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A group of over 100 journalists and other professionals related to online media today wrote to the Information & Broadcasting minister Smriti Irani to express their concerns over the ministry’s proposal to extend traditional broadcasting rules and restrictions to the Internet. The journalists include both veterans of the industry like Raghav Bahl, MK Venu, Madhu Trehan, Nalini Singh, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Shivam Vij, Sanjay Pugalia, Aniruddha Bahal and Raman Kirpal, as well as younger generation media entrepreneurs like Dhanya Rajendran (The News Minute), Seema Mustafa (The Citizen), Ritu Kapur (The Quint), Tanmay Bhat (All India Bakchod) and Bharat Nayak (The Logical Indian).

In their letter , the journalists and media professionals expressed concerns that bringing legacy media structures — such as licensing and content regulation — could have a drastic impact on a medium that is widely credited with making the media and information landscape more open and democratic across the world.

“Internet based media, by its very nature, promotes broader democratic values globally and cannot be dealt with in the way national governments try to regulate or control traditional media,” said MK Venu, Founding Editor at The Wire, a new-generation, online-only publication.

“Internet based media and global media aggregators like Facebook, Google have changed the content and distribution landscape in ways that national governments cannot easily control. Nor should they try to. It is a free democratic space and must remain as such,” he added. Geeta Seshu, a journalist and a media analyst with a keen interest in freedom of expression issues, too called on the government to embrace the change the spirit of freedom brought about by the Internet in media and communication sectors.

“Today, digital media in India is evolving into a space which allows for access to information, untrammelled by traditional gatekeeping structures and despite infrastructural limitations like low broadband speeds or poor internet penetration,” she said.

She expressed disappointment at the government’s attempt to ‘regulate’ online media by setting up a committee comprising mostly of government officials.

“This committee hardly reflects the complexities of online media, much less represent all its practitioners,” she said. “Its mandate to regulate the dissemination of information smacks of the most alarming attempts to censor a burgeoning medium. It is ironic that one of the terms of this committee is to examine international standards when India is hailed for taking a strong and unequivocal stand on net neutrality. We can, and should, be leading the way in upholding the tenets of a free, plural, democratic and egalitarian media space,” she added. Journalist Madhu Trehan, the co-founder of NewsLaundry, one of the earliest digital news ventures, warned about the far-reaching impact that interfering with the citizens’ freedom of expression, online or offline, can have.

“Regulating the Internet is a tricky thing. It’s impact is enormous and far reaching,” said Madhu Trehan. “The proposal to regulate (and its need at all) must be a consultative process in the most open and transparent way.

“The Internet is the most important invention since the printing press, with a bigger impact than the press. To regulate the printing press would mean strangling thousands and millions
of books down the ages that have transformed the world. That is the impact we are looking at. The Internet is the printing press of the digital age. A proposal for its regulation must be debated threadbare before any action,” she added. Seema Mustafa, founder editor of The Citizen, a news and current affairs website, warned that chances of ‘online content regulation’ being used for suppression of opinions critical of the government remain very high.

“The attempt to control the internet comes from classic insecurity associated with governments fearful of dissent,” she said.

“The essentially bureaucratic composition of the committee set up by GOI is an indication of the direction the so called regulation mechanism can be expected to take. Peoples all over the world have opposed and stopped such attempts by governments to control space that has become increasingly valuable for individuals and increasingly for independent media,” she added. Raghav Bahl, founder of Network18 and Quintillion Media, urged the government to look at the approach taken by other democracies in dealing with issues of online content.

“Any hasty action by the government will likely result in overreach,” he said.

“Therefore, we believe that the starting point for the government should be to study the global best practices for online content regulation. Many advanced democracies have already debated this and come up with good frameworks that ensure free speech and transparent regulation. No need to reinvent the wheel,” he added.

The journalists organized themselves using social media, particularly WhatsApp, spontaneously after news broke that the government had set up a committee to come up with a regulatory structure for online media “on the lines applicable to print and electronic media”.
Over 100 journalists and professionals, including those from dozens of online organizations, signed the petition.

A website, https://onlinefreedomfoundation.org, has also been set up to allow ordinary citizens to oppose the move to regulate online content.

