Modi Sarkar wants ‘news on Digital Media organisations’ to register with the Registrar of Newspapers of India

But it also wants to abolish Registrar of Newspapers of India. Confused? Read on.

WrittenBy:Meghnad S
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Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has put out a notice inviting public comments for a shiny new Bill they are planning to introduce real soon. It’s called the “Registration of Press and Periodicals Bill, 2019” and it is going to bring about some major changes for the news industry.

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This new law will essentially replace the archaic  Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867. This Act was passed by the British Empire after the revolt of 1857, which was uncomfortable for them, to put it mildly. This 152-year-old Act was brought in to curb freedom of expression, through the press, during the revolt. So it’s a bit bizarre that no successive government has tried to repeal this Act in these many years.

Well, Javadekarji is clearly on the job. His ministry has put out the draft and is asking for comments on it. There are some problems in the law that need to be pointed out, which is exactly what I’m going to attempt to do. 

Not just that, it oddly seems like the Information & Broadcasting Ministry is trying to make laws around ‘Digital Media’ without really being clear about what it is.

Register or Die

The old Act of 1867 had one purpose in mind: To maintain a record of every publication, newspapers, journals and books being published in India. This was later amended in 1955 to establish the Registrar of Newspapers of India (RNI). This is where the story gets interesting because this new body was given powers to let a publication exist or die out.

Here’s what the Registrar is essentially supposed to do. For this, let’s assume you are an ambitious citizen who wants to start her own newspaper. To make it happen, you will have to:

1) Get approval for the title from the District Magistrate, who will, in turn, verify it with the RNI. This is to ensure there are no duplicates.

2) Submit a declaration form mentioning where the newspaper will be printed and who the printer is going to be. This also means that if you want to do it from different districts, you need to give a separate declaration for each district.

3) Once step 1 & 2 are done and you get a certificate from RNI, you must publish the newspaper within 42 days. If this newspaper is going to be bilingual, then it must be published in both languages.

4) You’ll also need a sort of a character certificate from the local police which will physically verify your press location and place from where the newspaper is being produced. (*cough* bribe them *cough*)

5) The newspaper you print should follow certain guidelines, which include things like the size of the masthead, imprint line, name of the editor and a million other things.

6) Every year, you have to submit annual statements to the RNI and also declare how much circulation your newspaper has.

If you don’t do all of this, you can’t start a newspaper in India. 

The reason why the number 6 exists is that once you start a newspaper, you’ll want advertisements. The survival of your newspaper depends on ads from the government and private enterprises. For that to happen, you need to tell the RNI how much your circulation is and that will decide at what rates you’ll get ads from the government under the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP). (*cough* fake the numbers *cough*)

Simply put, you have to follow the steps, register your newspaper with the RNI or you die. This whole process gives an incredible amount of power to the central government-run RNI on two fronts. One, they can arbitrarily decide to cancel your registration if they don’t like your newspaper and; two, they will approve your circulation details every year, declare it publicly and this will be used to get you ads.

The DAVP is already criticised for being partial and favouring news outlets that are government-friendly. These publications will get more government ads, paid for by taxpayer money than those who are seen as anti-government. 

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how the government controls the media. Therefore, Pay To Keep News Free! #subtleplug

Anyway, now that a new law is being proposed, a lot of this is going to change. For better or worse? That is a question of how you look at it.

Register, but where?

The new Registration of Press and Periodicals (RPP) Bill is proposing to “do away with the existing procedure of furnishing of a declaration by publishers/ printers before the District Magistrate and its subsequent authentication.” At the same time, it wants to make the registration process “to be effected centrally by the Press Registrar General as a simultaneous process.” Meaning, it wants to make registration quicker, centrally controlled and more efficient.

