Amid criticism from various corners, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has put up a powerful defense to Kerala Police Act Amendment, which “makes expressing, publishing, or disseminating any matter that is threatening, abusive, humiliating or defamatory” a punishable offense. It stated that the law was introduced in the context of the cyber-attacks faced by women and transgenders.’
“The popular idea that one’s freedom ends where the other’s nose begins needs to be respected. One has the liberty to swing one’s fist, but it ends where the other’s nose begins. However, there have been instances of this idea being repeatedly violated. A person’s respect and dignity are essential in society. It has constitutional validation as well. The government has the responsibility to ensure it. However, certain online media have scant regard for such constitutional provisions and behave as if anything goes, creating an atmosphere of anarchy. This will alter our social order, and it cannot be allowed, ” said Pinaryi Vijayan in a statement issued on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Kerala police have stated that it will prepare a Standard Operating Procedure before taking action on the amended Police Act.
Kerala Police Act Amendment ordinance, suggested by the state Cabinet on October 21 by adding Section 118-A was signed by Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan on November 21. This replaces the now-defunct Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which made posting ‘offensive’ comments online a punishable crime.
The addition stipulates either imprisonment for up to three years or a fine of up to Rs 10,000 or both to those who produce, publish or disseminate content through any means of communication to intimidate, insult or defame any person. It has to be noted that even though the Chief Minister claims it as an act against the wide misuse of social media, especially by certain online channels, it applies to any means of communication.
“Whoever makes, expresses, publishes or disseminates through any kind of mode of communication, any matter or subject for threatening, abusing humiliating or defaming a person or class of persons, knowing it to be false and that causes injury to the mind, reputation or property of such person or class of persons or any other person in whom they interest shall on conviction, be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine which may extend to Rs 10,000 or with both,” reads the new section 118 A.
While Section 66A (punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service) of the IT Act was a cognizable and non-bailable offense, the offenses under Section 118(A) are bailable and cognizable—the police have the authority to make an arrest without a warrant and launch an investigation without a court’s permission.
The Opposition Congress and BJP have come out vehemently against the amendment and pointed out the volte-face of the ruling party in the last five years.
“The Ordinance is aimed at silencing those who will speak against the government in the coming elections. It is an irony that CPM was the first Political party to welcome the 2015 verdict by the Supreme Court which scrapped 66 A of the IT act 2000 and 118 D of the Kerala police act,” said Ramesh Chennithala Leader of Opposition.
“This is an attack on the freedom of expression and there is an undeclared emergency prevailing in the state. It has to be noted that Pinarayi Vijayan had lauded the Supreme court when it scrapped a similar act in 2015,” said K Surendran, BJP state president.
According to the state government, it was repeatedly receiving complaints against the wide misuse of social media, especially by certain online channels. “Even ‘prominent public and cultural figures’ who had made such complaints have brought to the notice of the Government instances where inhuman and vile cyber attacks were carried out by some in the guise of journalism and how it even harmed the family lives of many. Personal defamation and attack on dignity have even resulted in suicides and it has been brought to the attention of the government by those in responsible positions, and such circumstances, the Government cannot simply ignore it,” said the Chief Minister.
“The government will certainly consider all creative opinions and suggestions that are being aired about this amendment. Apprehensions to the contrary are unfounded,” Chief minister said.
Curiously, the silence of a large number of Facebook handles from Kerala, who were vocal on freedom of expression across the globe, is conspicuous. Vijayan assured that the Act will “not be used against freedom of expression or non-partisan media journalism”.