The government has not yet decided whether to include digital media in the upcoming Press and Periodicals Bill, Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur said. The central government has been working on the bill since 2019 to update a colonial-era law overseeing the registration of newspapers and periodicals.
“There is no (such) idea so far to include digital media in the new bill,” Thakur said in an interview with HT on Friday. Stating that the bill is still ongoing, he said such clarity will only emerge after it is introduced. “We won’t know until the bill arrives.”
The Press and Periodicals Registration Bill was first introduced in 2019. The Press and Periodicals Registration Bill, 2022 was listed during the monsoon session of the Parliament, but was not tabled. The new bill will replace the Press and Book Registry Act 1867 (PRB).
Nearly 140,000 newspapers and periodicals are registered under the current law, the minister said. Registration is important/compulsory because it gives a legal status to the newspaper and defines a series of rules and conditions with which it must comply or face sanctions.
The main focus of the new bill will be to increase the ease of doing business and decriminalize previous provisions, Thakur said.
“We believe log registration should be done online rather than going to the deputy commissioner or DM (district magistrate) of the district where there are a lot of steps, come to the DM level first , then at the central level, then again at the DM,” Thakur said.
The ministry was trying to make it easier for newspapers, he said. “The second is that the law dates from 1867, so before independence a printing machine or a printing press can matter a great deal, what will be published and where will it go. Nowadays, this concern is less,” Thakur said.
Speaking about decriminalization, Thakur said it is an important area not only for the ministry but also for the government. “If you look at the changes to the Companies Act, it’s in that direction itself. And the majority of departments and ministries are making such changes to decriminalize the rules,” he said. “Equally, at I&B, we are taking such measures.”
The central government was considering civil penalties in place of the criminal actions provided for in the previous bill, HT reported earlier. “If you as a newspaper haven’t filed statements, should you be sent to jail?” Thakur asked. “As processes move online, it will bring more transparency and have a major impact (on the industry).”
As for online news media, it is covered by the new guidelines on intermediate and digital media introduced by the government in February last year. The guidelines require platforms to appoint grievance officers in cases of over-the-top platforms and digital news media platforms, and institute a three-tier grievance mechanism, at the level of the business and industry with an interministerial committee at its top. It gives the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting powers to withdraw content distributed online.
They further provide for voluntary registration of websites and online news channels, of which almost 3,000 have already shared the required details with the government. The guidelines have been challenged by several stakeholders, including Live Law, the Foundation for Independent Journalism and Quint Digital Media Limited.
If they break the rules, digital news channels and websites can be banned under Section 69(A) of the Computer Law, which allows the government to remove channels that endanger sovereignty and integrity of India or threaten public order.
Since December 2021, the government has blocked almost 94 YouTube channels, 19 social media accounts and 747 URLs for “action against India”. During the monsoon session of parliament, Thakur said the government had “acted strongly against agencies working against the sovereignty of the country by spreading fake news and propaganda on the internet”.