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Era of Fear: Key News Media Firms Move Madras HC Against IT Rules

The plea said that the new IT Rules seek to curb freedom of speech and freedom of the press on vague grounds.

Published
Law
3 min read
The IT Rules, meant primarily for social media, were also extended to streaming platforms and digital news. Image used for representation.  
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The Madras High Court on Wednesday, 23 June, issued notices to the Union government on a plea by the Digital News Publishers Association (DNPA), a 13-member collective of the country’s biggest news media companies, which challenged the Constitutional validity of the new Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (IT Rules, 2021).

The petition has contended that these rules violate Articles 14, 19 (1) (a) and 19 (1) (g) of the Constitution (equality, right to freedom of speech and expression, and right to profession).

The DNPA comprises:

  • ABP Network Private Limited
  • DB Corp Limited, Amar Ujala Limited
  • Express Network Pvt Ltd
  • Lokmat Media Private Limited
  • NDTV Convergence Limited
  • HT Digital Streams Limited
  • IE Online Media Services Pvt Ltd
  • Jagran Prakashan Limited
  • TV Today Network Limited
  • The Malayala Manorama Co (P) Ltd
  • Times Internet Limited
  • and Ushodaya Enterprises Private Limited

The former Editor of The Hindu and The Hindu Business Line, Mukund Padmanabhan, is a co-petitioner with the DNPA.

The writ petition has been tagged along with a pending plea moved by Carnatic musician and writer TM Krishna, by a Bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy.

While hearing the application for interim orders, the Bench recorded the petitioners’ submission that there is “sufficient basis for the petitioners’ apprehension that coercive and arm-twisting action may be taken” under the new Rules, especially Rules 12, 14, and 16. The petition further sought an order seeking restraint of operation of Rules 12, 14, and 16.

  • Rule 16 gives the Secretary, I&B Ministry, emergency powers to block, as an interim measure, public access to any information or a part of it without giving the intermediary hosting the said information any opportunity of hearing.
  • Provision 12 offers options for one or more self-regulatory body of publishers.
  • Rule 14 says that I&B Ministry shall constitute an inter-departmental committee with representatives from other ministries.
Meanwhile, senior counsel P S Raman representing DNPA, sought an interim order restraining the Union government from taking any action under the said rules pending disposal of the plea.

However, noting that so far no adverse action has been initiated against the petitioners, the court granted the petitioners liberty to approach the court for interim relief if any coercive action is taken against them invoking Rules 12, 14, and 16 of the IT Rules, 2021.

The two ministries (Ministries of Electronics and Information Technology and Information & Broadcasting) have been asked to file their counter-affidavits within two weeks. The next hearing is scheduled after three weeks.

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An Era of ‘Surveillance and Fear’

The DNPA has challenged the IT Rules on the following grounds:

  • The rules try to legislate conduct of entities not within the scope of the IT Act of 2000
  • They impose on traditional and legacy media organisations the burden of “over-regulation”
  • They transgress provisions of IT Act
  • Seek to curb freedom of speech and freedom of the press on vague grounds already struck down by the Supreme Court

The plea also added that the rules are likely to give rise to an era of “surveillance and fear,” Indian Express reported.

‘Broad Scope for Imminent Misuse’

The Code of Ethics formulated by the government has also been challenged.

It was argued that the rules intended to regulate content on “undefined, vague, and subjective” standards such as “half-truth, good taste, decency”, provides a “broad scope for imminent misuse” by government authorities.

The petition also made the contention that the Centre has wrongfully and arbitrarily classified “legacy media houses” involved in television and print media as part of “digital media” to bring such traditional media houses under Part III of the IT Rules, 2021, Bar & Bench reported.

The plea further asserted that there are several regulations already in place for traditional and legacy media outlets in print and broadcasting.

The mandatory compliance with the IT Rules of 2021, DNPA members have said, will “lead to a situation of over regulation and unnecessary complication” of a sector that is already “well-regulated” by law and the government, Indian Express reported.

DNPA’s petition is the ninth such plea against the new IT Rules. Besides news media outlets, social media platform WhatsApp, too, has approached the Delhi High Court challenging the provision that asks messaging social media intermediaries to enable tracing of the first originator of the message.

Meanwhile, Twitter, in a first such case against it, was named in an FIR by the Ghaziabad Police, which accused the social media platform of not deleting tweets with regard to an incident involving a 72-year-old Muslim elderly man, Abdul Samad Saifi, being brutally thrashed in Ghaziabad’s Loni. The FIR is seen as a result of non-compliance with the IT Rules.

(With inputs from The Indian Express and Bar & Bench)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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