The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2023 (IT Amendment Rules, 2023) were notified by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) on April 6, 2023. Along with various regulations concerning online gaming, the amendment also grants authority to a “fact check unit of the Central Government” to categorise and remove any online content pertaining to “any business of the Central Government” that is deemed “fake, false, or misleading”.
There was widespread condemnation of the amendments by media organisations and press bodies as they would have a deeply adverse impact on press freedom.
AIM has now filed a writ petition before the Bombay High Court challenging the constitutional validity of this provision of the IT Rules Amendment, 2023 for being ultra vires the Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act, 2000), and violating the right to freedom of speech and expression. The Bombay High Court directed the Government to file its Reply to this petition by June 20, and has listed the matters for final hearing on July 6 and 7, 2023. The undertaking provided by the Government not to constitute its fact check unit has been extended to July 10, 2023.
Speaking on this, B Srinivasan, President of AIM and MD of Ananda Vikatan said, “the government chose a draconian path of creating a handpicked appointee group that could technically pull up any content and brand it as a “fake or misleading”, and under that pretext, censor it. This kind of arbitrary moves must be nipped in the bud and I am glad we at AIM can contribute to the dialogue for a reasonable solution to this problem that has been brought up on by the government”.
Anant Nath, Vice President of AIM and Executive Publisher of Delhi Press further added, “the amendment made to the IT Rules with respect to a fact checking unit with sweeping powers to determine what is “fake or misleading” is akin to censorship, against principles of natural justice, as well as against guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court itself in earlier cases. This has the potential to create an all powerful Orwellian censorship system, which will have deeply adverse implications for press freedom. We are extremely pleased that notice has been issued and the rules stayed for now, and hope that they are withdrawn eventually”.
The Association of Indian Magazines deeply appreciates the help of the legal team that has spearheaded this effort. The petition was drafted by the lawyers at Internet Freedom Foundation, and the Guild thanks IFF team- Advocates Apar Gupta, Tanmay Singh, Gayatri Malhotra and Radhika Roy. Bombay counsel Aditi Saxena filed it, and Adv. Gautam Bhatia of IFF appeared on behalf of Indian Magazine Association.