The Bihar government has taken a wrong step to curb criticism by threatening to take legal action against those who make adverse comments against it, MPs, MLAs and government officials. A senior police official has recently said in a letter circulated among government officials that offensive or misleading comments made by individuals and organisations online will be considered cybercrimes and punished. Officials have been advised to bring such criticism to the notice of the police. The letter has also said that the police is “continuously’’ getting information about such comments. It cannot be a police officer’s decision to take action against those who criticise the government, legislators and officials. Only the Nitish Kumar government could have prompted the police to take such action, and that is a sign of growing intolerance of criticism.
It is not the job of the police to scan social media for criticism of the government and those associated with it. The letter does not define what is objectionable and indecent in the comments made by people. A senior police official said that criticism is good for democracy, but it should be constructive. But it is not for the police to sit in judgement over the nature and quality of the opinions of people. If there is any institution or person who is defamed by a comment, there are remedies available to seek redress. The Supreme Court has strongly condemned police action against common people for social media posts. “We cannot have citizens hauled from one part of the country to another for a social media post critical of the government. This is browbeating a citizen for exercising right to free speech,” the court said. In 2015, it struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act under which the police used to arrest people for “offensive’’ social media posts.
The Bihar move is similar to the Kerala government’s amendment to the Police Act last year which empowered the police to prosecute persons who disseminated information that law enforcement deemed defamatory. It had to withdraw it in the face of widespread opposition. Criticism is the lifeblood of democracy. It is essential for good governance as it makes the administration aware of the deficiencies of its policies, decisions and actions and enables it to correct itself. It is the authoritarian mindset which denies room for criticism and bans and suppresses it. The Bihar government should withdraw the letter as it is wrong, unconstitutional and undemocratic.