Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan has reportedly signed the controversial ordinance to add Section 118 (A) in the Kerala Police Act, which makes intimidation, defamation or insulting a person through social media as an offence punishable with five years in prison or a fine up to Rs 10,000.
The amendment states either imprisonment up to five years or fine up to Rs 10,000 or both for those who produce, publish or disseminate content through any means of communication to insult or defame any person through social media.
Earlier, the Cabinet had made this recommendation to the Governor. The ordinance aims to address the increasing concerns regarding the crimes committed through social media. It added the current laws are insufficient to handle these crimes, especially after dissolving Section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act and Section 118(d) of the Kerala Police Act.
On the other hand, various activists and political parties have criticized this surprise move made by the government by claiming that this would be akin to curbing free speech.
Social media is a problematic space, and a few laws used to control the content in various platforms have proved to be ineffective or draconian. We are yet to forget the iconic 2015 legal battle between Shreya Singhal and the Union of India to repeal Section 66A of the IT Act. In Shreya Singhal vs Union of India case was based on online speech and intermediary liability issues in India.
The state government had introduced an ordinance to amend the Kerala Police Act, 2011 to introduce section 118A. The press release says, “Anyone who produces content, publishes or propagates it through any means of communication with an intention to threaten, insult or harm the reputation of an individual will be punished with an imprisonment of five years or a fine of Rs 10,000 or with both (sic).” While the ordinance is introduced to curb cyberbullying, the section could be potentially used to curb media. It is evident from the wordings of the section.
By saying “through any means of communication”, the section can automatically address not just social media but also print, visual and others platforms. This gives the government potential power to crack down on dissent if it chooses to do so. Online activists and free speech advocates find this to be as draconian, if not more, as Section 66A. They added that there are enough laws to address the issues, and yet most are stuck in red tape. Taking the example of dubbing artiste Bhagyalakshmi, who manhandled Youtube vlogger Vijay P Nair over the latter’s derogatory posts. The artist and two other women resorted to such actions after due protocols failed them. Activists say that the state must enforce already existing laws and speed up protocols. They add that before promulgating such an ordinance so quickly, the government must meet women’s groups and take their inputs to create an inclusive policy change.
“I am not against the regulation on the internet. However, I am totally against the control of the internet where freedom ends.” The quote is an excerpt of a speech by P Rajeev of CPI (M) in the Rajya Sabha dating back to 2012. The party’s election manifesto during the 2019 Lok Sabha election also talks about the ruling BJP’s “attacks on the Constitutional right of freedom of expression” and “attacks on the media and those critical of the government on the social media”. In such a context, the amendment to the Kerala Police Act seems to be a step back rather than a step forward.