Express News Service
The digital space in India has so far been open to free exchange. Since it is a relatively new platform, and still evolving, policing by the state has been low key. The result of this freedom and relatively low entry costs has been the spawning of millions of creative start-ups. News and entertainment have been redefined as never before. However, all this is set to change. The government has been clearly uncomfortable with this unregulated area that continues to challenge its writ. To plug the anomaly, a slew of measures in recent weeks threatens to shut down this slice of freedom.
We saw a demonstration of the new reality when Manipuri journalist Paobel Chaoba, was hauled up under the recently notified Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. The ‘crime’: an online discussion on the subject: “Media Under Siege: Are Journalists Walking a Tight Rope?”. Thankfully, the Imphal District Magistrate’s notice was later withdrawn after the government clarified that such an order could only be issued by the Union Information and Broadcasting (I&B) ministry.
Permission for webinars?
One of the positive spin-offs of the pandemic has been the growth of online webinars replacing physical seminars and meetings. But the government is not happy. In fresh guidelines issued on 15 January, the Centre said that all publicly-funded universities, professors, and administrators will need prior approval from the Ministry of External Affairs if they want to hold online international conferences or seminars on matters relating to the security of the Indian state, or “sensitive subjects” which are “clearly related to India’s internal matters”.
What are ‘sensitive matters’ is vaguely defined and what are ‘India’s internal matters’ is left to government interpretation. Expectedly, there was a huge backlash from professional groups. Two of the most respected science academies, the Indian Academy of Sciences and the Indian National Academy of Sciences, said the order could “lead to a complete halt of all topical scientific discussions”.
Worried at the flak it has drawn, the Union government has said it will “soon modify” these guidelines. We are still waiting. Then came the intermediary guidelines on February 25 for news portals and over-the-top (OTT) platforms. The new rules require these organisations set up an elaborate, three-tier grievance machinery which will be expensive and suffocating. At the first tier will be a grievance officer appointed by the new portal, the second tier will be an ‘expert committee’ constituted by an apex body of news publishers headed by a retired judge or an eminent person, and finally, there will be a government-controlled third tier, where a committee of bureaucrats will hear and decide complaints.
News portals, OTT under fire
Portals carrying news content are also required to ensure that the published material is in ‘good taste’!
Now, who decides what is ‘good taste’? The new rules have also given the I&B ministry emergency powers to block publication of ‘offensive’ and ‘sensitive’ material. These are all pointers to censorship, one that even mainstream news media—both print and broadcast—are not subject to.
Besides news portals, there are over 40 OTT platforms that have become an alternative source of entertainment—movies, serials, reality shows, et al. A delegation of these OTT networks like Netflix, PrimeVideo, and MX Player, under the banner of the Internet & Mobile Association of India (IMAI), met I&B minister Prakash Javdekar voicing their concern that the new guidelines will leave producers open to criminal proceedings.
They cited the case of Tandav, a series produced by Prime Video, where Amazon executives are currently facing FIRs and arrest on charges of having ‘insulted’ Hindu deities! These rules must be challenged on the principle that they are violative of Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, which protects ‘intermediaries’ from prosecution for hosting third party content. As it is, the Supreme Court in the Tandav case has held these are ‘guidelines’ without legislative teeth. But what’s the bet, a revised set of rules will be back with ‘teeth’! Nobody disputes the need to regulate and block pornographic or divisive content; but these new rules may interfere with legitimate creative freedom, and business activity too.
The government has proven over the years that it is not tolerant of contrarian views. One can see the same ‘control and subdue’ streak running through these newly introduced digital regulations. This hypothesis is bolstered by the fact that a Group of Ministers (GoM) formulated a strategy to ‘manage’ news media around June last year.
The report, whose authors are believed to include Union ministers Ravi Shankar Prasad, Prakash Javadekar, and Smriti Irani, said: “We should have a strategy to neutralise the people who are writing against the government without facts and set false narratives/spread fake news.” Some media consultants to the GoM even suggested colour-coding news persons on how they were disposed towards government: “Green – fence sitters; Black – against; and White – who support.” If these are some of the objectives of the broader digital regulations, it should have us very worried.
This Article firstly Publish on www.newindianexpress.com