August 6, 2023
The Editors Guild of India is deeply concerned with some of the draconian provisions in the Press and Registration of Periodicals Bill, 2023, which was introduced in the Rajya Sabha by the Hon’ble Union Minister for Information & Broadcasting, Mr. Anurag Thakur, and is meant to replace the existing Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867 (PRB).
Though the “Statement of Objects and Reasons” mentions that the “proposed legislation is based on the spirit of upholding media freedom and ease of doing business”, in effect the new bill in fact widens the powers of the State to have more intrusive and arbitrary checks into the functioning of newspapers and magazines than the existing law had.
The Guild is concerned about the expansion of powers of the Press Registrar, the new restrictions on citizens to bring out periodicals, the continuation of power to enter premises of news publications, the vagueness inherent in many of the provisions, and the ambiguity surrounding power to frame rules that can have adverse implications on press freedom.
We highlight below some of the primary concerns:
A. Expansion of power beyond Press Registrar
In definitions section, the term “specified authority” gives power to government agencies beyond the Press Registrar, to conduct the functions of the registrar, which could even include police and other law enforcement agencies. Given the intrusive, expansive, and vague nature of powers that the bill in any case allows to the Press Registrar, the power to further delegate this power to other government agencies including law enforcement agencies is deeply distressing. The Guild urges that only the Press Registrar should be the relevant authority for the purpose of this act and no other government agency should be given any powers with respect to registration of periodicals.
B. Denial and cancellation of registration to persons convicted for “unlawful activity”
Sections 4(1) and 11(4), allow the Registrar to deny the right to bring out a periodical, and to cancel the certificate of registration of a periodical, to persons convicted of “terrorist act or unlawful activity”, or “for having done anything against the security of the State”. Interestingly, the PRB Act, 1867, had no such provisions. Given the liberal and arbitrary use of UAPA (which is the basis for defining “terrorist act” and “unlawful activity”), as well as other criminal laws, including Sedition, against journalists and media organisations to suppress freedom of speech, the Guild is deeply concerned by the introduction of these new provisions, and the way they can be misused to deny the right to bring out news publications to persons who are critical of governments
C. Power to enter premises of Press organisations
Under section 6(b), the bill gives power to the Press Registrar, (as well as any other “specified authority”) to enter the premises of a periodical to “inspect or take copies of the relevant records or documents or ask any questions necessary for obtaining any information required to be furnished”. This authority to enter a press organisation is excessively intrusive and it is deeply concerning that while on one hand, in the “Statement of Objects and Reasons” it is claimed that the intention is to make the process less cumbersome for press organisations, but yet such powers are continued from the earlier act.
D. Concerns regarding power to frame rules
Section 19 gives the Central Government powers to frame rules and guidelines under which news publishing is to be done in India. It has been seen time again that the power to frame rules under various acts has been used in arbitrary as well as excessively intrusive manner. The recent IT Rules 2021, and the latest amendments made to it regarding setting up of a ‘fact checking unit’ with sweeping powers to order content take down is an illustrative example. Therefore, for the sake of preserving freedom of press, it is submitted that all such rules be clearly defined within the act, and there be no provisions be left to the discretion of a future government or a government authority.
Editors Guild of India would like the proposed bill to ensure that publishing of news in India remains free of encumbrances and intrusive checks on publishers by the registrar, and that the primary emphasis of the registrar and the PRP remains ‘registration’ and not ‘regulation’, as the latter has the potential of restricting freedom of press. The law on this issue should be more respectful of freedom of the press and should avoid granting vast powers to regulatory authorities to either interfere or shut down the press at their whims and fancies
Since the bill has already been passed in the Rajya Sabha, the Guild urges the Speaker of the Lok Sabha to refer it to a Parliamentary Select Committee, to allow a deep discussion on the issues that are crucial for press freedom.
The Guild has already written to the Prime Minister, the speaker of the Lok Sabha, Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, leaders of political parties in both the houses, as well as the Minister of Information & Broadcasting, highlighting our concerns.