Three years after it unsuccessfully tried to legislate the Registration of Press and Periodicals (RPP) Bill, 2019, the Union government means to push through its 2022 version in the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament. The 2019 bill was to replace the 155-year-old Press and Registration of Books (PRB) Act, 1867, that the British Empire instituted after the 1857 revolt. The RPP Bill 2022 seeks to install a new registration regime for the news media, both print and online.
The Opposition and the public (and much of the electronic and broadcast media) found the 2019 bill unduly intrusive and prescriptive. The government was thus forced to once again seek suggestions from the public and stakeholders.
Three years cannier, and with the Cable Television Networks (Amendment) Rules, 2021, under its belt and the Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, 2021, in the legislative pipeline, the government will try to shoehorn the 2022 bill through Parliament. It is expected to sail through in the Lok Sabha but likely to come up against an Oppositional wall in the Rajya Sabha.
What does this new registration dispensation hold for the news media and the open dissemination of news? A lot, of course, depends on whether and how the 2019 Bill was modified after the feedback or deliberations. So far, we only have the content of that bill to go by—and, while seemingly progressive on several fronts, it is also deeply disturbing in its unilaterality and its mechanism of apex mediators.
For one, the bill completely defangs an existing self-regulatory organisation, the Digital News Publishers Association. In fact, mistrusting the possibility of benign agency, the bill disannuls any effort at self-regulation.
For another, while undeniably simplifying the process of registering news disseminators—a single-window registration, replacing the clunky, slothful stretch between the offices of the newspaper registrar and deputy magistrates—it will also act as a panopticon that could ensure a trepidatious self-censorship by the mere suggestion of being ever-present and all-seeing.
Also, all the registration powers of district magistrates in the PRB Act, 1867, will be centralised in a new-fangled Press Registrar General—who will replace the hoary, curmudgeonly, 69-year-old office of the Registrar of Newspapers of India. The government will have an oversight mechanism picked from industry bodies such as FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry), CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) and the Press Council of India (whose chief will also head the appellate board).
Multiple high courts have stayed the rules following appeals by several digital news media outfits, including LiveLaw and The Wire, both of which are online news media portals that will be affected by the passage of the new bill. Portals like these, which have no presence in print, do not, at present, have to register themselves before disseminating news and opinion. Some of these portals are also the government’s most trenchant critics, rendered implacably steadfast by the fact that they cannot be shut down by mere twirling of legislation alone.
The original archaic act of 1867 should, by rights, have long been scrapped by earlier governments. But the sheer lexical reconditeness of colonial laws protects them against contemporary refurbishment, even as these laws continue to faithfully serve establishments not too far removed from the colonialists in the imperious praxis of governance.
The Act of 1867 was single-minded and sweeping in intent: to keep a beady eye on everything that was published in India—journals, newspapers, magazines, community rags, and pamphlets alike. The RPP Bill 2019/2022 is calculated to act similarly: to be on the qui vive for all manner of anti-government snarkiness and criticism, especially from the raft of online news organisations of a liberal persuasion.
At least one of this bill’s several resolves is to blunt a consistent thorn in the thin skin of the government. The RPP Bill of 2019 underlined that the editor and publisher of any media company should be an “ordinarily residing Indian citizen”. Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire, is a US citizen—but one who has lived in India almost continuously since 1995. Varadarajan’s transnational status has long irked the BJP. In 2013, one of its leaders, Subramanian Swamy, had in court challenged Varadarajan’s editorship of The Hindu on the grounds that he did not hold an Indian passport. The Delhi High Court, while agreeing that it “may be desirable that a person who is not a citizen of India should not be an editor of the publication in India”, also deemed that it was “for the legislature to consider the bill on the floor of the House and not for the Court to legislate”.
Squirrelled away in the draft RPP Bill 2019 are châtiments easy to miss. For, the bill sneaks those in by ostensibly proposing to decriminalise certain actions. For example, the extant PRB Act 1867 punishes publishing without RNI registration with a fine of Rs 2,000 or six months’ imprisonment. The new bill proposes a penalty of Rs 50,000 for any violation, but without a spell in prison. However, a publication can face worse: it can be deregistered.
And this is precisely the cause of the current media presentiment: that, in these times awash with juggernauts to enforce the most featherweight diktat, there could be heavy-handed deregistration of dissenters.