Compromising the freedom of press with the RPP Bill, 2019. 

Press Freedom in India

Over the years, there have been serious issues concerning the diminishing credibility of media, which is the fourth pillar of a stable democracy. The press is regulated by the archaic Press and Registration of Book (PRB) Act which dates back to before independence in 1867. The legislation in question because with the parliament in session, the Modi-led BJP government is proposing amendments to the colonial law. It briefly intends to bring news websites under the purview of the official regulations, which is unprecedented in the country. The Registration of Press and Periodical (RPP) Bill, 2019 has been introduced by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on Tuesday. Provision, as laid under Section 18 of the bill, suggests for the regulation of digital media. It reads the publisher of news on digital media shall get registered with Registrar of Newspapers of India. The registration procedure includes the giving out of particulars of the said media house, as prescribed. 

This is a new move of the government, as before this there was no requirement of registration of news websites, blogs and social media pages publishing news, editorials or opinion. Registration, as suggested in the bill, would attract adherence to several rules and regulations above the standard prescribed rules regulating speech and expression. The regulation of digital media seems to be on the agenda list of the ruling party, as earlier this year in August they announced the introduction of a cap on foreign direct investment [FDI] for these websites. Therefore, news websites can now have to maintain a 26% cap on the FDI and subject it to official approval, separate for each. The RPP bill has been introduced with an intent to replace the archaic PRB Act. Though the introduction of a new act was required, subjecting the digital media to a further set of regulations will not be appreciated. The new bill aims to penalize the publication of a periodical not in consonance with the provisions of the act. 

However, with a vaguely drafted law, the definition of e-newspapers seems to be unclear. The Wire reports that the existing definition does not clarify as to whether or not e-newspapers covers the current newspapers and magazines, who have a digital version of their printed copy or only websites which run on a digital platform. Though the bill provides for a definition of news on digital media, it also defines publisher and publication, making it amply clear that the term is only applied to publications which are printed on paper. 

An interpretation of these definitions, read together, might suggest as reported by The Wire, that the requirement of registration applies to the publisher of news on digital media, will not cover ‘standalone websites’, as they do not print their material on paper. This makes India the first democratic country to regulate digital media with a set of government prescribed rules.

No publication against the security of the state: 

The draft bill which has been released and comments of stakeholders invited has a provision which does not allow any publication to be made ‘against the security of the state’. This also flows from the provision mandating registration of the news websites, as then they are an entity incorporated and registered under Indian law. Though they ‘allow’ such entities to bring out a publication, they carve an exception of those entities who are convicted by any court for an offence, involving any terrorist act or unlawful activity or having done anything ‘against the security of the state’. The phrase ‘security of the state’, is anyways being used as a tool by the government to be thrown at journalists, academicians, activists and other human rights defenders to muzzle dissent.

Regarding the same in the bill, it is nothing but a compromise with the independence of the press. It surely is not a reasonable restriction on the freedom of speech and expression. Moreover, what is more, appalling is a reference to the much-criticized Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for the definition of what constitutes a ‘terrorist act’ or ‘unlawful activity’. Widening the gap and giving discretion, there is a complete ambiguity around what will constitute as ‘security of the state’, with no definition prescribed to it. 

The new draft suggests a definition for the term ‘Editor’ of a periodical. It has been defined to specify that she or he must be an Indian citizen, defined as follows: 

“editor” of a periodical means an individual, whether called editor, chief editor, group editor or editor-in-chief or by any other name called, being a citizen of India and is ordinarily resident in India responsible for the selection and finalization of the content of a periodical;

The earlier PRB Act did not contain any such provision, requiring citizenship of India for the publisher and the editor, it only mandated for them to be a resident of India. A similar amendment though proposed in 2013, was not pursued either by the ruling government or the party in opposition. It seems as has also been opined by The Wire, that the requirement is to hold liability to an Indian court in case of a defamation suit, often seen in case of publications.

Registration for e-papers:

The bill calls for a centrally regulated system of title and registration of periodical, vesting the power with the Press Registrar General. The said post would operate as the central controlling authority for all publications, empowered to grant, revise, revoke or suspend the registration of a periodical in the manner prescribed. The press registrar general is also allowed to decide on the imposition of files and penalties. 

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