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Bombay HC extends stay on setting up of Government’s ‘fact check unit’

The court has issued a notice to the Centre, seeking its response, and issued an order extending the stay on IT Amendment Rules, 2023

The Bombay High Court on Wednesday issued an order extending the stay on Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2023.

This has come in response to a petition filed separately by the Editors Guild of India and the Association of Indian Magazines (AIM).

The IT Amendment Rules 2023, were notified by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) on April 6 this year. Along with several other regulations, it also granted the government the authority to establish a ‘fact check unit’ to categorise and remove any online content pertaining to ‘any business of the central government’ that is deemed ‘fake, false or misleading.’

The Editors Guild had raised its concerns over the same in its statement dated April 7 and then went on to file a writ petition in the Bombay HC challenging the constitutional validity of this provision in the IT Amendment Rules 2023. It had deemed the provision ‘ultra vires the Information Technology Act, 2000, and violating the right to freedom of speech and expression’.

Similarly, AIM too had approached the Bombay HC and had sought the court’s intervention in the matter.

The Bombay HC has now directed the Centre to file its reply to the petition by June 20, and has listed the matter for final hearing on July 6 and 7, 2023. Further, the undertaking provided by the government not to constitute its fact check unit has been extended to July 10, 2023.

B Srinivasan, President of AIM and MD of Ananda Vikatan, said, “The government chose a draconian path of creating a handpicked appointee group that could technically pull up any content and brand it as a ‘fake or misleading’, and under that pretext, censor it. This kind of arbitrary moves must be nipped in the bud and I am glad we at AIM can contribute to the dialogue for a reasonable solution to this problem that has been brought up on by the government.”

Anant Nath, Vice-President of AIM and Executive Publisher of Delhi Press, added, “The amendment made to the IT Rules with respect to a fact checking unit with sweeping powers to determine what is ‘fake or misleading’ is akin to censorship, against principles of natural justice, as well as against guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court itself in earlier cases. This has the potential to create an all-powerful Orwellian censorship system, which will have deeply adverse implications for press freedom. We are extremely pleased that notice has been issued and the rules stayed for now, and hope that they are withdrawn eventually.”

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