Kerala’s Vijayan government is being criticised for hurriedly drafting an amendment on a sensitive subject without a proper debate in the assembly or in the public sphere
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: A controversial amendment to the Kerala Police Act came into force on Sunday, granting police the authority to slap criminal charges through “subjective interpretation” of communication through any medium as being defamatory even as CM Pinarayi Vijayan sought to allay fears of the new law being a threat to “free speech” or “impartial journalism”.
Amendment 118A cites even “injury to the mind” as a valid reason to slap charges that stipulate a maximum jail term of three years, a fine of up to Rs 10,000, or both.
Depending on their interpretation of what constitutes an offence under this provision, the police can act without a complaint from the alleged victim.
The amendment to the 2011 legislation has triggered widespread outrage – on social media, among the opposition UDF and BJP, the media fraternity and even within the Left coalition. Experts said the amendment had stretched the law to such an extent that every communication or publication could be open to subjective interpretation by the police.
“This is grossly unconstitutional and against several verdicts of the Supreme Court. In the director of public prosecutions versus Collins case in the UK, the Queen’s bench and House of Lords differed over the definition of the phrase ‘grossly offensive’.
When even the eminent jurists took diametrically opposite positions in such matters, the new insertion in the Kerala Police Act has left it to the wisdom of a police officer or anyone to gauge whether a communication or publication has caused injury to the mind of a person,” former law secretary B G Hareendranath said.
The amendment follows alleged attempts by the state government to wrest control of the political narrative, especially on social media, amid investigations by central agencies into the Life Mission welfare housing and gold smuggling scam cases. The CPM has boycotted news channels and refused to participate in debates that include panellists critical of the government. Many see the move as an attempt to control free speech ahead of municipal and assembly elections.
Even in the absence of such a law, the LDF government had been slapping cases on those criticising chief minister Vijayan. The police had registered cases against 119 individuals, including 12 government employees, till June 2019 for allegedly abusing the CM on social media. They were booked for offences ranging from criminal intimidation to use of obscene language.
The very Kerala high court judgment cited by the government while framing the amendment was, ironically, one that criticised the police for not acting promptly on cyber crime complaints filed by women. “It is the duty of the state to maintain public order. Moreover, as per the existing penal law itself, such culprits can be booked, for which the state police should be vigilant,” the high court had observed in the Sreeja Prasad vs state of Kerala case this year.
Besides the content of the ordinance that governor Arif Mohammed Khan gave his assent to on Saturday, the government is being criticised for hurriedly drafting an amendment on a sensitive subject without a proper debate in the assembly or in the public sphere.