ON April 4, the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting ordered the blocking of 22 news channels operating on YouTube, three Twitter accounts, one Facebook account and one news website as per its emergency powers under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules of 2021, as per a government press release on April 5. Rule 16 of the 2021 IT Rules allows the government to pass any directions that it considers necessary “in any case of emergency, for which no delay is acceptable” for blocking content that fits within the grounds specified in Section 69A(1) of the Information Technology Act, 2000. Section 69A(1) permits the blocking of online content on grounds of “sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above”.
The Ministry cited the alleged spreading of “fake news” by them, particularly in relation to subjects such as the Indian Armed Forces, Jammu and Kashmir and the ongoing situation in Ukraine, as the grounds for blocking these. This marks the first time that such a measure has been taken under the 2021 IT Rules.
Among the 22 blocked YouTube channels, four were news channels based in Pakistan. The remaining 18 were India-based channels. All blocked Twitter accounts were based in Pakistan, and were the Twitter handle and news website associated with one of the blocked YouTube news platforms. Put together, the blocked channels cumulatively have a viewership in excess of 260 crores.
In a separate statement issued on Tuesday, Anurag Singh Thakur, the Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, stated that the aforementioned channels engaged in the spreading of “misinformation impacting India’s sovereignty, national security [and] relations with other countries”, particularly in relation to two major world crises – the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.
Citing the latter, the government press released held that misinformation surrounding Indian policy regarding the situation in Ukraine “aimed at jeopardizing India’s foreign relations with other countries”. The press release included screenshots of some of the false claims made by the banned YouTube channels.
Crucially, the Minister’s statement also hinted at an intention and readiness to continue to take such measures in the future.
The press release also referred to some of the blocked content as “anti-India content posted from multiple social media accounts operated in a coordinated manner from Pakistan”. Some of the blocked accounts, as per the press release, used logos and templates of certain TV news channels, including images of their news anchors, as well as false thumbnails, in order to intentionally mislead viewers as regards the content.
Since December last year, the government has blocked 78 YouTube channels, as well as other social media accounts, on grounds relating to national security, sovereignty and integrity of India, and public order. However, this marks the first time that news channels have been blocked by specifically invoking the emergency powers under the 2021 IT Rules.
It is pertinent to note that the IT Rules themselves have been widely criticized by digital rights experts as undemocratic and anti-Constitutional on the grounds of giving sweeping powers to the government in the area of censorship of content, including the power to remove content altogether. This led to the filing of several petitions before various High Courts that sought to challenge the Rules on the grounds of exceeding the powers outlined under the parent act itself. The Bombay High Court had, in August last year, in response to a petition challenging the Rules by The Leaflet, stayed some of the clauses of the Rules for being violative of the freedom of speech and expression and beyond the rule-making power of the Executive under the Information Technology Act. The Kerala and Madras High Courts passed similar orders.
It is evident from the Minister’s statement that in all likelihood, the Rules will continue to be invoked to block YouTube and other online content providers in a similar manner.