London (CNN) The Indian government is considering creating a state fact-checking unit with the power to order social media platforms to remove content about its activities that it deems “false or misleading”.
In an amendment to digital and social media rules released on Thursday, the Department of Electronics and Information Technology said fact-checking would apply to information about “any central government business” on social media platforms.
The Editors Guild of India, a non-profit organization representing more than 200 journalists, said in a statement on Friday that it was “deeply troubled” by the new rules, saying they had “deeply harmful implications” for the press freedom in India.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a minister in the IT ministry, told the Indian News Agency ANI Friday that the updated rules did not amount to “censorship” at all and that social media companies could choose to continue sharing content that does not follow the fact-checking process, but there would be consequences if they did.
If these companies did not take down the offending content, Chandrasekhar said, they would lose the automatic legal protection they currently enjoy against complaints about third-party content on their platforms. This would open up the possibility for aggrieved parties, including government departments, to sue them.
“The dangers of misinformation, the impact of blatantly false information in a democracy like ours, should never be underestimated,” Chandrasekhar said.
The Publishers Guild expressed alarm that there was no mention in the rules of “what will be the governance mechanism of such a fact-checking unit, judicial review, [or] the right to appeal.”
“Indeed, the government has given itself absolute power to determine what is or is not wrong, with due respect to its own work, and to order removal,” the guild added. He urged the government to withdraw the rule change and consult with the media.
Twitter and Facebook, both very present in India, did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Concern has grown in recent months over the Indian government’s increasingly restrictive stance towards the media.
In February, Indian tax authorities raided BBC offices in Delhi and Mumbai, accusing the British broadcaster of tax evasion. The incident came nearly a month after the government used emergency powers to block the airing of a documentary about Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Modi has been accused of silencing his critics in recent months. A senior member of India’s opposition Congress Party was arrested in February for allegedly insulting the prime minister.
And last month, the party’s former leader – Rahul Gandhi – was disqualified as a lawmaker after a court found him guilty of defamation. He was convicted for a speech he gave in 2019, in which he referred to the thieves as having the same surname as Modi.