Digital News Media Rules: Third Challenge Brought To Court By The Quint

Delhi High Court has posted the petition by The Quint for hearing on April 16

The Quint has moved the Delhi High Court challenging the recently notified IT Rules 2021.(Photo: The Quint)
The Quint has moved the Delhi High Court challenging the recently notified IT Rules 2021.(Photo: The Quint)

The Delhi High Court on Friday agreed to hear a petition filed by Quint Digital Media Ltd.—which runs digital news website The Quint—challenging the recently issued guidelines for social media intermediaries, online news publishers and OTT platforms.

The petition by The Quint is the third challenge to the recently notified Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021. News media sites The Wire and LiveLaw have also challenged the rules before the Delhi High Court and Kerala High Court respectively.

The Quint’s challenge, like the one by The Wire, is limited to Part III of the rules which contain a code of ethics and an oversight mechanism for digital news portals. The rules, the petition states, are an example of an overreach by subordinate legislation, and are unconstitutional.

The IT rules 2021 were framed by the government in exercise of its rule making powers under Section 87(1) of the information technology law. But this section only allows the government to frame rules for the purposes of carrying out the provisions of the Information Technology Act, 2000, argues the petition.

The IT Rules, 2021, however, introduce a distinct category of entities, purely on the strength of their being publishers of news and current affairs content, to be subjected to an adjudicatory mechanism parallel to courts of law, on a range of grounds which are not even offences under the IT Act.
Petition by The Quint

Code Of Ethics Contains Wide And Vague Conditions: The Quint

Part III of the new rules has been framed by the government by drawing powers under Section 69A of the IT Act, says the petition. This section allows the government to direct intermediaries to block access to information on grounds of interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the state, public order, etc.

However, the petition argues, this section is applicable only to intermediaries and digital news platforms do not fall under this category. Yet, the government has used this section to impose upon them a three-tier regulatory system to administer a code of ethics.

Further, the code of ethics includes terms as vague as ‘good taste’ and ‘decency’, the petition points out.

“For example, if the odd line in an editorial or a news report is seen as not being in ‘good taste’ by any person, an entire adjudicatory mechanism shall be triggered, and an enforced apology or censure may follow.” - The Quint’s Petition

Unlike the normal legal process, where such grievances are not justiciable, and even when justiciable, impose a certain rigour upon the complainant because of the inherent filters in the judicial process, the IT Rules, 2021 effectively invite a free for all, the petition argues.

Oversight Mechanism Is Draconian: The Quint

Part III of the rules also contain an oversight mechanism to ensure observation of the code of ethics.

The petition by The Quint argues that this oversight mechanism goes beyond the standard practice of self-regulation and grants excessive powers to the government to regulate digital news media.

It highlights the three-tier mechanism envisaged under the rules:

  • ‘Self-regulation’ by publishers.

  • Self-regulating’ body/bodies: The petition calls this a misnomer and points out that this appellate body cannot be constituted without government approval. And it is obligated to refer matters of non-compliance, and a certain class of content to Level 3 for deletion or modification.

  • Level 3 is the oversight mechanism by a committee that consists chiefly of serving government officials and its power extends to recommending draconian measures such as directing blocking, modification or deletion of content on certain perceived dangers with the approval of the Information & Broadcasting secretary.

The I&B Secretary also has powers to pass emergency orders for blocking of content without even giving an opportunity of hearing, the petition points out.

The executive having power to dictate content to digital news portals violates the Right to Equality and the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression guaranteed under the Constitution, says the petition.

“Upon the merest complaint or even without any, space has been created for the State to enter and control news and views by way of deletion, modification or blocking, censure, compelled apology and more. Clubbing online news portals with social media as distinct from the print news media is unfair and irrational classification.” - The Quint’s Petition

Other countries such as the U.K. and Australia class digital news with print media which is allowed to be self-regulated without government control, the petition points out.

The high court division bench headed by Chief Justice DN Patel issued notice to the central government on the petition. The high court had earlier issued a notice on a similar petition by The Wire and senior journalist Dhanya Rajendran.

Disclaimer: BloombergQuint is majority owned by entities common to QDML.