Amid growing protest over the Kerala Police Act amendment ordinance which the government claimed is intended to check cyber bullying, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Sunday defended it saying fears that it will curb press freedom and free speech are baseless.
Despite the CM putting up a brave face, the CPI(M) central leadership and junior left partner CPI are wary over the provisions of the ordinance signed by governor Arif Mohammad Khan on Saturday. The issue kicked off a nationwide debate with Congress and BJP criticising the left which always championed the cause of individual and media freedom.
What really irked social media activists, journalists and others is that the ordinance covers any means of offensive communication or criticism on any platform and not just social media alone and they fear it can be used to target opponents and trap innocents. Any person who creates or sends any information that is considered offensive or is intended to offend or threaten another person through any means of communication is liable to face imprisonment of three years or a fine of Rs 10,000 or both, according to the 118 (A) amendment to the Police Act 2011.
Unlike the defamation case (Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC) which needs a petitioner, the proposed amendment makes it a cognizable offence and any person can file a complaint or a police officer can register a case suo motu against the accused. Many experts have warned that it will be misused by political leadership and police and it won’t stand scrutiny before the court.
But the chief minister brushed aside criticisms saying the decision was guided by growing abuse on social media targeting individuals and their personal freedom. “The new amendment will no way be used against impartial journalism. Apprehensions to the contrary are unfounded,” he said in a statement after it triggered a controversy.
“Within the contours of our Constitution and legal framework, everybody has the right to make the strongest criticism. The new amendment will not hamper that freedom in any way. The government will consider all creative opinions and suggestions that are being aired in this regard,” he said, adding that such a law was necessary because the number of cyber attacks was increasing alarmingly.
But the CM failed to convince even some of his allies. “There is a fear that the new amendment will muzzle free speech, jeopardise civil liberties and reverse media freedom. All apprehensions in this regard will have to be addressed” said CPI mouthpiece “Janayugam” in one of the articles.
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In 2015, when the Supreme Court struck down the controversial Section 66 A of the Information Technology Act that made posting of offensive comments online a crime punishable by jail or fine, communist parties were quick to welcome it. But now, the lone communist government in the country has introduced a more stringent law to deal with cyber bullying, its critics said.
Experts are also doubtful of the legal standing of the new ordinance. “It is an assault on freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed by the Article (19) (1) (a) of the Constitution. The law is loosely drafted and there are enough chances of misuse,” said Supreme Court lawyer M R Abhilash.
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The BJP and Congress leaders also came down heavily on the CPI(M). “Shocked by the law made by the LDF government of Kerala, making the so-called offensive post on social media punishable by three years in prison,” tweeted former minister and senior Congress leader P Chidamabaram.
Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram Shashi Tharoor also criticised the move saying “it was loosely drafted and it could be used against political opponents.” BJP central leaders also slammed the move. The Kerala Union of working journalists dubbed the ordinance “undemocratic.”