Digital news publishers protest over being clubbed under intermediaries

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The government has also mandated that digital websites and content publishers appoint a grievance redressal officerThe government has also mandated that digital websites and content publishers appoint a grievance redressal officer 3 min read . Updated: 26 Feb 2021, 07:43 PM IST Lata Jha They said that not only they were not consulted before framing the new rules, they cannot be governed by the executive with the sanction to block or regulate their contentExisting laws already define the reasonable restrictions on press freedom in India and any reader with a grievance is free to seek a legal remedy, founder of The Wire said

Digital news sites and content publishers have written to the ministry of information and broadcasting protesting the regulatory guidelines the government notified on Thursday. They said that not only they were not consulted before framing the new rules, they cannot be defined as intermediaries such as social media and be governed by the executive with the sanction to block or regulate their content.

“We have serious concerns regarding the guidelines on digital news content by the government," said Ritu Kapur, director at Quintillion Media Pvt Ltd and general secretary of DIGIPUB, a representative body of digital news publishers. “The IT act does not have jurisdiction over content published by digital news media --- it does not recognise news as a category, which is why digital news outlets are not intermediaries as mentioned under the IT Act," Kapur added.

The government guidelines, called the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, call for an oversight mechanism by the central government, among other things, as part of which the I&B ministry will publish a charter for self-regulating bodies (for news and OTT platforms), including Codes of Practices and establish an inter-departmental committee for hearing grievances.

Complaints will be taken up by the inter-departmental committee if the matter is not resolved by the self-regulatory body of the publisher. The ministry will also appoint an officer not below the rank of a Joint Secretary to the Government of India, as the authorised officer who could issue directions for blocking access to any content for the public.

The committee would consist of representatives from different ministries. The authorised officer shall be the chairperson of the committee.

“It is also not correct to say that digital news media is unregulated. We are subject to restrictions under Article 19 of the Constitution, hate speech, criminal laws, laws of defamation and so on. The oversight committee and guidelines have the potential to tie digital media under endless red tape and to weaponise “reader" and other complaints, leading to unwarranted censorship of news content," Kapur said.

Agreed Dhanya Rajendran, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The News Minute, an independent digital news platform covering the southern states: “While the government says the idea is to create a level-playing field, the truth is that unlike print or television, digital news sites do not use public licenses or resources like spectrum. Further, even something like the Press Council of India (that governs print media) was brought in through a Parliamentary sanction, so this is like changing the whole system."

The government has also mandated that digital websites and content publishers appoint a grievance redressal officer who shall be responsible for all grievances received and shall take decision on the same within 15 days. The mechanism will be costly, Rajendran pointed out. Publishers of news and current affairs are also required by the government to furnish information about themselves with the ministry within 30 days of commencement of operations and a periodic compliance report every month with details of grievances received and addressed.

Siddharth Varadarajan, one of the founder editors of news portal The Wire said the Indian Constitution does not grant the executive the power to sit in judgment over the suitability of content published by the media. “Granting an inter-ministerial committee of bureaucrats the power to pass judgment on what can and can’t be published or to decide on whether a media platform has responded adequately to grievances raised by members of the public has no basis in law and will amount to killing freedom of the press in India," he said.

Existing laws already define the reasonable restrictions on press freedom in India and any reader with a grievance is free to seek a legal remedy provided it falls within the four walls of the “reasonable restrictions" defined by the Constitution. In addition, it is total overreach to use Intermediary guidelines in the Information Technology Act to expand the regulatory net onto digital news media platforms, Varadarajan added.

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