On August 29, 2023 we filed a First Appeal for our Right to Information (RTI) request dated July 13, 2023 with the Public Information Officer (PIO) for the Office of Deputy Commissioner of Police for Bengaluru Police inquiring about the constitution of a Fact Checking Unit (FCU) by the Bengaluru Police. We challenged the rejection of our RTI application dated August 11, 2023 by the Office of the Commissioner of Police, Bengaluru City which was rejected on the ground that the information sought is ‘completely vague, speculative and questionable’. In response to our first appeal dated September 21, 2023, the PIO for Commissioner of Police, Bengaluru City has yet again failed to provide any information.
Why should you care
The Karnataka FCU provides power to the executive branch of state government to monitor and determine ‘fake news’ on social media. Further, as explained by the Karnataka Minister of Rural Development, Panchayati Raj, Information Technology (IT), and BioTechnology (BT), Priyank Kharge, any post tagged as fake by the FCU will be taken down and the government may take penal measures under appropriate provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The formation of such FCUs at a State or Union level may cement the chilling effect on the fundamental right to speech and expression, particularly on journalists and rights activists.
In June 2023, Priyank Kharge announced Karnataka government’s decision to establish a dedicated FCU to monitor “fake news”, He further said that the “this unit will be established in collaboration with the Home Department and will focus on identifying and addressing fake ideas or news that violate the Information Technology Act and are circulated on social media”
On August 27, 2023 the Editors Guild of India (EGI) released a press statement highlighting their concern over the fact checking unit stating, "any monitoring framework should follow principles of natural justice, including journalists and media bodies, so that press freedom is not tampered with" and urged the Karnataka government to specify the scope of the power of the FCU and to undertake a consultation process with press organisations while developing such a framework.
In response to the EGI’s statement, Priyank Kharge assured the EGI that the FCU will maintain an “apolitical stance”, be “devoid of bias”, and will “transparently explain its methodologies employed to the public”. He said that the government is in the process of enlisting independent bodies to assist with the regulation of fake news and that the unit will follow the principles of natural justice. He also claimed that the FCU is in no way an attempt to impinge upon the freedom of the press.
Subsequently, Priyank Kharge announced the establishment of an oversight committee to ensure seamless operation of the unit, featuring prominent figures from various sectors. He said “This committee includes the head of the IT department, the Intelligence ADGP [assistant director general of police], representatives from the Department of Information and Public Relations [DIPR], the additional advocate general, the centre head of Cyber Security Unit, and representatives from civil society,”
Kharge further said “we are not here to regulate or control individuals or the media. Our sole focus is fact-checking content disseminated across various platforms,” and that “some institutions and parties engage in spreading fake news through media, social media, and word of mouth, deliberately misleading people and sowing confusion in society to further their agendas”
The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2023 (IT Amendment Rules, 2023), which were notified by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) in April 2023, includes a similar fact checking provision. Under the Rules, a fact check unit may be notified, based solely on the discretion of the Union Government, which will be empowered to identify fake or false or misleading online content related to the government [Rule 3(1)(b)(v)].
Notably, the Association of Indian Magazines, Mr. Kunal Kamra, a political satirist and standup artist, the Editors Guild of India, and others have filed writ petitions before the Bombay High Court challenging the constitutionality of this provision. On September 29, 2023 having heard arguments from both the Petitioners and the Union of India, the court reserved its judgement to be pronounced tentatively on December 1, 2023. IFF has provided legal assistance in the matter to the Association of Indian Magazines.
Akin to our concerns with Rule 3(1)(b)(v), the Karnataka government also assigns the executive controlled FCU arbitrary, overbroad powers to determine the authenticity of online content. Moreover, the vagueness of the undefined term “fake” makes such overbroad powers further susceptible to misuse. These efforts may cement the chilling effect on the fundamental right to speech and expression, particularly on news publishers, journalists, activists, etc. [Read our statement on the IT Amendment Rules, 2023 here].
