Kerala government has promulgated an ordinance to amend the Kerala Police Act to give more power to the law enforcement agency to prosecute persons who exploit social media to target women and children. Many experts, however, have expressed fears that the loosely drafted law can be used to target critics, journalists and political opponents.
The State cabinet had in October decided to give an edge to the Kerala Police Act (KPA) by recommending the addition of a new provision, Section 118-A, to the law passed in 2011.
New provisions in Kerala Police Act
According to the latest ordinance, a police officer can suo motu register a case against the accused and arrest him. Unlike the defamation case (Sections 499 and 500 of the India Penal Code) which needs a genuine petitioner, the proposed amendment makes it a cognizable offence and any person can file a complaint or a police officer can register a case suo motu against the accused.
The amendment proposes five years of imprisonment and a fine of ₹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 government had mooted the revision after a group of women activists in September registered case against a blogger who used his YouTube channel to broadcast abusive and derogatory comments against feminists and women in general. The accused has been identified as Vijay P. Nair, who is from Gandhari Amman Koil in the city.
The administration felt that the absence of an effective law to tackle online vilification would encourage more such instances of vigilantism.
However, experts have raised concern that the new clauses in the Act can be misused. It seems as if the amendment has granted larger teeth to the law enforcement officials to crack down on freedom of speech and bully critics, journalists and commentators into obedience.
Opposition parties earlier urged the Governor not to give his assent to the ordinance. But the government defended its position saying existing laws were not effective to deal with such crimes. It also pointed out that the High Court had directed the state chief secretary and DGP in May to initiate effective steps to curtail hate speech and bullying on social media.
"Apprehension in this regard is ill-founded. Our only aim is to curb cyber attacks that are posing a major threat to private life," said state law minister A K Balan. But the opposition wasn't convinced.
"We agree cyber-bullying of women and children should be contained at any cost. But in the guise of fighting cyber crime the government may target journalists who are exposing many misdeeds. Some of the wordings in the ordinance buttress our fear," said opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala.
The charge was further rejected by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who said that the decision had been taken based on factors such as abuse of social media to tarnish the image of individuals.
Responding to the law which almost replaces the now-defunct Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor took to Twitter saying, "It is troubling. This law can be challenged in court, because any political attack on social media against a party or "class of persons" (eg "Sanghis"or "libtards") could attract its provisions. It should be revised to apply to flagrant cases of abuse& threats only."