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Indian government gives itself the power to “fact-check” and delete social media posts

By Adnan Bhat

Journalists, opposition parties, and advocacy groups are worried about what this “absolute power” means for press freedom in India.

The Indian government on April 6 announced a state-run fact-checking unit that will have sweeping powers to label any information related to the government as “fake, false or misleading” and have it removed from social media.

The country has tweaked its tech rules that require platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to take down content flagged by the fact-checking body.

Internet service providers are also expected to block URLs to such content.

Failure to comply could result in the platforms losing safe harbor protection that safeguards them from legal action against any content posted by their users, said India’s minister of information technology, Rajeev Chandrasekhar.

“The amended rules now also make it obligatory on the intermediaries to not to publish, share or host fake, false or misleading information regarding any business of the Central Government.

Indian government gives itself the power to “fact-check” and delete social media posts. (Photo internet reproduction)
Indian government gives itself the power to “fact-check” and delete social media posts. (Photo internet reproduction)

[This] fake, false or misleading information will [be] identified by the notified Fact Check Unit of the Central Government,” the government said in a press release.

The government’s move to institute such rules without any right to appeal has raised concerns among journalists, internet freedom activists, and opposition parties in the country.

Hartosh Singh Bal, the political editor of the independent investigative magazine ‘The Caravan’, told the ‘Rest of World’ outlet that through this new amendment, “the government has essentially appointed itself the adjudicator of truth.”

“This will not just impact the media and those asking questions to the government,” Bal said. He added that instead of seeking stakeholder input, the government appears to have a specific objective of suppressing independent reporting on its actions.

“This government wants absolute control on the narrative, and through this amendment, they can assert that control legally.”

On April 11, comedian Kunal Kamra filed a court petition challenging the amendment. The Bombay High Court, in response, has asked the government to clarify if any rationale justifies the need for this amendment.

Editors Guild of India, an independent body of journalists, released a statement saying they were “deeply disturbed” by the amendment, claiming this would give the government “sweeping powers” and have “deeply adverse implications” for press freedom in the country.

“In effect, the government has given itself absolute power to determine what is fake or not, in respect of its work, and order takedown,” the statement read.

“The so-called ‘fact-checking unit’ can be constituted by the ministry, by a simple ‘notification published in the Official Gazette.’”

The guild also urged the government to withdraw the “draconian” law and hold consultations with the media.

Several opposition parties in the country have criticized the move, calling it akin to imposing “censorship.”

Supriya Shrinate, spokesperson of the party in opposition, the Indian National Congress, told the Rest of the World that the new amendment is not just undemocratic but also unconstitutional and will severely impact freedom of speech in the country.

“The government is undermining all democratic processes in the country,” she said.

“Nobody is allowed to ask questions. This BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] government fears facing questions and facts. How can the government be the judge, jury, and executioner of what is fake news when BJP is the biggest manufacturer of fake news?”

The ‘Rest of World’ outlet reached out to India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) with questions but did not get a response at the time of publishing. This story will be updated as and when the ministry responds.

Prateek Waghre, policy director at digital rights advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation, raised concerns over how the new law allows the government to define what is “fake, false or misleading” without accountability.”

“The Press Information Bureau (PIB) is a nodal agency that issues press releases for the government. “We have seen the Press Information Bureau getting it wrong multiple times in the past. So there is a precedent for it,” he told Rest of World.

“There could also be situations where someone reports data on a government scheme, and the government contests it by saying they have no record of it,” Waghre said.

“They can then call any substantiation or number misleading because, as per their record, they have no data on it … And then the [fact-checking] unit flags it as misleading and then, are social media intermediaries, ISP, cloud services, and DNS services expected to honor that fact-check by restricting access to that website?”

MeitY first published draft rules for this amendment in January 2023. The rules mandated that intermediaries remove any post tagged as “fake news” by the PIB or any other agency authorized for fact-checking by the government.

After receiving severe criticism from the media, the government announced an extension on the deadline for feedback on the amendment.

But stakeholders who spoke to Rest of World said no meaningful consultations were held.

They said that seeking feedback from stakeholders seemed rushed, raising questions about the government’s intention, said Waghre.

“There was an ongoing set of consultations [on rules for] online gaming intermediaries,” he explained.

“On the deadline day, along with an extension, this particular consultation was inserted. This meant there was a brief period for stakeholders to respond to the proposed amendments that affect everybody at a fundamental level.”

While the draft rules observed that the PIB would be tasked with the fact-checking, Chandrasekhar has since clarified that the government plans to set up a new fact-checking unit, members of which will be chosen at the discretion of the government.

This post was published first here.

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