Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan has signed into law an ordinance passed by the Left Democratic Front government to amend the Kerala Police Act to punish those found guilty of spreading offensive and threatening social media posts, The Indian Express reported.

Under the amendment that incorporates a new section, 118-A, a person found creating or sending content that is offensive or intended to offend or threaten another person may face three years in prison, a fine of Rs 10,000, or both.

The amended law also gives the police power to take suo moto action in such cases, reported NDTV. Unidentified officials told the news channel that the new legislation protects women and children amid a surge in hate speech and cyber-bullying. They said that such attacks can be a threat to the physical and mental safety of those targeted.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has also claimed that the decision was based on the rising incidents of abuse on social media. The Kerala government had earlier said that the existing legal provisions were inadequate amid a rise in fake propaganda and hate speech since the outbreak of the coronavirus. However, many people, including opposition parties, have expressed concern over the amendment.

Criticisms against amendment

Kerala-based advocate Anoop Kumaran said he would move the High Court against the ordinance. “The government claims that Section 118(A) is meant to protect people, particularly women, from social media abuse,” he said. “But in reality, the new law would be used by the authorities and government against those who criticise them.” Kumaran had in 2015 moved the Supreme Court against another section, 118(D) of the Kerala Police Act.

The Supreme Court had struck down Section 118 (D), declaring it unconstitutional for violating the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression. After the Supreme Court repealed the section as well as Section 66-A of the Information Technology Act, the LDF government argued that the Centre has not introduced any other legal framework to replace them. “In this scenario, the police are unable to deal effectively with crimes committed through social media,” the government claimed.

Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram also expressed concern over the new legislation. “Shocked by the law made by the LDF government of Kerala making a so-called ‘offensive’ post on social media punishable by 5 years in prison,” he said in a tweet. “Also shocked by the attempt to implicate Mr Ramesh Chennithala, LOP [leader of opposition], in a case where the investigation agency had filed a closure report FOUR times.”

He also wondered how Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury would “defend these atrocious decisions”. The LDF government comprises the CPI (M), Communist Party of India and other smaller parties.

The CPI had also expressed concern when the Kerala government recommended the addition of Section 118 (A).

Amit Malviya, the in-charge of Bharatiya Janata Party’s information technology cell, said that the new law will kill free speech, threaten press freedom and give more power to the police.