The Delhi High Court on Tuesday, March 9, issued a notice to the central government on a plea challenging its new Information Technology rules to regulate digital media.
The petition was filed by the Foundation of Independent Journalism (a non-profit trust that owns The Wire), Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The News Minute, Dhanya Rajendran and the Founding Editor of The Wire.
The petitioner has challenged the Information Technology (IT) Rules, 2021 pertaining to digital news portals alone and not OTT media or other platforms.
Senior lawyer Nitya Ramakrishnan, appearing for the petitioner, argued that the Act did not recognise newspapers and news agencies. Although the Supreme Court struck down Section 66A of the IT Act, which had similar provisions to regulate content, the centre has brought these new rules to do indirectly what it cannot do directly. She said the new rules 'go far beyond anything that is permissible in a democracy.'
"The Impugned Rules bring back some elements of Section 66A and go far beyond it, by way of prescription, to be administered, adjudicated upon and supervised by the government. Thus, they not only exceed the parent Act but also contravene the Supreme Court's ruling in Shreya Singhal, and therefore will not be saved by any general rule-making power under Section 87(1) that is limited to carrying out the provisions of the parent Act," LiveLaw reported.
The lawyer further said that special categorisation that has been created in the rules had put an additional regulatory burden on news media.
Although the sites can be blocked under Section 69A of the IT Act in emergency situations, there is no scope under the provision to dictate the content of news media portals. "The Act is only targeted either at an 'agency of the Government' or an 'intermediary'. Digital news platforms are neither," Bar and Bench quoted Ramakrishnan as saying.
The newly introduced Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, were issued on February 25, regulating social media companies, streaming sites and digital media.
The new guidelines, according to the Internet Freedom Foundation, mean government's intrusion and more censorship. Besides, an 11-member digital-only news association DigiPub, wrote to the Centre stating that the rules seemed to go against the fundamental principle of news and its role in a democracy.
A notice was issued by a bench of Chief Justice DN Patel and Justice Jasmeet Singh. The matter will be heard in detail on April 16.
The petitioner also requested the Court to grant the petitioners interim protection, refraining from taking steps against the media outlets under the new rules until the next hearing. The petitioners can move the Court if any coercive action is taken anyway.