Stating that the “determination of fake news cannot be in the sole hands of the government”, the Editors Guild of India has expressed “deep concern” over the draft amendments to IT Rules 2021, which gives authority to the Press Information Bureau (PIB) to determine the veracity of news reports.
In a statement released on January 18 and signed by president Seema Mustafa, general secretary Anant Nath and treasurer Shriram Pawar, the guild said that “it is deeply concerned by the draft amendment made to the Information Technology Rules, 2021, by the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MEITY) that gives authority to PIB to determine the veracity of news reports, and anything termed ‘fake’ will have to be taken down by online intermediaries, including social media platforms”.
The amendment was uploaded on the Ministry’s website on January 17, 2023.
“The determination of fake news cannot be in the sole hands of the government and will result in the censorship of the press,” the statement read.
It added, “Already multiple laws exist to deal with content that is found to be factually incorrect. This new procedure basically serves to make it easier to muzzle the free press, and will give sweeping powers to the PIB, or any ‘other agency authorised by the Central Government for fact checking’, to force online intermediaries to take down content that the government may find problematic.”
The guild said it felt that the words “in respect of any business of the Central Government” seems to give it a carte blanche to determine what is fake or not with respect to its own work. This will stifle legitimate criticism of the government and will have an adverse impact on the ability of the press to hold governments to account, which is a vital role it plays in a democracy, the guild stated.
Earlier, the guild had raised its concerns over the IT Rules when they were first introduced in March 2021, claiming that they empower the government to block, delete, or modify published news anywhere in the country without any judicial oversight. Various provisions in these rules have the potential to place unreasonable restrictions on digital news media, and consequently media at large.
The Guild has urged the Ministry to expunge this new amendment, and to initiate meaningful consultations with press bodies, media organisations, and other stakeholders.
Meanwhile, DIGIPUB, the largest consortium of digital news outlets in India, has also raised its concern through a statement on January 19, signed by chairperson Dhanya Rajendran, and general secretary Abhinandan Sekhri, and sought the withdrawal of the proposed amendments.
The amendments mandate that intermediaries (such as social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp) must take down any news identified as “fake or false” by government agencies, and further extends to other departments of the Central Government, it said, adding that DIGIPUB “firmly believes that the nuisance of disinformation /misinformation needs to be checked. However, the proposed amendments assign arbitrary and discretionary power to the government of India to determine whether the content is “fake” without prescribing any procedures or recourse therefrom.”
It added that the Government is not the only stakeholder in a thriving democracy. “The media (electronic, print and digital), information activists, civil society etc., are equally invested… Therefore, the Government should not appropriate powers to legitimise what information/ news is real or fake.”
The proposed amendments can potentially become a convenient institutional mechanism to muzzle the press, it said, while adding that it “could undermine a journalist’s duty to speak truth to power.”