A Delhi metropolitan magistrate directed the Economic Offences Wing (EOW) to register an FIR against ‘unknown persons’ on Monday, in response to a complaint by Zee TV journalist Sudhir Chaudhary that he was being harassed on the social networking site, Twitter.
Mr. Chaudhary was recently implicated in a sting by Jindal Steel and Power Limited that allegedly showed him asking for money to drop a story,
The order, however, sparked off concerns. Experts blamed the ‘wide and vague provisions’ of Section 66 (A) of the IT Act for the court issuing the directive without proper justification. The case also witnessed the unusual situation of the government arguing against pursuing a case that was based on online content and a private citizen pushing for it.
Mr. Chaudhary had claimed he was being ‘followed by new people’ on Twitter, who posted ‘nasty tweets’. Fake profiles, he complained, had been created to ‘defame’ him. A ‘hostile atmosphere was created… in personal and professional life’. His grievances, he said, were not addressed by the Crime Branch or the EOW.
The EOW, in response, said that the complaint had been lodged in order to ‘create new defences’ in the older case. The contents of the tweets were already in ‘public knowledge’ and were not ‘false or grossly offensive or menacing in character,’ which are grounds for legal action under Section 66 (A).
The court said it was satisfied that the complainant ‘disclosed commission of cognisable offences and does not have the means to collect the evidence.’
Pranesh Prakash, policy director of the Centre for Internet and Society, called it a ‘bizarre’ order. “It never justifies the commission of cognisable offenses. It does not provide adequate reasons for overturning the decision of the police. The level of evidence required and presented by the court to initiate proceedings is very weak and sets a bad precedent.”
While agreeing that the absence of a mention of a specific ‘offensive tweet’ was ‘peculiar,’ Apar Gupta, a lawyer who works on cyber issues, saw the order as a standard practice. “The breadth of the order is limited to directing the police to register an FIR. This is a fairly standard legal practice, and there is no material infirmity with the order.”
Pavan Duggal, a cyber law expert, felt that the case reflected the larger problem with Section 66 (A), which ‘automatically comes into force’ in such cases. “This is a defective law which undermines the constitutional right to free speech by making annoyance and inconvenience grounds for restriction. But till it is struck down, repealed or amended, the lower courts will exercise discretion and apply it.” The Supreme Court is currently considering the constitutional validity of the provision.
Even as the government’s use of 66 (A) brought the law into prominence, there was now, according to Mr. Duggal, an increasing trend of private citizens using it. “The law has provided the instrumentality for fixing or targeting anyone on flimsy grounds.”
Shivam Vij, who is with the popular political group blog, kafila.org, agrees. “It cannot be the government’s case that politicians alone can use draconian Internet laws. Private individuals will also use them, even in their disputes with politicians. The government will reap what it has sown with its Internet vigilantism.”