The state of freedom enjoyed by journalists in India has been on the decline. The Indian press was ranked 150th out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters without Borders in 2022. It can be said that this is due to the increasing censorship aiding mechanisms adopted by various governments at the centre.
Being the fourth pillar of democracy, the media has always been an impediment for politicians hungry for power. While its job is to bring out the truth in front of the public, politicians have always succeeded in implementing policies that limit its ability to speak out. These policies are at times presented quite appealingly in the form of laws, but it’s the journalists who are aware of the monstrosity that lies behind it all.
Under the guise of enacting laws to curb terrorism, these laws have been constantly used against common citizens, journalists, and students who chose to criticise the Union. Throughout the course of history, the government of India has imposed censorship and other laws, mainly to cover up its shortcomings. The UAPA, the Sedition Act and Preventive Detention Law are some examples. Making illegitimate use of such laws, governments have been able to ensure restrictions on press freedom, at times giving the excuse that journalists and media reports are a “threat to national security.”
The Indira Gandhi government in 1975 imposed complete censorship of the press during the emergency, prohibiting all domestic and international news. In 2016, the Srinagar-based newspaper “Kashmir Reader” was asked to stop production on grounds that it contained context that tends to incite violence. Recently, the BJP government banned a BBC documentary featuring Prime Minister Nadrendra Modi and his role during the Gujarat riots of 2002 because it had an anti-Modi agenda.
While many activists have been constantly fighting against the abolition of such laws, the government of India announced the creation of a fact-check unit, which imposes even more restrictions on the freedom of the press.
In January 2023, the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MEITY) announced the Information Technology Amendment Rules, 2023. It authorises a “fact-check unit” of the central government to identify fake, false, or misleading information that is solely concerned with the central government. The purpose is to prevent the spread of misinformation and ensure harmony in the country without diminishing any fundamental values of the citizens.
The department will investigate online comments, news reports, and opinions about ministries and government officials. Any content flagged as fake or misleading will have to be taken down by the intermediary platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter within a stipulated time limit to avoid any legal action, and internet service providers like Airtel and Jio will have to block URLs to the content. Failure to do so could lead to social media platforms losing the safe harbour protection offered to them under Section 79 of the IT Act, according to which an intermediary shall not be held liable for any third-party data or communication link hosted by it. Moreover, the government has laid down no provisions that specify what it deems fake. This means that the units’ decisions will be highly subjective and not susceptible to judicial review, unless, of course, the concerned party moves to court. Whilst there is an increasing tension regarding the misuse of this power by the centre, the Minister of State for Electronics and IT says that these doubts will be soon addressed.
The move has faced considerable criticism by the Editors Guild, Digipub, civil rights activists, the News Broadcasters and Digital Association, and several independent lawyers and journalists who stated that the determination of fake news cannot be in the sole hands of the government.
Even after much criticism, the central government has not withdrawn the creation of the fact-check unit. It has now announced certain amendments to the act to make it appear more appetizing, which seem to be only gift-wrapping this draconian step.
This measure has been put forth under the pretext of curbing the spread of misinformation, but in fact seems to widen the scope of online censorship. It gives the government a free, non-answerable way to flag any information critical of the government as misleading. No democracy in the world puts such restrictions on freedom of expression. It gives intermediaries absolutely no option for escaping this censorship exercise other than to face a lawsuit.
Misinformation can instigate violence, but the very basis of this framework is a threat to digital expression. Keeping in mind that “a free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad,” citizens need to grasp the gravity of this situation. We live in a society where laws are increasingly weaponised to curb opposition and dissent. If not now, then in a few years, a law such as this one will be misused by the government, as it always has been. This unit of the central government responsible for fact-checking whatever is reported seems more like a unit of the central government keeping everything that is being reported in check.
Bushra Faridi is a student pursuing Geography Hons from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Syed Ilham Jafri