Draconian act

The arrest of Jaya Vindhyala, president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties(PUCL) in Andhra Pradesh, is the latest case of arbitrary and highhanded police action to restrict freedom of expression.

The case specifically involved online freedom of expression because the alleged offences related to a posting on a Facebook page. Vidhyala had made a posting critical of Tamil Nadu governor K Rosaiah and an AP legislator Amanchi  Krishna Mohan. While the same information published by the local print media had invited only a notice of  legal action, its online publication  has invited arrest and prosecution. It is difficult to understand how there can be different standards of response to the same information in two forms of media. Online media postings  are made by individuals and they are more vulnerable. Freedom of expression is basically the individual’s freedom to express opinions and it should be guaranteed and protected, whatever the medium of expression.

While dealing with the case, the Supreme Court has directed state governments to not arrest anybody  for a post on a networking site unless the action is cleared by senior police officials. But this is no relief because senior police officials are also vulnerable to pressure from political authorities who are offended by postings in online media, as in this case. Vindhyala’s postings contained only matters revealed under the RTI Act and other information in the public realm. And yet she is being prosecuted. This is because Section 66 A of the Information Technology Act, under which the action was taken,  is  very restrictive and draconian.

The section in effect differentiates between an ordinary citizen and a person who uses social media for comment. While the citizen has a defence under Section 19(1)(a)  of the Constitution and other relevant provisions of the law, the netizen can be proceeded against under Section 66 A. This is anomalous because social media is actually gaining more popularity and importance than conventional media and they provide an empowering forum for individuals.

This section should be removed from the IT Act because it is discriminatory and liable to be misused, whatever the guidelines that are given to the police. A number of cases of highhanded actions under the provision  have come to light, including  the arrest of two girls in Maharashtra who questioned the shutting down of Mumbai in the wake of Bal Thackeray’s death. Union Law minister Kapil Sibal’s recent assurances on the bill in parliament were not convincing.

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