Indian Union Minister for Textiles Smriti Irani. Photo: AFP/Arindam Dey
Indian Union Minister for Textiles Smriti Irani. Photo: AFP/Arindam Dey

A group of more than 100 Indian journalists and media professionals have joined forces to voice their concerns about the Information and Broadcast (I&B) Ministry’s plan to regulate online news.

They believe the ministry’s move to regulate online media and related content could undermine an individual’s freedom of expression and lead to widespread abuse and suppression of political dissent by the government and the regulating agency.

The I&B ministry issued an order last month to form a committee, which will create a regulatory framework for online news portals. Among other things, the committee’s work would be to “delineate the sphere of online information dissemination which needs to be brought under regulation, on the lines applicable to print and electronic media.”

The group of journalists wrote to Information and Broadcast minister Smriti irani expressing concerns that “bringing legacy media structures – such as licensing and content regulation – could have a drastic impact on a medium that is widely credited with making the media and information landscape more open and democratic across the world.”

“Internet-based media, by its very nature, promotes broader democratic values globally and cannot be dealt with in the way national governments try to regulate or control traditional media,” said MK Venu, the Founding Editor at The Wire, an online-only news publication.

The ministry’s order says that while the Program and Advertisement Codes guide the content of television channels and the Press Council of India has rules for the print media, online media has no such body to regulate it.

The journalists argue that “even a cursory reading of the IT Act would reveal that all content is covered under its scope.” They said the Information Technology (IT) Act not only lays down guidelines, but also incorporates strong punishments for violators of the content rules. Even the Indian Penal Code contains guidelines for sharing of content, which includes content shared on the internet.

They further argued that “much of online content is borne out of an individual’s need to express opinions and exercise artistic freedom, protected by Article 19 of the Indian Constitution” and and regulation on internet content will “impinge upon the individual citizen’s freedom of expression.”

The journalists include both veterans of the media industry and younger-generation media entrepreneurs who work in online-only media.

This is the second clash between the media and the Information and Broadcast Ministry in the span of a month. Earlier in April, the ministry sent out a circular that said the accreditation of journalists will be canceled if they are found to have disseminated fake news. However, the Prime Minister’s Office on April 5 ordered withdrawal of the circular.