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The Leaflet files petition at Bombay High Court challenging IT Rules 2021

The new IT Rules require news organisations to appoint a grievance officer who reviews and disposes of complaints from readers or viewers of online news. 

The Leaflet, a digital news portal, has filed a petition in the Bombay High Court against the IT Rules 2021 alleging that it is in violation of Article 14 (right to equality), Article 19(a) (freedom of speech and expression), and 19(1)(g) (freedom to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business), the platform announced.

In a report on their website, The Leaflet said that their petition stated that the new IT Rules 2021 are beyond the rulemaking power of the Union government as the parent Act (Information Technology Act, 2000) does not have any provision that enables the regulation of online publishers.

The portal also alleged that the rules impose “unreasonable, excessive, and tenuous burdens on digital news publishers, which are designed to restrict and narrow the scope of reporting undertaken by such publishers and place unfeasible economic hardship on them, thereby imposing a disproportionate burden that directly violates the rights of the press that are protected under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.”

IT Rules undermines freedom of press: The Leaflet

The Leaflet said that the powers of the government to direct modifications and deletions of specific parts of the content or articles published by news and current affairs publishers, as per the IT Rules, was a direct contravention of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press. They argued —

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  •  The obligations imposed on news and current affairs publishers under the mandatory grievance redressal mechanism amount to an undue and excessive burden that impedes the functions and freedoms of the press.
  • Rules are vague, purport to bring the content of digital publishers of news and current affairs under the purview of the Press Council of India Act, 1978 and the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 without amending the said legislations
  • It also enables the exercise of judicial functions by non-judicial authorities
  • Rules create a mechanism by which the content distribution networks operated by intermediary technology platforms, on which many digital news publishers rely to reach their audiences, are subject to stringent takedown mechanisms and censorship.

Quoting the plea, The Leaflet said, “Apart from a single provision that enables the blocking of content available online on specified grounds, there is nothing in the IT Act that seeks to regulate content, in particular, the content of news publishers.”

The IT Rules 2021 contain provisions that enable the Government, and/or its representatives, to direct the modification of the content published by such news publishers, without any limitations or guidelines for the exercise of this power, thereby empowering the State to dictate and direct what is being published by the press, which amounts to a gross violation of the freedom of the press – The Leaflet’s petition

Petitions filed by other publication associations

Earlier the Digital News Publishers Association (DNPA), while filing a petition against the IT Rules 2021, issued a notice to the Union government. Akin to the present petition, the DNPA petition claimed that the rules violated the Fundamental Right of Equality before Law, Freedom of Speech and Expression, and the right to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade, or business.

Recently, while hearing a petition filed by the Foundation for Independent Journalism comprising The Quint, The News Minute, and The Wire, a Delhi High Court bench refused to provide interim relief to the digital platforms against coercive action under the IT Rules 2021. In its petition, the foundation had argued that the rules were ultra vires of the IT Act (2000) and were therefore unconstitutional.

The IT Rules 2021 which came into force in May require news organisations to appoint a grievance officer who reviews and disposes of complaints from readers or viewers of online news; in addition, they must have membership in a self-regulatory body that is constituted in accordance with government norms, to which people unsatisfied with the outcome of the first complaint can appeal. Finally, an inter-departmental committee would have the power to order censorship of this content. The Rules also require government-sponsored ethics norms to be complied with, a requirement that was hitherto only mandated for TV and newspaper media outlets.

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Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

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