Editors Guild of India raises concerns over “draconian provisions” in the new Press Bill

A Bill that replaces existing legislation which governs the registration of print and publishing industry has been passed by the Rajya Sabha. Concerns are being raised that the Bill is an attempt to curb freedom of press by denying publication of any periodical by persons convicted of “terrorist acts” or “acting against the security of the State”. 

THE Rajya Sabha on August 3 passed the Press and Registration of Periodicals Bill, 2023 updating the process of registration of periodicals.

In the statement of object and reasons attached to the Bill, the government has justified its introduction stating that “in the present age of free press and the commitment of the government to uphold media freedom, this pre-independence archaic law is not in sync with the current media landscape.

If passed by Lok Sabha, the Bill will replace the Press And Registration of Books Act, 1867.

Through a press release of August 6, the Editors Guild of India (EGI), India’s leading news editor forum with the stated aim of protecting press freedom, expressed concerns over certain “draconian provisions” in the Bill.

Since the Bill has already been passed by Rajya Sabha , the EGI has urged the Lok Sabha speaker to refer the Bill to a parliamentary select committee “to allow a deep discussion on the issues that are crucial for press freedom”.

The Bill introduces a provision granting the press registrar power to deny or cancel the registration of a periodical if an applicant has been convicted of an offence involving a terrorist act or unlawful activity, or for “for having done anything against the security of the State”.

Given the liberal and arbitrary use” of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA), laws on sedition and other such laws that may bring an applicant within the definition of aforementioned provision, the EGI has raised concerns that the right to bring out publications of persons critical of the Union government may be restricted due the said provision.

The EGI has also flagged a provision giving the press registrar the power to enter any premise where the business of a periodical is carried out to inspect, take copies of documents and to ask any question necessary.

“Against the security of the State”

Significantly, the Bill prohibits any person from registering a periodical “having done anything against the security of the State.”

Identically worded provisions apply to cancellation of the certificate of registration of a periodical by the press registrar.

The Bill clarifies that for the purpose of the provisions on registration and cancellation, the terms “terrorist act” and “unlawful activity” shall have the meanings assigned to them by the UAPA.

The EGI’s claim about the UAPA’s “liberal and arbitrary” use can be understood in light of two instances when terror-related charges were imposed on journalists.

In October, 2020, journalist Sidheeq Kappan was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police while travelling to Hathras to report on a case of gang rape and murder.

Kappan was later charged under provisions of the UAPA, the Indian Penal Code and The Information Technology Act, 2000.

In February this year, Kappan was finally released on bail from Lucknow district jail after having spent 850 days behind bars.

In March this year, Kashmiri journalist Irfan Mehraj was arrested by the National Investigative Agency (NIA) and charged under the UAPA.

Mehraj worked with the human rights group Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies and has been accused in a terror-funding and promotion of secessionism case.

Irfan Mehraj’s arrest continues a trend in Kashmir of security forces arresting journalists because of their critical reporting of the establishment,” the EGI had said in a statement on March 22.

In its statement, the EGI had urged the state administration to “respect democratic values and stop the harassment of journalists in the name of national security.”

“Specified authority”

Under the Bill, the press registrar may authorise a “specified authority” to suspend or cancel the registration of a periodical “in such circumstances and manner as may be prescribed”.

This “specified authority could be a district magistrate or collector or any such other officer as the state or Union territory government may designate.

In effect, any officer working under the State, including a police officer, may be authorised to suspend or cancel the registration of a periodical functioning under their respective jurisdiction.

The circumstances and manner in which a “specified authority may use this power will be laid down in the rules made under the legislation.

The EGI has called this power of delegation “deeply distressing”.

‘Simplified’ process of registration

Under the 1867 Act, every printer and publisher of a newspaper is required to furnish a declaration before the local magistrate specifying the title of the newspaper, the language in which it is to be published, and the periodicity of its publication.

Before being allowed to publish, the above declaration is required to be “authenticated by the signature and official seal of the magistrate”. This declaration is then forwarded to the press registrar for the purpose of making entries into their register.

Under the proposed procedure for registration of periodicals, the printer of that periodical will be required to “furnish an intimation” on the online portal to be made for the purpose.

Such intimation will be processed by the press registrar, who may issue a certificate of registration.

However, the Bill specifies that the intimation will also have to be given to the “specified authority”.

Since it is at the discretion of a state or Union territory government to designate a “specified authority”, which may even be a law enforcement agency, the updated procedure may not be considered to be as ‘simple’ as the statement of objects and reasons claims.

Concerns on Centre’s power to make rules

The Bill grants the Union government the power to frame rules and guidelines for carrying out the provisions of the proposed legislation.

A “memorandum regarding delegated legislation” attached to the Bill specifies matters in respect to which such rules can be made, though it is not an exhaustive list.

For legislation to grant the government the power to make rules is not uncommon.

The EGI has raised concerns that “it has been seen time and again that the power to frame rules under various acts has been used in arbitrary as well as excessively intrusive manner.”

The EGI has cited The Information Technology Rules, 2021 and 2023, as examples of delegated legislation granting the government “sweeping powers”.

The guild has urged that all rules be clearly defined within the primary legislation itself “for the sake of preserving freedom of press”.