Digital news sites now under Information & Broadcasting Ministry, censorship concerns surface

The government of India announced on November 11 that all digital platforms producing films, audio-visual programs, news and current affairs will be brought under the purview of Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), which is currently headed by Prakash Javadekar.

According to the gazette notification, news on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook would also come under the MIB.

The decision to bring digital media under the MIB was first initiated in 2018 by the then-Minister of Information and Broadcasting Smriti Irani and was later shelved as officials reasoned that internet doesn’t come under MIB’s domain, and the IT ministry would handle online media instead. The recent move is being seen as a threat to over-the-top (OTT) service platforms and also brought apprehensions of censorship among media practitioners.

Fears of content regulation

Sashi Kumar, founder and Editor-in-Chief of digital news platform Asiaville News, said that there will be direct or indirect control of news not just in the business aspect, but also in the content that platforms produce. The reasons, he said, were two-fold.

One is that digital news portals have been clubbed together with OTT platforms, which have no censorship board unlike films. In this case, Kumar said, “The natural question is that are they going to bring some censorship or regulation of content for news portals as well? Otherwise, why bring into the I&B [Information & Broadcasting] ministry at all?”

The other reason Kumar mentioned was the “intent” of the government to regulate digital media. He referred to the Sudarshan News case, in which the Centre said that regulations are more necessary for web-based digital media than it is for mainstream electronic and print media.

Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of digital news platform The Wire, said in an article, “The government has been claiming for some time now that online news is some sort of Wild West that follows no rules. This is nonsense since all the restrictions that come with the constitutional guarantee of free speech and a free press applies to news websites, just as they do to newspapers and TV channels.”

“Words spoken can be construed as offences under the law, so online media is not exempt in any manner,” said Geeta Ramaseshan, Lawyer, Madras High Court. “Since Article 19 (1) A relates to freedom of speech and expression, it can be in any form,” she said.

Curb on foreign investments for digital media

The government’s first step after bringing digital news platforms under the MIB was to issue a notice that urged news platforms to comply with 26% cap on foreign direct investments (FDI) sanctioned in September 2019, before which there were no restrictions on FDI for digital media.

The 26% cap could pose difficulties for independent start-ups, which are unlikely to gain substantial advertisement and subscription revenue.

Dhanya Rajendran, Editor-in-Chief of the digital news platform The News Minute, questioned the need for digital media to have FDI caps at all. “Is the government being unfair to people who want to start news organisations in India? The example I want to take is – all international publications like BBC, Washington Post operate out of India. If you look at it they are just foreign companies, but do news here.”

“By allowing them to operate here and by curtailing Indian news organisations, we are put at an unfair disadvantage here,” said Dhanya.

Information & Broadcasting Secretary Amit Khare had earlier said that capping FDI at 26% for digital news organisations would make it a level playing field for print and digital media.

Kumar said that this could have a positive effect on investors by giving them some certainty about the rules when they walk in with big money. “In that sense, it could have a positive effect. But I’m very skeptical that this is the intent [of the government].”

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