New law makes it five year jail for “offensive” social media post in Kerala, concerns over freedom of speech rife

With the approval of Governor Arif Mohammad Khan, Kerala government has successfully brought a new ordinance which will enable the state police more power to crackdown on social media users for posts which may be deemed “offensive.” Persons, found to be guilty in accordance to the new ordinance would be liable to face imprisonment of five years or a fine of Rs 10,000 or both.

With the governor’s approval, the ordinance has been incorporated as a new section, 118 (A), in the Kerala Police Act.

The new amendment, however, has raised many eyebrows. It is being believed that the new provisions would be misused to curb the freedom of speech as it is enjoyed by people on social media currently and silence the critics of the ruling Left regime.

Though, issuing a clarification, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Sunday sought to assure that the new amendment is not intended to put a break on people’s right to freedom of speech and expression. “The new amendment will in no way be used against free speech or impartial journalism. Apprehensions to the contrary are unfounded,” the Chief Minister’s Office said in a statement.

“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 added.

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 such attacks do not fall under the category of journalism and were “personal vendetta”.

The Chief Minister said that his government was “repeatedly receiving complaints against the wide misuse of social media, especially by certain online channels”.

Meanwhile, a Kerala based lawyer named Anoop Kumaran has said that he will be moving Supreme 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.

Kumaran is the same person who in 2015 had moved Supreme Court against section 118 (D) of Kerala Police Act, leading to it being canceled as “unconstitutional.” 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.