The arrest of a Puducherry activist for alleging on Twitter that the Union Finance Minister’s son had “amassed more wealth than Vadra” is a disturbing reminder that the Information Technology Act is serving as a convenient tool to curb free speech. What is particularly shocking is that it took only an email complaint from Karti Chidambaram for a posse of policemen to practically drag the ‘India Against Corruption’ volunteer out of bed at dawn and place him under arrest. This high-handed action is the latest in a series, carried out under Section 66A of the IT Act, with the objective of stopping critical views from circulating in electronic form. This is just plain censorship and must be strongly condemned and opposed. In the realm of law, it is unlikely that this particular provision of the Act, introduced through an amendment in 2008, can pass muster on its constitutionality. It is a bad piece of legislative work, decidedly vague, poorly defined and lethal to well-tested free speech protections under Article 19 (1) (a). Moreover, to criminalise communication on the ground that it is “grossly offensive”, “of menacing character”, causing “annoyance” or “inconvenience” would be to unleash a regime of arbitrary enforcement — which is what the country has witnessed in recent months.
India has an established tradition of free speech and judicial interpretations of fundamental rights should serve all media forms equally well. It is inconceivable that journalists would be summarily jailed for printing or broadcasting the many allegations that people in public life routinely make. Also, it must be emphasised that defamation — which is what Karti Chidambaram might plausibly accuse the IAC activist of indulging in — is essentially a civil matter. Moreover, the law is clear on due process, which involves the serving of notices, opportunity to reply, and institution of legal proceedings. Any argument that the rapidly growing online media must be treated differently deserves to be dismissed. Unfortunately, even the public outcry over the arrest of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in Mumbai and Professor Ambikesh Mahapatra of Jadavpur University along with his neighbour, for publishing or circulating materials critical of influential people in electronic form, has not persuaded the Centre to conduct a review of the IT law. This is so, in spite of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission finding the police guilty of harassing the two individuals in Bengal and ordering compensation. The entire IT Act needs a multi-stakeholder review, now that it is the anti-free speech weapon of choice.