In the face of widespread criticism and outrage over the Kerala government move to amend the law to mandate a jail term for any “offensive” social media post, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan claimed it would not be used against “free speech” or “impartial journalism”.
Few were buying this, with Opposition parties slamming the CPM-led ruling LDF for the “harsh and draconian” move to “gag the media”. Sources in Vijayan’s own party said the Chief Minister’s clarification came after intervention by the CPM central leadership. “There is considerable outrage…It becomes difficult to defend such an ordinance,” a Politburo member said.
The CPI, a constituent of the LDF in Kerala, is upset, too. A party leader said Vijayan should have taken the ally into confidence and that the issue will be taken up in the next alliance meeting.
CPI general secretary D Raja told The Indian Express said his party was opposed to governments taking the ordinance route on such matters.
“The Chief Minister has come out with a clarification saying all objections and apprehensions and constructive criticism will be taken into consideration. So our party hopes that the LDF government will consider the public opinion and our party will address the issue accordingly at the appropriate level. We will take up the matter at the appropriate level,” Raja said.
Meanwhile, Leader of Opposition in the Kerala Assembly, Congress’s Ramesh Chennithala, accused the government of “trying to silence those who criticise them”. BJP state president K Surendran said the amendment was aimed at “silencing all political protest”.
Senior Congress MP and former Union Home Minister P Chidambaram tweeted that he was “shocked by the law”. He wanted to know how CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury would defend the “atrocious” decision.
Vijayan claimed such “apprehensions” as “unfounded”. The Kerala Police said that before taking further action under the amendment, a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) will be prepared in consultation with legal experts to ensure that the ordinance is not misused in any manner.
On Friday, Governor Arif Mohammad Khan approved the Kerala Police (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020 that incorporates a new Section, 118 (A), in the Kerala Police Act. Accordingly, 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, is liable to face imprisonment of three years or a fine of Rs 10,000 or both.
While the government has claimed that the amendment aims to check misuse of social media targeting individuals, the Opposition said it is “against the freedom of press” and “infringes upon the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the Constitution”.
In a statement, Vijayan said: “In the name of the freedom of press, individual freedom cannot be violated. Similarly, in the name of individual freedom, the freedom of the press cannot be violated. The government is duty bound to protect both. It is in this context that even at the international level measures are being put in place against the infringement of personal dignity. The amendment in the Kerala Police Act are only those that are in tune with such measures.’’
He said that the state government has been receiving complaints, including by prominent public figures, of targeted attacks and misuse of social media, especially by some online channels “in the guise of journalism”.
Pointing specifically to attacks on social media faced by women and the transgender community, Vijayan said they have resulted in “heart wrenching tragedies” and involve “personal vendetta” with “monetary interests”. “The Government will certainly consider all creative opinions and suggestions that are being aired with regard to this amendment,” he said.
Chennithala said: “The new section is aimed at silencing the media. The CPM and its government want to silence those who criticise them. The government wants to gag the press, which is exposing corruption and nepotism in governance. The CPM is sending the message that anyone who dares to speak against the government will be sent to jail.”
He said the Chief Minister “has brought a harsh and draconian rule against freedom of expression’’.
BJP state chief Surendran said the new section is “meant to silence political protest against the government”. “It shows there is an undeclared Emergency in Kerala. The new act is an encroachment into people’s right to freedom of expression. The Chief Minister wants to silence not only new media but also the mainstream,” he said.
In 2015, the Supreme Court in its landmark judgement on Section 66A of the IT Act had struck down a similar provision of the Kerala Police Act for being violative of the right to freedom of speech and expression and for its vagueness.