Will the print media learn something from the recent blocking of over 70 URLs
after a Gwalior
court responded to a case filed by the Dean of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management
(IIPM), Arindam Chaudhuri
? The latter had asked that these URLs be blocked as they contained defamatory material about his institute. Without assessing whether indeed this was true, the court issued an ex parte
order to block the specific URLs. Oddly, one of them was the University Grants Commission website that stated that as IIPM was not recognised, it could not grant degrees. Within a day of the court ruing on February 14, CERT-In (Computer Emergency Response Team
– India) and the Department of Telecommunications proceeded to block these URLs. Only after the uproar this caused did the government consider filing an appeal against the order. On February 28, the same court has now allowed the block on these URLs to be lifted until the next hearing on March 14.
The issue here is not just about the way courts are responding to demands from individuals or even the government to block content on the Internet
on the basis of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act. It is also not just about freedom of expression, although that is a central concern. The Gwalior court’s action, coming on top of similar actions by courts in different parts of the country, raises issues that also relate to the print media and not just to content on the Internet.
Yet, somehow, in the limited discussion that has appeared in print media on this issue, this aspect has not been raised. One would have expected that an issue like this would engage print media as many of the sites blocked were of publications that appear in print. These include The Caravan
magazine that was the first to be sued by Chaudhuri when its correspondent, Siddharth Deb
, wrote a detailed investigative cover story on the IIPM in 2011. The magazine was slapped a suit not in Delhi
, where it is published, but in distant Silchar in Assam. (The Caravan
managed, by appealing to the Supreme Court
, to get the case shifted to Delhi.)
Although the magazine removed the article from its website, given the nature of the Internet, it remains available to this day on dozens of other sites. Yet, Chaudhuri’s court case had an impact because the publishers of Siddharth Deb’s book, “The Beautiful and the Damned”, which had a chapter on IIPM based on his article in The Caravan, were compelled to remove the chapter from the Indian edition of the book. It continues to be available in editions published outside this country.
What this latest controversy over blocking content on the Internet underlines is that the print media cannot remain indifferent or complacent to these developments. The lack of critical debate and writing in print media, barring a few exceptions such as The Hindu, suggests that the penny has not yet dropped. As much of print media, including newspapers and magazines, have a substantial and a growing web presence, this means that similar action could be initiated against their websites without affording them a chance to stall court orders, or even to argue out their case. In every instance so far, courts have given ex parte orders and only reversed them later.
N. S. Nappinai, a lawyer who has specialized in cyber crime, spoke recently at a meeting of the Network of Women in Media, India
in Mumbai on this issue. Amongst other issues, she pointed out that there was an anomaly between the defamation law as it applied to content in the print media and Section 66A of the IT Act, which related to the same content on the Internet. While the former is a non-cognizable offence, the latter is cognizable. There are several other anomalies that would justify a discussion in the media.
What was the legal position in this particular case? The web-based First Post
carried several articles including a useful one by Danish Raza
that went into the legal aspects of the Gwalior court’s interim ruling. It explained how courts can give ex parte
rulings but also why this ought to be done only in exceptional circumstances. I quote one paragraph to give an indication of the issues it raised:
“Commenting on court ordered blocks, Parminder Jeet Singh, executive director of IT for change, a Bangalore based organisation which works on internet governance issues, says, ‘When there is clear imminent danger or threat to the society, as in case of possible rioting, immediate removal of content without notifying and hearing the other party is understandable. But defamatory content does not fall in this category. Decisions on such largely civil matters should be taken with due deep consideration, after listening to all parties. And by far the considerations of free speech should have overwhelming weight in making decisions.’ Singh adds that ‘Even if it is considered necessary to remove any content, a fully transparent process has to be followed’.”
So why did this issue not generate more discussion in the print media? Could it be linked in some way to the fact that until recently, IIPM had been a generous advertiser in a number of major newspapers, taking out full-page ads? Perhaps there is no connection but it does seem odd that such an important issue, with repercussions for content in print, did not invite more comment in the print media.
The IIPM case actually sets out a blueprint for what anyone, wanting to curb criticism, can do. If courts can so easily and speedily respond, any individual, institution or even the government can use the law to stop critical writing. As in the IIPM case, the individual concerned does not have to file the case directly. They can put up another person to do this and merely become the second party to the case. Although so far, the defamation law has not been used so widely as to curb freedom of expression in the print media, the IT Act might prove more effective.
This then is the danger that must engage people in the print media.