'No Coercive Action': Kerala HC on NBA's Plea Against IT Rules

Several major broadcasters such as India TV, NDTV 24x7 and Times Now are part of the News Broadcasters Association.

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<div class="paragraphs"><p>India was ranked 142 in the list of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index.</p></div>

The Kerala High Court on Friday, 9 July, passed an order providing interim protection to the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) from coercive action under the new IT rules. A notice was also issued to the Centre to respond to NBA's plea.

The News Broadcasters Association, consisting of several major private television news broadcasters including India TV and Times Now, on Thursday, had submitted a petition in the Kerala High Court against the new IT regulations that were introduced in February 2021.

During the hearing, senior advocate Maninder Singh, representing NBA, argued that the high court had issued an order restraining coercive action by the government in a similar case filed by LiveLaw Media previously.

Justice PB Suresh Kumar, taking note of the plea, observed, "In light of the interim order in WPC No 6272/2021 (Live Law Media Private Limited Vs Union of India), the respondents shall not to take any coercive against the petitioners for non-compliance of the provisions contained in the Rules," LiveLaw reported.

The NBA's Plea

The NBA's petition challenges Part III of the IT rules, concerning Code of Ethics and Procedure and Safeguards in relation to Digital Media, which the collective believes provides the authorities "unfettered, unbridled and excessive powers to regulate content of digital news media,” news agency PTI reported.

In the petition, the NBA suggested that the new digital rules go beyond the Information Technology Act of the Constitution, and are violative of Article 14 (equality before law) and 19(1)(g) (right to freedom to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business) of the Constitution.

The plea observed that the IT Act does not contain any provision for management of the “content” of any programme and therefore, the regulations are ultra vires the parent Act.

The NBA said in its plea that the newly-imposed regulations would bestow government with “excessive powers” to “unreasonably and impermissibly restrict” the freedom of speech and expression of the media, PTI reported.

News broadcasters such as CNBC TV 18, NDTV 24x7 and BBC World are also a part of the NBA.

The NBA's plea comes a day after India's largest news agency, Press Trust of India (PTI), had moved the Delhi High Court against the new IT rules on similar grounds.

PTI, Others Challenge New IT Rules

India's largest news agency, Press Trust of India (PTI), has legally challenged the new IT regulations that were introduced in February 2021, asserting that they deviate from the provisions of the Constitution.

In its plea submitted to the Delhi High Court, PTI has said that the new rules allow the government to “virtually dictate content to digital news portals, and squarely violate media freedom,” The Hindu reported.

Indicating that the regulations are violative of the Constitution's provisions, PTI argued in its petition that the rules “introduce digital portals with ‘news and current affairs content’ as a specific and targeted class to be subject to regulation by a loose-ranging ‘Code of Ethics’, and to be consummately overseen by Central Government officers, all of which is violative... of the Constitution.”

According to a Forbes report, PTI has further said that the Code of Ethics is “draconian” and that the Rules “usher in an era of surveillance and fear.”

Digital News Publishers Association (DNPA), a 13-member collective of the country’s biggest news media companies, on 23 June, had challenged the constitutional validity of the new Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.

HT Digital Streams Limited, NDTV Convergence Limited, Times Internet Limited, are part of DNPA, among other news organisations.

The Quint on 19 March had moved the Delhi High Court, challenging the regulation of digital news portals under the IT Rules 2021.

Calling the regulation of digital news under the IT Act framework "unconstitutional", the petitioner organisation said that the new rules have a “chilling effect on media freedom.”

The New IT Rules

Announcing drastic changes in the new rules for social media companies and a code of ethics for OTT streaming platforms as well as digital news media, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Prakash Javadekar, on 25 February, said they “are empowering the ordinary users of social 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.

The new IT rules came into effect on 26 May 2021.

(With inputs from PTI, Forbes, LiveLaw and The Hindu)

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