A drastic amendment to the Kerala Police Act, 2011, to give the local law enforcement more teeth to curb defamation has led to an uproar with Opposition parties, journalist bodies and civil rights activists seeing a threat to the freedom of the press and free speech in Kerala.
Kerala Governor Arif Muhammad Khan recently signed an ordinance amending the law to give the police more power to prosecute persons who exploit various communication platforms to slander fellow citizens.
The ordinance has introduced a new provision, Section 118-A, to the Act. The amendment proposes three years of imprisonment and a fine of upto ₹10,000 for those convicted of producing, publishing or disseminating derogatory content through any means of communication to intimidate, insult or defame any person.
The Congress has reacted sharply to the move. Leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala said the amendment would reverse the course on media freedom, muzzle free speech and jeopardise civil liberties.
Former Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram tweeted, “Shocked by the law made by the Left Democratic Front [LDF] government of Kerala making a so-called ‘offensive’ post on social media punishable by [three] years in prison”.
KPCC president Mullapally Ramachandran said the new law granted wide latitude to law enforcers to clamp down on free speech and browbeat critics, journalists and commentators into submission.
Former Kerala Law Secretary B.G. Harindranath said the amendment granted the police untrammelled authority to examine published and broadcast content and register cases even in the absence of a specific complaint. The new law has rendered defamation a cognisable offence.
The amendment had resurrected the “same legal vices” the Supreme Court had “trashed” by scrapping Section 66 A of the IT Act.
“Conferring power on the police to gauge mental injury, loss of reputation and such matters due to dissemination of information would result in widespread abuse. The amendment could curtail the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19  of the Constitution,” he said.
IUML state general secretary K.P.A. Majeed has criticised the move as an attempt to muzzle the press. Various journalist unions have echoed a similar sentiment.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the amendment targeted defamatory social media posts and online content. It did not seek to curb reportage, political satire, opinion, free speech, impartial journalism or commentary.
The State Government had repeatedly received complaints against the rampant misuse of social media, especially by specific online channels, to launch “inhuman and vile cyberattacks” against individuals and their families under the guise of journalism. However, the ordinance did not specifically mention social media posts.
The CM said such attacks smacked of personal vendetta and have resulted in tragic consequences for victims, including suicide. The government has the responsibility to uphold the freedom and dignity of citizens.
Mr. Vijayan said the “traditional media” functioned mostly within the bounds of the law. However, “certain” online channels had scant regard for law and violated the rights of others with impunity.
Such outlets have “created an atmosphere of anarchy that could alter the social order, which cannot be allowed”, the CM said. The government was open to “creative opinions and suggestions” regarding the amendment, he said.