arms of print newspapers have to register separately? Will opinion websites or fact-checking sites like Alt News or blogs also fall within the definition? Such things should not be left to secondary legislation.

Furthermore, one can only imagine that there will be similar conditions for registration, including that the editor of a digital news media outlet will need to be an Indian citizen.

Other Changes

One of the good things about the new draft RPP Bill is that it would remove the colonial-era requirement to provide copies of every book published to the government. Another positive development is that it would also scrap the concept of jail terms for violations of the registration rules, though the draft Bill still envisages fines.

The Press Registrar under the old 1867 Act would also be replaced by a new officer called the Press Registrar General, who is in charge of registration of periodicals as well as cancellation of registrations. Apart from the power to frame guidelines on titles that periodicals will have, the new position doesn’t seem to be particularly different.

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