Pakistani OTT app, YouTube videos, now BBC film: How Center has wielded IT Rules emergency powers

In December, the Narendra Modi-led Union government blocked a Pakistan-based OTT platform for broadcasting content that was “detrimental to national security”. Utilizing the emergency powers under the Information Technology (IT) Rules, 2021, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued directions to block the website, two mobile applications, four social media accounts, and one smart TV app of Vidly TV on December 12.

The government invoked the same section on Saturday to direct YouTube and Twitter to take down links sharing the BBC documentary India: The Modi Question. Both YouTube and Twitter had to comply. This set off a political firestorm, with Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP Derek O Brien first flagging on Saturday that a tweet containing a link to the documentary was taken down by the social media platform as per government orders.

O’Brien termed it “censorship” and so did Congress’s communications In-charge Jairam Ramesh. Ramesh tweeted, “PM and his drumbeaters assert that the new BBC documentary on him is slanderous. Censorship has been imposed. Then why did PM (Atal Behari) Vajpayee want his exit from him in 2002, only to be pressurized not to insist by the threat of resignation by (LK) Advani? Why did Vajpayee remind him of his raj dharma of him?”

Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju hit out at the Opposition for supporting the documentary, saying that some people in India consider “BBC above the Supreme Court of India”. He tweeted on Sunday, “Some people in India still haven’t gotten over the colonial intoxication. They consider BBC above the Supreme Court of India and lower the country’s dignity and image to any extent to please their moral masters. Anyway, there is no better hope from these tukde tukde gang members whose only aim is to weaken the might of India.”

The I&B Ministry has used these emergency powers on several occasions to block content it deems “detrimental to India’s integrity and sovereignty”. Rule 16 of the IT Rules, 2021, notified on February 25, 2021, talks about the government’s power with regard to “Blocking of information in case of emergency”. Such orders may be passed on certain specified grounds, including national security and public order.

Vidly TV came on the government’s radar after it released a web series titled Sevak: The Confessions, which the government of India suspects was sponsored by the Pakistani information operations apparatus. Its first episode was aired on November 26, the anniversary of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

The web series, according to ministry officials, portrayed an anti-India narrative on sensitive historical events and subjects of national importance such as Operation Blue Star, the demolition of Babri Masjid, the murder of Christian missionary Graham Staines, the Malegaon blasts, the Samjhauta Express blasts, and the inter-state river water disputes.

In September 2022, the I&B Ministry directed YouTube to remove 45 videos from its 10 channels, saying the content included “fake news and morphed videos aimed at spreading hatred among religious communities”.

Union I&B Minister Anurag Singh Thakur has said, “This is a continuous process and action will be taken against all such sites and channels in the future as well.”

The IT Rules have proved to be contentious ever since they were notified. In September 2021, the Madras High Court stayed the operation of a key provision that set up an oversight mechanism by the Central government to regulate social media and digital media platforms.

“Prima facie, there is substance to the petitioner’s grievance that the oversight mechanism to control the media by the Government may rob the media of its independence and the fourth pillar of democracy may not at all be there,” the two-judge Bench observed while staying the operation of Rule 9(1) and 9(3) of the Rules.

Rule 9 of the IT Rules prescribes a grievance redressal mechanism and sub-Section 1 establishes a portal to be set up by the Ministry of Information and Technology for receiving complaints against media platforms while under sub-Section 3, an acknowledgment of every complaint is generated within 24 hours of receiving the complaint, which is then referred to the media platform concerned and the IT ministry for the record.

The month before, the Bombay High Court had stayed Rule 9(1) and 9(3), saying they are “manifestly unreasonable and go beyond the IT Act, its aims and provisions”.

The provision was challenged in the Madras High Court by the Digital News Publishers Association, a grouping of 13 leading media companies in the country, including IE Online Media Services Pvt Ltd.

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