Responsibility of online portals in publishing news

INTRODUCTION

I n the last two decades, Indian citizens have adopted the use of the internet in almost all spheres of life. We have easy access to the news and updates that are available on the online portals making us more updated and aware of our surroundings. In today’s time, things get viral in a blink of an eye. The media is said to be a mass communicator, representative of the people, and voice of the voiceless. So, it’s imperative that before any media house makes information available in the public domain, they should check its authenticity.

India did not have any statute on the regulation of the content that is posted online but recently, this has caught an eye due to the increasing cases of publication of fake news and defamatory remarks upon public figures. Oftentimes, journalists come up with the argument that if they have to follow any “code” in pursuance of their profession, then it is repugnant to their right of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. In pursuit of the role of the journalists, however, they have to follow a code of conduct and it is the obligation of the Press Council of India to build up a code of conduct in accordance with its high professional standard. The Norms of Journalistic Conduct were laid down in the year 2019 by the Press Council of India for all the journalists to abide by the rules and regulations so as to maintain a code of conduct and not violate anyone’s rights while publishing any news about them. While it is important to preserve the Right of freedom of speech and expression of the press, it is incumbent upon the state to protect the rights of the citizens too. Hence, a code of conduct is vital for the press to maintain the dignity of the citizens and to hold the press accountable for spreading fake news.

LEGAL POSITION:

There are no expressed laws commonly governing all social media platforms but all these social media platforms fall under the category of technology and are governed by the Information Technology Act, 2000. The amendment of the above-mentioned Act deals with various instructions to be followed by the media when dealing with the sharing of data.

The media in India is regulated by a Code of Practice for journalists. It was adopted by the General Body of Editors Guild of India at a meeting held in New Delhi on August 30, 2002, and later in 2007, it was amended to incorporate the suggestions in the code. There was Code of ethics and broadcasting standards established by the New Broadcasters Association, New Delhi which further provided guidelines for the same.

The world gets updated itself every minute. Parallel to the world, the laws must also be revised periodically to face the crimes that arise due to the advancement of technology. Similarly, the social media platforms were guided by Intermediaries Guidelines Rules which come under the IT Act 2011.

In the case of Facebook Inc. v. Union of India held on 24 September 2019 various stands were taken by the petitioner (Facebook) to express the linking of Aadhar as a valid suggestion.

On 13th August 2021, in the case of AGIJ Promotion of Nineteenonea Media Pvt. Ltd. and Anr. v. Association of India and Anr, the Bombay High Court on Saturday stayed Rules 9(1) and 9(3) of the IT Rules, 2021, which mandate that digital news media and online publishers should adhere to the “Code of Ethics” prescribed therein. The petitioners specifically challenged Rule 9, Rule 14, and Rule 16. Rule 9 mandates a publisher of digital media to adhere to the Code of Ethics, and address grievances following a three-tier structure mentioned therein. Rule 14 provides for an interdepartmental committee which the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) shall constitute. This committee shall hear grievances in respect of the decisions taken at Level I or II of the three-tier mechanism. Lastly, Rule 16 provides for blocking of information in case of emergency. As per the rule, an authorized officer shall examine relevant content. If the content falls within the grounds referred to in Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act), he can recommend blocking of such content to the MIB. The petitioners challenged the 2021 rules on the ground that they are ultra vires the Information Technology Act, 200 and the provisions of Article 14, 19(1) (a) and 19(1)(g) of the constitution. After addressing the statutory transgression of the 2021 rules, the court observed that the guidelines framed by the Press Council of India lay down standards of conduct that journalists shall strive to maintain. The Court examined if it should consider the principle of presumption of constitutionality till the provision is struck down before coming up with the order. However, the Court concluded that the subordinate legislation ex-facie does not conform to the parent statute. Hence, it regarded the present challenge as an exception to the general rule of presumption in favour of constitutionality. After all the deliberation, the court directed a stay of operation of sub-rules (1) and (3) of Rule 9 of the 2021 rules as an interim relief. The Court here, relied on the judgment in Siliguri Municipality v. Amalendu Das (1984) where the Supreme Court had held that Courts have to strike a “delicate balance” after considering the pros and cons of the matter lest “larger public interest is not jeopardized and institutional embarrassment is eschewed.”

In the famous case of Subramaniam Swamy vs Union of India (2016), the Supreme Court of India dismissed challenges to the constitutionality of the criminal offense of defamation, holding it to be a reasonable restriction on the right to freedom of expression granted by the Indian Constitution. In this case, numerous petitions were filed under Article 32 of the Constitution challenging the constitutional validity of the offense of criminal defamation as provided for in Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code and Sections 199(1) to 199(4) of the Criminal Procedural Code, 1973. There were several petitioners like Subramanian Swamy, Rahul Gandhi, and Arvind Kejriwal who had been charged with the offense of criminal defamation. They contested the constitutionality of the offense of criminal defamation, arguing that it inhibited their right to freedom of expression. The criminal proceedings against them had stayed pending the constitutional proceedings. The Court analyzed the meaning of ‘defamation’ and ‘reputation’, and the interaction of these terms with the right of the freedom of speech and expression. It found that the term was clear and unambiguous and that the concept of ‘reputation’ was included in the protection of ‘dignity’, which was part of the Right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The Court recognized the sanctity and significance of the right to freedom of speech and expression in a democracy but pointed out that it is subject to reasonable restrictions. However, such restrictions should serve the public interest and should not be excessive. In simple words, the Court found that there existed a constitutional duty to respect the dignity of others and rejected the contention that defamation is fundamentally a notion of the majority meant to cripple the freedom of speech and expression as too broad a proposition to be treated as a guiding principle to adjudge the reasonableness of a restriction.

CONCLUSION:

The proliferation of fake and defamatory information online has become so widespread that it is next to impossible to believe all that which has been put online to us to view. Fake news spread through social media in the country has become a serious problem, with the potential of it resulting in mob violence, as was the case where at least 20 people were killed in 2018 as a result of misinformation circulated on social media.

Widespread of fake news and defamatory remarks have led to severe violence and disharmony amongst several cultural groups too. Hence, it is imperative that the State take some measures to resolve this and hold the publication houses accountable for their actions.

 In the field of social media, being a platform for more than a million users, it is the responsibility of the service provider to keep track of all data that are passed using their service.

In the famous case of Subramanian Swamy vs Union of India (2016), the Supreme Court of India dismissed challenges to the constitutionality of the criminal offense of defamation, holding it to be a reasonable restriction on the right to freedom of expression granted by the Indian Constitution. In this case, numerous petitions were filed under Article 32 of the Constitution challenging the constitutional validity of the offense of criminal defamation as provided for in Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code and Sections 199(1) to 199(4) of the Criminal Procedural Code, 1973. There were several petitioners like Subramanian Swamy, Rahul Gandhi, and Arvind Kejriwal who had been charged with the offense of criminal defamation. They contested the constitutionality of the offense of criminal defamation, arguing that it inhibited their right to freedom of expression. The criminal proceedings against them had stayed pending the constitutional proceedings.

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