Press & Periodicals Bill 2023: Overhauling India's Media Laws

The bill stands poised to replace the antiquated Press and Registration of Books Act, of 1867. This monumental step marks a significant shift in how media entities are registered, regulated, and penalized in the country.

Srajan Girdonia
New Update
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In a defining move aimed at redefining the regulatory framework governing India's media landscape, the Press and Periodicals Bill 2023 has charted its course through the legislative chambers. The bill, which passed in Rajya Sabha on August 3 amidst uproar from the opposition was also cleared from the Lok Sabha in the winter session of the Parliament on December 21. 

The bill stands poised to replace the antiquated Press and Registration of Books Act, of 1867. This monumental step marks a significant shift in how media entities are registered, regulated, and penalized in the country. 

Let's delve deeper into the transformative features and implications embedded within this legislative overhaul.

Objectives: Streamlining Operations and Decriminalization

The Press and Periodicals Bill 2023, as highlighted by Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Minister Anurag Thakur, is designed with a focus on ease of doing business, operational efficiency and decriminalization of certain aspects within India's media regulations.

The I&B Minister emphasized the bill's intent to streamline cumbersome administrative processes faced by publishers and printing presses. Central to this aim is the drastic reduction in the title registration period, which was previously extended over several years. Under the new provisions, this registration process is expected to be completed within a significantly condensed timeframe of just 60 days, ensuring swifter and more accessible registration procedures for media entities.

In his address to the Lok Sabha during the bill's introduction, Anurag Thakur underscored a fundamental shift in the approach towards regulatory violations. The bill seeks to transition from punitive measures entrenched in the 1867 Act towards civil penalties for specific infractions. This reorientation aims to align India's media regulatory framework with contemporary global practices, fostering an environment more conducive to the growth and sustenance of media enterprises.

Beyond regulatory adjustments, the Minister stressed the bill's overarching objective: facilitating a favourable ecosystem for media enterprise growth. By reducing administrative complexities and introducing more flexible penalties for certain violations, the bill aims to encourage and support entrepreneurship within the media landscape.

Key Changes from the 1867 Act

1. Scope Expansion

In a significant divergence from the 1867 Act, the scope of the new Bill deliberately excludes books, carving out a separate jurisdiction for them under the HRD Ministry. While the former legislation encompassed both books and newspapers, this restructuring delineates a clear division of oversight, aiming to streamline administrative processes and align regulatory bodies more efficiently with their respective domains.

2. Penal Reformation

The Bill marks a pivotal shift by decriminalizing various offences that previously warranted imprisonment. Instead, it introduces fines as the primary punitive recourse for specified infringements. Furthermore, an appellate mechanism, spearheaded by the Chairman of the Press Council of India (PCI), is established. 

This apparatus is entrusted with the critical task of overseeing appeals against refusals of registration or imposing penalties, introducing a more structured and impartial process for dispute resolution within the media sector.

3. Redistribution of Authority

A significant structural reconfiguration is observed in the distribution of authority within the regulatory framework. The emergence of the Press Registrar General (PRG) heralds a substantial shift from the limited jurisdiction and authority of the Press Registrar stipulated in the 1867 Act. 

The PRG assumes a pivotal role, endowed with extensive powers, indicating a more centralized and empowered oversight mechanism. This redefined hierarchy seeks to streamline administrative processes and enhance regulatory efficiency, fostering a more agile and responsive system.

Streamlined Registration Protocol

Under the revised framework introduced by the Press and Periodicals Bill 2023, a substantial revamp of the registration protocol has been enacted. Notably, publishers and printing presses, which were previously mandated to file declarations with District Magistrates (DM) for registration under the older Act, are no longer subjected to this obligatory step. Instead, the bill introduces a more modernized approach wherein an online "intimation" serves as the requisite notification for printing presses. This digital notification mechanism is a significant departure from the conventional paperwork-intensive process, aiming to expedite the registration process by eliminating bureaucratic red tape.

Moreover, the bill introduces a transformative provision allowing simultaneous submission of title allotment and registration applications. This strategic alteration marks a departure from the earlier sequential filing process, streamlining administrative procedures and fostering a more expeditious registration system for media entities seeking authorization.

It's important to note, however, that while this streamlined approach applies to most publishers and printing presses, government-published periodicals maintain certain exemptions from these altered requisites, adhering to distinct regulatory considerations tailored to their operational frameworks.

UAPA Provision & Concerns

A critical provision of the Bill restricts individuals convicted of terrorist acts or activities against state security from publishing periodicals. However, concerns have been raised by the Editors Guild of India regarding the potential misuse of these provisions. The Guild expresses apprehension over the broad and ambiguous nature of certain clauses, which could result in intrusive state checks and limitations on press freedom.

The Guild's statement particularly highlights Sections 4(1) and 11(4) of the Bill, which empower the government to deny publishing rights to individuals based on their past convictions or actions. The fear of misuse arises from the liberal use of laws like UAPA and Sedition against journalists critical of the government, raising concerns about undue limitations on press freedom.

Additionally, the Guild emphasizes the need for clarity in framing rules governing news publishing, urging that such regulations should focus on registration rather than excessive regulation, preventing potential restrictions on press freedom.

The Press and Periodicals Bill 2023 heralds a modernization of India's media laws, aiming to simplify processes and replace punitive measures with financial penalties. However, concerns voiced by the Editors Guild regarding the potential misuse of certain provisions and the need for clarity in regulations highlight the necessity for nuanced deliberation and potential amendments to safeguard press freedom.

The bill's journey through parliamentary discussions and potential amendments in response to concerns raised by stakeholders like the Editors Guild will determine the future landscape of India's media regulations.

The guild's concerns underline the delicate balance between state regulation and preserving the fundamental freedom of the press, an essential cornerstone of any democratic society.

As the bill continues its legislative journey, the debate over its provisions will likely intensify, reflecting the nuanced challenges in balancing freedom of expression with necessary regulatory frameworks.