Hyderabad: Free speech has been guaranteed by the Constitution, but this right has been violated by a series of arrests made across the country for posting content on social media platforms like facebook and WhatsApp which embarrasses the ruling establishment. Though the UPA era section 66A of the IT Act which was broadly worded enough to book you if you caused annoyance, inconvenience, insult or injury online has been scrapped by the supreme court indiscriminate social media arrests are cramping speech and debate.
According to a report on Times of India, in 2012 and 2013, a girl from Palghar, Maharashtra was arrested for criticizing Bal Thackeray’s state funeral and another girl was arrested for liking the comment. In another incident a 18-year old Zakir Ali Tyagi was put behind the bars for 42 days for asking how River Ganga was a living entity, and he went on to discuss BJP’s plans of building Ram Mandir. He was booked under section 420 of the IPC and Section 66A of the IT Act. He was brutally beaten by the police and labeled as a terrorist. After released from the jail he lost his job in the steel Plant.
On November 2nd this year, another person named Afghan Soni, a Meerut based Journalist was charged with defamation and “computer-related offences” (Section 66 of the IT Act) for posting a derogatory video of Narendra Modi. What was the “offensive” video? Modi asking a rally about ” achhe din “, and getting his response not from a crowd of people, but a herd of goats.
These arrests are not new and such instances reveal that, more than political dispensation, this is about the misplaced zeal of the criminal justice system, its general disregard for free speech, and its hypersensitivity to speech that irritates the political establishment.
N Ramachandran, a former DGP and president of the Indian Police Foundation, says that “But the real problem is the misuse of these legal provisions by police officials going overboard,” and also says that “Rather than rushing to arrest, the police should weigh the culpability and potential impact impartially, with utmost caution.”
The morphing of images may be a concern when women are misrepresented, but “by itself, a morphed image in a political caricature or piece of satire is not an illegal or criminal act”, says lawyer and internet freedom advocate Apar Gupta.
WhatsApp is where these tensions are strongest. Increasingly, WhatsApp administrators have been booked even for harmless remarks. “There’s a trend of using Section 144 of the CrPC, which applies to unlawful assemblies, to WhatsApp discussions,” says Gupta.
The Indore collector invoked section 144 of the CrPC to deter any conversation about demonetisation, and the Varanasi DM said that any false content on a WhatsApp group was grounds for arrest. “This is a threat, rather than a fair legal warning,” says Apar Gupta.
These charges do not hold in a court of law but the person has to face difficulties and deal with the harassment. These arrests are symptomatic of invasion of free speech in sibal’s view, a lawyer. He also says that “Look at the way everyone is outraging about the movie Padmavati without anyone having seen it. It’s the same with the trigger-happy criminal justice system.”
The likelihood of these legal constraints makes us to be careful about the words we use on social media.