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Kerala HC grants interim stay to news channels against coercive action on IT Rules: Report

Currently, six petitions have been filed by various news outlets like The Quint, The Wire, PTI, and Live Law that are being heard at high courts across the country. 

In a breather for news channels that have an online presence, the Kerala High Court has restrained the government from any coercive action against members of the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) with regard to the Information Technology (Intermediary Liability and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, the Press Trust of India reported. Justice PB Suresh Kumar issued notice to the government on the case. The Kerala High Court hasn’t put its order in the case of The News Broadcasters Association v. Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology, on its website yet. Apart from constitutional challenges, the NBA reportedly argued that the IT Rules 2021 would let the government perform judicial functions.

The IT Rules require news organisations to:

  • appoint a grievance officer;
  • be a member of a self-regulatory body;
  • have grievances against their content be subject to eventual government oversight if complainants are not satisfied with the outcome;
  • publish a monthly report on grievances received; and
  • adhere to press ethics codes and norms hitherto only applicable to TV channels and newspapers.

Traditional news publishers have complained that the Rules shouldn’t apply to them, a grouse the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting has rejected, saying any additional relaxations to traditional media was unnecessary and discriminatory to digital-only publications.

The Kerala High Court has emerged as the only high court that is restraining the government — at least on an interim basis — when it comes to the IT Rules. The News Broadcasters Association as well as the Digital News Publishers Association — the latter, despite its name, is an association of traditional media groups with a digital presence — are both based in the National Capital Region, but have chosen to approach the Kerala and Madras High Courts respectively. Legal news publication LiveLaw was granted a stay from coercive action by the Kerala High Court as early as March.

Transfer petition pending at SC

This is at least the ninth such case against the provisions regarding news in the IT Rules in High Courts around the country. The government has been sued over the constitutionality of the IT Rules by The Wire, The Quint, The Leaflet, the Press Trust of India, Carnatic singer TM Krishna (aided by the Internet Freedom Foundation), and one advocate Sanjay Kumar Singh. The cases are ongoing at the High Courts of Bombay, Delhi, Madras, and Kerala. The government in April started the process of transferring the proceedings to the Supreme Court, which is set to hear the plea on July 16.

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To varying extents, the different petitions argue that the Rules are unconstitutional, that they go beyond the scope of the parent legislation (the Information Technology Act, 2000), and restrict the freedom of expression. While the Kerala High Court has granted relief to the NBA and LiveLaw, no other court has done so. The Delhi High Court has refused to offer interim protection, the Bombay High Court deferred the matter in view of the government’s Supreme Court transfer petition, and the Madras High Court has issued notice to the government, with the next hearing scheduled for August 17.

Here’s a list of the matters pending before different courts with links to coverage:

  1. Digital News Publishers Association & anr v. Union of India & anr: Madras High Court, Petition.
  2. TM Krishna v. Union of India & anr: Hearing scheduled for July 14. Petition.
  3. The News Broadcasters Association v. Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology: Kerala High Court, stay on coercive action granted.
  4. Foundation for Independent Journalism v. Union of India: Delhi High Court, Petition, interim stay refused twice.
  5. Live Law Media Private Limited & ors v. Union of India & anr: Kerala High Court, Petition, stay on coercive action granted.
  6. Sanjay Kumar Singh v. Union of India & ors: Delhi High Court, Petition, tagged with FIJ v. UoI.
  7. Quint Digital Media Limited & anr v. Union of India & anr: Delhi High Court, Petition, tagged with FIJ v. UoI.
  8. Press Trust of India v. Union of India & anr: Delhi High Court, Petition, tagged with FIJ v. UoI.
  9. AGIJ Promotion Of Nineteenonea Media Pvt Ltd & anr v. Union of India & anr: Bombay High Court, Petition, proceedings reportedly deferred in view of transfer petition.

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

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