The Bombay high court has stayed part of the new, sweeping IT rules that aimed to control the news media along with social media and OTT platforms. The court flagged the threat to free expression and the fact that as rules, they are subordinate legislation that go beyond the remit of the IT Act itself. Digital news and current affairs publishers had challenged these rules citing the right to equality, free expression and the right to profession, and these petitions are pending in various courts. The Bombay HC’s stay is a temporary reprieve until the question is settled.
The HC has now held back the implementation of two controversial rules. Rule 9 (1) said that digital media publishers must adhere to the code of ethics, and offered subjective notions of ‘half-truths’, ‘decency’ and ‘good taste’.
This also took the rules far beyond Section 66A of the IT Act, which was earlier struck down by the Supreme Court for its vagueness and overreach. Rule 9 (3) aimed to set up a three-tier grievance redressal committee that would ultimately empower governments to minutely regulate all media content.
Publishers rightly fear that the rules allow governments to take unilateral action against any platform and ensure that others fall in line. The court’s emphasis on media independence and the value of free speech and dissent are sorely needed and entirely welcome. The reason to resist these rules is that the media, and indeed the courts, are foundational to a liberal democracy. Media freedom is not a fair-weather value. Plus, as we have pointed out, unlike social media platforms, news is already regulated by the Press Council, the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act and the National Broadcasting Standards Authority.
While India lacks a First Amendment-type shield for press freedom, the courts have consistently protected media rights with their interpretation of Article 19(a) as part of the fundamental right to free speech and expression. The Bombay HC has partly checked the IT rules for now, but the principle must be clearly affirmed in the future. Attempts to dilute the news media’s independence are a threat to democracy.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
END OF ARTICLE