Throttling freedom of expression

The NDA government, after getting complete control over mainstream media, is now trying to control social media too. The latest proposal by the central government on what constitutes ‘fake’ news articles is ill-conceived and unwarranted and amounts to infringing on free speech. The ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY) has released modifications to the draft Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, and sought public feedback. Essentially, it means that the government can direct social media companies to take down news articles that have been deemed “fake” by the Press Information Bureau (PIB), a nodal agency of the central government. Predictably, the move has triggered strong resistance from the opposition parties and the Editors Guild of India.

According to the draft proposals, any piece of news that has been identified as “fake” by the fact-checking unit of the PIB will not be allowed on online intermediaries, including social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Such posts would have to be removed by online entities, without any recourse or avenue for redress. This is totally arbitrary and violative of the fundamental principles of freedom of expression. The determination of fake news cannot be in the sole hands of the government because it will result in the censorship of the press. The PIB is a government agency and how can it determine which is fake or real news? It is obvious that it will work for the benefit of the government. The move amounts to the government anointing itself judge, jury and executioner of online content regulation. Instead of imposing such unreasonable restrictions, the Centre must initiate meaningful consultations with media organisations and other stakeholders, on the regulatory framework for digital media, so as to not undermine press freedom.