Last week, Kerala passed an ordinance that sought to punish anyone “making, expressing, publishing or disseminating” through any mode of communication “threatening, abusive, humiliating or defamatory” matter with a jail term of up to three years.
While Governor Arif Mohammed Khan has given his approval to the ordinance, which amended the Kerala Police Act, the legality of the new provision has come under serious scrutiny. after political outcry across the country over the controversial amendment, the Left government on Monday, decided to put it on hold, saying further action would be taken in this regard after conducting a detailed discussion in the state Assembly.
Opposition parties and even Left sympathisers had slammed the amendment, saying it was against the freedom of speech and media.
Political parties in the Opposition have alleged that the amendment would give more power to the police force and lead to curtailment of press freedom. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is set to move the Kerala High Court claiming that the amendment violates fundamental rights, according to Indian express article.
These charges have been rejected by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who has said the decision had been taken based on factors such as abuse on social media to tarnish the image of individuals.
In October, the state Cabinet had moved to give more teeth to the Police Act by recommending the addition of Section 118-A which stipulates either imprisonment for up to five years or a fine of up to Rs 10,000 or both to those found guilty of producing, publishing or disseminating content through any means of communication with an intention to intimidate, insult or defame any person through social media.
Critics claim that police would be able to file criminal charges on citizens by interpreting any kind of communication as possibly defamatory. Police could file charges against anyone “in whom they have interest” or as a suo motu action, besides framing of criminal charges based on petition of the victim if “injury to the mind” is a reason, according to The Times of India article.
WHY THIS AMENDMENT REQUIRED?
The LDF government has expressed concern over the growing cases of hate speech and fake news on social media since the outbreak of COVID-19. The state government said it had decided to amend the Police Act as the existing legal provisions were inadequate to fight cyber crimes which are a major threat to private life.
Critics point out that the amendment may run into legal hurdles as the Supreme Court had struck down a similar law in 2015. But, according to the state government, the Supreme Court had repealed Section 66-A of the IT Act and Section 118 (a) of the Kerala Police Act on grounds that these were against freedom of expression and that the Centre has not introduced any other legal framework. “In this scenario, the police are unable to deal effectively with crimes committed through social media,” the government said.
The controversy comes less than six months before Kerala is expected to head for Legislative Assembly elections. The state has swung between the LDF and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) every five years since 1982 a pattern CM Vijayan’s government is hoping to break.
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