‘New IT rules are regressive, threaten press freedom’: Editors Guild writes to PM Modi

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New digital media rules and the three-tier mechanism to enforce the code of ethics are “regressive” and would be “adverse to the freedom of the press”,  the Editors Guild of India (EGI) has said in  a letter written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi

The government had on 25 February 2021 announced the Information Technology (Intermediary guidelines and digital media ethics codes) Rules 2021 under the Information and Technology Act, 2000.

“Part III of the Rules mandates that digital news media establish a self-regulating mechanism to resolve grievances raised by any person and empowers the government to delete, modify and block content published by digital news media. We are conscious of the challenges posed by the digital age, and as such, we recognize the need for self-regulation Of digital news media. However, we have grave concerns regarding the rules, which can fundamentally alter how news publishers operate over the Internet and undermine the freedom of the press in the country,” the EGI said in a recent letter to Prime Minister Modi according to Press Trust of India.

The letter has also been addressed to Union law and justice minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Union information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar.

According to the new rules, digital news media and over-the-top platforms must adhere to the code of ethics under the rules which will be enforced by a three-tier structure. Level one includes self-regulation by publishers, level two includes self-regulation by a self-regulating body of publishers and level three will be Central government oversight.

The EGI said this oversight mechanism permits officers of the government to block, delete or modify news published by digital news media which “affects the publishers’ fundamental right to expression and citizens’ right to access different points of views both guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution”.

It said, “The concern here is the absolute decision-making power conferred upon the executive, which will inhibit digital news media and thereby press at large from fulfilling its obligations as the Fourth Estate. The Guild urges the ministry to withdraw such an onerous and regressive regulatory mechanism, and to initiate consultations for putting in place a more equitable self-regulatory system.”

Under the new rules, anyone can file a grievance, and the publisher will have to respond within 15 days of receiving it. The guild said that compelling publishers to respond to each and every complainant within a period as short as 15 days is “onerous”. “This again will be adverse to press freedom. The rules should have been accompanied by a form containing the details which the complainant should be obligated to furnish, to lodge a complaint. As of now, the publishers may have to spend resources to respond to incomplete, ill-intentioned and even anonymous complaints,” it said.

The guild said the rules were announced and notified on the same day, and the Union government did not consult any stakeholders, including EGI, in the drafting of the rules. “A consultation before notification of any rule ensures that concerns of stakeholders are addressed prior to the notification of the rule and that no stakeholder is disproportionately affected. In this case, consultation was critical as this is the first time the government is regulating publishers of news and current affairs and online curated content.

“In view of the concerns raised above, we request you to put the rules on abeyance and undertake meaningful consultation with all the stakeholders,” it said.

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