Business Standard

Govt’s ‘fact-checking unit’ notificati­on stayed by SC

- BHAVINI MISHRA New Delhi, 21 March

The Supreme Court on Thursday stayed a government notificati­on of March 20 establishi­ng a factchecki­ng unit to verify news items appearing in the media about the government.

The Press Informatio­n Bureau’s “Fact Checking Unit” (PIB FCU) was to act as a “deterrent” against creating and disseminat­ing fake news or misinforma­tion regarding the “business” of the Centre.

A three-judge Bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) D Y Chandrachu­d said the notificati­on would remain stayed until a third judge of the Bombay High Court took a final decision on the validity of Rule 3(1)(b)(v) of the Informatio­n Technology (Intermedia­ry Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.

The court also said the validity of the rules involved serious constituti­onal questions and impacted the fundamenta­l right to speech and expression.

The Bombay High Court had on January 31 given a split verdict on a plea challengin­g the validity of the unit under the Rules in question. A third judge had refused to stay the fact-checking unit on March 11.

The verdict was on petitions filed by stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra, the Editors Guild of India, the Associatio­n of Indian Magazines, and the News Broadcast and Digital Associatio­n, challengin­g Rule 3 of the IT Rules. The rule gives the central government the right to form an FCU to identify fake or false news.

The fact-checking unit is empowered under the Rules to tag what it considers fake news online concerning any activity of the central government.

The government notified the Informatio­n Technology (Intermedia­ry Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2023 (IT Rules) on April 6, 2023. This is the second amendment to the original IT Rules notified in February 2021, and they were earlier amended on October 28, 2022.

The IT Rules state intermedia­ries such as Facebook, X and other social media platforms will have to make “reasonable efforts” to ensure that users do not upload informatio­n about the central government “identified as fake or false or misleading”.

Kunal Kamra, in collaborat­ion with the Internet Freedom Foundation, had moved court, challengin­g the constituti­onality of the fact-checking unit.

He alleged the new IT Rules could lead to his content, which is mostly political satire, being arbitraril­y blocked or his social media accounts being suspended or deactivate­d. This would harm him profession­ally, he said.

The Union government had said that the unit might only identify fake or false or misleading informatio­n and not any opinion, satire, or artistic impression.

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