Social Media Policing – Is this free speech India?

right to freedom of speech, free speech, social media policing

Section 66A of Indian Information Technology, Act 2000, considers it punishable if someone sends “offensive” messages using a computer or any other communication device. If convicted, jail time could be 3 years plus fine.

Problem? Well, to call something “offensive” is a very subjective point of view. It leaves a very large room for speculation and a million interpretations. It is wide, untamed and biased.

It was this vagueness of the law that led Supreme Court to repeal it on 25th March 2015. The crackdown on Section 66A came down when a number of PILs were filed by victims who were harassed and arrested by misusing this open-ended law. The Supreme Court clearly stated, “The information disseminated over the Internet need not be information which ‘incites’ anybody at all. Written words may be sent that may be purely in the realm of ‘discussion’ or ‘advocacy’ of a ‘particular point of view’. Further, the mere causing of annoyance, inconvenience, danger, etc., or being grossly offensive or having a menacing character are not offences under the [Indian] Penal Code at all”.

The questions raised on the controversial law were mostly concerned about the violation of free speech. A vulnerably complicated aspect of a large “democracy” like India where such sentiments can be easily twisted.

Although, Section 66A received its due diligence, the remains of its personal favoritism affected many and still continue to haunt the belief of freedom of expression. Some victims who fell prey to the misuse of this law:

April 2012 Ambikesh Mahapatra and Subrata Sengupta, Jadavpur:

epa04121332 Member of Trinamool Congress hold the posters of their leader Mamata Banerjee as they attend a political rally in New Delhi, India, 12 March 2014. According to a statement, anti-graft crusader Anna Hazare skipped the rally according due to illness. EPA/HARISH TYAGI

Professor Ambikesh and his neighbour Subrata were arrested for circulating cartoons of Mamata Banerjee causing a stir of anger and order of arrest within 24 hours. 3 years later Kolkata High Court released the duo and directed the West Bengal government to pay Rs 50,000 for harassment.

May 2012, Air India employees, Mumbai:

Mayank Sharma and KV Rao were arrested for posting offensive comments against politicians on their Facebook group. They were kept in jail for 12 days, and suspension was dropped after a few months.

September 2012, Aseem Trivedi, Mumbai:

Indian Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi trial

This free speech campaigner was arrested on the account of publishing cartoons on his facebook page website showing ineffectiveness of Indian Parliament. He was later released on bail, the case is still pending in a local court.

October 2012, Kishtwar youngsters, Jammu and Kashmir:

Kishori Lal, Bansi Lal and Mohan Lal Sharma were arrested and jailed for 40 days for being tagged in an allegedly blasphemous video, on which one of them had also commented. Police found no evidence on them uploading the video.

October 2012, Ravi Srinivasan, Puducherry:

A Puducherry businessman who was arrested for calling Karti Chidambaram, son of P. Chidambaram, ‘corrupt’ in his tweet. After Supreme Court slammed 66A, Ravi Srinivasan was acquitted.

November 2012, Palghar girls, Mumbai:

Uddhav Thackeray (C), son and Aditya Thackeray (R), grandson of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray carries his body for the funeral procession in Mumbai, India, 18 November 2012. Bal Thakceray, 86, died on 17th November 2012 after being critically ill from last

Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan, were arrested because one of them had posted a question on facebook asking why the  city of Mumbai was shut down for Bal Thackery’s funeral, and the other girl had liked this post. All the charges were later dismissed by the court.

August 2013, Kanwal Bharti, Uttar Pradesh:

Writer and poet, was arrested for posting a comment on his facebook page criticising Uttar Pradesh government for suspending Durga Nandini, for slamming sand mafia. With a massive lawyer support by his side and analysis of unnecessary charges, he was later released.

May 2014, Devu Chodankar, Goa:

Indian Prime Minister at an election campaign rally in Assam

This shipbuilding professional was arrested for posting a comment against Modi on facebook. The charges against him were considered an attempt to curb freedom of speech.

August 2014, Rajeesh Kumar, Kerala:

A CPI-M worker was arrested for posting “abusive” comments on facebook against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Police feared that his comments would have given rise to communal tension.

 

February 2015, Ravinder Kumar Mishra, Rampur:

Samajwadi Party leader and newly designate chief minister for Uttar Pradesh Akhilesh Yadav

The UP tourism officer was arrested for posting controversial pictures on facebook of Akhilesh Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Azam Khan.

March 2015, Class XI student, Rampur:

India state elections

A class XI student was arrested for posting “objectionable” comments on facebook against Uttar Pradesh minister Azam Khan. The young boy was later released on bail.

May 2016, Ajay Singh Gangwar, Barwani:

Now, this one is especially interesting because this arrest has been done after Section 66 A has been repealed. The senior bureaucrat of Madhya Pradesh was initially transferred because of his comments on facebook praising Jawahar Lal Nehru. And just recently, he was given a show cause notice for liking/commenting a post that was against PM Narendra Modi earlier this year in January. He claims that nothing like that has ever happened.


Conclusion

There is something potentially unsavory and askew about the above mentioned cases. Practising social media policing even when the law does not validate it echoes a larger problem. Such tactics are against the whole notion of civil liberty and the constitutional right to freedom of speech. While some cases were feared to cause violence, most were not, and that is why, a more radical way of handling such situations should be devised rather than jumping to impulsive actions.

Should a personal opinion on social networking sites become the reason to suspend or arrest someone? Is freedom of speech only a romantic idea that can be forgotten about whenever someone gets pissed off?

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