Govt hell-bent on curbing free media

Govt hell-bent on curbing free media

A day after the Information and Broadcasting Ministry was forced to withdraw its contentious order on fake news following widespread criticism last week, it constituted a committee to frame rules to regulate news portals and media websites. The 10-member committee includes five government secretaries and another official. Representatives of the Press Council of India, News Broadcasters' Association and Indian Broadcasters' Federation would be the non-government members. In the first place, a committee dominated by the government is not the right body to lay down rules for the working of free media. There is no representative of the media, online or traditional, in the committee, and that might be an indication of the government's intentions.

The committee's mandate is to "delineate the sphere of online information dissemination which needs to be brought under regulation, on the lines applicable to print and electronic media". It wants a content code to be laid down for online media sites and news portals. Clearly, the government wants to muscle its way on the issue of freedom of speech on the internet, which has opened up space for many marginalised and dissenting voices. The government perhaps thinks that testing the boundaries of what's possible and what's desirable in online media will not meet with much resistance as it is at a nascent stage of growth. But online media freedom is as important as, or perhaps even more important than, the freedom of other media because it enables even individuals to express themselves fully and enjoys a plurality and diversity of voices that other mediums lack.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani seems determined to take a confrontationist approach to the media. The proposed mandate to control the "sphere of dissemination" is akin to the pre-censorship regime of the Emergency period. Any regulation and codes of conduct sought to be imposed from outside by the government would be inimical to the freedom of the media. The State has repeatedly used arrests, prosecution and intimidation using the Information Technology Act, 2000, to muzzle online media. It seems to have learnt no lesson from the Supreme Court's severe indictments of such blatant violations of the right to freedom of speech and expression when it struck down Section 66A of the Act as a gross violation of the right to free speech. The policies, ethical codes and norms that the government wants to be formulated already exist, and there are prescribed ways of dealing with violations. There is hardly any need for a government committee to reformulate them. The media should refuse to have anything to do with it.

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