Journalist bodies, digital right orgs demand rollback of laws restricting press freedom

The existing laws and future legislations should not be leveraged to block or take down legitimate news content across platforms like print, television, and internet, said the resolution passed by journalist bodies.
Representative pic: A journalist holding a microphone and a notepad
Representative pic: A journalist holding a microphone and a notepad
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The Press Club of India after a consultative meeting with India’s leading press bodies and digital rights organisations has passed a resolution demanding that the new government helmed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi should repeal provisions of various new laws that infringe on and restrict press freedom. 

The meeting, held on May 28, 2024, was attended by various press clubs including Mumbai, Kolkata, Chandigarh, and Thiruvananthapuram, the Delhi Union of Journalists, Indian Women's Press Corps, Digipub News India Foundation, and the Internet Freedom Foundation.

The resolution noted that the sweeping provisions under laws, such as the proposed Broadcast Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023, the Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023, the Press and Registration of Periodicals Act, 2023, and, more importantly, the Information Technology Amendment Rules, 2023, which grants authority to the government to remove any online content pertaining to its business that it deems to be false or misleading, are meant to silence the press.

The Broadcast Services Regulation Bill, 2023, expands regulatory oversight to include OTT platforms and digital content and will replace the Cable TV Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995. It proposes mandatory registration, content evaluation committees for self-regulation, and a three-tier regulatory system.

The resolution said that the government must ensure that the people’s right to know is not trampled upon. The practice of repeated internet shutdowns impedes both the citizens’ right to information and journalists’ ability to report news. The resolution also called on the press in the country to stand up for its rights granted under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution so that it continues to act as an important pillar of our vibrant and inclusive democracy.

The amendment to Section 8(1)(j) of the Right to Information Act, 2005, to align it with Section 44(3) of the Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023, curtails the crucial section of RTI, which has served as a vital tool for journalists for ferreting out critical information about the functioning of governments and public servants in public interest, the resolution noted. The government should either delete or amend all such provisions of the Digital Personal Data Act, 2023, that are intended to weaken the Right to Information Act, 2005.

Journalist bodies also wanted the Press Council of India, established by an act of Parliament, to be replaced by a Media Council, to include broadcast and digital media. The Media Council should be empowered to deal with the challenges emanating from a constantly changing media landscape, the resolution said. It should comprise working journalists, representatives of unions, media owners, and the government. It should be empowered to pass strictures on media houses, publications, broadcast and digitally published content and owners and take other such measures.

It expressed concern over the move to repeal the Working Journalists Act and Other Newspaper Employees (Condition Of Service) and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1955 and Working Journalists (Fixation of Rates of Wages) Act, 1958, which cover a wide range of issues, including wages, working hours, leave, holidays, and termination of employment. The Act also gave protection to journalists, including security of service. These Acts have been subsumed by the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions (OSH) Code, 2020, which should be withdrawn immediately. The two Working Journalists Acts should be restored and amended to include broadcast journalists and digital media.

Stating that there is a need for a modern legal framework for protection of personal data, freedom of expression, and quick and easily accessible grievances redressal mechanism, the resolution said the government has so far not provided clear articulation of definitions of an Open, Safe, Trusted, and Accountable internet.

It asked the government to clarify where the current legislative framework falls short, especially since the country is in the midst of reforming the criminal justice system laws with legislations that were passed after 146 opposition MPs were suspended. The government must state clearly whether state intervention required to protect the people of India should take the form of new laws or better redressal mechanisms or improvement of state capacity or a combination of these and other aspects.

The meeting said the government should ensure that proposed laws do not impede press freedom, while upholding the citizens’ right to privacy. The existing laws and future legislations should not be leveraged to block or take down legitimate news content across platforms, viz. print, television, and internet.

It urged the government to ensure that all stakeholders are taken on board through institutional processes that will ensure wide consultation when it intends to prepare the working draft of the proposed Digital India Bill.

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