Media Contacts:

Madhu Trehan: 98101 60022 madhu@newslaundry.com Abhinandan Sekhri 98112 37306 abhinandan@newslaundry.com MK Venu: 98119 09194 mkvenu@yahoo.com Geeta Seshu: 98922 14601 geetaseshu@gmail.com Seema Mustafa: Seemamustafa@gmail.com
Email queries can also be sent to media@onlinefreedomfoundation.org
Logistical support : Sreejiraj Eluvangal – 9819553963 sreejiraj@gmail.com

LETTER TO THE MINISTRY

To, Smt Smriti Zubin Irani, Minister of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India. CC: Prime Minister of India CC: Minister of Information & Technology CC: Minister of Law & Justice CC: Members of Consultative Committee, Information & Broadcasting, Parliament of India Date: May 1, 2018

Subject: Proposal to bring online content under media regulations

Dear Minister Smriti Irani,

We are a group of Indian citizens who depend on the Internet to gather and share information on a daily basis. We have come to know that this ministry has issued an order dated Apr 4, 2018 seeking to establish content regulations for the Internet modeled on those applicable for traditional media like print and TV. This letter is to place on record our feedback on the said order. In the order, you make the following statements: 1. There are no norms and guidelines for content shared on the Internet

  1. Therefore, the ministry has decided to constitute a committee to frame a regulatory framework for such content 3. Online ‘dissemination of information’ needs to be brought under regulation on the lines applicable to print and electronic media 4. The guidelines shall be sourced primarily from two sources: The Programming & Advertising Code for TV channels put in place by the government, and the norms circulated by traditional media organizations such as Press Council of India, News Broadcasters’ Association and Indian Broadcasting Foundation for their members.
    As people engaged constantly in the dissemination of news and views on the Internet, we would like to record our response on each of the four points. 1. On point 1, we deny the assertion there are no norms and guidelines for content on the Internet. Even a cursory reading of the IT Act would reveal that all content is covered under its scope. The Act in fact goes beyond laying down guidelines, and incorporates stiff punishments for those who violate the content norms laid down in it. Similarly, several other laws, such as the Indian Penal Code, also contain clear dos and don’ts for sharing of content, including over the Internet. Therefore, to say that there are no norms and guidelines for content online is contrary to facts. 2. Given that the first premise — that there exists no norms for online content – is incorrect, this statement becomes logically unmaintainable as it relies on the first statement for its validity.

  2. Next, the ministry says that online content “needs to be brought under regulation on the lines applicable to print and electronic media.” Our position is that online content is different from print and television content, because most of it is produced by individual citizens in exercise of their constitutional right to freedom of expression, and embodies two way communication and interactivity, and not just publishing. Online, it is also difficult to distinguish between publishing and communications. Much of online content is borne out of an individual’s need to express opinions and exercise artistic freedom, protected by Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. It is also worth noting that, according to the Indian Constitution, an individual has the same right to free speech and expression whether by word of mouth, writing, printing, pictures or any other mode. Therefore, restrictions that do not apply to offline speech cannot be used to control online speech either. On the other hand, provisions that apply to offline behavior — such as the IPC — are equally applicable, and regularly applied, to online content.

  3. The objections to this proposal have already been recorded under point 3.
    We reiterate that applying additional regulations on Internet content will: 1. Impinge upon the individual citizen’s freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution, and/or 2. open up the possibility of widespread abuse and attempts to suppress of political dissent by the government and/or the regulating agency.

We request you to consider these responses, and call upon the government to withdraw its plans to create additional rules for regulation of online content. This letter has been endorsed by all those who are mentioned below:

