“Most of the digital news media organisations are small, working with 20-30 people. They are not comparable to big legacy media organisations. These rules impose onerous conditions on them,” Manu Sebastian, managing editor of Live Law, explained why the legal news website moved the Kerala High Court against the new rules for digital news media brought by the Narendra Modi government.
On Wednesday, the court sent a notice asking the government to respond to the petition. It also granted the news website interim protection from being targeted by the government. “The respondents shall not take any coercive action against the petitioners for non-compliance of the provisions contained in Part 3 of Exhibit P1 Rules, as the petitioners are publishers of law reports and legal literature,” Justice PV Asha ruled.
The Information Technology Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code Rules 2021, issued on February 25, require all digital media platforms to appoint a grievance redress officer to examine complaints about their work, follow a “code of ethics”, and not publish content that goes against vague notions of “decency” or “good taste”.
"These rules can push digital news portals to self-censor,” Sebastian argued. “They will have to think twice before publishing any content, whether it would be offensive to someone or whether there’s scope for a complaint from any person and so on.”
The website has challenged the validity of the rules on the grounds that they have been formulated under the Information Technology Act, which doesn’t mention controlling or regulating a digital news platform.
Advocate Santosh Mathew, appearing for Live Law, told the court it was an “irony” to call the body the news rules require digital news platforms to form for regulating their content “self-regulatory”. It would have to be registered with the I&B ministry, which will then decide whether the body and its members were acceptable to the government.
He also explained how obligations under Part 3 of the new rules were impractical for small digital news organisations. As per the rules, if an organisation receives a grievance, it must acknowledge it within 24 hours and its self-regulatory committee must respond within 15 days.
“Now there might just be 3 or 4 people running the organisation and the government would want a full-time grievance officer to take care of this, it is all impractical,” Mathew told Newslaundry.
Sebastian explained how implementing the rules would be a nightmare for platforms such as Live Law which do not have “external funding” and run on “limited subscription means”.
“The complaints received by the portal have to be registered with the ministry and you have to give monthly updates to the ministry,” he said. “With our limited staff we won’t be able to do all this as we are busy with editorial work, which means we will have to employ a person full time to handle this.”
In its plea, Live Law has also taken exception to Part 2 of the new rules that deal with content on intermediaries such as WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook. Sebastian explained that Live Law relies on Twitter to report courtroom proceedings live and on WhatsApp groups to disseminate its reports. It would be hard for the news platform to do its work smoothly if these rules are implemented given that they require intermediaries to take down “objectionable” content based on a complaint, without giving the originator of the content a say in it, he explained.
Curbing freedom of speech
In the court today, Mathew also argued that the rules violated the rights guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution, which upholds the freedom of speech and expression. “Rashid and Manu write articles for Live Law, and as per the rules the government can ask platforms like Twitter to pull down those articles which affects the fundamental right of the petitioners under Article 19 (1)(a),” he told Newslaundry.
MA Rashid is a founder of Live Law. He and Manu Sebastian, “in their personal capacities”, are also petitioners in the matter.
Sebastian pointed out that apart from reporting court proceedings, Live Law publishes articles and opinion pieces which often criticise judgements and judicial stands. “So any person can file a complaint regarding these and we would have to respond,” he feared.
He explained that platforms such as Live Law are vital because they bring out what transpires inside courtrooms, including contentious remarks made by judges.
By way of examples, he pointed to his website’s coverage of Chief Justice of India SA Bobde’s in a rape case and Madhya Pradesh High Court judge Rohit Arya’s observation during a hearing on comedian Munawar Faruqui’s bail application that ”.
The new rules could be used to curb such reporting, Sebastian said.
“We received emails regarding our coverage of the matter by groups who didn’t take the coverage well and took objection to the reports,” he added. “These rules give a mechanism for such people to formally lodge complaints and take action.”