Sunday 15 April 2018

Indian Government sets up a committee to frame regulations for online media /newsportals / online contents - Whether such regulation is needed? Whether online media enjoys absolute freedom? - A quick analysis

On 4th April 2018, Ministryof Information and Broadcasting, Government of India has set up a high power committee to frame regulations for online media / news portals and online contents.  This has triggered a debate among the digital journalists across the nation.

A section of the journalists have opposed this move and demanded that the Government should not set up such committees.  They also demand that there should not be any regulations for online media.  They argue that the present provisions of IPC and Information Technology Act are sufficient to take careof online journalism also.  

Unlike print or TV journalism, online or digital journalism has to function keeping in mind Cyber laws and cyber security.    

In the light of this recent developments, I interviewed Shri V Rajendran, Cyber Lawyer and Cyber Security expert to give his views.  He was the President of Cyber Society of India and presently the Founder - Chairman of Digital Security Association of India.  He has authored books on cyber law and cyber security for bankers.   Excerpts from his interview through email.

Q:  What do you think about the setting up of the Committee by Ministry of I&B?

A: Setting up a committee for regulating the Online Media is certainly the need of the hour.  The printed media has a Press Council of India which is a statutory body serving as a Watchdog of journalistic ethics and as a shield to freedom of Press in India. The broadcasting or the TV - electronic media is a self regulating one and despite many intra-industry and inter-industry disputes and debates, is functioning reasonably smoothly over the years.  Now, with the emerging trend of online journals, e-news agencies, citizen reporters, public themselves acting as broadcasters and reporters, there is certainly a need for some reasonable regulatory body at least to define some basic guidelines and ethical standards.  

Q:  Is the freedom of expression absolute?  

A:  It has been repeatedly held in many courts including the apex Supreme Court that freedom of expression is NOT absolute and is always subject to 'reasonable restrictions' that the government may need depending upon the circumstances.  Nobody is above the constitution and no one has the right to express anything he/she wants and all such expressions must be subject to the principles of natural justice and ethical standards coming under reasonable restrictions of the administration. 

Q: Is a regulation needed for onlien journalism.  If so, what type of regulation is needed?

A: In online journalism,  right now, anyone can post anything, any anti-national disparaging or a fake news or even an old photo (taken years back) with a news item as if it is a latest incident either innocently or with a specific intention of causing unrest or civil disturbance in the society.  Whatever be the motive, the speed at which a 'news' spreads online is just unthinkable.  It becomes difficult for the police to study the news, verify its authenticity, correctness and then nab the culprits under the 160-year old Indian Penal Code or some provisions of Information Technology Act.  The IT Act 2000 or its Amendment Act 2008 was passed mainly for recognising electronic records and not for discussing or defining cyber crimes or any electronic offences.   Section 66A of the IT Amendment Act was one reasonably powerful weapon given to the police, which too was repealed by the Supreme Court in March 2015 with the Centre not defending the section strongly perhaps wanting to showcase itself as a saviour of freedom of press.  In fact, this section did not have anything to do with freedom of Press.  Now the IT Act has provisions for data theft, electronic publication of obscene material, cyber terrorism, child pornography, role of intermediaries in protecting a user data etc and no direct provision for hurting others through an online communication (like the libel, slander or defamation provisions in the Indian Penal Code).  In a printed medium, when a news is published, the writer, the Editor and the owner or publisher of the newspaper are all responsible in their own way, legally.  On the other hand, if a citizen simply posts a fake news item which goes viral and causes unrest or a massive civil disturbance, or incites violence or leads to cyber terrorism or leaks some confidential data, a regulating body or a specific legislation will be highly helpful.

Q: Who should be brought under online or digital journalism.  We have bloggers writing on specific topics, news portals, social media writers, etc. 

A: Everyone who posts a news item or forwards anything in the Internet can be brought under digital journalism.  The word ‘online journalist’ may have to be defined in a very broader sense like the word ‘computer’ in the IT Act which includes not just a computer in the traditional meaning of the term but all electronic devices with processing, storage, display capabilities etc. Posting pornographic content or any damaging material against a VIP or a Minister is now addressed irrespective of whether he is the author of the post of has just forwarded and the police takes action.  Similarly, the Committee can go into the issue in detail and perhaps fix reasonable restriction and responsibility on the person who write, who forwards, who saves and who sends it by email or makes a broadcasts etc.  Perhaps a finer technological interpretation may have to be done involving the techno-legal brains in this area, studying the settings already available in the social networking sites. 

Q:  Most importantly, what are the guidelines and rules followed by the democratic countries? 

A: In the US, the laws are more inclined towards protecting the government data and on that count, digital journalists  are governed by what they post and report either in printed newspapers or an e-newspaper.  Accessing an official information and unathorised divulging of any information from it is subject to action under the 1966 Freedom of Information Act.  Besides, the US has a Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) which is a United States federal law designed to "improve cybersecurity in the United States through enhanced sharing of information about cybersecurity threats, and for other purposes.    In the European Union, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), an overhaul of existing European Commission data protection legislation, is going to be in place from 25 May 2018, to strengthen and unify those laws for EU citizens. There are data privacy laws in many other nations too.  In India too, last year, in a historic judgement, the Supreme Court has held that privacy is a fundamental right like the other fundamental rights of freedom of religion, expression etc.  But what is privacy and especially data privacy is yet to be decided in India, and the government is planning to introduce a Data Privacy Act for the past few years.  If that Act comes, it will have an impact on digital communication, digital journalism and online communication  

Above all, the government has not put in place any restrictions or regulations right now.  This is only a first step of setting up a committee to go into the issue of regulating the Digital Journalism.  After the committee discusses and comes out with its recommendations, it will be again taken for discussions and deliberations and a draft law will be placed before the public for public opinion and later, maybe how many months later, a law may come.  Hence I feel to make a huge cry right at the first stage itself, as if press freedom has been curtailed, is highly unwarranted and irresponsible.

Interviewed by Prime Point Srinivasan

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