All digital publishers need to stand together and oppose the new guidelines for digital media, says Siddharth Varadarajan, Editor of The Wire, after members of the Digital News Publishers Association (DNPA) met with the Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar last week seeking that they should be treated differently than those news publishers who are only on the digital platform as they already follow the regulatory protocol laid down by PCI and Cable Television Network Act.
"At the end of the day, we have a duty to discharge to our reader. And it's the readers of digital news, who will suffer if the government is allowed to arm itself with these kinds of sweeping rules,” he said.
Speaking on the DNPA's interaction, Varadarajan said, “There is still no formal statement from DNPA about what they have asked from the Minister. However, based on a few tweets I have seen from individual members of that association, it's clear that they also regard these rules as unnecessary and an intrusion. So the fact that one set of major digital publishers are telling the government that we do not wish to be governed by these rules, sends a very clear message that they also don't consider these rules necessary and if the government insists on sticking to these rules it will hurt the interests of the public at large.”
However, after DNPA tweeted about their meeting, several digital-only publishers criticised them for ‘throwing them under the bus’.
We have read the statement and it’s a shameful one. You asked for exemption while throwing standalone websites under the bus. Not sure why that was needed. https://t.co/96KO5u9tWn— Jency Jacob (@jencyjac) March 11, 2021
What does this mean? I hope @IndianExpress @ndtv and others will clarify. Have you all asked for an exemption for yourselves and not for the digital only websites? The big media houses have to clarify now. https://t.co/ty2MhIMxWP— Dhanya Rajendran (@dhanyarajendran) March 11, 2021
If I have this right, the 'Digital News Publishers Association' doesn't want its members to be treated as digital news publishers... pic.twitter.com/yIPAjwadY6— Rohan Venkat (@RohanV) March 12, 2021
Digital-only platforms like The Wire were not invited for this interaction. Digipub, an association of digital publications of news and current affairs, of which The Wire is also a member, had also sought for a participative process. They had written to Javadekar on December 2, 2020, requesting to participate in a consultation process, but did not receive a reply.
“It's quite astonishing that the government has chosen to ignore a good-faith representation by an industry association, which is clearly a stakeholder. The government has ignored its request for consultations and that doesn't speak very well of the government's intentions,” he said.
Speaking to BestMediaInfo.com after The Wire's publishers, the Foundation for Independent Journalism, moved the Delhi High Court challenging the Information Technology Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code Rules, 2021, he said that the new rules for digital media will sound the death knell for press freedom, and a matter of that importance can’t be left to the ministry’s own assessment, reasoning, and good faith.
“The issues they raised are really very fundamental to the freedom of the press. So even as we wrote to the government as stakeholders, and sought an appointment as some process of engagement, we felt that there was no option other than to go to court,” he said.
The petition, also filed by MK Venu, a founding editor of The Wire, and Dhanya Rajendran, editor of The News Minute, pleads that the new guidelines go beyond the scope of what is permissible under the IT Act and need to be struck down.
The government has already started issuing notices to media houses. Earlier this month, a Manipur journalist, Paojel Chaoba, received a notice from the state government under the new guidelines for uploading an online discussion on the Facebook page of The Frontier Manipur. The discussion was titled “Media Under Siege: Are Journalists Walking a Tight Rope.” The notice was later withdrawn.
“The government is clearly in a hurry to implement these rules because it wants to control digital media. And the reason we and others have also approached the court is precisely for this reason. If left unchallenged, the government will start to use these new rules to harass and intimidate media organisations and attack the public's right to information,” he said.
In Digipub’s letter to the government, they had also asked that the new guidelines be repealed or put on hold until further discussions. However, they haven’t received a response on this yet.