The Delhi High Court on Tuesday, 9 March, issued a notice to the Union of India in a plea moved by Indian news and opinion website The Wire, challenging the constitutional validity of the new rules made by the Centre under the Information Technology Act to regulate digital media.
A division bench headed by Chief Justice DN Patel was hearing the petition on Tuesday. The matter will be heard next on 16 April. The petitioners in the case are The Foundation for Independent Journalism (a non-profit company that publishes The Wire); Dhanya Rajendran, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The News Minute, and MK Venu, Founding Editor of The Wire.
Appearing in court on Tuesday, the counsel for the petitioners, senior lawyer Nitya Ramakrishnan argued that the Act does not recognize newspaper and news agencies at all.
“Special categorization has been created in the Rules which has put an additional regulatory burden on news media and current affairs. This is against central government’s own affidavit before the Supreme Court in the Google case,” she further stated.
She argued that powers under Section 69A of the Act can only be invoked when the grounds therein are triggered and that new grounds such as defamation, innuendos, etc. are not part of it.
“They cannot place a whole regulatory burden under Section 69A on news and current affairs agencies. 69A only provides for issuing directions to intermediaries,” the senior lawyer said in court.
The New IT Rules
The 30-page document, titled Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, define social media companies and suggest a three-tier mechanism for regulation of all online media, which confers blocking powers to an inter-ministerial committee.
These rules also require social media intermediaries like Facebook and Twitter to deploy “automated tools” like AI to remove objectionable content and also make it mandatory for messaging platforms like WhatsApp to enable traceability of the first originator of the message, a move that could compromise end-to-end encryption.
The government’s recent move to introduce the new IT rules, which mean to regulate social media and digital news platforms, may have been part of a roadmap planned out by a Group of Ministers (GoM) during June and July 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recently accessed report shows.
No Basis in Law’
Varadarajan told Live Law that the Constitution does not grant authority to the executive to sit in judgment over the suitability of content published by the media, and said:
“Granting an inter-ministerial committee of bureaucrats the power to pass judgment on what can and cannot be published or to decide on whether a social 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.”
Varadarajan further reiterated that existing laws already define reasonable restrictions on press freedom in India and legal remedy can be sought by any reader or government official in case of grievances.
“The media cannot be compelled to address ‘grievances’ that go beyond the Lakshman Rekha.”