The Madras High Court on Wednesday issued notice to the Centre over a plea challenging the constitutional validity of the new IT Rules.
The first bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy directed issuing the notice on a plea by the Digital News Publishers Association, comprising 13 outlets which challenged the constitutional validity of the Information Technology rules 2021.
Admitting the plea, the bench tagged it with an earlier petition moved by well-known Carnatic musician T.M. Krishna over the issue earlier.
The court also allowed the petitioners to approach it if any coercive and arm-twisting action is taken under the new rules.
Senior advocate P.S. Raman, appearing for the petitioners, objected to certain provisions in the rules.
Rule 16 is an omnibus provision giving power to the secretary to the Union ministry of Information and Broadcasting to block public access to any digital information. He sought an interim order restraining the Centre from taking any action under the rules pending disposal of the plea.
However, the bench said there was no need for an interim order at this stage since no coercive action has been taken against the media outlets so far.
"Since no adverse action has been initiated against the petitioners as of now, no omnibus order made at this stage. However if such provisions are resorted to against the petitioners, petitioners will be at liberty to apply for interim relief," the court said.
According to the petitioners, Part II of the IT Rules, 2021 (Due diligence by intermediaries and grievance redressal mechanism) is anti-ethical to fundamental rights.
By these provisions, private intermediaries are vested with excessive power in shaping the discourse of speech in the country. The stringent timelines forced under Part II incentivise intermediaries to over-censor content, thereby curbing free speech, the petitioners contended.
They submitted the new IT Rules seek to regulate the conduct of entities that do not even come under the ambit of the Information Technology Act, 2000.
Formed in 2018, the DNPA consists of legacy media outlets which have also built a digital news presence over time. It consists of the ABP Network, Amar Ujala, Dainik Bhaskar Corp, Express Network, HT Digital Streams, IE Online Media Services ( of the The Indian Express Group), Jagran Prakashan, Lokmat Media, NDTV Convergence, TV Today Network, The Malayala Manorama, Times Internet Limited and Ushodaya Enterprises.
The Indian Express reported that the DNPA's said the association should not be thought of as exclusively digital publications and said that pre-existing rules govern the print and broadcasting media. Its plea said that the IT Rules would lead to "over regulation and unnecessary complication", adding that the sector was “well-regulated”.
Digitial news websites had challenged the IT Rules in March this year.
In February, the DIGIPUB News India Foundation, a coming together of digital-only news platforms, had written to the information and broadcasting ministry saying that the rules in “some places appear to go against the fundamental principle of news and its role in a democracy.”
"While rules and laws already exist to hold news media accountable, the aforesaid rules enable the executive government to even remove content published as current affairs or news (Rule 14.) among other things,” DIGIPUB had stated.
The IT Rules, 2021 seek to curb freedom of speech and expression, as well as the freedom of the press by proscribing content based on vague and subjective grounds, which have already been struck down by the Supreme Court, they added.
(Full Disclosure: Newsclick is a founding member of DIGIPUB)
With PTI Inputs