The Centre has defended the legality of the new Information Technology (IT) Rules before the Delhi High Court, saying that the rules seek to "prevent the misuse of the freedom of press" and protect the citizens from fake news in digital media space which used to be largely unregulated.
The Centre, in its counter affidavit filed on a challenge to the constitutional validity of the new IT Rules, has submitted that although the right to freedom of speech and expression, including the freedom of press, is critical for a vibrant democracy like India, citizens "cannot be treated as passive consumers."
While submitting that there have been "past incidents of disinformation on digital media leading to disturbance of public order", the Centre has asserted that digital media "allows sensational content being re-circulated in a different context leading to misinterpretation by the audience", making it susceptible to being used as fake news.
"IT Rules seek to prevent the misuse of the freedom of press by empowering the audience with a mechanism to raise their grievances related to the content being published by the digital news publishers through a grievance redressal mechanism with an emphasis on the self-regulatory architecture for digital news publishers, and are therefore not only within the ambit of the Act, but also fulfill the object sought to be achieved by the (IT) Act," said the affidavit recently filed jointly by the Ministry Of Information and Broadcasting and Ministry Of Electronics and Information Technology.
"Before the notification of the Rules, digital news media was largely unregulated. It is submitted that before the notification of the Rules, no such mechanism was currently in operation with regard to news on digital media, thereby leading to a discriminatory imbalance within the news media ecosystem with respect to content on traditional media," it added.
The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which were notified in February, impose several obligation on online entities including an obligation to take down contentious content quicker, appoint grievance redressal officers and assist in investigations.
In its affidavit, the Centre has claimed that the regulation of media content in the electronic form, including news and current affairs content and online curated content, is well within the scope of the IT Act and the new rules do not provide any additional restrictions apart from what is already prohibited by existing statutes.
The Centre has argued that as opposed to the traditional media, the reach of digital media is "far wider as compared to traditional media" which "makes it a powerful tool for information campaigns by foreign state and non-state actors to influence public opinion in any nation".
"Online platforms, for commercial reasons, may have a tendency to retain the consumer on their platform for a longer period. This results in proliferation and spread of news content that appears to be sensational. The risk of false or misleading information is greater over the internet as the same can be spread rapidly within the society," the affidavit said.
"It is an economic environment marked by competition for eye-balls and regulatory vacuum with respect to the content on digital media has led to spread fake news and other potentially harmful content without any accountability of digital news publishers," it added.
The Centre has also claimed that there has been no discernible impact of the new IT rules on digital content and "over 1,800 digital media publishers, over 97% of them being publishers of news and current affairs content, have appointed a Grievance Redressal Officer (Level-I), and furnished their information to the Ministry."
The high court had earlier issued notices and sought responses of the Centre on the petitions by Foundation for Independent Journalism, The Wire, Quint Digital Media Ltd and Pravda Media Foundation which is the parent company of Alt News.
The petition by Quint Digital Media Ltd challenged the constitutional validity of the IT Rules under the provisions of Information Technology Act, 2000, inasmuch as they purport to apply to "publishers of news and current affairs content'' as part of digital media, and consequently regulate these entities under the Rules by imposing government oversight and a Code of Ethics' which stipulates such vague conditions as good taste, decency and prohibition of half-truths".
The pleas sought striking down of the specific part of the IT Rules on the ground that it violates Article 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(g) of the Constitution creating a chilling effect on media freedom, Article 14 of the Constitution by creating an unreasonable classification and by setting up a parallel adjudicatory mechanism to be overseen by the officials of the executive and is ultra vires the IT Act.
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