Not just that, the present Press and Registration of Books Act has a punishment of Rs 2000 or imprisonment of six months if a person is found to be publishing without registration with RNI. The new act proposes a penalty of Rs 50,000 for violating the draft law, but no prison time for the publisher or printer. There is also a possibility of the publication being deregistered. Meaning, if the publisher violates the new Act, they cannot be jailed but they can be fined and deregistered.

But, in all of this, there is one strange thing happening in the new draft law which makes everything messy. Remember how I said the old Press Registration and Books Act was amended in 1955 to establish RNI?

Specifically, this part: 

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Now, the RPP Bill wants to scrap the whole old 1857 act, including clause 19A which establishes RNI. Instead, the draft law appoints a Press Registrar General who will do the job of RNI. 

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In the old Act, the Press Registrar General was the one controlling RNI, now the registrar is a separate individual authority which will be appointed by the Central Government. Essentially, they’ve dissolved the Registrar of Newspaper of India.

Now the fun part. There is a clause in the Bill which requires publishers of “news on Digital Media” to register as well. Guess who they have to register with?

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Essentially, they have to register with RNI, which according to the new law will cease to exist and get replaced by Press Registrar General. This is where you thank the I&B Ministry for unveiling this draft so that we can genuinely point out these critical errors.

But this is not all, there’s more.

News on Digital Media = The whole of Internet?

The curious part in the Bill is not just the fact that ‘News on Digital Media’ is being included in the RNI registration process, but also how they define it.

This is what the draft Bill says:

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The word ‘news’ is not defined by the Act, so it’s safe to assume that they’re going with the dictionary definition on this one. Broadly speaking, ‘news’ is any new and noteworthy information which was not known before. 

Think about the definition again. Essentially, the Bill says that anything on the internet which is ‘news’ will count and therefore the publishers of such news will have to register with the RNI. Some questions immediately come to mind.

Does this include social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter? After all, any piece of new information given by anyone over the internet can count as ‘news’. Also, will the platform as a whole be required to register or will individual pages and handles on these platforms need to register separately? Will this definition also include Youtube, since this also includes video format?

Another strange thing in all this is how they define publish, publisher and publication.

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Here, it’s clear that they’re talking about ‘anything which is printed on paper’ but that doesn’t match with how they define ‘news on digital media’. Perhaps the intention is to only make newspapers and magazines with websites register with RNI.

All in all, it’s rather confusing what the intentions of the I&B Ministry are.

Summing up, this draft Registration of Press and Periodicals Bill replaces a 152-year-old Act which is supposed to make the registration of publications process easier. Yet, the way it’s drafted, it seems to be contradicting itself. On one hand, they abolish RNI but ask Digital Media organisations to register with it. They define publication as something that is printed on paper but also want digital news to be included within the purview of this Bill.

What is Digital Media?

Inconsistencies with the bill aside, the one thing which is clear from this draft is that I&B Ministry is just using “Digital Media” as a buzzword without really defining it. In September this year, the cabinet approved a new policy which allows 26% FDI under the government route in digital media companies that upload or stream news and current affairs. While there was much worry expressed about this, there was a point raised about how ‘Digital Media’ has not been properly defined. So who will this apply to exactly?

This draft bill brings up the same question: What exactly is “Digital Media”? Gone are the days when ‘publishing’ news was controlled by some big media organization where they controlled the flow of information. On the internet, everyone is technically a publisher who can give the news to millions of people in an instant. Journalists on twitter do this all the time, even when they’re not technically doing stories for their news organizations.

In such a situation, there is a desperate need for the government to tell everyone what it sees as ‘Digital Media’ before framing laws around it. The RPP Bill is a good opportunity for them to do this. At the moment, the definition is more or less all-encompassing and creates more confusion.

Since this is a draft Bill, it’s good that we can still point these things out and get some clarity from the government. Hopefully, they’ll make the necessary changes and give some reasons for these inconsistencies. 

If you want to give submissions and comments, they can be given on jspna-moib@nic.in by 25 December 2019. You can find the complete draft bill here and the old Act which it is replacing here. Go crazy!

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