Kerala Social Media Ordinance: Can India Withstand Yet Another Attack on Free Speech?


Kerala Social Media Ordinance: Can India Withstand Yet Another Attack on Free Speech?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Arecent ordinance from the Kerala government, ratified by the state governor this weekend, could mean that a social media post could easily land someone a five-year jail term and a fine of ₹10,000. Governor Arif Mohammad Khan approved an ordinance by the Left Democratic Front ruling coalition, incorporating a new section, Section 118 (A), in the Kerala Police Act. It criminalises “abusive, humiliating, and defamatory” content on not just social media, but “any form of communication”. While the state government states the purpose of this promulgation is to curb “unwanted elements on social media”, there are fears that it could be used to gag critics of the government, and have a stifling effect on free speech in general.

Section 118 (A) is viewed as a successor to Section 118 (D) of the Kerala Police Act and Section 66-A of the IT Act, which were both repealed by Supreme Court. The Kerala government’s rationale for introducing this ordinance is that police are unable to effectively deal with crimes on social media without the legal framework. However, due to its vague wording, it has the potential for abuse by allowing police to arrest anyone, even in the absence of a complainant.

An incident earlier this year where a group of women activists attacked a YouTube blogger for his derogatory comments toward them was said to be one of the reasons the Kerala government is clamping down on what is said on social media. But the route it is taking to get there has many people worried.

Many critics of the Kerala government’s latest ordinance are hoping that it will be overturned. The Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ) had already written to both the governor and the Chief Minister asking that the ordinance not be signed and that more clarity be provided by the government. Indian Express reported that Kerala-based advocate Anoop Kumaran has expressed intentions to challenge the ordinance in the High Court. There is precedent for the judiciary protecting freedom of expression from vague laws.

With the influence of the internet spreading deeper into our lives, this ordinance in Kerala is another in a long line of battles for free speech online.