The Foundation for Media Professionals (FMP) strongly denounces the notification issued by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs empowering ten agencies for the “interception, monitoring and decryption of any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer.”
While the notification is based on old laws that allow the government to legally intercept telecommunications, the latest notification formalises blanket, unfettered surveillance of citizens and takes away from journalists the unwritten right to protect the identity of their sources. Whereas this order does not create any exemptions for the media, elected representatives or members of the judiciary, the protection that journalists seek to extend to their sources can now invite a seven-year jail term for refusal to allow certain government agencies access to private data.
This MHA order allows ten government agencies to collect information and meta data from any computer, which can also include mobile phones. A blanket authorisation of this nature is an aggressive exercise of power and follows covert moves by the government to monitor social media usage by citizens. It is a direct challenge to the freedom of the media which gathers information and disseminates it to the public.
A recent Supreme Court judgement clarified that the “right to privacy” is a fundamental right of every Indian citizen. In view of this judicial opinion, the MHA notification affects the rights of all citizens in an environment where there is absence of an appropriate data protection mechanism that prevents the executive from intruding into the private lives of citizens, including journalists. Notwithstanding the government’s clarifications, the latest order is a direct attack on India’s democratic structure of which the media is an essential part, as has been noted by various Constitutional authorities and in Supreme Court judgements.
The FMP also condemns the manner in which without public consultations the government is reportedly seeking to amend the rules under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act to make it mandatory for online platforms to “proactively” deploy technology, which would enable removal of content perceived as “unlawful” and do away with end-to-end encryption so that the origin of messages can be traced. According to the Indian Express, the draft of The Information Technology [Intermediaries Guidelines (Amendment) Rules] 2018, Rule 3(9) requires “intermediaries”, or online platforms, to “deploy technology based automated tools or appropriate mechanisms, with appropriate controls, for proactively identifying or removing or disabling access to unlawful information or content”. These changes, if notified, would in effect imply a movement backwards from the March 2015 judgement of the Supreme Court of India in the Shreya Singhal case striking down the Constitutional validity of Section 66A of the IT Act, which allowed the arrest of those allegedly posting offensive content online, and would be detrimental to freedom of expression including media freedom.
The FMP uses this opportunity to urge the government to review the manner in which it treats journalists and calls upon the judiciary to take cognisance of the attack on media press freedom through digital surveillance. We join those who have raised their voices against this Orwellian order and urge everybody to protest against this attack on media freedom and the fundamental right of citizens to privacy.