The Sorry State Of Press Freedom

A demonstrator holds a placard during a protest against the arrest of 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi in New Delhi. File/Reuters

A new set of rules framed by the Narendra Modi regime to regulate digital media has invited widespread criticism. While most online companies have shown readiness to comply with the rules to protect their business interests, Twitter appears to be trying to hold out. The micro blogging site has 17.5million users in India. That makes this country its third largest market after the United States and Japan.

Narendra Modi is among the most popular Twitter users. A user of the platform since2009, he reputedly had more than 60 million followers last year. A study reported that 60 per cent of them were fake. That still leaves him with a not insignificant following abroad.

India’s Constitution is silent on freedom of the press. Its chief architect, BR Ambedkar, said freedom of the press inheres in freedom of speech and freedom of expression which the Constitution guarantees to all citizens. The Supreme Court took the same view later.

A Press Council, headed by a retired Supreme Court judge and including representatives of journalists’ bodies, has been in place for decades   to adjudicate on complaints against newspapers.  

When satellite channels appeared, India did not set up a regulatory body for them. Instead, it brought in a law to regulate able networks through which TV fare reached hones.  To forestall legislation to regulate their working, domestic channels created two self-regulatory bodies.  

Direct-to- home television and smart phones rendered cable regulations irrelevant.  

Recently the government amended the cable TV network rules to include a provision requiring the self-regulatory bodies of the channels to register with it. This may be a step towards bringing them under some form of official control.

When new technologies led to proliferation of new media outlets, the Manmohan Singh government enacted an Information Technology Act. Rules framed under this Act are now used to regulate all new media.   

On many occasions the Modi government directed Facebook and Twitter to remove from their sites content which it considered objectionable. They obliged, sometimes grudgingly.  

Although the government purportedly acted on the basis of national interests, in some cases it may have been motivated by the ruling party’s political interests.  As demands from the government to block content grew, resistance from the media companies also grew.

To deal with the situation, last February the government framed a new set of rules under the IT Act, applicable to all Indian and foreign digital media, including open telecom platforms.

The new rules are on the lines of those governing domestic print and visual media.   

One problem the government and media users encountered in dealing with foreign entities was that their  decision-making authorities aere based abroad.  To tide over this problem, the rules require the companies to  designate grievance redressal officers based in India.

The rules envisage a three-tier mechanism to resolve complaints.  

The company’s Grievance Officer must take a decision on every complaint regarding content within 15 days. If the complainant is not satisfied with the response, he can appeal to a body set up by the media company or a group of such companies as a self-regulatory body and registered with the Information and Broadcasting Ministry.

This body will have power to warn, censure, admonish or reprimand an offending media company. It can also ask the company to issue an apology or add a note of warning or disclaimer to the content.  

If the body is of the view that there is a need to delete or modify the content to prevent incitement to the commission of a cognisable offence relating to public order, or others, it can refer such content to the I&B Ministry.  Therein lies the catch. The Press Council Act created a mechanism in which media persons are represented to take decisions on matters relating to content. The Modi regime’s rules give the last word on digital media content to bureaucrats who are beholden to the government of the day.

The rules vest in the I and B Secretary the power to direct an online media to block public access to specific content in case of an emergency.   

The government gave digital media companies three months’ time to report compliance with the new rules.  When the deadline expired on May25 Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said Twitter had failed to report compliance and it would not, therefore, be entitled to protection, as an intermediary, against legal action for third party content.  

Within days, the Uttar Pradesh state police registered a case against Twitter as well as some Indian media over an attack on a Muslim. It also issued notice to Twitter India head Manish Maheswari to appear before it for questioning.  

According to the police, the UP incident was not one of communal nature, as online reports said. Parliament’s Standing Committee on IT summoned Twitter officials and told them they were not above Indian law.  The immediate issue is not the majesty of Indian law but the appropriateness of the rules framed by the government to regulate digital media.  The government as well as MPs must take note of the criticism of the state of media freedom in the country.  Last week five UN Special Rapporteurr wrote to the government pointing out that the new rules relating to online media are not in conformity with international human rights standards.

Instead of subjecting the weak self-regulatory mechanisms to bureaucratic control, the government must look at the whole matter afresh.  The Press Council is certainly not perfect. But what the government has now created is not an improvement.  Considering online media’s reach and potential for both good and bad, there is need for an oversight mechanism which commands credibility by virtue of the record and representative character of its personnel.

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