The Bombay High Court on Monday remarked that the recent amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (IT Rules 2021) do not prima facie offer protection to parody or satire.
A division bench of Justices Gautam Patel and Neela Gokhale was hearing a petition filed by standup comedian Kunal Karma challenging the amendments to IT Rules which empowers the central government to identify fake news against it on social media.
MeitY filed an affidavit last week
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) had filed an affidavit last week stating that the Union government’s impending Fact Checking Unit may only direct removal of false or misleading information pertaining to Government policies and programs, not satire or artist impression.
The judges said they had gone through the affidavit which says it won’t affect parody or satire, however, the rules don't seem to offer protection to fair criticism of the government like parody and satire.
“You are not affecting parody, satire, that is what your affidavit says. That is not what your rules say. There is no protection granted. That we will have to see,” Justice Patel remarked.
Additional Solicitor General opposed plea
Additional solicitor general Anil Singh opposed the plea contending that it was premature since the Rules have not been notified and published as yet. He said: "The notification has not been notified. Once it is done, they can move at any time… even during vacation.”
However, the court was not impressed with the contention. "The question being premature is also wrong, because the rules have been notified," Justice Patel said.
Kamra's counsel requests interim stay
Kamra’s counsel, Navroz Seervai, urged the court to grant an interim stay on the Rules till the next date of hearing saying that it has a chilling effect on the democracy of the country and the people of this country are already scared.
Seervai said: “The MeitY affidavit says we don’t want central government actions to be scrutinised by anyone. Only we will scrutinise. Can this survive in democracy?
The chilling effect has already set in… In this country people are scared. In a democracy, people should not be scared at all.”
Judges dismissed prelimnary objection raised by Center
The judges even dismissed a preliminary objection raised by the Center on Kamra’s petition questioning his standing in filing the petition.
The bench said that challenge iis based on freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) and hence, the locus (standing of a person to file a petition) of the petitioner would not be examined. "We are not interested in the challenge of locus. In any Article 19 case, locus is immaterial; we are not going to shoot the messenger," the bench said.
The HC has kept the plea for hearing on April 27 at 10 am.
What are the amendment to IT Rules?
The amendment to Rule 3 provides that the Central government 's Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology can notify a fact-checking body which is empowered to identify and tag what it considers false or fake online news with respect to any activity of the Central government.
The telecom service providers and social media intermediaries will then have to take action against such content failing which they would lose the safe harbour protection under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act.
MeitY stated that false information also has the impact of weakening public’s trust in democratic institutions creating doubts on the intentions of the elected government.
False and misleading information can adversely impact electoral democracy, the Central government stated in its affidavit opposing the petition.
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