5-year jail term for ‘offensive’ post: Kerala’s chilling law

Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan has given his approval to a draconian ordinance by the LDF government amending the Kerala Police Act that provides for jail term for any social media or cyber post that is deemed “offensive” or threatening.

Khan’s office Saturday confirmed that he had signed the ordinance that incorporates a new Section, 118 (A), in the Kerala Police Act. Accordingly, any person who creates or sends any information that is offensive or is intended to offend or threaten another person, through any means of communication, is liable to face imprisonment of five years or a fine of Rs 10,000 or both.

It is feared that the amendment could have a chilling effect on free speech giving more power to the police and restricting freedom of the press. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has claimed the decision was guided by growing abuse on social media targeting individuals.

Kerala-based advocate Anoop Kumaran, who moved the Supreme Court in 2015 against another Section, 118(D) of the Act, said he would move the High Court against the ordinance. “The government claims that Section 118(A) is meant to protect people, particularly women, from social media abuse. But in reality, the new law would be used by the authorities and government against those who criticise them,” he said.

Read | Processes and concerns: How does public policy in social media work?

Striking down Section 118(D) of the Kerala Police Act, the Supreme Court had declared it unconstitutional for violating the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression.

An official release last month announcing the Cabinet’s recommendation to the Governor regarding the ordinance had said the Kerala High Court had earlier directed the state police to take steps against hate campaigns and attacks through social media.

The CPM-led government had also claimed a rise in crimes, fake propaganda and hate speech on social media since the outbreak of Covid-19, and said the existing legal provisions were inadequate to fight them. It had argued that while the Supreme Court had repealed Section 118 (D) of the Kerala Police Act as well as Section 66-A of the IT Act, the Centre had not introduced any other legal framework to replace them. “In this scenario, the police are unable to deal effectively with crimes committed through social media,” the government had claimed.

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