The News Broadcasters Association (NBA) said on July 8 that it has filed a writ petition before the Kerala High Court to challenge the Centre’s new IT rules for digital media outlets.
The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines & Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, came into effect in May this year. The NBA has alleged that the new rules could “unreasonably” restrict the freedom of speech and expression.
The writ petition has been filed “on the grounds that the said Rules give the Government Authorities excessive powers to unreasonably and impermissibly restrict the freedom of speech and expression of the Media under Article 19(1)(a),” the Association said, further alleging that the rules are also in violation of Article 14 and Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution.
The new IT rules subject the digital media companies to a three-tier redressal mechanism. The first level would be self-regulation by the publishers; the second stage would be regulation through the media companies’ self-regulatory bodies that would be headed by a retired judge or an independent eminent person; and third through an “oversight mechanism” which is headed by a joint secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
The NBA has, specifically, marked its apprehension over the oversight mechanism which is an Inter-Departmental Committee headed by a joint secretary of the I&B Ministry.
“The rules create an oversight mechanism giving the executive unfettered, unbridled and excessive powers to regulate content of digital news media. The Grievance Redressal Mechanism created and the powers delegated have a chilling effect on the content of the media,” the journalistic body stated.
The writ petition also claims that the government, by creating such a structure, has made “inroads into judicial power and vested itself with powers reserved exclusively for the judiciary and such exercise of power is without jurisdiction”.
The NBA has also challenged the new IT rules on the ground that it gives self-regulation a “statutory flavour wherein the self-regulating body would be headed by a retired judge.”
The self-regulatory body “would function like a Tribunal presided over by a retired judge thereby making it a judicial process”, it said.
However, the new IT rules state that the self-regulatory bodies – that would be formed by the media companies or their associations – could be headed either by a retired judge or an eminent person from media, broadcasting, entertainment, child rights, human rights or other relevant fields.
The NBA further said that the self-regulatory body – that could be headed by a retired judge – forms the second-tier of the redressal framework, whereas, the oversight mechanism which would be headed by a bureaucrat would be the topmost tier.
“The Joint Secretary being the Chairperson of the Oversight Mechanism along with other members of the executive would sit over the orders of a retired Supreme Court /High Court Judge thereby compromising independence of the judicial process,” it said.
The writ petition also alleged that the new IT rules are “ultra vires of the parent act” as the IT Act 2000 “does not contain any provision for dealing with “content” of any programme.”
“The IT rules violate Article 14 as there is neither any parity nor any valid exercise of classification in the Rules as ‘intermediaries’ have been equated with ‘digital news media’,” the NBA claimed.
The Association also noted that the Appendix of the Rules – ‘Code of Ethics’ makes the “Programme Code” applicable to the digital news media. The Programme Code contains “vague, imprecise and ambiguous terms” in relation to ‘content’ such as ‘good taste’, ‘snobbish attitude’, the NBA further noted.
The NBA had recently written to the I&B Ministry, seeking exemption for the traditional media companies from the new IT rules.
The government, however, refused to exempt the digital news content of mainstream television channels and print media from the ambit of the IT rules and asked them to take “urgent steps” to comply with the provisions of the digital media rules immediately. Money Control