Our First Appeal to Bengaluru Police
Our initial RTI request dated July 13, 2023 was rejected by the PIO, Office of the Commissioner of Police, Bengaluru Police stating that the information was “completely vague, speculative and questionable and that it does fall within the purview of Section 2(f) of the Right to Information Act, 2005.” Section 2(f) defines ‘information’ for the purposes of the RTI Act, 2005 and thus, any query which falls outside the ambit of Section 2(f) is not covered by the Act. However, with the subsequent reports on the constitution of the Karnataka FCU, oversight committee, and Expression of Interest (EOI) we believe that our RTI request was incorrectly rejected by the PIO.
In our first appeal, we urged the First Appellate Authority to reconsider the rejection by the PIO while submitting that the information sought by the applicant falls under the purview of ‘information’ as defined under Section 2(f) of the Right to Information Act, 2005. Moreover, since the filing of the RTI Application, the Karnataka government has announced the formation of the FCU, constitution of an oversight committee, and even an EOI has been released further highlighting that the information sought was not ‘completely vague’, ‘speculative’ or ‘questionable’.
Response to our First Appeal
We received a response to our first appeal from the PIO for the Office of the Commissioner of Police, Bengaluru Police dated September 21, 2023. Concerning the queries raised in our original RTI Application, the PIO responded saying, “it is hereby informed that there is no fact checking cell in the Bengaluru City Police Commissionerate” despite our queries inquiring about the planned modalities of the FCU. Further, even if we believe that ‘currently’ there is no FCU formed within the Bengaluru Police and thus weren’t the authority to approach for the RTI request, they are under obligation to transfer the request to the appropriate authority which can provide a satisfactory response to the queries raised in the RTI request, especially in light of recent reports announcing the framework and EOI for the FCU.
We strongly believe that our queries raised in the RTI request highlight crucial information about the FCU and it should be made public in the interest of transparent and accountable governance.
In addition to our RTI request and first appeal discussed above, IFF also filed an RTI Request dated August 28, 2023 with the Secretariat of Chief Minister Office asking for a copy of official notification announcing the establishment of the FCU by the Government of Karnataka. Subsequently after the closure of the EOI period on October 16, 2023 we filed another RTI request dated October 19, 2023 with the Ministry of Electronics Information Technology Biotechnology and Science & Technology (Secretariat of eITBT and S&T), Government of Karnataka to share the responses received on the EOI and the criterion they will use for the empanelment of agencies. Further, as per reports released after the close of the EOI period, 19 of the 20 International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN)-accredited Indian fact-checkers (15 have renewed their IFCN accreditation and 4 are in the process of getting it renewed) have not applied to be empanelled citing the lack of editorial independence and its focus on prosecution.
We will continue to engage with the state authorities in good faith and hope to receive a satisfactory response soon. Broadly, we will continue to advocate against the formation of such an executive-controlled FCU at the Union and State level as this heightened level of executive control has the potential for introducing vague grounds such as “fake” for blocking content, bypassing principles of natural justice, introducing new avenues for internet censorship which may potentially bypass parliamentary safeguards, and threatening press freedom in India.
Saharsh Panjwani, Policy Intern at IFF drafted this post and assisted in filing these RTIs. The post was reviewed by the Policy Team.
- First Appeal to Bengaluru Police dated August 29, 2023 (link)
- Response to the First Appeal from PIO, CP, Bengaluru Police dated September 21, 2023 (link)
- Original RTI Application dated July 13, 2023 (link)
- Rejection of our RTI Application dated August 11, 2023 (link)
- RTI Application dated August 28, 2023 requesting the official notification for the Karnataka FCU (link)
- RTI Application dated October 19, 2023 requesting the EOI responses and selection criterion (link)
- Our previous blogpost titled, “Fact-Checking or Fact-Hiding? Our RTI inquiring about the Karnataka Fact Checking Unit rejected!” dated August 29, 2023 (link)