The Caravan Files Petition at Delhi High Court Against Ministry of Information & Broadcasting's Order to Remove Article and URLs

The Caravan, an Indian publication, has filed a petition at the Delhi High Court seeking revocation of the Section 69A blocking order by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB) directing the take down of the publisher's article titled "Screams from the Army Post" from its website, along with a YouTube video and certain URLs of social media posts sharing the said article. The petition was filed on February 28, 2024, and it revealed that the MIB stated in its order that "such contents have the potential to lead to communal disharmony and uprising against the security forces in Jammu and Kashmir, thereby being detrimental to sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State, and public order in Jammu and Kashmir". The MIB order also directed the removal of the URL of a post on social media platform X related to another Caravan article on the issue of ethnic cleansing in Manipur ongoing since May 2023.

The plea argued that the order "gravely violated" the petitioner's fundamental right to free speech and expression, is arbitrary, unreasonable, and poses excessive restrictions to freedom of the press. It also revealed that the procedural gaps in the Inter-Departmental Committee hearing violate the principles of natural justice and the petitioner's right to equality. The order allegedly fails to demonstrate any pressing state interest requiring removal of the said article, social media posts, and also of the X/Twitter post on the Manipur article. The plea emphasized that the order is unreasonable because it does not point out any factually incorrect statements in the article. Further, the contents of the article or the URLs have not been "denied, disputed, or rebutted by any of the state agencies", including the Indian army.

The order does not provide evidence or material on record to prove that the article is detrimental to the sovereignty of India, and the security of the state and has the potential to lead to communal tensions in Jammu and Kashmir. It also does not mention how the post on the Manipur article affects state's interests. The order is ultra-vires (beyond the scope) of section 69A as it does not satisfy the requirements of necessity and expediency to issue an order under the provision. The Caravan was not provided an opportunity for a fair hearing in violation of principles of natural justice and the right to equality, guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution, which also ensures fairness in State action. The grounds stated in the petition are as follows:

The initial notice sent to The Caravan was "vague" and did not specify the errors or explain why the article was detrimental to national interests. It also did not mention how the article on Manipur contributed to tensions in Jammu and Kashmir. The Caravan was denied access to the complaint received by the MIB and other crucial details about it, which prevented the publication from "effectively preparing" to counter the allegations during the hearing with the Inter Departmental Committee. Given that Rule 17 of the IT Rules mandates that complete records of the proceedings--complaint, proceedings, recommendations and directions--have to be maintained, under principles of natural justice, the said information needs to be disclosed to the petitioner. The entire process of hearing, deliberation, recommendation by the Committee, the Secretary's deliberation and recommendation to the Authorised Officer was completed within hours on February 12, 2024. ".....this undue haste shown, in the absence of any necessity or expediency shown, is itself strongly suggestive of a pre-determined mind against the Article and the urls, and confirms the entire process as a sham and a mere eyewash...".

The order is based on a "deliberate misreading of the Article" without making any efforts to ascertain the editorial process undertaken before publishing the article. Though the IT Rules are "patently unconstitutional", the publication is not raising the larger constitutional challenge. This is due to the stay of Rule 9(1) and (3) of the IT Rules, which the Bombay High Court ordered in 2021. The stay was given on the grounds that such requirements would require digital news publishers to create a three-tier grievance mechanism and to observe a Code of Ethics.

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