In January, ruling on the blocking of the internet in Jammu and Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370, the Supreme Court laid down that access to the internet, and the speech therein, are fundamental rights protected under Article 19 of the Constitution. Yet, this week, the J&K police booked a young photographer in Kashmir, Masrat Zahra, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for allegedly “anti-national” posts on social media. An FIR has also been registered against a report from Kashmir in The Hindu, alleging that it was “fake news”. Both the invoking of a draconian law, under which an individual can be designated a terrorist, for Facebook posts, and the FIR against a newspaper report, send out a chilling message on free speech to journalists across the country. They go against principles and protections guaranteed by the Constitution, and upheld by the apex court.
It is not unrelated that in recent years, the law of sedition has been used in blunt and indiscriminate ways, inviting charges of intimidating dissenters and restricting freedoms – despite specific court rulings on what constitutes sedition. For instance, in Kedarnath Singh v State of Bihar (1962), the Supreme Court ruled that criticisms of the government, even the state itself, do not constitute sedition or an act seen as detrimental to the security and integrity of the Union. In Balwant Singh v State of Punjab (1995) it found that even sloganeering that seemingly supports separatism — in this case, “Khalistan Zindabad” – as long is it does not directly incite people to commit violence against the Indian state, falls within the bounds of free speech. According to data from the National Crimes Research Bureau, there has been a steady rise in the number of sedition cases from 2014 (47 cases) to 2018 (70 cases) — and there have been only four convictions in that time, giving credence to the perception that the law is being misused to curb fundamental freedoms.
The use of a law framed to deal with terrorism and violent militancy in Zahra’s case, or the FIR against The Hindu, do not constitute the “reasonable restriction” on free speech that the law and the constitution permit. These must be revoked. Journalists in Jammu and Kashmir have always faced more curbs than their counterparts elsewhere — security is the perfect alibi for all governments to clamp down on dissent. But the latest decision is a new low even by that worrisome yardstick. When there are growing concerns over the shrinking space for other institutions and individual freedoms, this decision only confirms that curbs on Internet access may have been eased since August 5 but little has changed when it comes to securing the rights of the press.
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