The journalist has been asked to furnish relevant documents to show that his organisation is complying with the new IT rules, “failing which action will be taken.”

Manipur journalist Paojel Chaoba looking into the camera
news Media Tuesday, March 02, 2021 - 15:11

A journalist based in Manipur, Paojel Chaoba, on Monday received a notice from the state government under the newly notified Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 over an online discussion that was conducted and uploaded on the Facebook page of his organisation, The Frontier Manipur (TFM). Update: On Tuesday evening, a notice was pasted at the journalist's door to inform him that the notice against him "stands withdrawn with immediate effect."

TFM is a digital media outlet started in August 2020 and this is perhaps the first notice that has been sent to a media outlet under the new rules. The journalist and the company have been asked to furnish relevant documents to show that the organisation is complying with the new rules, “failing which steps as deemed fit shall be initiated without further notice.”

The online discussion, called Kanasi Neinasi, was uploaded on the Facebook page of TFM on February 28. Incidentally, the discussion was held to talk about the new IT rules and was titled ‘Media Under Siege: Are Journalists Walking A Tight Rope.’ The panellists were Paojel Chaoba, who is the Executive Editor of TFM, Grace Jajo, an independent journalist, and Ninglun Hanghal, who is a columnist and freelance journalist. The event was hosted by Kishorchandra Wangkhemcha, who is the Associate Editor of TFM. 

A day after the hour-long discussion was uploaded, Paojel received the notice from Naorem Praveen Singh, who is the District Magistrate of Imphal West District. The notice, addressed to ‘Publisher/Intermediary, Khanasi Neinasi,’ states that since they are providing online services on news and current affairs on the social media platform through their Facebook page, and “As such, you are hereby directed to furnish all the relevant documents showing that you ensure compliance of the provisions of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021: failing which steps as deemed fit shall be initiated without further notice.” The notice seems to have been sent under Chapter V of the new rules. 

What the new rules state

As per Chapter V of the new IT Rules, “a publisher of news and current affairs content and a publisher of online curated content operating in the territory of India, should inform the Ministry about the details of its entity by furnishing information along with such documents as may be specified, for the purpose of enabling communication and coordination.”

The rules say that the information should be furnished within a period of thirty days of the publication of these rules, or within thirty days from the date of start of its operations in India. The rules add that the news outlet needs to publish a periodic compliance report every month mentioning the details of grievances received and action taken and that the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry can ask for information from time to time. 

‘Systematic attack on media and digital media’

Speaking to TNM, Paojel says the police reached his doorstep on Monday and handed him the notice. “The notice is quite vague. We don’t know what 'steps' will be taken against us. They may be thinking of blocking our website or pages,” he says, adding that while the notice is addressed to a ‘Facebook page,’ he is part of a digital media outlet that is a fully licensed company. 

“We have been quoted as a Facebook page but we are a digital website. We have an online news portal and we have tied up with another digital media outlet called 7 Salai and we jointly host weekly discussions. Four such sessions have been held and the most recent session was held on February 28, where the new code and IT rules were discussed. 7 Salai is a fully licensed company and an online digital portal and we have been coordinating with 7 Salai for these discussions as we have been using their studio and digital services,” Paojel tells TNM. 

In the notice, TFM has been asked to submit the following documents: “Due Diligence, Code of Ethics and Procedure and Safeguards in relation to Digital Media, Self Regulating Mechanism, among others.”

Paojel has called the notice issued to him a “systematic attack on media and digital media.” 

“Who is the appellate officer who is overseeing the furnishing of information? Why is the magistrate sending notice? And if you are verifying information in general, do you send the police? Why do the police have to come and deliver this to our house? We are not breaking any laws. This shows we are being oppressed by the regime, we are being slapped with such notices. It is intimidation, systematic harassment and repression,” Paojel says. 

He shares that he and another editor of The Frontier Manipur were arrested earlier in January under charges of sedition and the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act over an article that had criticised the state’s militancy movement. Paojel says he was also sent a breach of privilege notice from the Manipur Assembly for publishing an article titled "State has no say regarding AFSPA, it is under the purview of union govt, says CM Biren" on February 18, 2021. The notice, accessed by TNM, said that The Frontier Manipur had “misled the public by wrongly reporting the proceedings of the Sitting held on 17th February, 2021 during the Question Hour.” Paojel told The News Minute that they had merely published the version that the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) of the Manipur government had released. 

‘Comply or face action’

Apar Gupta of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) told TNM that every news publisher and outlet has to mandatorily follow the new rules issued by the government, since a gazette notification has been issued, and there is no or very little mechanism of redressals under the rules. 

“All online news portals, newspapers which have websites and content about the e-newspapers, as well as individual creators of current affairs and political commentary who conduct any systematic business activity will essentially now be required to comply. If they fail to do it, they will arguably face censure or blocking of online websites. There is very little recourse in terms of appeal provided within the rules and it is arguably unconstitutional, as the parent legislature — the IT Act, 2000 — does not provide the power to create these rules in the first instance,” Apar told TNM. The original text of the IT Act does not recognise digital media at all. 

Digital media outlets had earlier voiced concerns about how the new IT rules will affect the freedom of the press in India. As per the new rules, a multi-ministry government body can ultimately decide what content can and cannot be published by these organisations and the media organisations have no choice but to comply. They had said that digital publishers are already subject to restrictions,  face countless defamation and criminal cases for their reportage, and existing laws are already being used in order to regulate digital media.

Also read: 

Digipub writes to Union Ministers, expresses concern over the new IT rules

Explained: Union govt’s new IT rules for social media, OTT platforms & digital news

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