September 1, 2021 12:21:29 am
DEFENDING THE applicability of Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 on news websites, the Centre on Tuesday told the Delhi High Court that the regulations seek to prevent misuse of freedom of press by empowering the audience and that the grievance redressal mechanism was in consonance with the spirit of public’s right to know. It also justified the creation of a governmental oversight mechanism, including its power for deletion, modification and blocking of content of publishers.
In response to a bunch of petitions filed by various digital media organisations, the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting and the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology said “fake and misleading audio-visual news” on digital media in the recent past has led to “deaths of innocent people” and disturbance of public order.
Explaining the consequences of fake news, the government cited examples of rumours about child lifters, loss of lives of migrant workers during the lockdown and also risk of social strife and communal tensions in society “due to sensationalist reportage of religious congregations in the context of the pandemic”.
“The standards for testing audio-visual news content on the touchstone of right to freedom of speech and expression may be different from those for other forms of free speech. The rules only empower the audience to bring to the notice of the publishers such content which may be violative of the Code of Ethics. Even in such situations, any consequent action is possible only under stringent grounds and as per established procedure,” said the Centre in its 152-page reply.
The Centre has also told the court that the IT Rules establish a civil mechanism of grievance redressal which “is bereft of any police powers” and that the decision on whether a particular content is violative of the Code of Ethics is a deliberative one involving the publisher, their representative self-regulating bodies, and the government.
Submitting data on the number of pages created on the websites of seven television channels and the number of posts on their Twitter handles, the government said there has not been any significant change in the production of content after notifying of the rules. Over 1,800 digital media publishers have appointed the Grievance Redressal Officer and furnished their information to the ministry, it said.
The Centre also said that IT Rules do not contain any provision for monitoring of the digital media and that there was no requirement for prior registration of the publishers with the ministry. However, it said the Inter Departmental Committee under the oversight mechanism can recommend blocking of content on the grounds mentioned in Section 69A of the IT Act.
“Within the scope of Section 69A of the IT Act, while distributed discovery of content can be blocked by issuing appropriate directions to the social media intermediaries, direct access can also be blocked by issuing such directions to intermediaries such as internet service providers and web-hosting service providers,” said the reply, adding that the provision was not new and was in existence for the past 11 years.
With regard to the power of deletion and modification of content, the Centre said that the provision for blocking of content is a rather extreme measure utilised in rare circumstances and that the publishers have the opportunity to be heard before the inter-departmental committee.
“The provision for directions to the publisher regarding deletion/modification of content is in the interest of transparency, and allows the publishers to challenge such orders before the courts of law, thereby acting as a further safeguard in the interest of freedom of speech,” the government said.
It said that while the right to freedom of speech and expression, including the freedom of press, is critical for a vibrant democracy like India, the rights of the audience “who believe and act upon misleading news” cannot be overlooked as well. The news audience cannot be treated as passive consumers without any recourse of participation in the process of accountability, it said.
“Disinformation, or simply fake news, on digital media is one of the misuse of electronic records which may lead to violation of other fundamental rights of the audience, e.g. violation of the right to dignity through defamation; violation of the right to privacy through unlawful depiction in the media, violation of the right to life and personal liberty through disturbance of public order, etc,” said the government.
It said that the inclusion of the Norms of Journalistic Conduct and the Programme Code under the Code of Ethics merely extends the norms applicable for traditional media to the digital media without extending the entire Press Council Act the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act to publishers of news and current affairs content on digital media. Before the notification of the Rules, digital news media was largely unregulated, it said.
“An economic environment marked by competition for eye-balls and regulatory vacuum with respect to the content on digital media has led to spread of fake news and other potentially harmful content without any accountability of digital news publishers,” it said.
The petitioners challenging the IT Rules in the Delhi High Court are Quint Digital Media Limited and its director Ritu Kapur; Foundation for Independent Journalism that publishes The Wire; Pravda Media Foundation, which owns fact-checking website Alt News and Press Trust of India among others. The division bench of Chief Justice D N Patel and Justice Jyoti Singh on Tuesday adjourned the cases for next hearing on October 12.