India’s government has ordered that all online news, social media and video streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime are to be subject to state regulation, raising fears of increased censorship of digital media.
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which regulates and censors print newspapers, television, films and theatre, will also have jurisdiction, under the new order, over digital news and entertainment platforms in India.
The move is part of a push by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) to regulate a digital realm seen as more transgressive and offering a space for more critical journalism and entertainment than traditional media.
According to the watchdog Freedom House, internet freedom in India has declined for the past three years and there are fears the order signals the end of the digital realm as one of the final bastions of creative and journalistic dissent in India. It is likely to be passed into law in parliament this week.
Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist and founder of online news portal MediaNama, said: “The fear is that with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting – essentially India’s Ministry of Truth – now in a position to regulate online news and entertainment, we will see a greater exercise of government control, and censorship.”
The order follows months of campaigns by rightwing groups to bring streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon under the same censorship rules as television and film. Streaming services have exploded in popularity in India, with upwards of 25 million Netflix subscribers.
Online news and entertainment have up to now been overseen by the Ministry of Technology, which does not interfere with or regulate content. Streaming platforms were pushed to come up with a code for self-censorship, but all versions were rejected.
Shows created for these streaming platforms, such as Paatal Lok, Sacred Games, Leila and Rasbhari, have consequently not had to conform to the same restrictive standards as traditional media, and have addressed sex, sexual violence, homophobia and caste inequalities, as well as politically sensitive subjects such as Hindu nationalism and the persecution of Muslims.
Pahwa said the order meant that “the ministry can push through any self-regulatory code for streaming services that it desires. This will lead to more censorship of content on streaming services, and give the government more teeth to force streaming services to act on complaints.”
Netflix and Amazon would not comment on the new order. However, Netflix has recently poured half a billion dollars into its Indian operation and is seen as likely to comply with any government regulation.
The inclusion of online news portals in the order was also seen as concerning, and part of continuing government moves to bring online news under its control. Last month, a law was passed stating that digital news platforms could not have more than 26% foreign investment.
While traditional media in India is largely pro-government and subject to fierce pressure, online news platforms such as The Wire and Scroll.in are much more critical of the BJP government and the Hindu nationalist agenda of the prime minister, Narendra Modi.
These sites are already heavily regulated, having to comply not only with the same media and defamation laws as traditional news organisations but also the draconian Information Technology Act, which is often used to target and charge journalists who produce critical coverage. However, the new order could force digital news platforms to register with the government in the same way that traditional news organisations have to.
Siddharth Varadarajan, the editor of The Wire which has been slapped with multiple criminal charges for coverage considered critical of the government, said: “The government has been claiming for some time now that online news is some sort of wild west that follows no rules. This is nonsense since all the restrictions that come with the constitutional guarantee of free speech, and a free press, apply to news websites, just as they do to newspapers and TV channels. But what irks the government is the use we have made of our freedom – to ask questions and pursue stories that the big media increasingly shies away from.”
Varadarajan added: “Everything in government happens with a purpose and I would imagine this is a prelude to the drafting, or even promulgation, of a new law to ‘regulate’ news websites. No democratic country does this.”
Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter will also be subject to regulation, though it is unclear how this will be enforced. The government said details of the law would be announced this week.