Kerala govt’s new cybercrime law raises alarm for free speech

The law provides imprisonment for up to five years or a fine of up to ₹10,000 or both to those who produce, publish or share content to intimidate, insult or defame any person through social media.

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The amendment received the assent of the Governor on Saturday | Photo: iStock

The Kerala government’s new ordinance for cyber offenders is being seen as an attempt to muzzle the media and a threat to press freedom. Amending the Kerala Police Act, 2011, the government has inserted a new section, 118(A), which provides for penal action, including jail term and fine, for any internet post that deem offensive to the government.

The amendment by Pinarayi Vijayan-led government received the assent of Governor Arif Mohammad Khan on Saturday after it was cleared by the state cabinet on Wednesday.

The law stipulates either imprisonment for up to five years or a fine of up to ₹10,000 or both to those who produce, publish or share content through any means of communication with an intention to intimidate, insult or defame any person through social media.

While Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has claimed that the law was guided by growing abuse on social media targeting individuals, legal experts are of the view that the law would end up being misused by authorities to target those who criticise the government. Opposition parties too have raised an alarm that it would curtail the freedom of press.

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The Left government has justified the law expressing concern over the rising crime graph, fake propaganda and hate speech on social media since the outbreak of COVID-19. It said since cyber attacks are a major threat to private life, it was decided to amend the Police Act as the existing legal provisions were inadequate to fight such crimes.

It said while the Supreme Court had repealed section 66-A of the IT Act and Section 118 (d) of the Kerala Police Act on the grounds that these were against freedom of expression, the Centre has not introduced any other legal framework. “In this scenario, the police are unable to deal effectively with crimes committed through social media,” the State said.

In 2015, the Supreme Court had held the Kerala Police Act’s Section 118(D) (which dealt with cybercrime) as unconstitutional and that it violated the fundamental right of freedom to speech and expression. Section 66-A of the IT Act was struck down the same year after a long campaign by those in defence of free speech.

Advocate Anoop Kumaran, who had challenged the Section 118(D) of the Kerala Police Act in the Supreme Court back in 2015, has said he would move the Kerala High Court against the ordinance. “In reality, the new law would be used by the authorities and government against those who criticise them,” The Indian Express quoted him as saying.

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