New guidelines: Authorities seeks complete management of media
The new social media rules mock the idea of self-regulation. The government is trying to replace self-regulation with state control
The rules of information technology (mediation guidelines and code of ethics for digital media) 2021 – a wolf in a watchdog? Representative photo: iStock
If a newspaper publishes a report or comment that is unsavory to the government, the Secretary or Minister in charge of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting can turn to the Press Council of India (PCI), the independent self-regulatory agency that upholds professional standards the media.
The PCI will order an investigation and a hearing. If it turns out the newspaper has not violated any ethical norms, that’s where the matter ends. Or earlier. Now the government has another avenue under the new social media rules. With all newspapers having a strong online presence these days, any offensive article is likely to be read and shared by a large number of people. It will likely be accompanied by audio and video reports as well. In such cases, the ministry could first turn to the internal complaints committee of the newspaper’s digital platform. If they are not satisfied, the authorities can refer the matter at level 2 to a retired judge who, on behalf of the Association of Digital Newspapers, chairs the Legal Protection Committee and can review the previous decision (level 1).
Assuming the judge also rejects the complaint, then the matter can be brought to level 3, that is, to the interdepartmental committee headed by the I&B ministry secretary himself. In such a scenario, one can imagine which side the secretary will prefer.
Also read: New rules for social media, OTTs; The government can search for details of the “originator” message.
If you look beyond the idiom, you will find that the new 2021 Information Technology Rules (Mediation Guidelines and Code of Ethics for Digital Media) (“Mediation Rules”) give central government complete power over digital platforms, including the news media. The government of the Union wants to seize all power through an interdepartmental committee, which will now be the last resort to appeal on “self-regulatory decisions”. The three-stage complaint resolution mechanism set out in these rules gives full authority to the secretaries of five central ministries, under the direction of the secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
Babus of the Union government will now regulate social media and refer to it as “self-regulation”.
Although the government pondered new media regulatory codes for a long time, a few things hastened the process. One of them was Sudarshan TV’s plan to broadcast a controversial program called UPSC Jihad about the so-called infiltration of Muslim students from Jamia Millia Islamia University into Indian bureaucracy.
The other was the violence that broke out during the farmers’ rally in New Delhi on January 26th. The government wanted Twitter to block and delete certain handles and hashtags related to the agitation. Although the platform complied with the order, the government was unhappy for not following all instructions.
Questions were also raised in the Supreme Court and in Parliament regarding the recent spate of fake news and pornographic content.
Entertainment programming, television series, and movies are important parts of the OTT platforms today, and the Tandav controversy sparked by some BJP leaders was another provocation.
The government believed that intermediary liability guidelines under the 2011 IT Act were inadequate due to the phenomenal increase in social media apps and the widespread use of OTT during the pandemic when cinemas closed . There was an increase in content critical of the government, especially on social media platforms. The BJP understands the power of social media – after all, it is itself a social media powerhouse for data and propaganda. But now others are catching up. Opposition parties are now using technology to uncover cases of government incompetence.
Pursuant to Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, intermediaries are not responsible for any content created by users. “An intermediary is not liable for information, data or communication links of third parties that are made available or hosted by him,” it says. This immunity is subject to compliance with government regulations. With this authority, the government has drawn up new regulations that virtually remove immunity.
The 2021 rules of information technology (mediation guidelines and code of ethics for digital media) essentially contain “mediation rules”. It replaces the earlier rules for information technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) from 2011.
The I&B minister calls it “soft-touch regulation” but others have called it a “wolf in a watchdog dress”. OTT platforms are now subject to three-stage regulation. The first stage involves self-regulation by the platform. The second concerns a retired judge appointed by a body prepared by the ministry. The panel will have up to six additional members who can be experts in media, broadcasting, technology, and entertainment. And the third stage concerns the cross-departmental committee. This committee will have final decision-making powers. All of this under the guise of “supervision”.
The government has grouped online news and news providers under the umbrella of the digital platform. The center has thus not indirectly but directly brought digital news media under its control.
The government says newspapers and their e-papers are exempt, but their non-e-paper content makes them the publishers of digital media news and current affairs. Since every print and TV news organization has a digital arm, these guidelines are subject to the new regulations. This makes the PCI, which is only intended for print media, superfluous.
The new rules also mock the idea of self-regulation. In fact, the government is trying to replace self-regulation with state control. This violates the autonomy and independence of the media, the freedom of expression of civil rights and hits the roots of Article 19 (1) (a), a fundamental right.