Throttling Dissent4 min read
In April last year, Ambikesh Mahapatra, a professor of chemistry at the Jadavpur University in West Bengal was arrested for posting a cartoon about West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on social networking sites.
In May, two Air India employees were arrested by the Mumbai police for posting content on Facebook and Orkut that was against a trade union leader and some politicians. They were then kept in custody for twelve days.
October 2012 saw Ravi Srinivasan, a businessman, arrested by Puducherry police for tweeting that Kartik Chidambaram (son of Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram) appeared to have amassed more wealth than Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
And most recently, Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Srinivasan, two girls from Palghar were arrested in November by the Mumbai police and detained for the night. Their crime? Shaheen is believed to have questioned the shutdown of Mumbai, following the death of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, in a post on her Facebook wall. Rinu on the other hand was arrested for having ‘liked’ and shared the post.
Now I don’t know about others, but I get one message loud and clear from all these instances; that there are enough constitutional and legal safeguards in India to ensure “freedom of speech”, but apparently not enough to guarantee “freedom after speech”.
The basis of all these arrests was Section 66 (A) of the Information Technology (IT) Amendment Act 2008. So let’s backtrack a little and see what it is about.
Section 66 (A) of the IT Amendment Act 2008, deals with the punishment for sending offensive messages through a communication service. Under the provision, any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device,
(a) Any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or
(b) Any information, which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill-will, persistently by making use of such computer resource or a communication device; or
(c) Any electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term, which may extend to three years and with fine.
Several questions now arise. With no preset standards or guidelines, what are we to judge as ‘grossly offensive’ or with ‘menacing character’? Are people to be locked up on vague grounds such as causing ‘annoyance’, ‘insult’ or ‘inconvenience’? And who is to decide what comes under any of these categories?
Finally acting on the unrest among the people, Telecom and IT minister, Kapil Sibal agreed that the Act was being misused in some states and that the Centre would issue an advisory to prevent it.
The recent amendment upholds people’s right to Freedom of Expression online, to an extent. The amended guidelines require that complaints under section 66 (A) of the act will now have to be approved by an officer of DCP (District Commissioner of Police) level in rural areas and IG (Inspector General) level in metros before being registered by the police.
Now, while this government guideline is certainly a positive step, it’s not enough if we look at the bigger picture. The IT act was passed in the year 2000 to protect users against cyber crime through email and spam, and the later addition of section 66(C) which talks of deception, is sufficient to combat that. Hence, the former part, comprising of annoyance and inconvenience may be left out as the language is vague and free to be misinterpreted by the police or other officials. Moreover, the IT act of 2000 was amended without a debate in the parliament. Thus, the fundamental problems are the lack of transparency and consultation in the introduction of this section in to the amendments in 2008 and the rather obvious vagueness in the language of the section.
The recent clampdown on social media users who sought to express their opinion on certain matters proves that the government seeks to curtail civil liberties under the pretext of legal provisions. Thus, the need of the hour is to totally change the act and bring about a change in the implementation as well, because increasing curbs on social media through these controversial legal provisions pose a grave challenge to civil society.
Sharanya Khosla is Reporter, The Manipal Journal and a student of Manipal Institute of Communication.
The views expressed in the blog are personal.
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