IT Ministry notifies contentious fact check unit to dispute government misinformation

Social media platforms will lose protections against civil and criminal liability, leading to concerns that they will take down news content disputed by the government

March 20, 2024 06:46 pm | Updated 09:12 pm IST - New Delh

The PIB fact check unit has been notified under IT Rules of 2021. Photo: X/@PIBFactCheck

The PIB fact check unit has been notified under IT Rules of 2021. Photo: X/@PIBFactCheck

Weeks ahead of the elections, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on Wednesday notified the Press Information Bureau’s Fact Check Unit as the designated body to flag misinformation about Central government departments to social media platforms.

Under the IT Rules of 2021, social media platforms could lose the legal liability protections they enjoy for content posted by users, if they choose to keep notified misinformation available online.

Also read: ‘Censorship’ or ‘right to authentic information’?: The Bombay HC’s split verdict on Centre’s Fact-Check Unit | Explained

Given the contentiousness of the idea, the Union government had held off on formally notifying the fact check unit as litigation was under way at the Bombay High Court challenging the provision. This month, however, the court declined to extend an interim stay to the government prohibiting it from enforcing the rules. 

The PIB Fact Check Unit has come under close scrutiny in the past, as it has sometimes disputed journalists’ work by relying on denials from the ministries they have written about. The Editors’ Guild of India and comedian Kunal Kamra, who have challenged the IT Rules more broadly, on Wednesday approached the Supreme Court on the matter.

“This [provision] could seriously threaten the independence of the free press on the Indian internet,” the Internet Freedom Foundation said last September on the IT Rules amendment that empowered the fact check unit to be the arbiter of what information on the Union government was incorrect. 

The fact check unit has in the past used its megaphone to dispute news reporting. Last week, the PIB Fact Check Unit declared that an Al Jazeera article calling the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 “anti-Muslim,” was “fake”. The fact check then went on to present two rejoinders to claims that the Al Jazeera article never made in the first place. 

The Fact Check Unit is run by three Joint Director rank officers of the Indian Information Service, which is tasked with managing the government’s publicity operations. “The Unit reports to the Principal Director General, PIB who functions as the Principal Spokesperson of the Government of India,” the PIB says on its website.

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