Policing The Media

Press and Registration of Periodicals Bill


The Press and Registration of Periodicals Bill, 2023 was passed in Rajya Sabha on August 3, 2023. This law aims to modernise and streamline the registration process for periodicals in India. The law seeks to replace the Press and Registration of Books Act 1867, which was a colonial-era law that was no longer considered to be fit for the purpose. The 1867 act was brought by the British with a view to curb free speech, which should not be surprising.

Newspapers, despite the “digital dawn”, still serve a large population. Any law regarding newspapers and other periodicals is one that impacts freedom of speech and hence it is critical to understand all implications of such a law.

Newspaper means a periodical of loose folded sheets usually printed on newsprint and brought out daily or at least once in a week containing information on current events, public news or comments on public news.

Periodical is defined as any publication including a newspaper published or printed at regular intervals containing public news or comments on public news but it does not include a book art journal of scientific technical or academic in nature. This means that essentially newspapers or any such content which comes at regular intervals and has content related to developments which are not scientific are covered. This implies all political, legal, social, or economic periodicals.

Publication means newspapers, magazines, journals, or newsletters printed periodically and published in India but does not include the reproduction of all these materials in electronic form.

The act states that the publishers have to present an online application to the Press Registrar General and also to the authority of the local jurisdiction. The application should contain the title of the periodical.

The local authority would furnish its no-objection consent or further comments to the Press Registrar General within 60 days. This local authority consent is not required by periodicals proposed by the government, Central or State, or any other authority under such government. The Registrar General can/may either accept or refuse to grant a registration certificate.

If the registration was obtained on false representation or concealment of any material fact or if the publisher has failed to publish the periodical continuously or if the publisher has given a false particular in the annual report to the presenter general or if the publisher has failed to furnish the annual statement the Registrar General may suspend the certificate of registration for a period of not less than 30 days but also not exceeding 180 days i.e., the period that the Press Registrar General could suspend certificate of registration for, is between 1 and 6 months.

Apart from this, the Press Registrar General can also cancel the certification if the owner or publisher of such periodical has been convicted by any court for an offence involving terrorist act or unlawful activity or for having done anything against the security of the state.

*     For publishing periodical without obtaining a Certificate of Registration- A fine of amount not exceeding 5 Lakh with a direction to cease the publication has been included.
*     If the publication is not ceased within 6 months of issuing the direction-Imprisonment for a term that could extend to 6 months.
*     For failing to furnish the annual statement within one year from the end of the financial year in respect of which the financial statement had to be submitted –A fine between Rupees 10-20,000 for the first default, and twice the quantum for every such default not exceeding Rupees two lakh rupees.

For the decisions made by the Press Registrar General of India, there shall be an Appellate Board, consisting of the Chairperson of the Press Council of India, two members to be nominated by the Press Council of India from among its members. The time-period within which the appeal has to be filed is 60 days.

The bill also states that the central government’s permission has to be taken to publish any foreign periodical in India.

While the one step registration process is a positive element of the ease of registering one’s periodical, the issue seems to be from the wide and expansive powers that have been given to the Press Registrar General with respect to the cancellation of the certification of periodicals.

Since the Press Registrar General can give the power to any central government gazetted officer to conduct his function with respect to verification of circulation, this would also mean that the central government officer could be allowed to enter the premises of the periodical’s management building.

This is seriously concerning since the police also could be used for this purpose. Why is the police being used for this purpose? The concern is because of the consistent friction between journalists who are, in a way representatives, of the free democracy and also the Police who are representatives of the state and the repression it causes from time to time.

More importantly the definition of when the Registrar General can cancel or suspend the registration of certain periodical is vague.

The first part of the reason is that if the periodicals owner or publisher is convicted by any court any unlawful or terrorist act under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) then the registrar may suomoto suspend the registration certificate. As much as draconian UAPA is, it is a surprise that this is not the vague part.

.Now, it is not clear as to which offences could be categorised as offences against the security of the state and central government will obviously have further power to notify those offences to which will be coming under the term ‘offences against the security of the state’      thus allowing for administration an expansive power in the matter of curbing freedom of speech and expression.

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Vol 56, No. 22, Nov 26 - Dec 2, 2023