An amendment in the Kerala Police Act initiated by the state government through an ordinance has triggered allegations of attempts to curb freedom of expression as well as to gag the media.
Even as Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan denied the concerns, a section of leaders within the Left Front were also learnt to have expressed apprehensions over it.
It was with the stated intention of curbing insult towards persons on social media, especially women, that the Left Front government in Kerala decided to introduce a new section in the Kerala Police Act, section 118-A.
But the ordinance that received Governor Arif Mohammed Khan's assent on Saturday did not specify the word social media, but only states any form of media. Hence it triggered concerns that the new section was aimed at curbing the mainstream media also from publishing news against individuals, especially politicians. Moreover, it provides for anyone to raise complaints against insults caused to any other individual. The non-bailable section also warrants a four-year imprisonment and fine of Rs 10,000 to offenders.
Kerala Chief Minister, many ministers and CPM leaders used to allege that the media was targeting CPM by publishing baseless news, especially related to the Kerala gold smuggling accused. Hence the allegations assumed more significance now.
With the opposition parties BJP and Congress alleging that the ordinance was aimed at curbing freedom of expression and the media, the Chief Minister came out with a statement that the amendment would in no way be used against free speech or impartial journalism. However, he added that the government would look into all creative opinions and suggestions being aired with regard to this amendment.
He said that the fresh amendment was initiated as the state government was receiving several complaints against the rampant misuse of social media, especially by certain online channels. Even prominent public and cultural figures had made such complaints. Women and transgenders were also facing cyberattacks. The amendment only has clauses that are in tune with the sections that ensure the freedom of press and individual liberty.
It may be recalled that the state capital recently witnessed a known dubbing artist and two women activists assaulting a vlogger alleging that he posted insulting remarks. They alleged police inaction in their complaint, while the police cited lack of provisions in law to act upon. The was learnt to have prompted the government to bring in the amendment.
CPI, which is the second largest party in the Left Front in Kerala, had earlier expressed concerns over the amendment. It said that the concerns raised by the media and human rights activists that the proposed amendments could be misused by the police could not be ruled out and such amendments need to be introduced only after detailed discussions in the society. Various forum of journalists, human rights activists and opposition parties had already flayed the move.
The Supreme Court had earlier scrapped section 66-A of IT Act and section 118-D of Kerala Police Act which dealt with publishing of objectionable contents of social media.