The amendment to the Kerala Police Act “will in no way be used against free speech or impartial journalism”, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said Sunday, while defending an ordinance that the opposition alleges could be used to muzzle a free press and target critics of the government.
Mr Vijayan stressed that while the state had a duty to protect individuals’ liberty and dignity, no action would be taken against the media or those who criticise the government “within the limits of the Constitution”.
“The new amendment made to the Kerala Police Act will in no way be used against free speech or impartial journalism. Apprehensions to the contrary are unfounded,” a statement from the Chief Minister’s Office said.
“Along with ensuring freedom of press, the Government also has the responsibility of upholding a citizen’s individual freedom and his/her dignity, as enshrined in the Constitution. The popular idea that one’s freedom ends where the other’s nose begins needs to be respected. However, there have been instances of this idea being repeatedly violated,” the statement said.
Referring to “the use of personal likes, or dislikes, political or non-political interests… to unsettle the peaceful atmosphere of families… to settle scores”, the Chief Minister said in his statement that such attacks did not fall under the category of journalism.
“They are simply personal vendetta in action (and) many a time, monetary interests are behind such devious designs,” Mr Vijayan added, noting that his government was “repeatedly receiving complaints against the misuse of social media, especially by certain online channels”.
The ordinance, signed by Governor Arif Mohammed Khan on Saturday, punishes those guilty of spreading content by any means (including social media) that is said to be derogatory or defamatory. Punishments of up to three years jail, a fine of Rs 10,000 or both are allowed under the amended law.
The opposition was swift to express its concern, with Congress leader P Chidambaram tweeting this morning that he was “shocked” by the new law.
Shocked by the law made by the LDF government of Kerala making a so-called ‘offensive’ post on social media punishable by 5 years in prison
— P. Chidambaram (@PChidambaram_IN) November 22, 2020
Shashi Tharoor, the Congress MP from Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram, called it “troubling”, pointing out that it was “so loosely drafted it could also be used against political opponents”.
“This is troubling.. The law responds to several cases of offensive tweets, posts, comments (and) abusing and threatening women, but it is so loosely drafted that it could also be used against political opponents, journalists and critics,” Mr Tharoor tweeted.
“This law can and will be challenged in the courts, because any political attack on social media against a party or “class of persons” (eg ‘sanghis‘ or ‘libtards‘) could attract its provisions. It must be revised to narrow its application to flagrant cases of abuse and threats only,” he said.
2/2 This law can & will be challenged in the courts, because any political attack on social media against a party or “class of persons” (eg “Sanghis”or “libtards”) could attract its provisions. It must be revised to narrow its application to flagrant cases of abuse& threats only.
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) November 22, 2020
Back in October, when the LDF government recommended the addition of this provision to the Kerala Police Act (2011), its ally, the Communist Party of India (CPI) expressed similar concerns.
Earlier, in a statement on Facebook, the Chief Minister said the ordinance was necessary because the number of cyber attacks was “very concerning”.
“Cyber attacks are a threat to privacy of life. It has been decided to amend the Police Act since the existing laws are found to be inadequate to tackle the issue. The state cabinet has decided to recommend the Governor issue an amendment to the Act as an ordinance,” he wrote.