On Wednesday, the High Court of Madras issued notices on a plea by Digital News Publishers Association, a thirteen-member group of the nation’s leading news media houses, to the Union of Electronics and Information and Broadcasting Ministries, which challenge the constitutional validity of the Rules on Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (IT Rules, 2021).
Articles 14 (equality), 19 (1) (a), and 19 (1) (g) of the Constitution, according to the petition, are violated by these rules (right to freedom of speech and expression and right to the profession).
The first bench ordered the notice, which included Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy. The bench accepted the appeal and paired it with a previous petition filed by well-known Carnatic musician TM Krishna over the same issue. The court also said that if any coercive or arm-twisting action is done under the new rules, the petitioners can approach it. P S Raman, a senior advocate for the petitioners, objected to several clauses of the guidelines. For example, rule 16 is an omnibus provision that gives the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s secretary the authority to ban public access to any digital information.
DNPA thanks the Minister for today’s constructive meet. DNPA made suggestions that preserve freedom of the press and emphasized that all its members are bound by – and follow – the regulations of Press Council of India and/or NBSA.
— Digital News Publishers Association (@publishers_news) March 11, 2021
In addition, the senior advocate asked for an interim order against the Centre’s use of these rules until the issue is resolved. The bench, however, decided that an interim order was not necessary at this time because no coercive action had been taken against the media outlets.
He further highlighted that the IT Rules were attempting to legislate the behavior of companies that were not even covered by the Information Technology Act of 2000. Furthermore, according to the DNPA, the Rules would restrict freedom of speech and expression and freedom of the press.
Since DNPA represented mainly conventional media outlets for print and broadcasting that now have their major works online and digitally, it was argued that the association should not represent news and content providers purely digitally. The petition added that a series of restrictions already exist for traditional and legacy print and broadcast media outlets, which were operational until introducing the Internet and digital media.
For context, Facebook-owned WhatsApp, the messaging platform, has brought the High Court of Delhi to question the provision demanding the social media intermediaries to track the first message’s originator.
Although the IT ministry was considered a nodal Ministry to comply with social media rules, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting was charged administratively with complying with guidelines published for digital news sites, over-the-top (OTT) platforms, and online media organizations.