Kerala Police Act Amendment gets nod, media fears curb on free speech

Tackling cybercrime: Governor gives nod to Kerala Police Act amendment
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The amendment to the Kerala Police Act, 2011, which secured the Governor’s assent on November 21, is feared to be an attempt at muzzling the media.

The amendment, intended to insert section 118(A), was cleared by the state cabinet on Wednesday. The stated intentions of the law are lofty and it envisages penal provisions like imprisonment up to five years, a fine of up to Rs.10,000 or both to cyber offenders.

The amendment is expected to ‘fend off’ cyberattacks on unsuspecting ‘women and children’ by penalising ‘those who create/produce, publish or disseminate content through any means with the intention of intimidating, insulting or defaming any person.’

The media and advocates of free speech are but wary on more counts than one. They believe the ‘wordings’ of the amendment could in itself empower the ‘state’ to hem in the dissenting voices. They cite the fact that unlike a defamation case, this amendment needs no petitioner and the state [in most cases the law-enforcement arm or the police] can take suo motu action on the basis of an incident. Also, any person, totally unrelated to the incident in question, can prefer a complaint and seek action.

In a press briefing, Minister A K Balan had clarified that the amendment, intended to curb hate-mongering and vendetta-messaging on social media, would cover mass media too.

Legal circles but pointed out that Section 119 was in itself ‘adequate and sufficient’ to curb cyberattacks. It amply provides for action against those who maliciously ‘propagates’ hate and ill-intended messages. Experts were clear on the fact that ‘propagation’ would cover all media and that would suffice for the state to act against all types of cyberattacks — be it on social media or mass media.

However, the state government had a different argument. Minister Balan said the ‘wordings of the amendment’ gave the necessary advantage to the government to act against ill-doers. Otherwise, he said, the Kerala Police Act would not hold good in the case of social media. He was quick to add that any infringement on the fundamental rights could be questioned in courts of law.

The state cabinet had asked the State Police Chief and the Chief Secretary to ‘take steps’ to curtail hate speech on social media. There was an outcry on social media and in the public sphere after a cyberattack on dubbing artist Bhagyalakshmi.

It is also notable that Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan gave his assent to the amendment despite the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) urging him to desist from giving the gubernatorial sanction.

The BJP opposed the amendment saying it was the state government’s attempt to circumvent a Supreme Court ruling which repealed Section 66(A) of the IT Act 2000 and Section 118(D) of the Kerala Police Act, 2011 on the ground that it was against freedom of expression.

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