Millennium Post

Freeing the right to free speech

The Supreme Court is entirely justified in showing its support for the national outrage over the existing Information Technology Act under the provisions for which, in a recent case, two young girls were arrested in Mumbai for generally protesting the fact that Mumbai had shut down after the death of Bal Thackeray last month. The court was hearing a PIL filed by one Shreya Singhal, after two girls were arrested for so called ‘violation’ of the IT Act (Section 66A) for posting comments critical of political leaders. The Supreme Court was hearing a PIL seeking amendments to the IT Act in which a bench headed by Chief Justice Altamas Kabir and Justice J Chelameswar expressed their utter surprise over the arrest of the girls in Palghar in Thane in Maharastra.  But they were more concerned about section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. The arrests provoked national outrage though this was not the first time that arrests were made on some draconian provision that find umbrage under the said act and in which something as sensitive and critically variable like ‘sedition’ is easily invoked to the considered delight of the police and to considerable distaste of the public. The bench wondered why in spite of repeated incidents of arrests disproportionate to the crime, this section (Section 66A) of the act has not come up for review. No wonder the bench has indicated that it may suo motu take up the provisions under this act to be discussed and debated. Section 66 A treats the act of sending information through communication devices as one that could be considered an offence if the material sent is ‘grossly offensive, has menacing character, is sent to cause annoyance, insult and enmity or for criminal intimidation’.

On this note, the apex court on Friday has also issued notices to the central government as well as to four states: Maharashtra, West Bengal, Puducherry and Delhi where such incidents have occurred in recent months. Reacting to the court’s reservations and public pressure the government has made some quick reforms to the act, the major one being that a police officer no less than the rank of DCP can sanction prosecution under section 66A. In metropolitan cities, such an approval would have to be given by officers at the level of Inspector General of Police (IGP). This will no doubt stop indiscriminate arrests but then do we at all need the controversial section? In the age of seamless global communication, is it either possible or desirable to pry on free speech?

The Supreme Court is very right in taking this up seriously because in an age of the dominance of social media and global transaction of communication through this media, it is supremely ironic that the government is trying to set up gatekeeping to serve its purpose. This must be seriously relooked at.
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