The draft Registration of Press and Periodicals Bill, 2019, put out by the ministry of information and broadcasting on Tuesday, seeks to replace the Press and Registration of Books (PRB) Act, 1867, that governs the print and publishing industry in the country.
“The publishers of news on digital media shall register themselves with the Registrar of Newspapers for India in such manner and giving such particulars as may be prescribed," the draft legislation says.
Registrar of Newspapers is a statutory body of the information and broadcasting ministry of the government of India, for the registration of publications such as newspapers and magazines, which regulates and monitors their printing and publication based on the PRB Act and the Registration of Newspapers (Central) Rules, 1956.
Digital publishers immediately deemed the proposed Bill unnecessary and sought clarity on whether it applies only to the web versions such as e-papers of print publications or digital-only news sites as well.
The confusion arises as the word “publication" has been defined in the draft as “anything which is printed on paper and is meant for public distribution including periodicals, newspapers and books".
“We are yet to understand the full contours of the draft, which is why we would like to wait before giving our take on this," said a senior editor at a digital news website.
Others, however, see this as an attack on the freedom of the internet and digital-only news websites.
These, they argue, have anyway always adhered to Article 19 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression while being governed by other applicable laws that maintain public order, decency, and morality.
“If there is clarity on which publications come under the purview of the regulation and if it encompasses digital outlets, too, I would say it is both absurd and draconian. It serves no purpose except to ensnare digital media to unnecessary regulation," said Siddharth Varadarajan, journalist and founding editor of The Wire.
It is important to know if these regulations would be extended to digital media such as blogs, social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter and, basically, anybody who expresses an opinion on current affairs online, Varadarajan said.
In August, the Union cabinet had approved 26% foreign direct investment (FDI) in digital media, a move that was seen as restrictive by media industry experts as until then there was no clarity on FDI in digital news websites and there have been several in India with 100% foreign investment.
Among other things, the draft legislation also proposes to remove the provisions of imprisonment of publishers and to simplify the registration process by instituting a Press Registrar General.