The Madhya Pradesh High Court has intervened in response to a petition filed by one of the disciples, Ranjit Singh Patel, to address the dissemination of defamatory content against Hindu religious preacher Acharya Dhirendra Krishna Shastri on social media platforms. In a significant move, the single-judge bench led by Justice Sanjay Dwivedi has issued stringent directives to major social media entities including X (formerly known as Twitter), Facebook, and YouTube, compelling them to promptly remove content tarnishing the Acharya’s reputation.

The court’s ruling also emphasizes that any posts related to the Acharya must strictly adhere to the norms of journalistic conduct. As an interim measure, the veracity of such content must undergo verification by local media channels and social media platforms. This validation process is crucial to determine if the posts or news articles are indeed detrimental to the religious leader’s image. The court underlined the relevance of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, while issuing these directions.

In addition to preventing the proliferation of harmful content, the bench also ordered the immediate deletion of already displayed electronic media posts that disparage Acharya Shri Dhirendra Krishna Shastri. The ruling came as a response to the petitioner’s allegations, asserting that the circulated posts not only constituted defamation but also amounted to deliberate attempts to malign the image of Peethadheeshwar of Shri Bageshwar Dham, Chhatarpur.

The petitioner, Ranjit Singh Patel, specifically implicated the 10threspondent, R.D. Prajapati, an ex-MLA, accusing him of collaborating with other respondents to disseminate objectionable posts. Allegedly, these efforts were aimed at tarnishing the image of the Acharya. The petitioner highlighted the purported alliance between Prajapati and other respondents, alleging their deliberate intent to damage the religious reverence associated with Acharya Dhirendra Krishna Shastri. These actions, the petitioner contended, not only defamed the Acharya but also deeply hurt the sentiments of his disciples.

Counsel Pankaj Dubey, representing the petitioner, referred to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, specifically Rule 2 defining ‘social media intermediary’ and ‘publisher’, and Rule 3 delineating the prerequisites for publishing news related to an individual. Dubey asserted that electronic media platforms ought to have verified the authenticity of the news prior to its dissemination, in accordance with these stipulated rules.

The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, are regulations formulated by the Government of India to oversee digital platforms, social media intermediaries, and online content. These rules were introduced to create a structured framework for digital entities operating within India, including social media platforms, streaming services, and digital news outlets, to ensure responsible and accountable online behavior.

The key aspects covered by these rules are:

1.  Intermediary Guidelines:   These rules outline the responsibilities and obligations of intermediaries, which include social media platforms, regarding content moderation, user privacy, and handling user-generated content. They mandate the appointment of grievance officers, content takedown procedures, and mechanisms for addressing user complaints, ensuring transparency and accountability in content moderation.

2.  Code of Ethics for Digital Media:   The rules also establish a code of ethics and self-regulation for digital news publishers and online content providers. These guidelines advocate for ethical practices, requiring content publishers to adhere to journalistic norms, verify the authenticity of news content before dissemination, and uphold the integrity of information shared online.

3.  Obligations for Social Media Platforms:   Social media intermediaries are mandated to deploy automated tools to proactively identify and remove unlawful or objectionable content. They must also comply with government orders to remove specific content that violates Indian laws, preserves user privacy, and refrains from hosting or transmitting content that affects India’s sovereignty, integrity, or public order.

These rules aim to ensure that digital platforms operating in India act responsibly, maintain transparency, and safeguard user interests while upholding the country’s legal and regulatory framework. They intend to strike a balance between freedom of expression and the need to regulate and monitor online content, ensuring that digital platforms contribute positively to the digital ecosystem while adhering to the laws of the land.

Despite the petitioner’s multiple representations to relevant authorities, no action had been taken, prompting the filing of the petition before the High Court. The case has been scheduled for further notice in the week commencing from 08.01.2024.

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