Digital media threatened by a slew of new regulations

X has had a long history of run-ins with the government, and it has chosen to come out in the open. Others haven’t.
Representative Image.
Representative Image.(Photo | Pexels)

The latest outburst of ‘X’ (formerly Twitter) against orders by the Union Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB) to remove a slew of accounts and posts, once again reveals the dangerous road of censorship the government is treading. Digital media was one ray of hope, one platform which provides an ‘open’ source of news and views. Unfortunately, that hope seems to be going up in smoke.

A little over a week ago, ‘X’ on its Global Government Affairs feed, complained that it had got ‘orders’ from the Union government to take down certain accounts and posts, most of them related to the farmers agitation; and it said it was doing so for fear of ‘fines and imprisonment’.

“In compliance with these orders, we will withhold these accounts and posts in India alone; however, we disagree with these actions and maintain that freedom of expression should extend to these posts,” X said on its feed. The government has not responded to X’s charges.

X has had a long history of run-ins with the government, and it has chosen to come out in the open. Others haven’t.

Creeping censorship

Over time, the main platforms of news communication have been compromised to extreme regulation. Newspapers – the legacy media with rich roots in India, and with as many as 4 lakh registered titles – have slowly fallen in line. Formal control is exercised through the Press & Registration of Books Act, 1867 wherein the license to publish can be withdrawn anytime.

Besides formal control, thousands of publications rely on advertising revenue from government bodies. Though there is supposed to be no quid pro quo, the control over advertising revenue is a huge lever to temper criticism and ensure a ‘friendly’ editorial line.

Broadcasting – radio and television – too are under strict government control through the three-decade old Cable Television Network (Regulation) Act 1995. Licenses to news channels have dried up and the MIB has wielded limitless power by being the judge of what is ‘acceptable’ content. The recent gag orders on the Marathi ‘Lokshahi’ channel on technical grounds is a case in point. The channel was off air for nearly a month, and it was only after the Delhi High Court’s stay against the MIB order, was Lokshahi’ able to begin operations again.

In this scenario, it is digital communication platforms that have saved the day. Thousands of YouTube channels in Uttar Pradesh have replaced the bland and pro-establishment mainline media. The grey area of regulating digital, internet-based platforms, also called over-the-top (OTT) platforms have allowed new digital networks to set up quickly and prosper. ‘Lalantop’, an internet news service, garnered millions of eyeballs for its detailed and sympathetic coverage of the farmers agitation in 2020.

But Big Brother is not happy. The rash of experimental OTT channels and the ramped up streaming technology is being viewed with extreme suspicion.

New laws

Last November, the MIB initiated the Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, 2023, which will replace the older Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995. The aim is to broaden the MIB’s regulatory framework by including over-the-top (OTT) and digital news platforms.

The new act will set up a Content Evaluation Committee (CEC) which will work akin to an internal censor board made up of government and non-industry persons. The programme code can be used to ban content that ‘offends against good taste or decency’. It is now applicable to TV channels, and can be extended to OTT and digital news networks as well.

The government has also strengthened its control over digital media by adding provisions under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021. Amending the Rules in April last year, it has made intermediate platforms like Face Book, Twitter etc responsible for ensuring that no information is uploaded or transmitted that is ‘identified as fake or false or misleading by [a] fact check unit of the Central Government’, in respect of ‘any business of’ the Union government.

What is ‘fake’ or ‘false’ is subjective, and if government committees begin to determine and ban news content on what they consider ‘fake’ or ‘false’ then out goes Article 19(1) (a) – the right to freedom of speech and expression.

The third arm of control – through the Digital Personal Data Protection Act (DPDPA) promulgated in August last year – has the laudatory purpose of guarding the privacy of personal digital data. However, for journalism and news it has serious gag implications.

The big stumbling block is the requirement of ‘consent’ when using digital data. Collection of news and investigation would involve collating and transmitting such digital data. However, if ‘formal consent’ from the ‘data principal’ (individual) has not been taken, the ‘fiduciary’ – the organization or platform transmitting the data – would be liable for penalties that could extend to fines up to Rs 250 crore.

The Justice B N Srikrishna Committee that examined the provisions of the Data Protection Bill at an earlier stage, held that free communication could be crippled if the individual withheld consent. The Committee suggested that journalism and news networks should be an ‘exempted category; but this advice was ignored.

As it is, India has sunk to Rank No.161 out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index 2023 compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) – a fall of 11 notches from 150th position in 2022. With the series of legal pincer moves, the last frontier of free news dissemination – digital media – will now be under serious threat.

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The New Indian Express