India: Draft rule proposes ban on news flagged as ‘fake’ by government from online platforms

India has issued a draft proposal which will ban any piece of news that has been identified as “fake” by the fact-checking unit of the federal government’s nodal agency to share news updates.

The new draft uploaded on Tuesday includes regulations for gaming platforms as well.

The Press Information Bureau (PIB)’s fact-checking unit was established in 2019 to verify news related to the government schemes and policies.

The Rule 3(1)(b)(v) of the amended version of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, states that platforms “shall make reasonable efforts to cause the user of its computer resource not to” not to host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, store, update or share any information content that has been “identified as fake or false by the fact check unit at the Press Information Bureau of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting or other agency authorised by the Central Government for fact checking”.

PIB has been criticised in the past for being the state’s mouthpiece, issuing denials on behalf of the government on news articles by online publications.

In 2020, a report on the news platform Newslaundry highlighted several instances in which the PIB’s fact-checking unit stuck to the government’s line instead of facts.

The draft proposal on “fake news” however expands the gambit of the regulations, reported The Indian Express.

By including the proposal that content may be fact checked by “other agency authorised by the Central Government for fact checking”, the draft also suggests that in the future, it may not be just the PIB’s fact-checking unit but also other authorised entities that could mark news items as fake.

The draft rule faced criticism from journalists and commentators on social media.

Nikhil Pahwa, who heads Medianama, a website that analyses information and technology policy in India, said: “With the latest changes to the Internet Rules, the Indian government has given its Press Information Bureau the power to determine what the truth is, and order social media platforms to censor news organisations by taking their links down.

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“The reach of a news story online is dependent on social media platforms. If you don’t see a link what will you click on?

“Just a year before national elections this appropriation of power is undemocratic.”

“According to the draft, it will be an obligation on intermediaries that they cannot have content marked false by PIB or any other agency approved by the government. Beyond intermediaries, it would apply to the entirety of the technology stack, including hosting service providers and internet service providers,” Prateek Waghre, policy director at the Internet Freedom Foundation said to The Indian Express.

Several journalists have also lashed out at the draft rule saying that it sets a dangerous precedent.

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The government has invited comments on the draft amendments till 25 January.

The move to potentially regulate news comes as the Indian media landscape is already overwhelmingly populated by outlets with a favourable editorial outlook on the Narendra Modi government. News organisations and journalists who have called out the government have faced legal cases, threats and even been arrested.

Last June fact checking website Alt News Founder Mohammad Zubair was arrested days after he brought international attention to controversial remarks by a ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Nupur Sharma against prophet Muhammad.

In a report released last week, the International Press Institute (IPI) highlighted that through "the past eight years, the Modi government and BJP supporters have attempted to silence independent media through attacks and repressive laws, often targeting the Muslim minority".

"According to IPI data, the majority of press freedom violations during this period were related to online censorship and internet and communications shutdowns," it said.