Centre's Fact-Check Unit Put On Hold, Top Court Cites "Freedom Of Speech"

The bench led by Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud did not comment on the merits of the case.

A day after the Centre notified the Fact Check Unit under the Press Information Bureau to "address the challenge of fake news", the Supreme Court today paused the notification, setting aside the Bombay High Court's go-ahead to the government's move.

A bench of Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, Justice JB Pardiwala and Justice Manoj Misra said the matter concerns freedom of expression. The court, however, did not comment on the merits of the case.

Stand-up comic Kunal Kamra and the Editors Guild of India had approached Bombay High Court, seeking a direction to restrain the Centre from notifying the Fact Check Unit.

The provision for a Fact Check Unit was part of the amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, brought by the Centre last year.

Under the rules, if this unit comes across or is informed about any posts that are fake, false, and contain misleading facts about the business of the government, it would flag them to social media intermediaries. Once such a post is flagged, the intermediary has the option of taking it down or putting a disclaimer. In taking the second option, the intermediary risks legal action.

The petitioners had expressed concerns of censorship and said the new rules would restrict users from expressing themselves freely on social media. They had said the social media intermediaries would readily remove posts flagged by the government's Fact Check Unit to avoid legal troubles.

Mr Kamra also challenged the new IT rules for violating his right to work as a political satirist and expressed fear of losing his social media access if his content is flagged by the Fact Check Unit. The rules will allow the government to flag any content critical of its policies, he said.

The Centre had responded that the rules were issued in public interest to crack down on fake news. It had also said the fact-check will be based on evidence and such decisions can be challenged in courts.

The Centre also said political opinions, satire and comedy are not linked to government business; the petitioners have argued that 'business of the Central Government' is a "vague" area.

On March 11, the Bombay High Court refused to grant an interim stay on setting up the Fact-Check Unit, noting that no grave and irreparable loss would be caused.

The single-judge bench noted that the petitioners fear that exchange of information in the form of political discourses or comments, political satire, and so on may be targeted if the Fact Check Unit is notified. However, the Solicitor General has said the unit only intends to deal with government business in its strict sense, and did not aim to muzzle political views, satire or sarcasm, it noted.

The petitions against the new IT Rules were referred to a single-judge bench after a division bench's split verdict in January. While one of the judges on the division bench had struck down the rules, terming them unconstitutional, another had upheld them.

Last year, the Centre had assured the court that it would not notify the Fact Check Unit until a final verdict on IT rules. But after the split verdict, the Centre said the oral assurance could be extended only until the third judge took up the matter. The petitioners had then filed interim applications, seeking a pause on notifying the Fact Check Unit. After getting no relief from Bombay High Court, the petitioners approached the Supreme Court.