Delhi HC refuses to stay implementation of new IT Rules for digital news portals, renotifies for roster bench

The petitions challenging the IT Rules have been filed by Quint Digital Media Limited and its director; Foundation for Independent Journalism which publishes The Wire; Pravda Media Foundation which owns Alt News, and others.

The Delhi High Court on Monday declined to stay the Centre’s May 28 notice asking digital news portals to comply with Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, saying there was ‘no question of the vacation bench granting any interim relief to the petitioners’.

The petitioners challenging the IT Rules in the Delhi HC are Quint Digital Media Limited and its director Ritu Kapur; Foundation for Independent Journalism which publishes The Wire; Pravda Media Foundation, which owns the fact-checking website Alt News, and others.

The vacation bench of Justice C Hari Shankar and Justice Subramonium Prasad said the recent notice is only for the implementation of the rules, and the petitioners have not been able to get a stay against the rules from the roster bench.

“You’ve challenged the Rules, made an interim application for stay of the Rules; that application has come before the division bench on at least two occasions. The action they are taking now is only implementation of those Rules. You’ve not made a case that the notice is contrary to the Rules,” observed the court, while listing applications seeking protection from coercive action for July 7 before the roster bench.

In the petition filed by the Quint, it has been argued that the executive power to virtually dictate content to digital news portals would squarely violate Article 14 and 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution. Similar arguments have been made in other petitions.

“The IT Rules, 2021 introduce digital portals with ‘news and current affairs content’ as a specific and targeted class to be subject to regulation by a loose-ranging ‘Code of Ethics’ and to be consummately overseen by Central Government officers,” reads the petition.

The petition also argues that the Rules create a space for the State to enter and control news by way of deletion, modification or blocking, censure, compelled apology and more. “Clubbing online news portals with social media as distinct from the print news media is unfair and irrational classification,” it contends further.

Senior Advocate Nitya Ramakrishna, representing the petitioners, on Monday submitted that the digital news portals on June 18 have been warned that “consequences will follow” unless they comply with the rules, and argued that the central government cannot sit in judgement over content of news media.

Ramakrishna also submitted that the portals have told the Centre they are willing to engage with it, and there is no need for coercive action when the information the government is seeking is in public domain.

“When they are threatening coercive action, I’m certainly entitled to come to your lordships,” submitted Ramakrishna. “They are coercing us into a disciplinary regime of the central government. Until now they were only engaging with us in correspondence. On June 18, they said ‘you comply or else’. We didn’t rush to court before that,” she continued.

However, the court said it was not in agreement with the submissions and declined to pass an interim order.

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