India Supreme Court halts government fact-checking unit amid free speech concerns News
© JURIST / Neelabh Bist
India Supreme Court halts government fact-checking unit amid free speech concerns

India’s Supreme Court intervened on Thursday in the ongoing dispute over the government’s Fact-Check Unit (FCU) and temporarily halted its operation following concerns raised by various parties, according to Live Law. Notably, the Editors Guild of India, standing as one of the petitioners in the case, validated and appreciated the stay ordered by the apex court.

The FCU, established under the Press Information Bureau (PIB) to combat fake news regarding the Union government, was notified of the action on March 20, as per the Information Technology Rules, 2021. However, the move faced opposition, resulting in a legal battle that has now reached the nation’s highest court.

The Supreme Court’s decision to stay the FCU’s operation came after it reviewed the Bombay High Court’s earlier refusal to grant interim relief against setting up the unit. Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud, leading the bench, emphasized the significance of the case’s constitutional aspects, particularly concerning Article 19(1)(a), safeguarding freedom of speech and expression.

The court also highlighted the need to analyze the potential impact of Rule 3(1)(b)(v) of the IT Rules, 2021, which empowers the FCU to address misinformation concerning the central government. The bench said

We are of the view that the notification dated March 20, 2024, after the rejection of the application of interim relief, needs to be stayed. The challenge to the validity of 3(1)(b)(v) involves serious constitutional questions, and the impact of the rule on free speech and expression would need to be analyzed by the high court.

Under the amended rules, the FCU holds authority to identify and flag fake or misleading content related to the government’s business on social media platforms. However, concerns have been raised regarding the potential curtailment of free speech and expression, prompting legal challenges from various quarters, including comedian Kunal Kamra and the Editors Guild of India. Both argue that the rules impose unreasonable restrictions, potentially impacting their rights and professional activities.

The government asserts that the FCU plays a crucial role in countering misinformation about its policies, while critics argue that it could stifle dissent and journalistic freedom. With general elections looming, the outcome of this legal battle will likely have far-reaching implications for India’s digital media landscape.