The move has elicited criticism from experts who have questioned whether digital news can be regulated under the IT Act. News portals and websites will be expected to follow the same norms that traditional media publishers, such as newspapers and news channels, adhere to.The government has expanded its definition of digital media to include online news, and put in place a three tier grievance redressal system that will have the oversight of the Information & Broadcasting ministry.
The move has elicited criticism from experts who have questioned whether digital news can be regulated under the IT Act. Experts also point out that no consultations have taken place before with digital news media before Issuing these guidelines and there is already well laid out process for the self regulation of news in place
News portals and websites will be expected to follow the same norms that traditional media publishers, such as newspapers and news channels, adhere to.
Officials in the government told ET that news websites will have to follow a self-regulatory mechanism, similar to News Broadcasters Standards Authority (NBSA), with an oversight of an inter-ministerial committee.
The self-regulatory body will be headed by a retired judge, while the oversight committee will look at the complaints that are not addressed by the self-regulatory body. In addition to establishing an Inter-departmental Committee for hearing grievances, the I&B ministry will formulate an oversight mechanisms and publish the charter for the self regulating bodies.
These guidelines form part of the Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which the government notified on Thursday.
An official in the I&B ministry said the rules make a distinction between news sites that are owned by traditional media companies and the rest. “But complaints against any online content will be assessed based of journalistic ethics,” the official added.
This would also mean the content, if found guilty of violating any law of the land, can also be taken down and criminal proceedings can be initiated against the publisher.
The new rules for news portals have come at a time when the government is working at increasing its global ranking on the press freedom index.
The government has defined digital content as content, which can be transmitted over the internet or computer networks, and has added publisher of news and current affairs within the scope of digital media. This include an online paper, news portal, news aggregator, and news agency, but excludes newspapers, e-papers and any user generated content ..
Addressing a press briefing, I&B minister Prakash Javadekar said freedom of the media is the soul of democracy. However, it is also a responsibility and is subject to reasonable restrictions.
“We felt there was a need to create a level playing field. We are asking digital news portals to first declare details about them and then follow the same Press Coincil of India (PCI ) rules that are applicable to other news media,” he said. The expansion of the PCI rules to accommodate online content is being worked upon, he added.
Nikhil Pahwa, founder of Medianama said the government has come up with rules for digital news sites without any consultation on the matter. “. It doesn’t seem to me that the IT act gives the government the mandate to regulate digital news and set up a regulatory mechanism like this. The government needs to either pass a legislation with respect to regulating content or this is likely to be declared unconstitutional.”
Apar Gupta, founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation, told ET that while online media has had regulation even in foreign countries, it is taken up by a regulatory body.
“The problem with the present rules is two-fold. It is aiming to regulate online news by a piece of legislation that does not give it the mandate to do so. That is for social media companies, and not for news platforms. Additionally it won’t go through any kind of parliamentary oversight. The regulatory body is composed of bureaucrats and is susceptible to political interference. While oversight is needed, the present structure and its legality don’t work towards those goals,” Gupta said.
The Information & Broadcasting Ministry has been working for months to create a regulatory mechanism for online news. While print is regulated by the Press Council of India and Television, both News and Entertainment, were being regulated by the Cable Networks Regulation Act (2005). Senior officials in the Ministry said they were in receipt of several complaints from the people underlining the need to regulate online content.
Last year, the government made it compulsory for digital portals to register themselves with the Registrar of newspapers that comes under the I&B ministry.
Kaushik Moitra, partner at Bharucha & Partners said the regulation now brings everybody at par.
“Online news spreads faster and if a portal is found to be reporting on fake news, it will be liable and acted against, but the government. Freedom of expression is subject to reasonable restrictions. This further goes to say that no online news portal will be allowed to publish news that is not verified, or is incorrect and against the law of the land,” Moitra added.
He also said any regulation must have checks and balances otherwise it can be misused and violate articles 14, 19 and 21 ..