Supreme Court Halts Establishment of Government Fact-Check Unit Amid Free Speech Concerns

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New Delhi: In a significant move, the Supreme Court of India has put a temporary hold on the central government’s initiative to establish a fact-checking unit within the Press Information Bureau (PIB). This unit, known as the Fact Check Unit (FCU), was intended to identify and counteract fake news about the government’s activities. The decision to stay the creation of the FCU came after the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology issued a notification on March 20, 2024, under the Information Technology Rules, 2021.

The apex court’s bench, led by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and comprising Justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Mishra, overturned a previous ruling by the Bombay High Court dated March 11, which had allowed for the FCU’s establishment under revised IT regulations. The High Court had earlier declined to grant an interim injunction against the FCU.

The Supreme Court bench expressed its belief that the issues raised before the High Court were deeply connected to the fundamental questions surrounding Article 19 (1) (A) of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression. The bench underscored the necessity of a stay on the March 20 notification, especially after the High Court refused to provide interim relief.

The legal challenge against Article 3(1)(b)(5) raised serious constitutional concerns, prompting the High Court to examine the potential repercussions of the amended rules on the freedom of speech and expression. According to the government’s directive, the FCU was to act as a nodal agency, subject to all orders from the Central Government, with the responsibility to address and caution against misinformation and fake news.

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This development follows closely on the heels of the Bombay High Court’s decision not to prevent the central government from proceeding with the FCU’s notification. The petition against the FCU was jointly filed by stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra and the Editors Guild of India. In April of the previous year, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology enacted the Rules, 2023, which further amended the Information Technology Rules, 2021, thereby setting the stage for the now-contested FCU.