The Union government, on Thursday, 27 April, told the Bombay High Court that it will not notify the formation of the proposed fact-checking body under its amended Information Technology Rules to identify and flag news it considers fake, until 5 July.
The Centre’s statement came on a plea filed by stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra challenging the amendments made to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (IT Rules 2021).
Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh and advocates Aditya Thakker and DP Singh appeared for the Union government before a division bench of Justices GS Patel and Neela Gokhale, and requested it to list the plea for directions on 8 June.
‘No reasons for immediate hearing’
Senior Advocate Darius Khambata and Arti Raghavan, appearing for Kamra, opposed the adjournment. However, the court, not finding any reasons for an immediate hearing, adjourned the matter.
“The rule will not be operable for the fact-check unit till it is notified. Even if matter is heard for ad-interim, it will require full hearing, covering all ground and that is likely to be heard for final disposal. We do not see why the same material has to be heard twice when it can be disposed off at the stage of admission” the court said in its order.
The bench also permitted Kamra to amend his petition to challenge the competence of the executive on the issue.
The Union government, in its affidavit filed in court last week, reiterated that the “role of the fact-check unit is restricted to any business of the central government, which may include information about policies, programmes, notifications, rules, regulations, implementation thereof, etc”.
“The fact-check unit may only identify fake or false or misleading information and not any opinion, satire or artistic impression. Therefore, the aim of the government regarding the introduction of the impugned provision is explicitly clear and suffers from no purported arbitrariness or unreasonableness as alleged by the petitioner (Kamra),” the Centre’s affidavit had said.
On April 6, the Union government promulgated certain amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, including a provision of a fact-check unit to identify fake or false or misleading online content related to the government.
Kamra contended in his petition that the government constituting a fact-checking unit by amending IT rules would lead to telecom service providers and social media intermediaries to take action against content flagged by the unit.
Editors Guild raised red flag
On 18 January, the Editors Guild of India raised a red flag over the proposed amendment as it essentially mandates that digital news organisations have to take down news deemed to be fake by the Centre’s Press Information Bureau (PIB) or any “other agency chosen by the Union government”.
“Already multiple laws exist to deal with the comment that is found to be factually incorrect. This new procedure serves to make it easier to muzzle the free press, and will give sweeping powers to the PIB, or any ‘other agency authorised by the Central Government for fact-checking’, to force online intermediaries to take down content that the government may find problematic,” the Guild said in a statement.
In its statement, the Editors Guild of India noted that the determination of fake news cannot rest in the sole hands of the government as it would result in the censorship of the press.
The Guild also viewed the amendment as counter-productive as it would have an adverse impact on the ability of the press to hold the government to account which, according to the Guild, is “a vital role it plays in a democracy”.
PIB does not meet IFCN criteria
While a government move to curtail the spread of fake news and misinformation is appreciable, a government agency being appointed for the job is against the guidelines of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN).
It states that fact-checkers must have “a commitment to non-partisanship and fairness” and not “unduly concentrate on any one side”.
A report in the online media-focused portal Newslaundry said, “The PIB does not meet this criterion. Most of its ‘fact-checks’ are simply denials of media reports that are critical of the government’s (claims).”
The report further added, “(The PIB) does not understand the difference between ‘refutation’ and ‘repudiation’. To repudiate is to deny and reject, but to refute is to disprove. A repudiation requires a PIB babu to prepare a ‘fake news’ graphic for Twitter, but refutation comes with the heavy duty of painstakingly demonstrating a claim to be false. This sole process is why many decent journalists earn wages, however meagre.”
(With PTI inputs)