Government cannot determine fake news, will result in press censorship, says Editors Guild of India

The editors' body was responding to a proposed amendment to IT rules that will force digital news media to take down items deemed fake by the PIB.

BySreerag PS

Published Jan 19, 2023 | 5:36 PM Updated Jan 19, 2023 | 5:36 PM

Fake news IT rules amendment PIB

An amendment proposed by the Union government in the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules of 2021 has caused disquiet in the media, especially news outlets operating in the digital space.

The proposed amendment seeks to prohibit dissemination of news content that has been flagged as “fake” by fact-checkers at the Press Information Bureau (PIB), which operates under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

A draft of the amendment, put up on the website of the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) on Tuesday, 17 January, suggests the addition of one para to Rule 3(1) (b) (v) of the IT Rules, 2021, which deals with “due diligence by an intermediary”.

On Wednesday, 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 PIB or any “other agency chosen by the Union government”.

“Already multiple laws exist to deal with comment that is found to be factually incorrect. This new procedure basically 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.

Related: Kerala government shelves anti-press freedom bill

What is the amendment?

The amended Rule 3(1) (b) (v) will read:

3. (1) Due diligence by an intermediary: An intermediary, including [social media intermediary, significant social media intermediary and online gaming intermediary], shall observe the following due diligence while discharging its duties, namely…

(b) the intermediary shall inform its rules and regulations, privacy policy and user agreement to the user in English or any language specified in the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution in the language of his choice and shall make reasonable efforts to cause the user of its computer resource not to host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, store, update or share any information that . . .

. . . (v) deceives or misleads the addressee about the origin of the message or knowingly and intentionally communicates any misinformation or information which is patently false and untrue or misleading in nature [or is identified as fake or false by the fact check unit at the Press Information Bureau of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting or other agency authorised by the Central Government for fact checking or, in respect of any business of the Central Government, by its department in which such business is transacted under the rules of business made under clause (3) of article 77 of the Constitution].

Earlier, the clause only covered deceiving or misleading readers about the origin of the message or knowingly and intentionally communicating any misinformation or information which was patently false and untrue or misleading in nature.

Related: Telangana registers most fake news cases in country: NCRB

Editors Guild 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”.

The Guild reminded the Union government that it had raised concerns with the IT Rules when they were initially introduced in March 2021 as they empower Union government to delete or modify published news without any judicial oversight.

“The Guild urges the ministry to expunge this new amendment, and to initiate meaningful consultations with press bodies, media organisations, and other stakeholders, on the regulatory framework for digital media, so as to not undermine press freedom.”

Government and fact-checking

While the government debunking falls claims is laudable, the record of its primary fact-checker, the PIB, has been less than glorious.

As this report in the the online media-focused portal Newslaundry noted, “it is rather awkward” that a government has assigned an agency to “fact-check those who tend to call it out”.

The report referred to International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) which states that fact-checkers must have “a commitment to non-partisanship and fairness” and do not “unduly concentrate on any one side”.

As the report added: “The PIB does not meet this criteria. 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.”