Big Setback For Centre As Supreme Court Stays IT Ministry’s Notification Establishing Fact Check Unit Under PIB

he Supreme Court on Thursday stayed the Centre’s notification on setting up a fact-checking unit under the Press Information Bureau (PIB) to identify fake news about the Union government.

The establishment of the Fact Check Unit was announced on March 20 under the Information Technology Rules, 2021, by the Ministry of Electronics and IT.

A panel led by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud overturned the March 11 ruling of the Bombay High Court, which had declined to issue an interim stay on the formation of the FCU under the amended IT Rules aimed at identifying counterfeit and inaccurate content about the Union government on social media.

“We believe that the issues before the HC concern fundamental questions related to Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution,” stated the panel.

“We are of the view that notification dated March 20, 2024, after rejection of application of interim relief, needs to be stayed. The challenge to the validity of 3(1)(b)(5) involves serious constitutional question and the impact of the rule on free speech and expression would need to be analysed by the high court,” the bench, also comprising Justices J B Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, said.

Rule 3(1)(b)(v) of the IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 The FCU will be the nodal agency to tackle or alert about all fake news or misinformation related to the central government.

The notification was issued shortly after the Bombay High Court rejected the petition to prevent the Center from notifying the unit. The petition was filed by stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra and the Editors Guild of India.

In April of the previous year, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (Meity) introduced the 2023 Rules, which made further amendments to the Information Technology Rules, 2021.

Under the new rules, if the fact check unit comes across or is informed about any posts that are “fake”, “false” or contain “misleading” facts pertaining to the business of the government, it would flag it to the social media intermediaries.

The online intermediaries would then have to take down such content if they wanted to retain their “safe harbour” (legal immunity against third-party content).

ECI directs IT Ministry to halt Viksit Bharat messages on WhatsaApp

In a separate development on Thursday, the Election Commission of India instructed the Ministry of Electronic and Information Technology to immediately halt the distribution of Viksit Bharat messages via WhatsApp.

The Commission had received numerous complaints regarding the continued delivery of such messages, which highlight government initiatives, to citizens’ phones despite the announcement of the General Elections 2024 and the enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct.

“In response, MeitY informed the commission that while the letters were dispatched before the MCC came into effect, some may have been delivered to recipients with delays due to systemic and network constraints,” stated the ECI.

“A compliance report on this matter has been promptly requested from MeitY,” it further stated.

This action is part of a series of measures undertaken by the Election Commission to ensure fairness in the Lok Sabha elections.

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