Journalist Prashant Kanojia was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police in Delhi on Saturday. His alleged crime? He had shared a video on social media about Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath. In the clip, a woman claims she has been having video calls with Adityanath for a year and wanted to know if the monk-politician was willing to spend his life with her.
A few hours later, the Uttar Pradesh police arrested the head and editor of a news channel called Nation Live for airing the woman’s views.
Kanojia was booked under Section 500 (defamation) of the Indian Penal Code, and Section 66 of the Information Technology Act (“fraudulently/dishonestly damaging a computer system”).
This overreaction seems to be an attempt by the authorities to safeguard Adityanath’s image as a monk who has taken a vow of life-long celibacy.
Of course, if the women’s claim is false, Adityanath is free to pursue legal remedies in his capacity as a private citizen. But to deploy the Uttar Pradesh police to protect his persona is a blatant misuse of government machinery. The state administration, after all, is not supposed to act as the chief minister’s personal public relations team.
The abuse of power does not end here. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that the women’s claims are false, the sections used to jail Kanojia have been applied illegally, as noted by Live Law. Defamation under Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code is a non-cognisable offence, which means that the police cannot act on it directly. Instead, action can be taken only after Adityanath has filed a private complaint with a magistrate.
Moreover, the application of Section 66 of the Information Technology Act is absurd. It is clear that Kanojia could not have succeeded in “damaging a computer system” with a tweet, no matter how inaccurate.
Unfortunately, this kind of abuse of power is not particularly new in India. The country has always had a free speech problem. It ranks 138 out of 180 countries on press freedom, just one place ahead of Pakistan. Books, movies and social media content are heavily policed under strict speech laws.
However, one thing has changed of late: the recently concluded general elections have ensured one of the highest concentrations of political power in independent India under an ascendant Bharatiya Janata Party. This brings about new dangers to civil liberties such as free speech, given that ruling politicians, encouraged by the sizable democratic mandate, could be emboldened to misuse executive power.
In previous cases of civil liberties being threatened by governments, other centres of power have come forward to protect Indian democracy. For instance in May, when a BJP worker was arrested for morphing the image of West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, the Supreme Court intervened swiftly. Last year, the Odisha government was forced to release a defence analyst accused of hurting the religious sentiments of the people of the state after an insistent campaign against his arrest on social media as well as in the press.
Now, more than ever, these institutions need to start pushing back against the government to prevent the blatant misuse of power that is evident in the arrest of journalists for simply sharing a video.