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Section of India's Information Technology Act threatens free speech

REUTERS/Vivek Prakash

The recent arrest of a lawyer in India's Andhra Pradesh state over a Facebook post has added to the controversy surrounding a section of the country's Information Technology Act, which has been used to punish social media users critical of the government. The incident highlights the need for the world's largest democracy to guard against such violations of freedom of expression by swiftly amending such laws.

On May 14 2013, a court in the town of Padmarao Nagar in the Prakasam District, state of Andhra Pradesh, sentenced lawyer Jaya Vindhayala, the state general secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), to 12 days in judicial custody for posting comments on her Facebook account that criticised a local governor and a Congress Member of the Legislative Assembly, Indian online news website Niti Central reported.

According to The Times of India, Vindhayala was arrested and charged under the controversial Section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act for an "objectionable" Facebook post that specifically named Tamil Nadu Governor K. Rosaiah and Chirala Member of the Legislative Assembly, Amanchi Krishna Mohan. Vindhayala's arrest and subsequent conviction come on the heels of a recent crackdown on social media owing to amendments, in 2009, to the country's Information Technology Act, specifically Section 66A.

Talking to IPI, Narasimhan Ravi, Director of The Hindu newspaper and an IPI Executive Board member, noted that the problem with Section 66A is that it "is all encompassing and vague, using such terms as 'grossly offensive', 'annoyance' and 'inconvenience', 'menacing character' and 'insult', which are not established legal concepts and are undefined."

He added: "The sense of these words is left to the interpretation of the police and this coupled with the fact that the offence is regarded as serious (it carries a penalty of imprisonment up to three years and fine) leads to pre-trial arrests. Section 66A by itself is the problem, not just its application; though confining its reach and applicability would be of some help."

Earlier this year, another man was arrested in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, for making what local police said were, "communal and inflammatory comments on Facebook about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal and Samajwadi Party Chief Mulayam Singh Yadav," The Hindu noted.

Sanjay Chowdhary, a civil engineer and resident of Dayalbagh, an Agra suburb, was arrested on Monday, Feb. 4 and his laptop, a sim card and a data card were also seized.

Agra police said that they were "not involved in the political angle of the whole issue," that their concerns were "the inflammatory comments and posts on Chowdhary's Facebook wall," and that they "acted to prevent any communal flare-up."

The posts on Chowdhary's Facebook page were deleted after his arrest and his account was deactivated. Chowdhury was charged under section 153 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deals with "the promotion of enmity between groups" and "acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony" as well as Section 66 A of the Information Technology (IT) Act.

In another case covered by Niti Central, two women in a suburb of Mumbai were arrested in connection with negative comments about the founder of a Hindu nationalist political organisation in November 2012.

Maharashtra's Palgarh police arrested 21-year-old Shaheen Dhada for posting a message on Facebook that criticized Bal Thackeray, who founded the Shiv Sena organization. Dhada's friend, Renu Srinivasan, was also arrested and charged with 'liking' the post.

A Mumbai court asked Dhada to apologise for her Facebook post and remove it.

The cases were eventually dropped after a Mumbai court found evidence of misconduct on the part of police officers who had arrested the girls.

Other cases, such as the arrests of three men in Kashmir for "anti-Muslim" Facebook posts and the detaining of a 20-year old in the Odisha province for uploading an "objectionable" photo slandering Hindus respectively also made news headlines.

"These incidents not only demonstrate the arbitrary nature of Section 66A and the wide discretion that Indian authorities have in regulating social media, but also constitute a threat to freedom of expression," IPI Deputy Director Anthony Mills noted.

Free press activists in India have recently taken to social media to campaign for amendments to Section 66A.

While the media in India has generally been vigorous in safeguarding its rights and the rights of journalists, the Internet has created a new platform where the same legal rules do not necessarily apply and where freedom of expression can be challenged under the guise of "maintaining the peace."

"IPI strongly urges Indian lawmakers to consider amending Section 66A of the Information Technology Act in accordance with international standards for freedom of expression," Mills added.

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