The Delhi High Court has sought a response from the Union government in a petition challenging the new Information Technology (IT) rules to regulate digital news media. The plea was filed by Quint Digital Media Ltd. The bench, comprising Chief Justice D N Patel and Justice Jasmeet Singh, issued notices to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and granted them time to file their responses.
The court listed the plea filed by Quint Digital Media Ltd for further hearing on April 16, along with another similar petition filed earlier by the Foundation for Independent Journalism, The Wire and The News Minute. According to amended IT rules, social media and streaming companies will be required to take down contentious content quicker, appoint grievance redressal officers and assist in investigations.
Advocate Nitya Ramakrishnan, representing the petitioners, urged the High Court to grant them interim protection so that no coercive steps are taken against the digital news media outlets by the authorities till the next date of hearing, on April 16. The bench, however, refused to pass any interim order and said it will be considered at a later stage.
The petition, also filed by the director and co-founder of Quint, Ritu Kapur, has challenged the Constitutional validity of the IT Rules under the provisions of the Information Technology Act, 2000.
It said they purport to apply to 'publishers of news and current affairs content' as part of digital media, and consequently regulate these entities under the Rules by imposing government oversight and a Code of Ethics,' which stipulates such vague conditions as ‘good taste, decency and prohibition of half-truths'.
The petitioners said they bring out a wholly digital news and current affairs publication called The Quint and are directly impacted by the new IT Rules, which is also an overreach by subordinate legislation.
"The petitioners' digital news portal publishes news and views, as distinct from curated content. The present petition challenges the IT Rules, 2021 only in so far as they affect digital news portals, and is not with reference to publishers of online curated content', that it, OTT media platforms or any other entities sought to be regulated by the impugned Rules," said the plea, filed through advocates Prasanna S, Vinoothna Vinjam.
"Creating a differential classification by way of subordinate legislation, when not contemplated by the parent IT Act is an overreach by itself and this has been done to specifically target digital news portals, by subjecting them to an unprecedented regulatory burden and State interference, which no other form of news publication is subject to," it said.
It alleged that this overreach is aggravated by a virtual legislation by reference, inasmuch as the Rules incorporate the Journalistic Norms under the Press Council Act, the Programme Code under the Cable TV Act, and vest draconian powers and control in the State.
The plea sought striking down of the specific part of the IT Rules on the ground that it violates Article 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(g) of the Constitution creating a chilling effect on media freedom, Article 14 of the Constitution by creating an unreasonable classification and by setting up a parallel adjudicatory mechanism to be overseen by the officials of the executive and is ultra vires the IT Act.
The 2021 Rules regulate the functioning of online media portals and publishers, over-the-top (OTT) platforms and social media intermediaries. According to the Rules, a 'significant social media intermediary' has some additional obligations in comparison to other social media intermediaries
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