Not Fair, Javadekar-ji: New Digital Media Rules Tilt The Field In Favour Of MSM

Not Fair, Javadekar-ji: New Digital Media Rules Tilt The Field In Favour Of MSMMinister of Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar speaking at a press conference in New Delhi. (Photo by Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Well intentioned it may be, but the new rules are simply unacceptable if the idea is to enable new and powerful digital voices to challenge MSM’s dominance in news dissemination.

The government’s new rules for digital media, social media and OTT platforms have rightly drawn criticism from most media houses and digital news publishers. Despite the headline claim, that it is about inculcating media ethics and preventing fake news, child porn, et al, the one thing it has not been criticised for is that it will put the brakes on news diversity.

It will stifle precisely those voices that mainstream media never cared about, thus shifting power back to the old media elite.

The rules, called the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, have been framed under section 87 (2) of the Information Technology Act 2000. That itself is problematic, for it clubs chalk (platforms) and cheese (publishers) together using the same law meant for intermediaries. The powers to block content delivered through computers (or electronic devices) and deemed harmful for public dissemination are derived from section 69(a) of the same act.

The broad sweep criticism is this, that digital news publishers are not mere intermediaries like Twitter or Facebook; they are originators of content. For the purposes of this article, we shall not focus on what the rules mean for social media platforms, but what it means for standalone digital publications like Swarajya which have been challenging mainstream and traditional media (MSM) narratives in print and television. The latter have been forced to move into digital spaces to preserve their power over the narrative.

The new rules broadly say the following:

Digital and online media publishers will need to follow journalistic norms as prescribed by the Press Council of India or the Programme Code issued under the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act, “thereby providing a level playing field between the offline (print, TV) and digital media.” (Italics mine).

This is like saying that rich and powerful Amazon must be given a level playing field against the poor and humble kirana store. What digital media needs, especially small, independent startups that challenge mainstream narratives, is freedom from over-regulation and costs that only big media can afford. So, a level playing field essentially means tilting the balance against small and independent digital voices which have brought much needed diversity to the news and views space.

The problem is not the requirement that digital media must follow media ethics, but that they must comply with onerous self-regulatory and grievance mechanisms which can impose heavy costs on small, overheads-light digital media companies. (As an aside one must ask whether even MSM follows any acceptable standard of ethics, where copies headlined on the front pages are denied in small print later. All kinds of incendiary comments get made on TV platforms during prime time, both by anchors and guests, but one has not seen anyone being hauled up or sent to jail for these infractions).

The key rules that will have a chilling impact on independent digital publishers involve the three-tier regulatory mechanisms prescribed.

The three tiers are, quoting directly from the PIB press note:

1. Self-regulation by the publisher: Publisher shall appoint a Grievance Redressal Officer based in India who shall be responsible for the redressal of grievances received by it. The officer shall take (a) decision on every grievance received by it within 15 days.

2. Self-regulatory body: There may be one or more self-regulatory bodies of publishers. Such a body shall be headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court, a High Court or independent eminent person and have not more than six members. Such a body will have to register with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. This body will oversee the adherence by the publisher to the Code of Ethics and address grievances that have not be been resolved by the publisher within 15 days.

3. Oversight mechanism: The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting shall formulate an oversight mechanism. It shall publish a charter for self-regulating bodies, including Codes of Practices. It shall establish an Inter-Departmental Committee for hearing grievances.

The problem is at the first level itself. While every digital publication can indeed enact its own ethics code and implement it to the best of its abilities, if it has to appoint grievance redressal officers who have to address complaints within 15 days, consider what will happen if a controversial article attracts a hundred grievances, and one person is unable to cope with it.

This will leave small publishers at the mercy of cancel culture specialists from the Left (or the Right), who will then have an incentive to coordinate attacks to shut down or constrain a publication from speaking up. If a Twitter can de-platform a sitting president on a whim, a band of trouble-makers can effectively silence or intimidate a small digital publication from speaking boldly on matters it deems important.

It is interesting that MSM’s own digital publications, which have banded together under the Digital News Publishers Association, have sought exemption from the rules since they claim they are already compliant with the Press Council’s ethics code.

This is rich. If those who can afford to build such costly compliance structures are themselves seeking exemptions, what is the moral justification for imposing such costs on standalone digital publications which have fewer resources.

Well intentioned it may be, but the new rules are simply unacceptable if the idea is to enable new and powerful digital voices to challenge MSM’s dominance in news dissemination.

David and Goliath cannot be clubbed together in the name of providing a level playing field.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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