New Delhi/Thiruvanathapuram: A controversial amendment to the Kerala Police Act by way of an ordinance has been widely flayed across the board for its potential to curb the freedom of speech. The embattled Left Democratic Government has likely boxed itself into a corner as even the central leadership of its main constituents, CPM and CPI, have expressed strong reservations with the emergency executive order ostensibly to bring to book cyberbullies targeting women and transgenders.
All major organizations advocating internet freedom in the country have demanded the withdrawal of the amendment to the act.
With the proposed amendment coming in for sharp criticism from various quarters and political parties of various hues across the country, the CPM central leadership was forced to allay the fears.
"The LDF Govt in Kerala will certainly consider all creative opinions and suggestions that are being aired with regard to this amendment," it said in a tweet.
Though Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan reiterated that there need not be any fears on the proposed amendment, he did hint at the possibility of how the law might pan out in reality.
The chief minister came out with the explanation likely following a nudge from the central leadership. The CPM state leadership also circulated a translated version of the chief minister's FB post among the media in a bid to clear the doubts of people who have expressed deep concern over the amendment across the country.
CPM politburo member M A Baby clarified that the drawbacks of the amendment to the Police Act would be considered at the time of framing the law. There are indications that the controversial provisions will be avoided when the ordinance is presented before the Assembly in the form of a draft bill.
Meanwhile, the Kerala Police Chief Lokanath Behera said a specific Standard Operating Procedure will be prepared to ensure that the law is not misused.
The amendment was notified the other day soon after the Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan gave nod on Friday.
CPI against move all along
CPI national general secretary D Raja said Pinarayi had himself pointed out the fears over the proposed law. He asked the LDF to remove misgivings. He also made it clear that in principle the Left was against introducing such changes in through the ordinance route.
In fact, the ordinance was promulgated despite CPI's opposition. The party is now mulling over as to what extent it should oppose the proposed amendment in the midst of the campaigning for the local body polls in Kerala.
CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran who was discharged from hospital on Sunday is convalescing at home.
Revenue Minister and CPI leader E Chandrashekharan had reportedly expressed his disagreement when the Cabinet discussed the proposed amendment. Subsequently the party made its opposition public through an editorial in the party mouthpiece 'Janayugam' on October 26.
The 'Janayugam' pointed out that the proposed amendment had created a lot of apprehension in the legal circles, among human rights activists and media about the possibility of abuse of excessive powers given to police. There is strong criticism within LDF as well that the government was often yielding to police pressure for more powers.
The CPI emphasised that the LDF government should be led by its political policies rather than by pressures and pulls of the bureaucracy. Have we forgotten how certain bureaucrats landed the government in huge trouble? The party reminded.
Maximum punishment up to 3 years
The amendment to the Police Act being introduced in the name of checking character assassination and defamatory posts in social media will be applicable to all kinds of communications, according to the notification issued by the government.
Already there is criticism that the amendment which seeks to check the attack on women in the digital space is actually aimed at reigning in the mainstream media. There is no mention of cyber media in the proposed law.
Even though the Cabinet had recommended imprisonment up to five years under the law, in the notification issued after Governor's ratification, the punishment has been reduced to three years. It is pointed out that the years of imprisonment were reduced as it was felt that a punishment disproportionate to the crime would be challenged in the court.
Under the provisions of the new law “Whoever makes, expresses, publishes or disseminates through any kind of mode of communication, any matter or subject for threatening, abusing, humiliating or defaming a person or class of persons, knowing it to be false and that causes injury to the mind, reputation or property of such person or class of persons or any other person in whom they have interest shall on conviction, be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine which may extend to ten thousand rupees or with both.”
This means that a person can face three years in jail and a fine of Rs 10,000 for any social media post that is considered “offensive” or “defamatory”.
Senior lawyer and social activist Prashant Bhushan said the law was draconian and bound to be abused to silence dissent.
"Shocked by the law made by the Left Democratic Front government of Kerala making a so-called offensive post on social media punishable by 5 years in prison. How will CPM general secretary defend such decisions,” asked Congress leader P Chidambaram.
CPM Politburo had opposed similar curbs days ago
In a statement issued on November 12, the CPM Politburo had clearly stated that it is opposed to the government controlling digital media.
The Politburo made this stand clear while opposing central government's notification bringing OTT platforms and news portal within the purview of Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
The Politburo said that the existing IT laws were sufficient for the healthy functioning of digital media. The central government's notification clearly exposed their intention to control the digital media, it said.
It is widely felt that the Kerala Government's ordinance amending Kerala Police Act was against the well-stated policy of the party on the issue, hence it would be difficult for the Pinararyi Vijayan’s ruling dispensation to go ahead with the changes. The party is understood to have cited the resolution moved by its national general secretary Sitaram Yechury in Rajya Sabha earlier against Section 66 (A) of the Information Technology Act, 2000, as another reason to oppose the LDF government's new law. Though the resolution was defeated in the Rajya Sabha, later Supreme Court repealed Section 66 A along with 118 D of the Kerala Police Act.
With the amendment, discretionary powers are now being vested with the police. There is strong apprehension that it could become a dangerous turning point in the system of rule of law and delivery of justice.
Considering the past character of the police force, such apprehensions are not unfounded. Such laws should be framed after elaborate, creative and demcoratic discussions, according to an October 26 editorial of CPI organ 'Janayugam'.