The Modi government has removed Smriti Irani as Information & Broadcasting Minister, handing over the portfolio to her deputy in a cabinet reshuffle announced on Tuesday night. The Wire quoted sources saying that one of the reasons for her ouster was the circular announcing that fake news would be regulated. While that circular was swiftly withdrawn following pushback from journalists, the Ministry later formed a committee to regulate online media as a whole; that includes entertainment as well as news websites.
While that committee has also faced pushback — in the form of an open letter signed by dozens of journalists — it remains in force. But over a month into the committee’s formation, it is unclear whether it has even met. MediaNama has reached out to all the members of the committee to find out what progress has been made since it was formed.
What happens to the committee?
While she headed the Ministry when the committee was formed, Smriti Irani didn’t technically create it. The committee was in fact formed by Amit Katoch, a career bureaucrat, who heads the Ministry’s New Media Cell. As such, it is still in force. Even though Rajyavardhan Rathore, the new I&B Minister, has been friendly to the entertainment industry, in particular, promising to them in private to loosen government censorship powers, it is unclear if he will move to roll this committee’s creation back.
“Anybody who knows anything about this government knows that not a feather moves without the Prime Minister giving his clearance,” Siddharth Varadarajan, a founding editor of The Wire, said at MediaNama’s open house discussion on online content regulation in Delhi earlier this month. He said that in reference to the fake news circular, which threatened de-accreditation of journalists for sharing ‘fake news’. If that is indeed true, then the PMO’s clearance likely backs the second iteration of that fake news effort, the online content regulation committee. That makes the committee much more resistant to cabinet reshuffles.
What the committee wants to do
The stated goals of the committee are, according to the order that created it:
- To delineate the sphere of online information dissemination which needs to be brought under regulation, on the lines applicable to print and electronic media.
- To recommend appropriate policy formulation for online media / news portals and online content platforms including digital broadcasting which encompasses entertainment / infotainment and news/media aggregators keeping in mind the extant FDI norms, Programme & Advertising Code for TV Channels, norms circulated by PCI, code of ethics framed by NBA and norms prescribed by IBF, and
- To analyze the international scenario on such existing regulatory mechanisms with a view to incorporate the best practices.
(Read the full order here.)
As MediaNama and panellists on the discussion on news content regulation discussion pointed out, the IT Act and other laws already give the government wide-ranging powers to regulate online content, including to take websites down, and to shut down internet access in many areas.