Two men sit at a podium against a backdrop illustrated with logos of social media companies.
India's Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, left, and Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar address a press conference in New Delhi, India, on February 25, 2021. New regulations for social media companies give the government more power to censor online content - including digital news outlets. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

Digital media rules empower Indian government to censor online news

Digital news sites in India are on edge and expecting the worst after the government promulgated news rules in February, bringing them under regulation and further endangering the environment for press freedom in the country. The rules, in essence, give the government powers to censor website content, with little chance for appeal. In interviews with CPJ, Indian journalists and experts say the rules are an attempt to clamp down on one of the few remaining platforms for critical journalism and commentary – even as traditional print and broadcast media are increasingly cowed by pressure, which CPJ has documented, from the Modi administration.

“The government definitely sees digital media as a sort of irritant,” Dhanya Rajendran, editor of Bangalore-based news websiteThe News Minute, which focuses on five Southern Indian states, told CPJ in a phone interview, saying that online-only outlets had “stayed most truthful to the cause of journalism.”

“Which is perhaps why the government now thinks something has to be done to bring digital media sites under control,” she added.

The Frontier Manipur, a news website, received the first notice under the new rules from a local magistrate, warning them to comply after the outlet devoted its streamed weekly talk show to a discussion on the challenges digital news media are facing in India, editor Paojel Chaoba told CPJ in a phone interview. The notice was withdrawn after the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting clarified that it would be the only agency to administer the rules, according to Chaoba. But the incident demonstrates how they could be used as a repressive mechanism, he said.

The Foundation for Independent Journalism, a trust that funds news website The Wire, has filed a petition to the Supreme Court challenging the rules on grounds that they “go far beyond anything permissible in a democracy;” according to Reuters. Two other news websites have also challenged the rules, according to news reports.

CPJ has joined other human rights and free expression groups in urging the Indian government to withdraw the rules, titled the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics) Rules, 2021. Though geared towards platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, and Netflix, they also extend to “publishers of news and current affairs content,” according to CPJ’s review. The government has argued that bringing news outlets that publish primarily online or via social media under the auspices of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting will place them on a “level playing field” with print and broadcast media, according to news reports.

The rules extend the government’s power to order the removal of online content to news articles—censorship that would not be permitted for something published in a newspaper, as The Wirepointed out in an analysis. They may even incentivize tech companies to weaken encryption – the protection that journalists and others rely on to prevent third parties from snooping on their private messages.

While laws governing the press are generally approved by parliament, the new regulations update existing intermediary guidelines issued under the Information Technology Act of 2000; as such, they were not subject to parliamentary review, and were introduced without the typical consultation process with stakeholders, according to Anushka Jain, an associate counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation, a non-profit organization that defends online privacy and freedom in India. She told CPJ in a phone interview that the process of enacting the rules was unconstitutional.

“The government is trying to regulate each and every way in which you get information, as well as share information,” Jain said. “The way that these regulations are being put into place, and now being acted upon, is problematic.”

The Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Shri Prakash Javadekar, did not respond to a request for comment that CPJ sent via email. Amarendra Singh, the deputy secretary for digital media at the ministry did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment via phone, email, and WhatsApp.

Journalists and experts with whom CPJ spoke identified three main areas of concern in the new rules:

1. Anyone can complain about published content, and journalists are required to respond.

“Why should the media be forced to address grievances by people?” Rajendran said. “We are already bound by the constitution and law, why impose further restrictions?”

The rules establish a code of ethics for the digital media and require them to designate an officer to respond to grievances within a specified timeframe, according to CPJ’s review.

“If my journalism is being treated as a conspiracy against the government, then a complaint can be filed against every story,” Abhishek Srivastava, convener of the Committee Against Assault on Journalists, a press freedom coalition, told CPJ. In a phone interview, he said that the regulations pose an existential threat to small digital outfits throughout the country because compliance will be costly. Local and rural journalists who operate largely on their own will face the brunt of the rules, he said.

2. The government will oversee compliance – and is empowered to censor digital news.

There are three levels of appeal for complainants laid out in the rules – but only the lowest tier involves the publisher themselves, according to The Wire. If a news outlet cannot resolve a complaint, it could ultimately be escalated to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.    

The three-tier approach ends with a government bureaucrat who can summarily ask that a story be brought down,” Sidharth Bhatia, editor of The Wire, said to CPJ in an email. “The website can be shut down. We may have no way of fighting back.”

“The most draconian measure in the regulations is where a government official is given emergency powers to block any website if they think there is something of note and of an “emergency nature,”” The News Minute’s Rajendran said. “We don’t know what would constitute an emergency.”

“It gives the executive branch more powers than [were] envisioned in the Indian constitution,” she said.

3. Messaging services may have to compromise encryption to comply.

Digital rights groups like the Internet Freedom Foundation and the Software Freedom Law Center, India, which are based in New Delhi, as well as international observers like Mozilla, the US-based nonprofit that makes the Firefox browser, have noted privacy and security concerns about the rules. They point out, for example, that major social media and messaging services like WhatsApp are expected to be able to identify the “first originator” of any information shared via their service to facilitate investigation of offenses involving security and public order, or material that is sexually explicit or involves child sexual abuse; they should also “endeavor” to prevent harmful information from spreading.

Only the sender or recipient can read messages that have been encrypted end to end, leading to fears that companies may be forced to store personal information, or stop using encryption altogether, in order to comply.

“They could ask the platforms to decrypt information as well,” Jain said. “Breaking end-to-end encryption is problematic, because it opens up numerous issues for everyone on the platform,” she said. “There could be data breaches.”

“The surveillance infrastructure in India is already so vast,” Andrew Pandian, editor of SimpliCity, a local news website based in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, told CPJ in a phone interview. “The only hope is end-to-end encryption,” he said.

Editor’s note: The description of the Foundation for Independent Journalism in the fifth paragraph has been corrected.