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Madras High Court stays 3-tier grievance redressal mechanism under IT Rules, 2021

The Madras High Court on Thursday stayed sub-rules (1) and (3) of Rule 9 of the recently-notified Information Technology (Guidelines for intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, stating that the “oversight mechanism to control the media by government may rob the media of its independence”.

Sub-rules (1) and (3) of Rule 9 lay down adherence to the Code of Ethics which is annexed to the IT Rules, 2021 and provide for a three tier structure for addressing the grievances made in relation to publishers.

A Bench comprising Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice P.D. Audikesavalu made the observation on two petitions challenging the validity of IT Rules 2021. A PIL was moved by Carnatic musician TM Krishna, while the second petition was moved by the Digital News Publishers Association (DNPA), comprising 13 media outlets, as well as journalist Mukund Padmanabhan.

Senior advocate P.S. Raman, appearing on behalf of the petitioners, contended that the IT Rules 2021 were ultra vires inter alia to Articles 14 and 19 of the Constitution.

The Court said,

“Prima facie, there is substance to the petitioner’s grievance that the oversight mechanism to control the media by government may rob the media of its independence, and the fourth pillar, so to say, of democracy may not at all be there.”

It also took on record Senior Advocate P.S. Raman’s submission that despite a stay issued by the Bombay High Court in the matter, his clients (petitoners) were issued notices, alleging they were in violation of the Rules.

“By way of abundant caution, sub Rules (1) and (3) of Rule 9 of the said Rules of 2021 will remain stayed,” ordered the Bench.

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After hearing additional submissions by Senior Advocate Rajashekhar Rao and the response by Additional Solicitor General R Sankaranarayanan, the Court also added to its order that any action taken citing Rules 3 and 7 of the IT Rules would be subject to the outcome of the challenge to these Rules.

Rule 3 deals with “due diligence by an intermediary.” Rule 7 provides that if an intermediary fails to abide by the IT Rules, it would not be granted the protective exemption under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000. In such a scenario, the intermediary “shall be liable for punishment under any law for the time being in force including the provisions of the Act and the Indian Penal Code”, says Rule 7.

The case was posted for October 27, after the Bench was informed that the Supreme Court is due to take up transfer petitions in the first week of October.

The order was passed by a Bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice PD Audikesavalu in two petitions challenging the validity of IT Rules 2021. The Bombay High Court had, on August 14, stayed the same sub-rules of Rule 9.


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