Kerala governor Arif Mohammed Khan has signed the controversial Kerala Police Act Amendment ordinance envisaged by the Left government to prevent cyberattacks against women and children, which the Opposition claimed would curtail freedom of expression.
A Raj Bhavan source confirmed that the governor, who returned to the official residence recently after recovering from COVID-19, signed the ordinance which had triggered a row.
The state cabinet, last month, had decided to give more teeth to the Police Act by recommending the addition of Section 118-A. According to the ordinance signed by Khan, police personnel "can suo motu register a case against the accused and arrest him", Hindustan Times reported.
The law also stipulates either imprisonment for up to five years or a fine of up to Rs 10,000 or both to those who produce, publish or disseminate content through any means of communication with an intention to intimidate, insult or defame any person through social media.
The report also quoted experts as saying that the law could be "misused" as "some of the wordings of the ordinance also cover the mass media".
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the decision was taken based on factors like abuse of social media to tarnish the image of individuals.
The Chief Minister's Office released a statement defending the law: "The new amendment made to the Kerala Police Act will in no way be used against free speech or impartial journalism. Apprehensions to the contrary are unfounded."
"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 was quoted by NDTV as saying.
The Opposition claimed that the ordinance would give more power to the police and also curtail the freedom of the press,
"We agree cyberbullying of women and children should be contained at any cost. But in the guise of fighting cyber crime the government may target journalists who are exposing many misdeeds. Some of the wordings in the ordinance buttress our fear," said Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala was quoted as saying by Hindustan Times.
Expressing concern over the rising crime graph, fake propaganda and hate speech on social media since the outbreak of COVID-19, the LDF government had said since cyber attacks are a major threat to private life, it has been decided to amend the Police Act as the existing legal provisions were inadequate to fight such crimes.
It said while the Supreme Court had repealed section 66-A of the IT Act and Section 118 (d) of the Kerala Police Act on the grounds that these were against freedom of expression, the Centre has not introduced any other legal framework.
"In this scenario, the police are unable to deal effectively with crimes committed through social media," the government had said.