Inadequate and inappropriate
Following the reservations put forth by the Editors Guild of India (EGI) and DigiPub, the News Broadcasters & Digital Association (NBDA), too, called for the withdrawal of a draft amendment to the Information Technology Rules, 2021. The proposed amendment, which empowers the Press Information Bureau (PIB) — a public communication wing of the Central government — to order social media intermediaries to ‘take down’ content flagged as fake by the agency, has come under massive criticism by expert bodies, journalists and opposition parties. The criticism of the draft amendment appears to be completely valid as it stands weak on Constitutionality and can have far-reaching negative implications on the media fraternity. The Editors Guild of India has been right on the money in asserting that the “determination of fake news cannot be in the sole hands of the government and will result in the censorship of the press”. More specifically, the PIB, broadly speaking, is just a publicity wing of the government. The government claims that the agency has been in the business of fact-checking since 2019. However, it remains a fact that an all-encompassing anti-misinformation drive is beyond its jurisdiction and functional capacity. The agency is acutely ill-equipped to deal with the scale of the misinformation problem prevailing in India. There have been numerous instances of discrepancies in the fact-checking activities of the PIB in the past. To top all these limitations, there is the big question of selective and deliberate bias. Given that the PIB works at the behest of the ruling government of the day, the probability of selection bias becomes very high. The problem could be further exacerbated by the limitation of resources. It may not be difficult to guess what kind of fake news the agency will focus on with the scant resources it has! A glaring dichotomy in the government’s approach towards tackling misinformation is evidently clear. While it is vocal about dealing with misinformation, its discomfort with independent fact-checkers is telling. It was not very long ago when one of India’s leading fact-checkers was dragged into one police complaint to another before the Supreme Court of India came to his rescue. The fragmented perception of what constitutes fake news and what needs to be busted could be more dangerous. Facts can be arranged in a different order to tell different versions of reality, and selective omissions can be as good as lies. Furthermore, experts have rightly questioned the Constitutional validity of the move. The News Broadcasters & Digital Association asserted that the amendment would stifle the freedom of speech and expression of the media guaranteed under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution. It must be noted that the taking down of digital and social media content is an extreme step and can be carried out only on limited grounds enlisted in Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution. It is highly contentious whether the proposed taking down of content under the draft amendment would come under Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution. As stated by the Editors Guild of India, “This new procedure basically serves to make it easier to muzzle the free press and will give sweeping powers to the PIB, or ‘any other agency authorised by the Central government for fact checking’” Lately, the government narrowed down its argument saying that the takedown provisions will be limited to government-related matters. The EGI criticised the use of the phrase, “in respect of any business of the Central government.” The guild said that this will “stifle legitimate criticism of the government and will have an adverse impact on the ability of the press to hold governments to account.” Information is power. In a democracy like India, its control must rest with the people rather than the government. Misinformation has indeed become a mammoth problem for India. It needs to be controlled effectively. The proposed amendment not just falls short of being adequate to handle India’s looming misinformation crisis, but it is also violative of Constitutional spirit and morality. To address the misinformation problem, the government should understand the importance of independent fact-checkers and create an enabling environment for them. Any ounce of potential bias needs to be avoided.