Raghav Bahl Co-founder, The Quint (www.thequint.com) MK Venu Founding Editor, The Wire (www.thewire.in) Paranjoy Guha Thakurta Sr. Journalist (@paranjoygt) Nalini Singh Sr. Journalist (@nalinisinghtv) Madhu Trehan Co-founder, NewsLaundry (www.newslaundry.com) Shivam Vij Sr. Journalist (@DilliDurAst) Sanjay Pugalia Editorial Director, The Quint Aniruddha Bahal Editor, Cobrapost Raman Kirpal Managing Editor, NewsLaundry Shajan Skariah Founder & Editor, MarunadanMalayali.com Ritu Kapur Co-founder, The Quint (www.thequint.com) Seema Mustafa Sr. Journalist & Founder of The Citien Dhanya Rajendran Co-founder & Editor, The News Minute Naresh Fernandes Editor, Scroll.in Tanmay Bhat Co-founder, AIB (www.youtube.com/user/allindiabakchod) Saikat Datta South Asia Editor, Asia Times Abhinandan Sekhri Co-founder, NewsLaundry (www.newslaundry.com) Jayadevan PK Co-founder, FactorDaily (www.factordaily.com) Samir Bangara Co-founder, Qyuki Digital Media (www.qyuki.com) Bharat Nayak Founding Member & Editorial Director, The Logical Indian Kishalay Bhattacharjee Author, Defence Journalist, Filmmaker
Harini Calamur Writer, Filmmaker (@calamur) Kuldeep Kumar Sr. Journalist (@kumar55kuldeep) Amit Varma Editor, Pragat (thinkpragat.com) Vignesh Vellore Co-founder & CEO, The News Minute Rega Jha Editor, BuiiFeed India Nikhil Pahwa Founder, Medianama Arunava Sinha Consultng Editor, Scroll.in Jency Jacob Managing Editor, Boomlive.in Geeta Seshu Journalist & Media Analyst (@geetaseshu) Pradeep Saurabh Editor, Natonal Duniya Rangnath Singh Sr News Editor, Lokmatnews.in CH Unnikrishnan Sr Associate Editor, Business World Ramanathan S Partner, The News Minute Sreejith Divakaran Executve Editor, Doolnews.com KC Arun Editor, Abhimukham.com Anjan Mitra Consultng Editor, Indiantelevision.com Amalendu Upadhyaya Editor, Hastakshep.com Pratk Sinha Founder, Alt News Vivek Kaul Journalist & Author (@kaul_vivek) Tript Narain Lifestyle Editor, India TV Digital Manav Sethi Online media industry professional Prakash K Ray Editor, Bargad.org (@pkray11) Joyjeet Das Head, Copy Desk at Catchnews.com Akhil Kumar Reporter, The Wire Biraj Swain Columnist, ICFJ Fellow Atul Chaurasia Executve Editor, NewsLaundry.com Rohini Singh Journalist (@rohini_sgh) Monu Rajan Journalist (Hindu Business Line) Binita Parikh Journalist (@binita_parikh) Gyana Ranjan Swain Founder & Editor, TeleAnalysis.com Durga Sengupta Journalist (@the_bongrel) Ashok Das Editor, Dalitdaskak.com Aleesha Matharu Asst Editor, The Wire Rifat Jawaid Founder, JantaKaReporter (former Managing Editor, TV Today) Kunal Majumder Journalist (@kunalmajumder) Akhilesh Krishna Mohan Editor, FarkIndia.org Sandesh Mysore Journalist (@SandeshMysore7) Sreejiraj Eluvangal Journalist (@sreejiraj) Mahima Jain Editor, Research Blog LSE (South Asia) Shireen Aiam Digital Editor, EPW Shelly Walia Sr. News Editor, The Quint Sanjay Rajoura Stand-up Artst Roy Mathew Editor, NewiScoop.com Mahibul Hoque Hind Kisan Channel (Youtube) Tushar Dhara Journalist (@DharaShukoh) Ruchi Kumar Journalist (@RuchiKumar)
Pawanjot Kaur Journalist, The Wire Raju PP Founder, TechPP.com Subhash Gatade Writer/Actvist Abhishek Srivastava Mediavigil.com Mani Karthik Blogger (Manikarthik.com) Raksha Kumar Journalist (@Raksha_Kumar) Shweta Sengar Journalist (@shwetasengar) Jhinuk Sen Sr Asst Editor (PCMag, TechRadar) CL Jose Businessbenchmark.news MP Basheer Editor, The Newsrupt (@mpbasheer) Soumya Shankar Journalist (@shankarmya) Aishwarya Iyer Reporter, The Quint Shadab Moiiee Journalist (@shadabmoiiee) Jadeer Nandi Journalist @JadeerTK Blassey Boben Copy Editor, The Quint Nadim Asrar Associate Editor, India Today Online Makepeace Sitlhou Journalist (@makesyoucakes ) Lesley Esteves Digital Editor, Natonal Herald Thomas Manuel Journalist (FB:thomasonf) Visvak P Journalist (@visvak) Meghnad Bose Reporter, The Quint Amal Vijiv Journalist, NewiScoop.com Sneha Vakharia Journalist (@sneha_vakharia) Amandeep Sandhu Journalist (@_asandhu) Madhu Nainan Journalist Nitesh Pradhan Chief of Bureau, Sikkim Chronicle Harachand S Journalist (@pillscribe007) Dhairya Maheshwari Reporter, Natonal Herald Vikas Jangra Journalist (@vikasjangraji) Pragya Tiwari Journalist (@PragyaTiwari) Rishi Majumder Journalist (@rishimajumder) Andre Borges Video Producer, BuiiFeed M Reyai Asst Prof (Journalism), Aliah University, Kolkata Ashlin Mathew News Editor, Natonal Herald Asad Ali Journalist (@da_asad_ali) Parthshri Arora Journalist (online) Swapnesh Dubey Blogger – Youtube (@Swapnesh_Dubey) Vishnu Sharma Journalist (@hellovishnu) Anand Haridas Journalist (@leospeak)

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