In April, the Indian government brought in new rules that gave it the power to declare news related to it as “fake, false or misleading” if its own fact check unit said so.
The amended Information Technology (IT) Rules apply to social media intermediaries like Twitter and Facebook, who will have to take down content flagged by the government’s fact-checking unit.
If these firms don’t comply, they can lose their “safe harbour” status – a provision under the IT Act which prevents them from being held liable for third-party content posted on their platforms.
The rules are being challenged in a court and the government has said that it will not be notifying the fact check unit until 5 July. This means that the new rules cannot be implemented at the moment.
But the government’s move has raised concerns over the adverse implications it may have for press freedom in India.
The Editors Guild of India has called the new rules “draconian” and “against principles of natural justice and akin to censorship”. The Guild and India’s news broadcasters association have said that these new rules have been made without any meaningful consultation with them.
A stand-up comedian has also approached the court challenging the new rules.
Mumbai-based Kunal Kamra has petitioned the Bombay High Court, saying the new rules infringe on the right to freedom of speech and make the government the sole arbiter of truth “in respect of any business” related to itself.
They also oblige social media intermediaries to impose that version of the truth upon their users.
Kamra, who blends social and political satire in his shows, contends that “the government possesses by far the largest megaphone” available in society. If aggrieved, it can access “every available infrastructure, with the largest possible reach, to set the record straight”.
The comedian said that “as a political satirist” he engages in commentary about government actions, and that he relies on the wide reach of the internet, through social media platforms, to share his work.
Kamra said that his “ability to engage in political satire would be unreasonably and excessively curtailed” if it were subjected to an “arbitrary, subjective” fact check unit hand-picked by the government. This, he added, would “entirely defeat the purpose of political satire”.
The comedian said that as a consequence of these new rules, satirists would be constrained to self-censor or restrict their engagement with political commentary, for fear of action against them.
He expressed apprehension that applying the new rules to content created by comedians or political satirists could potentially result in the suspension or deactivation of their social media accounts.
The Indian government, on the other hand, said in an affidavit to the court that the new rules had been made in “the larger public interest”.
The government said the rules provided for a system of evidence-based fact-checking so as to create a mechanism to deal with the kind of fake, false or misleading information which, in the past, “has resulted in riots, mob lynching and other heinous crimes”.
It also said that the content checked by the unit would be restricted to government policies, programmes, notifications, rules, regulations and their implementation.
“The fact check unit may only identify fake or false or misleading information and not any opinion, satire or artistic impression,” the government told the court.
But in an earlier hearing, the court said that the new rules didn’t seem to protect fair criticism of the government through satire or parody.
“On the face of it, these rules appear to be in favour of the government and against the people. They can be used in a very dangerous fashion against the people, much like the sedition law,” says Manjul (who only goes by one name), a prominent political cartoonist.
An editorial in Indian Express newspaper says that, while there can be no debate about the dangers of fake news, a framework where a unit of the government has discretion to determine the genuineness of online content is fraught with perils.
Source : BBC