Even as protests against the controversial section 118-A of the Kerala Police Act continue to mount, Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan has signed an ordinance that gives arbitrary powers to police to arrest people for expressing their opinion not just on social media but also on mainstream media.
According to the reports, Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan on Friday signed an ordinance amending the Kerala Police Act that gives the law enforcement more teeth to prosecute persons in the name of fighting the increasing incidents of crimes perpetrated through social media.
Reportedly, the provisions in the law cover not only social media but the mass media too, including print and visual media, and even posters and billboards.
The opposition against the Section 118-A in the Kerala Police Act comes from the fact that it gives unbridled powers for the law enforcement agencies to curtail the freedom of the press and arrest anybody on the charges of exploiting social media to target individuals, especially women and children.
The new section empowers the police to act against media and register cases on the event of detection of a cognisable offence under the relevant section. The amendment proposes five years of imprisonment and a fine of Rs 10,000 for those convicted of producing, publishing or disseminating derogatory content through any means of communication to intimidate, insult or defame any person through social media.
The newly introduced provision 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”.
The Kerala state government, which often hailed as the most liberal state government in the country by left-liberals, had brought the controversial amendment to the Kerala Police Act by adding Section 118-A to the law that was originally passed in 2011.
However, the amendment is extremely vague and provides massive discretion to the law enforcement agencies to pick up anyone on the pretext of posting ‘derogatory’ or ‘insulting’ content on social media platforms against individuals.
Opposition to the amendments within the LDF coalition
Addition to the opposition to the proposed amendment to the Kerala Police Act from various opposition parties, civil society groups, human rights activists, the Communist Party of India (CPI), one of the principal coalition partners of the ruling LDF coalition in Kerala has expressed its concerns against the law saying that it could reverse the course on media freedom, muzzle free speech and jeopardise civil liberties.
In the party’s newspaper – Janayugam, the CPI has expressed serious concerns against the proposed executive order. Reportedly, the party felt that civil society at large and media, in particular, viewed the proposal with scepticism.
The CPI felt that the government should not ignore the apprehension that the move to bestow the police with the power to examine published content critically and register cases even in the absence of a specific complaint was patently anti-democratic.
Kerala defends amendment to Kerala Police Act
Defending the ordinance, the Pinarayi Vijayan-led Communist government had claimed that since cyber attacks are a major threat to private life, it has been decided to amend the Police Act as the existing legal provisions were inadequate to fight such crimes. It had said that the proposed amendment was brought keeping in mind the rising crime graph, fake propaganda and hate speech on social media since the outbreak of a pandemic.
The Kerala government said while the Supreme Court had repealed section 66-A of the IT Act and Section 118 (d) of the Kerala Police Act on the grounds that these were against freedom of expression, the Centre has not introduced any other legal framework. The Kerala police, in such a scenario, are unable to deal effectively with crimes committed through social media, the government had said.
Reportedly, the Kerala government decided to bring amendment after a group of women ‘activists’ had attacked a Youtuber for allegedly making abusive and derogatory comments against them. The government claimed that there was a need for an effective law to tackle online vilification and abuse of individuals.
It is pertinent to note that the Kerala government had earlier passed a similar amendment to the act and had introduced Section 118 (d) into the law. According to Section 118(d) of the Act, any person who causes annoyance to any person in an indecent manner by statements or verbal or comments or telephone calls or calls of any type or by chasing or sending messages or emails by any means shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine not exceeding ten thousand rupees or with both.
However, in 2015, the Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal judgment had held that Section 118(d) violated Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.