Over 100 journalists and other professionals related to online media have come together to express their concerns about the latest proposal floated by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to extend traditional broadcasting rules and restrictions to the internet. The group of journalists have written a letter to the Information & Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani on the issue.
On April 4, the ministry had released an order that stated that the online media content will be regulated in line with the rules applied on print and electronic media. A committee was also reportedly formed to devise a framework. The MIB had noted that there are no rules to restrict online content publishing as of now.
But the group of journalists mentioned in their letter that the IT Act does cover online content. Another point they made is that how online content is not just uploaded by publishers but even common men too, which means that restricting it will curtail their right to freedom of expression.
The journalists include both veterans of the industry like Raghav Bahl, MK Venu, Madhu Trehan, Nalini Singh, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Shivam Vij, Sanjay Pugalia, Aniruddha Bahal and Raman Kirpal as well as younger generation media entrepreneurs like Dhanya Rajendran (The News Minute), Seema Mustafa (The Citizen), Ritu Kapur (The Quint), Tanmay Bhat (All India Bakchod) and Bharat Nayak (The Logical Indian).
In their letter, the journalists and media professionals expressed concern 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, Founding Editor, The Wire, a new-generation, online-only publication.
“Internet-based media and global media aggregators like Facebook, Google have changed the content and distribution landscape in ways that national governments cannot easily control. Nor should they try to. It is a free democratic space and must remain as such,” he added.
Geeta Seshu, a journalist and a media analyst with a keen interest in freedom of expression issues, too called on the government to embrace the change the spirit of freedom brought about by the internet in media and communication sectors.
“Today, digital media in India is evolving into a space which allows for access to information, untrammelled by traditional gatekeeping structures and despite infrastructural limitations like low broadband speeds or poor internet penetration,” she said.
She expressed disappointment at the government’s attempt to ‘regulate’ online media by setting up a committee comprising mostly government officials.
“This committee hardly reflects the complexities of online media, much less represent all its practitioners,” she said. “Its mandate to regulate the dissemination of information smacks of the most alarming attempts to censor a burgeoning medium. It is ironic that one of the terms of this committee is to examine international standards when India is hailed for taking a strong and unequivocal stand on net neutrality. We can, and should, be leading the way in upholding the tenets of a free, plural, democratic and egalitarian media space,” she added.
Madhu Trehan, Co-Founder, NewsLaundry, warned about the far-reaching impact that interfering with the citizens’ freedom of expression, online or offline can have.
“Regulating the internet is a tricky thing. Its impact is enormous and far-reaching,” said Trehan. “The proposal to regulate (and its need at all) must be a consultative process in the most open and transparent way. The internet is the most important invention since the printing press, with a bigger impact than the press. To regulate the printing press would mean strangling thousands and millions of books down the ages that have transformed the world. That is the impact we are looking at. The internet is the printing press of the digital age. A proposal for its regulation must be debated threadbare before any action,” she added.
Seema Mustafa, Founder Editor, The Citizen, a news and current affairs website, warned that chances of ‘online content regulation’ being used for suppression of opinions critical of the government remain very high.
"The attempt to control the internet comes from classic insecurity associated with governments fearful of dissent,” she said.
“The essentially bureaucratic composition of the committee set up by GOI is an indication of the direction the so-called regulation mechanism can be expected to take. Peoples all over the world have opposed and stopped such attempts by governments to control space that has become increasingly valuable for individuals and increasingly for independent media,” she added.
Raghav Bahl, Founder of Network18 and Quintillion Media, urged the government to look at the approach taken by other democracies in dealing with issues of online content. “Any hasty action by the government will likely result in overreach,” he said.
“Therefore, we believe that the starting point for the government should be to study the global best practices for online content regulation. Many advanced democracies have already debated this and come up with good frameworks that ensure free speech and transparent regulation. No need to reinvent the wheel,” Bahl added.
The journalists organised themselves using social media, particularly WhatsApp, spontaneously after news broke that the government had set up a committee to come up with a regulatory structure for online media “on the lines applicable to print and electronic media”.