NEW DELHI - A battle is unfolding in the Indian courts between the government and media houses over new IT rules that many in the Indian media have called intrusive and violating the Constitution's right to freedom of speech and expression.
The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which were released by the government in February, introduces a three-tier system for redress of a grievance for any news organisation with a digital presence.
What has worried media organisations, both big and small, is that the third level of the system is an oversight mechanism involving the federal government which gives authorities the power to take down content.
In a plea to the Delhi High Court, the Press Trust of India, India's largest news agency, said the rules "usher in a new era of surveillance and fear" and "self-censorship...which results in abridgment/violation of Fundamental Rights," according to legal website Livelaw,
The news agency is among a host of media outfits, including online news portals, that have separately challenged the guidelines in different high courts in the country.
They have also challenged the rules on the grounds that the Information Technology Act, 2000, seen as the parent act, did not deal with news media, arguing that this meant the newer law should also not do so. They said news websites should not be clubbed together with streaming services and social media sites.
"As they stand, these rules seem like an attempt to intimidate the news media into self-censorship, apart from vesting government with overreaching powers over news content," said the Times of India in an editorial on July 11. The Times of India is a founding member of Digital News Publishers Association, which is challenging the IT rules.
"News publishers are right to fear arm-twisting and coercion," added the newspaper.
Like other countries, India has been seeking to regulate social media content amid concerns over national security and the dissemination of child pornography.
Under the new rules, social media and Over-The-Top (OTT) platforms will also have to appoint a grievance officer with powers to remove content when asked to do so by law enforcement and judicial bodies.
Initially accused of non-compliance of the new rules, Twitter has named its resident grievance officer.
Whatsapp, though, has challenged the new rules on privacy grounds as it is required to trace chats and make provisions to identify where the information originated.
Critics said the rules are also a way of putting pressure on smaller digital players in India like The Wire that have not shied away from criticism of the government on issues like the Citizenship Amendment Act, which offered citizenship on the basis of one's religion.
Digital news media, which have their own private funding, are fearful that this will open them up to harassment from online right-wing troll armies.
"Firstly, my biggest concern is that this is going to be yet another tool for harassment. In any case, we keep getting legal notices for even the smallest of things. There is no definition of what a grievance is. 'I don't like your story,' is that a grievance? What is the boundary of a grievance - that is the first problem," said Mr Pratik Sinha of Alt News, cp-founder of the fact-checking site that has often caught the ire of the right-wing. Alt News has also gone to court to challenge the new rules.
"I am not saying there is no place for self-regulation. Definitely, it is a way forward but in that process, the government should take itself out."
So far only Livelaw has got legal relief with the Kerala High Court barring the government from taking action for non-compliance of the rules.
The government has put up a stout defence of the new regulation, beseeching the Supreme Court to roll all the legal challenges into one case.
IT and Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who recently took over the portfolio in a major cabinet reshuffle, said the new information technology rules were aimed at empowering and protecting users. The government has also denied that they impinge on the freedom of speech.
"These guidelines are empowering and protecting users and will ensure a safer and responsible social media ecosystem in India," Mr. Vaishnaw said in a post on social media platform Koo.
But analysts believe they will change the digital media landscape.
"If implemented in its present form (despite the numerous court cases), the exercise of wide adjudicatory powers by a self-regulating body and oversight by the central government will have a lasting impact on the landscape of digital news reporting in the coming years," said Mr Vasanth Rajasekaran, partner at Phoenix Legal law firm.
"It will be worthwhile to see whether the self-regulation model with the central government's intervention results in self-censorship by publishers."