Bombay HC grants partial interim relief to digital news publishers in IT Rules 2021 case

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The Bombay High Court has ordered a provisional suspension of the provisions of the 2021 Information Technology Rules (Intermediate Directives and Code of Ethics for Digital Media), including the Code of Ethics which must be followed by the media digital information and online publishers.

While partially granting interim relief to petitioners The Leaflet and journalist Nikhil Wagle, the High Court said that Article 9 sub-clauses 1 and 3 of the new rules were “patently unreasonable”, and “the terms indeterminate and Broad rules bring on a chilling effect as (regarding) the right to freedom of speech and expression of writers / editors / editors “as they can be hoisted for anything if the authorities so wish.

The court allowed the center three weeks to file an affidavit in response to the applicants’ plea and reply thereafter. The case was released for a final hearing on September 27.

The Bombay High Court is the third court in the country, after the High Courts of Kerala and Madras, to grant interim relief to applicants against the implementation of the 2021 IT rules and against the coercive measures of the I&B ministry.

A bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Judge GS Kulkarni suspended these two sub-clauses of the IT rules, saying they appeared to violate the applicants’ constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19. The court refused to suspend article 14 which concerns the establishment of an inter-ministerial committee with the power to regulate online content and deal with grievances and breaches of the rules, and article 16 which concerns blocking of online content in an emergency.

“Dissent in democracy is vital … For a good administration of the state, it is healthy to invite criticism from all those in the public service so that the nation has structured growth, but with the 2021 Rules in place, one would think twice before criticizing such a personality, even though the writer / editor / publisher may have good reason to do so, ”the judges said.

The bench noted that if a committee proposed under the rules did not endorse criticism from a public figure, anyone who criticized such a person would seek punishment. He also said the rules are “patently unreasonable and go beyond the IT law, its objectives and provisions.”

The Code of Ethics for Online News, OTT Platforms and Digital Media requires publishers of digital media news to be required to adhere to the Standards of Journalistic Conduct of the Press Council of India and the Code programs under the Cable TV Network Regulation Act, thereby providing a level playing field between offline (print, TV) and digital media.

The Bombay High Court pointed out that the Computer Law itself did not contain any provision to introduce such censorship on online content. He further stated that the PCI and CTNR standards were formulated under separate statutory legislation, but the Union government has attempted “illegally” to grant “exalted status” of mandatory compliance to these standards. .

“People would be deprived of freedom of thought and feel stifled to exercise their right to freedom of speech and expression if they were to live in these days of regulating internet content with the code of ethics. hanging over their heads like the sword of Damocles, ”the High Court said.

The digital information web portal The Leaflet challenged the 2021 IT rules in early July. The platform had argued that the 2021 IT rules violated Articles 14 (right to equality), Article 19 (a) (freedom of speech and expression) and 19 (1) (g) (freedom of ” exercise any profession or exercise on an occupation, a trade or a business). Leaflet editor-in-chief Ashish Khetan was also a co-petitioner.

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