The Quint’s petition said that the executive power to virtually dictate content to digital news portal would squarely violate Articles 14 and Article 19 (1)(a) – equality before law and right to freedom of speech and expression, respectively – of the Constitution. The new IT rules, issued by the Centre on February 25, seek to regulate digital news portals by imposing government oversight and a “Code of Ethics”, therefore going beyond the scope of the IT Act, according to the petition.
A division bench of Chief Justice DN Patel and Justice Jasmeet Singh took up the petition on Monday. The bench sought the reply of the government on the plea by April 16, the next hearing date.
“The IT Rules, 2021 introduce digital portals with ‘news and current affairs content’ as a specific and targeted class to be subject to regulation by a loose-ranging ‘Code of Ethics’ and to be consummately overseen by Central Government officers,” said the Quint’s petition.
According to the petition, the Quint’s editor received an e-mail on March 11, from the ministry of information and broadcasting, informing them that Part III, that is the code of ethics and procedure and safeguards in relation to digital media, of the impugned rules have come into force and that the communication was for information and necessary compliance.
Advocate Nitya Ramakrishnan, appearing for the Quint, said that the government had started taking action on the rules and requested that no coercive action be taken against them.
The petition further added, “Upon the merest complaint or even without any, space has been created for the State to enter and control news and views by way of deletion, modification or blocking, censure, compelled apology and more. Clubbing online news portals with social media as distinct from the print news media is unfair and irrational classification.”
Digipub News India Foundation, a representative association of digital news organisations, including the Quint, had written to the government, that some specifics of the IT Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code Rules 2021 “appear to go against the fundamental principle of news and its role in a democracy”.
The Editors Guild of India had also a statement where it said that it was "deeply concerned" that the new rules could fundamentally alter how publishers of news operate over the internet and have the potential to seriously undermine media freedom in India".