NEW DELHI: Digital news sites have filed a petition in the Delhi high court challenging the government’s rules that define them as intermediaries, along with social media, and give the executive sanction to block or regulate their content, according to a report by legal website Bar and Bench.

The petition has been filed by Foundation for Independent Journalism, a non-profit organisation that runs news portal The Wire, the Foundation’s director and The Wire founding editor, MK Venu, and Dhanya Rajendran, Editor-in-Chief of The News Minute.

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A bench comprising chief justice DN Patel and justice Jasmeet Singh was urged to grant petitioners interim protection, so that no coercive steps are taken under the new rules against digital news media outlets until the next hearing, scheduled for 16 April.

Appearing for the petitioner, senior advocate Nithya Ramakrishnan contended that the new rules, particularly in their regulation of news media and current affairs, go beyond the parent Act i.e. the Information Technology Act, 2000. The new rules “go far beyond anything that is permissible in a democracy”, she argued clarifying that the petition is not being filed against the regulation of OTT media or other platforms.

“We have argued that the IT Rules are clearly ultra vires the IT Act and are confident our challenge will prevail,” Siddharth Vardarajan, one of the founder editors of The Wire said.

The petitioners have termed the new rules an overreach on grounds that the Information Technology Act is limited to providing “legal recognition, authentication and facilitation of interchange of electronic data and electronic communication, and its receipt as evidence.”

It does not deal with the regulation of electronic content, except where there is cyber terrorism, sexually explicit material, child pornography, tampering, theft etc. involved. None of these offences are of any relevance to a digital news portal. Further, while sites can be blocked under in emergency situations on a government direction to intermediaries, there is no scope under this provision to dictate the content of news media portals. Section 69A, IT Act is only targeted either at an “agency of the government” or an “intermediary”. Digital news platforms are neither.

The petition also said that the rules seek to impose upon the non-intermediary digital news media a three-tier regulatory system to administer “a loose-ranging Code of Ethics that contains wide and vague terms as ‘half-truths’, ‘good taste’, ‘decency’, ‘suggestive innuendos” which is contrary to a Supreme Court judgment that had struck down Section 66-A of the IT Act for being vague.

With the new rules, the merest complaint would trigger central government interference in the content of digital news platforms, the petition said. If at all the news media is sought to be regulated, it has to be “through a statute dedicated for that purpose, independent of the executive,” advocate Ramakrishnan said.

The petitioner also argued that a representation seeking the repeal of the new rules was sent by DigiPub News India Foundation in February. However, a petition has now been moved in court since no reply has been received on the same yet. DigiPub represents interests of digital media organisations in India and was founded in October by publishers such as Newslaundry, Scroll, The News Minute, The Wire, and others.

“We have faith that the judiciary will hear out point that Section 69A has been wrongly used to bring digital media news organisations under the guidelines. We have explained to the court how upon the merest complaint, Central Government interference is triggered on all manner of content – far beyond what is mentioned in Section 69-A,” Rajendran said.

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