A decision by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala to amend the Police Act, 2011, “to prevent cyber attacks on women and children” is being viewed as one that could curb the freedom of expression and has triggered a controversy.
On Wednesday (21 October), the state Cabinet cleared a proposal to amend the Police Act by adding a clause Section 118-A.
This has provisions to imprison a person up to five years or impose fine of up to Rs 10,000 or both on those who produce, publish, or disseminate content through any means of communication to intimidate, insult or defame any person.
A section of legal experts feels that if the amendment is not drafted properly, it could impact the freedom of expression.
Leading the criticism against the proposal, United Democratic Front (UDF) and senior Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala said the Kerala Cabinet decision raised concerns that in the guise of fighting cybercrimes, Chief Minister Pinaryai Vijayan’s government might arrest journalists who write reports critical of it.
Chennithala, who was state home minister in the previous UDF government, said there are adequate provisions in the Police Act to safeguard women and children.
Some of the proposed provisions in the amendment cause concern. For example, anyone can file a case on the ground of safety to women and children and police themselves could suo motu register a case.
The other major concern over the amendment is that it does not confine to social media alone and extends to mass media. This could mean any media outlet seen as opposing the government in power might face problems if a case is filed on grounds of harming “women and children safety”.
Times of India quoted former state law secretary B G Hareendranath as saying that Section 119 of Police Act can actually be effective in ensuring the objective of “women and children safety” as it encompasses “an affront to the dignity of women” and uses the word “propagate” through any media.
Defending the government move, state Law Minister A K Balan said an effective and strong law was required and current provisions do not allow suo motu registering of a case against such violations.
One of the arguments in favour of the amendment is that it is to prevent increases in the number of cyberattack cases against women and children.
It has been necessitated after the Supreme Court struck down Section 66-A of the IT Act 2000 and Section 118 (d) of the Kerala Police Act, 2011 on the grounds that it was against freedom of expression.
A state government press release said police were unable to deal effectively with crimes committed through social media and hence the amendment had been proposed.
The Vijayan government is now expected to come up with an ordinance but it might face hurdles in the form of state Governor Arif Mohammad Khan.
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