News & Analysis

MeitY may Lead News Fact-check

Does this tantamount to becoming judge and jury or doesn’t it really matter which part of the government does the exercise?

A news report today once again speculated that the central government could have the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) verifying data pertaining to itself shared on social media and the internet instead of getting the Press Information Bureau (PIB) to do the work. The question is would it really matter which government department actually supervises this process? 

A three-member committee comprising two officials from the IT ministry and a third independent one with legal expertise and social media and public policy knowledge could be deciding on the matter, says a news article published in the ET, which quotes an unnamed official. This trio will coordinate with other departments of the government over issues requiring fact-checks. 

Maybe, PIB was the red rag to the bull

Some months ago, the government had noted that PIB would be the agency for carrying out such fact-checks with reference to data published on the internet or social media platforms. The move raised the hackles of free speech activists with the Editors’ Guild warning that such a move would result in censorship of free speech in the country.  

Of course, the government sought to allay such fears and termed them unfounded. Maybe, the removal of PIB from the notification under the amended IT Rules served its purpose and now the MeitY-led body could boldly do what PIB couldn’t have done without having to answer queries around censorship for every decision they might have taken. 

Moreover, the three-member body would only be verifying news on facts and not screening or assessing opinions presented by publications around them, specifically related to inferences based on the data points. This move could assuage some of the ire generated by the earlier one as several senior journalists recalled the censorship from the Emergency days of 1975. 

Fact-check team need to state reasons now

The MeitY team would also publicly specify the reasons for any take-down orders that it issues in order to ensure that everyone could see why a post is being removed or challenged on grounds of incorrect or fake data. However, the article said a final decision on the powers to the fact-checking body and its composition will be taken only after a court’s verdict on the matter. 

The Bombay High Court is currently hearing a matter raised by political satirist Kunal Kamra who alleged that the rules would empower the government to become judge and prosecutor of its own cause, thus violating a fundamental principle of natural justice. The plea said the rules were over-broad, vague and constitute unreasonable restrictions to freedom of speech. 

In its response to the High Court, the central government had submitted a detailed affidavit on the matter suggesting that the plea was premature as the fact-checking body had not been notified and as such there was no question of censuring the posts on social media. The government counsel also assured the court that it would not notify the body till at least July 5.  The court is scheduled to hear the case on June 8. 

Once the fact-check body is established, MeitY could ask social media platforms to label posts as ‘fake’ or ‘misleading’ in case the verification indicates so. There could also be instances where the government may ask the platform to limit its visibility or even take down a post. Platforms would be free to disagree or refuse to take down such content though they may lose the immunity that Section 79 of the IT Act grants them for content posted by users. 

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