Author: Jyoti Meena
Recent controversies have ignited the debate of crossing the faint line of sedition and freedom of speech. Many intellectuals, jurists, journalists, political commentators and other concerned citizens are demanding a national debate on misuse of controversial statutes like 66A of IT act and section 124A of the Indian Penal Code by the state, which according to them are anachronistic colonial era laws and have no place in present.
Freedom of speech is necessary for any healthy democracy and our constitution ensures it by declaring it a fundamental right in the article (19A) of the Constitution of India. If the police consider a tweet or blog ‘grossly offensive’ or ‘of menacing character’, or causing ‘inconvenience, annoyance, danger, obstruction or insult’, they can prosecute the netizen responsible under Section 66A of IT Act , which was inserted in 2008, lays down punishment of imprisonment upto 3 years with fine for sending offensive messages through communication service. In the revolutionizing e-world, this issue has come into limelight. State authorities are using the ambiguity in this section to check dissidents who are using various social networking platforms to register their voice.
The section covers two different acts –
- Sending offensive or menacing messages sent by using electronic communication means.
- Sending false messages to cheat, mislead or deceive people or to cause annoyance to them.
While proving false message is relatively easy, but the real question is ‘What constitutes an electronic message to be offensive or of menacing character?’ Indian law has not defined anywhere the meaning of ‘offensive’ or ‘menacing’. As per the laws of general English, a person receiving message should find that to be offensive to apply this provision, so its interpretation becomes relative and differs from person to person.
Cyber crimes like, intentionally sending SPAM messages, phishing emails, threatening messages, etc. can also be punished under this section.
According to some journalists and intellectuals, Section 66A is absolutely draconian as it gives rulers a weapon to misuse and deprive citizens of their personal liberty. Thus it not only violates Article 19(1)(a) but also Article 21, the right to life and liberty. If Section 66A is used, it will foreclose debate and discussion. Its chilling effect is already visible – the jailing of a professor in Kolkata and two young women in Mumbai, for casual cyber writings, or simply forwarding of received material. Today netizens are victims, but next journalists will be threatened, as most of their writings are uploaded on the Net, too.
The government has issued an advisory to states on how to implement the controversial Section 66(A) of the IT Act. Government sources say that a prior approval from the Deputy Commissioner or IGP level officers is needed before the Station House Officer can register such complaints. That will not resolve the problem. A faulty law cannot be implemented better by a person of higher rank.
This is a potential tool in the hands of rulers to curtail the voice of opposition. It is fatal for the freedom of speech of netizens in general and the press in particular. The executive should delete it from the IT Act or refrain from using it
124A defines Sedition as “ Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in India, a shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.
History of 124A goes back to colonial times, which was enacted by the British people to uphold their sovereignty on their Indian subjects. It, which, inter alia, punishes for showing hatred towards govt. established by law, has been used by the politicians, police to weaken the fundamental right of freedom of speech. “Now as far as I am concerned that particular section (124A) is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place in any body of laws that we might pass”, Nehruji said in a parliamentary debate on freedom of speech. Gandhiji, charged in 1922 for his article in Young India, observed, “affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law”. Our political leadership has still not understood Gandhi ji’s views on sedition. Again and Again sedition charges were slapped on civil rights activists like Binayak Sen, Arundati Roy and many more. In Kedar Nath Singh Vs State of Bihar, Supreme Court observed, while upholding the law, that it should be applied only where the accused person intended to create public disorder and incite violence. Police authorities have not adhered to SC guidelines and have used these sections to satisfy cheap motives of their political masters. Many law ministers promised to bring reforms to accommodate contemporary realties but nothing has changed.
Every citizen of this country has the right to castigate state institutions with due constraints because only through constructive criticism, reforms can be initiated to improve the life of an Aam Aadmi. Our politicians should learn to take criticism in a constructive way and should learn respond to it rather than reacting by using state machinery to create an environment of anarchy, fear and chaos. Our police officials should learn to faithfully discharge their duties without fear and favor. Colonial and outdated laws should be reviewed and even if they exist, they should be implemented with guidelines laid down by the SC. It is a great sign that people are awaking from their awful attitude of “sab chalta hai” and showing dissatisfaction with govt. by using latest communication means. Govt. should promote it rather than hammering down those voices. We are the largest functional democracy of the world and by ensuring freedom of speech in letter and spirit, we can be the greatest.