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Secular India usurps media freedom

New Delhi: Dropping the ball on serious concerns like paid news which were the subject of earlier draft amendments to the archaic Press and Registration of Books (PRB) Act, 1867, the Modi government is now proposing a souped-up version of the colonial-era law that could bring news websites under the purview of official regulations for the first time.

Section 18 of the provisions of the draft Registration of Press and Periodical (RPP) Bill, 2019 – released by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on Tuesday – stipulates:

“The publishers of news on Digital Media shall register themselves with the Registrar of Newspapers of India in such manner and giving such particulars as may be prescribed.”

Until now, no news or current affairs website in India – and there are tens of thousands of them since even blogs and social media pages which carry news or opinion would be considered publishers of news on digital media – has had to “register” with the government or follow any rules or regulations other than what are normally applicable for any form of speech or expression.

This is the second step the Modi government has taken to get a grip on the digital media in India, widely seen as a more independent space than traditional media platforms. In August this year, the Union cabinet said it was introducing a 26% cap on foreign direct investment for news websites subjecting to official approval on a case by case basis.

According to the I&B ministry, the RPP Bill is intended to replace the PRB Act. But like the old act, the new Bill will penalise the publication of a “periodical” without conforming to the act. Thanks to poor and ambiguous language in the draft law and its definitions, however it is not clear if the proposed regulations will cover only the “e-newspapers” of existing newspapers and magazines – i.e. the digital version of the printed copy, usually in PDF – or will include standalone news websites.

Although the Bill defines “news on digital media” as “the news in digitized format that can be transmitted over the internet, computer or mobile networks and includes text, audio, video and graphics,”, its definition of  “publisher” and “publication” makes it clear the term applies only to publications printed on paper: “publisher” means a person authorized in this regard to publish any publication “publication” means anything which is printed on paper and is meant for public distribution including periodicals, newspapers & book Given these definitions, the proposed requirement that “publishers of news on digital media” register themselves may not automatically apply to standalone websites since they do not print their material on paper. If it does extend to standalone websites, India would perhaps be the first democratic country to insist on registration of digital media. And that they then conform to any “rules” that the government prescribes from time to time.

 

 

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