Bombay HC Stops Centre From Imposing IT Laws For Code Of Ethics, Self-Regulation

In order for a democracy to work there must be checks and balances.

Bombay High Court stayed certain provisions in IT Rules 2021- Rules 9(1) and 9(3).

The 2021 IT Rules applied to digital media which must adhere to a Code of Ethics.


The Scope Of New IT Rules

Major internet companies impacted include news publishers and OTT platforms alike such as:

  • Facebook 
  • Twitter
  • Netflix
  • Amazon Prime
  • Hotstar
  • The News Minute
  • Scroll
  • Quint
  • The Wire
  • Newslaundry

The Verdict

The HC stayed Rule 9 which it believed to be “prima facie (i.e. under first impression) an intrusion of the petitioners rights” as per the Constitution [Freedom of speech and expression].

The provisions were also found by the court to “go against the substantive provisions of the Information Technology Act 2002.”

It is unc;ear whether this relief applies to the petitioner in this particular case, The Leaflet website, or to the broader digital media.

Rule 9(1)

Online content publishers must observe and adhere to “the code of ethics and norms of conduct for journalists under the Press Council guidelines and Cable TV Code.”

Rule 9(3)

Digital publishers must maintain a three-tier self regulatory mechanism.

According to this mechanism,

  • In Tier 1 there must be self-regulation by publishers
  • Tier 2- self-regulation by self-regulating bodies of the publishers
  • Tier 3- oversight mechanism by the Union government

Court Explains Role Of Dissent In Democracy

In its order, the court said that dissent and critical opinion in a democracy is of utmost significance.

In order for a democracy to work there must be checks and balances.

It continued that there cannot be doubt on whether a “healthy democracy” should be developed taking into consideration its criticism and acceptance of “contra views”.

Public Servants And Role Of Criticism

In order for State administration to be conducted properly, it must have room for criticism leveled against those in public service of the nation.

The court then said that with the new 2021 rules, voices of dissent were stifled as they had to think twice before criticising any public personality even if they had valid reasons to do so.

The hesitation comes since they would have to risk their opinion being called defamatory or invitation of action under any other law.

The Original Petition And Accusations

The petition which prompted the court’s judgment was filed by ‘The Leaflet’, a digital news portal and by journalist Nikhil Wagle.

They called the new IT Rules  “vague” and “draconian” which could lead to a “chilling effect” on the freedom of press and right to free speech which the constitution assures the people of.

Violation Of Constitution

The petitioners said that the rules were in violation of Articles 14 (Right to equality), Articles 19(a) (freedom of speech and expression) and 19(1)(g)(freedom to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business).

A co-petitioner, Ashish Khetan, contributing editor of the news portal, said that the new laws serve as “unreasonable, excessive, and tenuous burdens on digital news publishers.”

These burdens have been said to violate the rights held by the press which the constitution protects.

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