After , , and criticised the central government’s recent amendment to the IT Rules 2021, journalists joined the chorus, describing the amendment as “censorship”.
The amendment, notified on April 6, says social media companies and other intermediaries must take down content deemed fake by a government fact-check unit. , intermediaries are not permitted to “host, display, upload, publish, transmit, store, update or share any information in respect to any business of the central government that is identified as fake or false or misleading by such fact-check unit”.
Intermediaries that don’t comply will lose their “safe harbour” protection in India.
Initial reports suggested this unit will be the Press Information Bureau’s much-maligned fact-checking unit but Rajeev Chandrasekhar, minister of state for electronics and IT, that this is not mentioned in the amendment. He also assured the press that the new obligations apply only to intermediaries, not the media.
But journalists aren’t buying it. As flagged in by the News Minute’s Dhanya Rajendran, news organisations are worried that the new amendment is yet another attempt to “muzzle the media”.
Hartosh Singh Bal, executive editor of the Caravan, told Newslaundry the new amendment is a “severe form of censorship, aimed at suppressing independent news and limiting free speech”. “Rather than engaging in consultations, the government seems to have its own agenda,” Bal said, “which is to eliminate any form of independent reportage on its own actions.”
Ritu Kapur, managing director of the Quint, which runs its own fact-checking initiative, asked whether the government fact-check unit will be “independent of the state or an arm of the central government”. How will neutrality be ensured and what sort of credentials must a potential member of this unit possess?
In the absence of clarity, she said, we might see a “potential increase in self-censorship”.
Anusha Ravi Sood, political editor of South First, a digital news website headquartered in Hyderabad, pointed out that in recent times, some of the “best investigative, in-depth, courageous reportage seeking accountability from the government has come from digital media platforms”.
“The union government’s move to set up its own wing to decide what is fake and what isn’t reeks of malafide intent to crack down on reportage that demands accountability,” she said.
This will have a “chilling effect”, said Article 14 founder Samar Halarnkar, because many in the digital media will “think twice before doing stories concerning the government out of fear they could be taken down”.
“The government can now simply say a story concerning the government is fake and you will be legally bound to take it down,” he said. This way, the government plays the role of “judge, jury and executioner” – a statement echoed by both in their editorials today.
Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of the Wire, said the amendment will “lead to censorship of news that the government itself will decide is fake or misleading – two terms that are not defined in any statute that Parliament has passed. This means this censorship is a violation of the constitutional guarantee of free speech and press freedom, subject only to ‘reasonable restrictions’ as defined by law.”
Sood added that Chandrasekhar’s clarification – that the PIB fact-check unit will not necessarily be chosen as the arbiter of “fake news” – isn’t that comforting.
“The new, supposedly independent unit is not expected to be any better, given that it will function as the government’s representative,” she said. “Even without the rules, the government has excessive power to take down content with the threat of withdrawing immunity from intermediaries.”
She cited the recent case of journalists from Punjab having their during the crackdown on Amritpal Singh. “This demonstrates that intermediaries are willing to comply with the government to evade legal action.”
Newslaundry emailed a questionnaire about these concerns to Rajeev Chandrasekhar. This report will be updated if he responds.