India’s top editors’ body slams proposed ‘fake news’ rules

The Editors Guild of India urged the government to scrap the proposed amendment, saying it ‘will result in the censorship of the press’.

FILE PHOTO: Woman is seen in front of displayed social media logos in this illustration taken, May 25, 2021. Picture taken May 25, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
Rights groups and activists have raised concerns over dwindling press freedom and rising intimidation of journalists by the government [File: Dado Ruvic/Reuters]

The Editors Guild of India (EGI), India’s premier body for protecting press freedom, has urged the government to reject a proposal to combat fake news on social media, saying it would be akin to censorship.

“Determination of fake news cannot be in the sole hands of the government and will result in the censorship of the press”, the editor’s group said in a statement on Wednesday.

The proposed amendment by the Ministry of Electronics and IT to Information Technology Rules, 2021, would bar social media platforms from hosting any information that the authorities identify as false in the latest measures by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

The draft amendment issued on Tuesday said that information deemed “fake or false” by the Press Information Bureau or by any other agency authorised for fact-checking by the government would be prohibited.

If information is deemed as such, social media platforms or other “online intermediaries” would have to “make reasonable efforts” to ensure users do not “host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, store, update or share” such information, it added.

The government will hold a consultation with stakeholders to discuss the amendment on January 24, and has also invited “comments from stakeholders and general public” until January 25.

‘Surreptitious assault on free speech’

The EGI, which represents newspapers in the country, in a statement on Wednesday, urged the government to scrap the proposal and begin “meaningful consultations” with stakeholders on the regulatory framework for digital media.

“This will stifle legitimate criticism of the government and will have an adverse impact on the ability of the press to hold governments to account, which is a vital role it plays in a democracy,” it added.

The opposition Congress party condemned the proposed amendment and called it a “surreptitious assault on free speech and vile censorship”.

“The Indian National Congress strongly condemns this surreptitious assault on free speech and vile censorship. We demand that the new amendment in the Draft IT Rules be immediately withdrawn and that these rules be discussed threadbare in the forthcoming session of Parliament,” Congress media department head Pawan Khera said at an AICC news conference, quoted by the Indian Express.

Targeting journalists

Over the years, there have been increasing concerns regarding media freedom in India, especially with escalating targeting of journalists and online critics.

Rights groups and activists have raised concerns over dwindling press freedom and rising intimidation of journalists by the government.

Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranked India 150th among 180 countries in its annual World Press Freedom Index 2022 – India’s lowest rank ever.

Journalist Siddique Kappan was released in September after spending more than 700 days in prison for trying to visit the family of a Dalit teenager gang-raped in a small town in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh on a reporting trip.

Kappan, 42, was arrested on October 5, 2020, and charged under a stringent “terror” law while he was on his way to Hathras, where authorities had allegedly burned the young woman’s body after she died of injuries suffered during the assault.

In February 2022, the United Nations human rights experts said that investigative journalist Rana Ayyub has been subjected to “judicial harassment” and urged Indian authorities to “promptly” investigate “relentless misogynistic and sectarian” attacks on social media against her.

A month later, she was barred from boarding a flight from Mumbai airport to London and she was investigated for alleged money laundering, accusations that she has denied.  She has been a vocal critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.

Police in Indian-administered Kashmir arrested prominent journalist Fahad Shah in February under stringent “anti-terror” laws and sedition, accusing him of “glorifying terrorism” and “spreading fake news”, in an intensifying crackdown on press freedom in the Himalayan region.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies