“We do not say news media is beyond regulations. It has to be done by way of a statute dedicated only for the news media,” senior advocate Nitya Ramakrishnan, appearing for the petitioners, submitted.
“The new Rules 2021 dealing with the digital media go far beyond anything that is permissible in a democracy”, she said.
Ramakrishnan added that the Information Technology Act, 2000 had no provision to regulate digital media and thus the 2021 Rules were ultra vires the 2000 Act.
A division bench of Chief Justice DN Patel and Jasmeet Singh sought to know the response of the Centre and issued notice to it to file an affidavit.
The plea, filed through advocate Prasanna, argued that an offence under Section 66-A of the IT Act penalising content that is ‘offensive’ or causes ‘annoyance’ was struck down on grounds of vagueness by the Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal v Union Of India (2015) 5 SCC 1.
“The IT Rules, 2021 go far beyond the remit of the parent Act and seek to regulate digital news media by imposing a ‘Code of Ethics’, with all manner of stipulations as to ‘half-truths’, ‘good taste’, ‘decency’ etc., and vest power of interference ultimately with the Central Government as the chief regulator, at the highest of the three tiers”, the plea stated.
It added that the 2021 Rules brought back some elements of Section 66-A and went far beyond it, by way of prescription, to be administered, adjudicated upon and supervised by the Government. “Thus, they not only exceed the parent Act, but also contravene the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shreya Singhal, and therefore will not be saved by any general rule-making power under Section 87(1) of the IT Act that is limited to carrying out the provisions of the parent Act”.
The Centre issued the rules on February 25 to regulate the functioning of online media portals and publishers, over-the-top (OTT platforms), and social media intermediaries. These rules, inter-alia, require OTT platforms and news portals to formulate a robust three-tier grievance redressal mechanism.
Under these rules, all news portals and OTT platforms that operate in India will also be required to inform the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting of details of their respective entities within 30 days of the notification of the rules.
The rules now require news portals to comply with the norms of the Press Council of India (under the Press Council Act 1978), and the Programme Code under the Cable Television Networks Regulation) Act 1995.
Digipub News India Foundation, a representative association of digital news organisations, including The Wire, had earlier written to the government taking exception to “some specifics” of the rules.
In a letter to Prakash Javadekar, minister for I&B, and Ravi Shankar Prasad, minister for electronics and IT, the foundation had argued that the rules “appear to go against the fundamental principle of news and its role in a democracy”. The Editors Guild of India has also written to the government saying the new rules would “seriously undermine” media freedom in India.
Several leading digital rights activists and newspapers, including The Indian Express, The Telegraph, The Hindu, Nikhil Pahwa, founder of Medianama and the Internet Freedom Foundation have been vocal critics of the new regulatory laws.
They have alleged that the new guidelines breach the freedom of speech, and will be used to crackdown on dissent in the country. An editorial published in The Hindu titled, “wolf in watchdog’s clothing,” had described the new rules as predatory.