New digital media guidelines pose a clear threat to freedom of expression

These rules force digital news publishers and video streaming services to adhere to a cumbersome three-tier structure of ‘regulation’, with a govt committee at its apex, clearly to stifle dissent

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)

Krishna Jha

When the cup of poison was offered to Socrates, he was given the option of either death or exile. His reply was that critics should be always kept alive with their freedom to speak, because it is for them that the system keeps evolving. Without that freedom, he had only one option, and that was not to live, he said and took the cup.

The preamble of our Constitution promises us a country that is democratic, with a secular character and socialist aims. We have the right to elect the regime that will shape the country, but there are always possibilities of our losing the right to shape its character. We do take part in nation building, but the goals are varied for each one. It is also a fact that whenever democracy is in crisis, intolerance against any criticism grows stronger.

One such example is The Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, brought in recently with a three tier rule structure and a government committee to lead it. These rules would be applicable to digital news publishers and video streaming services in ‘regulating’ them.

In essence, it will encroach within the limits of privacy, destroy the multiplicity that we have been proud of and then it is one of those last things that could happen to our freedom of expression.

With a government authority breathing on our back, freedom would be only cosmetic, without spontaneity. As the country today stands at the threshold of scientific technological revolution, the digital media has acquired a character of its own, with its fast delivery of both news and views, with options of free speech and uninterrupted exchange of ideas. Faith in the maturity of media in maintaining objectivity and thereby self-regulating in catering of information, and also giving space to them for any alternative stand, has been our tradition since independence.

The new rules are presented as “soft touch oversight mechanism” and its character is ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’, wrote the government press. It also claimed the rules seek to “address people’s varied concerns while removing any misapprehension about curbing creativity and freedom of speech and expression”.

In contrast to these tall claims, these rules force digital news publishers and video streaming services to adhere to a cumbersome three-tier structure of ‘regulation’, with a government committee at its apex.

The three tier regulatory mechanism also has its own pitfalls. It is supposed to take up complaints that are against digital platforms, with the help of ‘code of ethics’. In reality it stretches over norms of journalistic conduct and the programme code of the cable TV networks (regulation) Act.

So far as code of ethics is concerned, if this regulatory mechanism is brought against any one, it could be vicious. According to rules, “Any person having grievance regarding the content published by a publisher in relation to the code of ethics, could put his complaint on grievance mechanism established by the publisher”. Thus the digital platform can itself be used for the purpose.

In fact, digital platform has been kept open for all to take up any issue. The new rules mechanism make it clear that any proceeding can be initiated only after submitting it to the digital platform’s grievance officer. If it does not satisfy the complainant, it can be taken further to a “self-regulating” body of publishers. The next stage could be the highest level, the government’s Oversight Mechanism, according to which an inter-departmental committee will be set up to address the grievance.

Thus the responsibility in the beginning itself is on the digital publishers which opens up to interventions from many sides, facilitating misuse too.

Social media is also not spared by the new rules that increase the compliance burden here too. The major ones among them will have to appoint chief compliance officers, to ensure the rules and the laws are adhered to, and a nodal officer, with whom the law enforcement agencies will be coordinating, apart from a grievance officer. Such platforms in the messaging space will have to “enable the identification of the first originator of the information on its computer resource” based on a judicial order.

Messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Signal are to find out ‘sources’ of ‘problematic messages’ like fake news. Such laws are already there; what is required is judicious use of them, and taking measures to stop misuse of them.

Freedom of expression has been brought to the dock, and there is no denial that causalities may lead to weakening of democracy.

(IPA Service)

(Views are personal)

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