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Monday, January 25, 2021

Under fire, facing heat within, Kerala govt holds back social media law

The change in the government stand came after the intervention of the CPI(M) central leadership.

Written by Shaju Philip , Manoj C G | Kochi, New Delhi | Updated: November 24, 2020 7:14:38 am
As Pinarayi Vijayan campaigns online, Opposition says he ‘ran away due to scandals’Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. (File)

FACING A hailstorm of criticism from across the political spectrum, including the ruling CPM and its LDF alliance, the Kerala government Monday said it will “not go ahead with implementing” the controversial amendment to the Kerala Police Act to mandate a jail term for any “offensive” social media post.

Taking a U-turn within 24 hours of claiming that the law would not be used against “free speech” or “impartial journalism”, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said: “The amendment evoked varied responses from several corners. Apprehensions were aired by those who support the LDF and profess to defend democracy. In these circumstances, the government will not go ahead with implementing the amendment.”

Vijayan said that “a detailed discussion” will be held in the Assembly on the ordinance and “future course of action will be decided after duly considering opinions from all quarters”.

The Congress and BJP had slammed the LDF for the “harsh and draconian” move to “gag the media”. The move had also led to unease within the CPM’s central leadership, and ally CPI had expressed concern.

On Monday, sources told The Indian Express, CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury held a virtual meeting with the party’s politburo members from Kerala during which it was “clearly conveyed” that the ordinance should be “reconsidered”.

Editorial: Kerala govt’s ordinance violates Constitution, arms police with a chilling new weapon

Yechury later said: “Keeping in view the widespread criticism and also the party’s position earlier, the Kerala Police Act Amendment ordinance will be reconsidered.” The decision was officially announced by Vijayan after the CPM state secretariat met to take stock of the situation.

According to sources, leaders in the CPM’s central leadership had flagged their concerns last month, soon after the Kerala Cabinet cleared the ordinance to incorporate a new Section 118(A) in the Act.

The amendment mandates punishment for any person who creates or sends any information that is offensive or is intended to offend or threaten another person, through any means of communication, with imprisonment of five years or a fine of Rs 10,000 or both.

Sources said that when the CPM politburo and central committee met in Delhi October-end, Vijayan was “receptive” to suggestions that there should be a relook. “The issue would not have blown up had a public statement been issued in Kerala then that suggestions and opinions from various quarters would be considered before implementing the amendment,” a politburo member said.

Another party leader, however, said there was no detailed discussion at the central level on the ordinance. But he pointed out that the politburo’s “strong” statement on November 12 opposing the Centre’s notification bringing digital media within the ambit of the I&B Ministry was “an indication to the Kerala leadership”.

On October 21, the Kerala Cabinet decided to amend the police Act and incorporate section 118(A) to curb social media abuse and cybercrime. Subsequently, concerns were raised in several quarters, including by the CPI, but the state CPM did not budge. While the Congress slammed the move, the BJP complained to the Governor against the ordinance.

On Friday, Governor Arif Mohammad Khan approved the ordinance, incorporating the new section, but reduced the maximum imprisonment to three years.

CPM’s acting state secretary and LDF convener A Vijayaraghavan said the government and party will examine the concerns. “As a party that always stands for the fundamental rights of people, the CPM and its government will ensure that no harm is done to the good model it has presented before society. It is the right decision from the Chief Minister,” he said.

However, Leader of Opposition in the Assembly, Congress’s Ramesh Chennithala, accused the state government of trying to “hoodwink” people. “Once an ordinance is signed by the Governor, it becomes law. The decision that the ordinance will not be implemented is meant to hoodwink the people. There is no Constitutional validity for the amended Act. The government should withdraw the amended Act,’’ Chennithala said.

Meanwhile, a slew of public interest litigations has come before the Kerala High Court against section 118(A), including one by advocate Anoop Kumaran who had petitioned the Supreme Court in 2015 against a similar provision of the Kerala Police Act.

The Supreme Court in its landmark judgement on Section 66A of the IT Act had struck down section 118(D) of the KPA for being violative of the right to freedom of speech and expression and for its vagueness.

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