Three cases of arrest of innocent citizens under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act had created public outrage all around for the misuse of the law to throttle free speech. The first case was from Maharashtra, where a young girl simply forwarded a post on the social media about lock down of Mumbai on the day of cremation of Shiv Sena Chief Balasaheb Thakare, the other a cartoon lampooning the political system in India and one cartoon lampooning the West Bengal Chief Minister Ms Mamata Banerji. Demands for amending the law rose by the day on the ground that censorship of the social media was unwelcome and penalizing citizens for exercising the right to freedom of thought and expression were against the letter and spirit of the constitution. The matter was pending consideration of the court, when the last provocation came from U.P. where a school student was arrested for forwarding a post on the FB which was critical of a minister in the state government. This provocation led to another petition to the court to consider the original petition without further delay. The court accepted the prayer, considered the matter and came to the conclusion that Sec 66A was indeed Unconstitutional.
Advocates of freedom of speech welcomed the verdict wholeheartedly. However, a section of “experts” reportedly felt that some restriction on this freedom was absolutely necessary. They seem to be batting for the wrong cause, as the constitution itself has provided for restrictions, but only if it is reasonable. What the IT Act imposed in the shape of Sec 66A was patently unreasonable restriction on freedom of speech. As the draconian provision was inserted in the Information Technology Act, it was the worst kind of an irony, since it tended to ignore the fast developments in the time of information revolution. Unless a million flowers bloom simultaneously, how can the world make progress? The bondage of the reader to the news industry has ended with the upsurge of the social media and the internet. Nobody cares for paid journalism or editorial pieces, which sound no different from advertisements. The power of the pen to misguide, misinform, mislead or the mike to incite trouble has come to great discipline because of the social media, which conveys the real news in real time and disseminates it instantly. Now the news industry can’t rule or misrule societies. It has put some sense in to the head of the monopolistic media houses. Today, their reliability is questionable in comparison to the social media. As there are any number of provisions to punish the offenders for misuse of freedom of speech, there was no need to make such a draconian law in this Century. We will examine the need for restrictions a bit later.
Before we proceed to examine the need for reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech, we need to examine the lack of ethics on the part of the press in the print as also electronic media. The media is expected to remain neutral, unbiased, objective and 100% honest in reporting news and giving views. My experience of the media in India for the last 65 years is that it has compromised with each passing year on all these cardinal principles. They have incited disaffection against the government, people on the basis of community, caste, region etc. and simply nurtured their business interests. In a nut shell, they stand charged of the same counts for which the social media is hauled up. It is not the social media alone that misuses or abuses the freedom of speech, it is the newspapers, television and radio also who have been doing it for long. They do it by clever application of language, adjectives, font size, headlines, prioritization, downright support or opposition to issues for entrenched interests. If that is the reality, why prescribe restrictions only to the social media by painting the internet as a powerful tool for mischief. If someone posts some offensive content, there will be many to expose it instantly. They will not be at the mercy of the editor or moderator and go on waiting endlessly to see it in print or on TV channels. It takes away the power from the editors and media owners and gives it to the people. The social media empowers the people, who know better than the governments and the news industry. It compels them to respect the truth and not fool the people. Like in all spheres in life, social media also has the genuine users and abusers. However, the abusers get marked in less time than that wasted on reading editorial articles or columnists’ cracks and thereafter getting detoxified to be able to make sound judgements about issues, people or events. There is an excess of muck online, but how long can it continue? When users ignore writers of such trash, they will stop taking liberties with the freedom of speech on the social media and hide themselves somewhere out of shame. The criminality of the authors of offensive post is flagged by them as most remain anonymous or are generally pseudonymous, but it doesn’t insulate them from the law. The law can always catch up with them. There is, thus, no need for provisions like those in Sec 66A of the IT Act.
But the need for implementation of the various laws dealing with mischief, nuisance and other offences hardly needs to be emphasized. Freedom of speech is the most valuable right under the constitution of India. It can’t be curtailed under any pretext, even though it can be ‘suspended’ under emergency provisions of the constitution for a limited or defined period. The Constitution was drafted under the chairmanship of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Who other than him could ever understand what it meant to have that right to freedom of speech, thought and expression? He, and the entire section of the Indian society, suffered for hundreds of years deprivation of that right, as silence was ordained for them. They were threatened with cutting off their tongue or pulling it out, especially in the feudal India. You appreciate the value of such a right only when you get over the fear of punishment for free speech. It is not even 60 years since the people came to have such a right to freedom of speech that the government thought of punishing the citizens for exercising this right! This was one piece of perverse legislation promulgated by the Congress led UPA government of Dr. Manmohan Singh. The same objective could have been achieved by bringing the offenders to book under the existing provisions of the penal laws. The catch is that there the aggrieved person would have also carried the liability of false complaint. Under Sec 66A, the politician could get anybody arrested with impunity as was clear from the cases cited in the opening paragraph of this post.
Nobody ever said that the right to freedom of speech is absolute or a license to say whatever one wants to say. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of mischief. Anybody converting freedom of speech to freedom of mischief has to face the consequences like criminal proceedings leading to arrest and civil liability to pay monetary damages or apology if the aggrieved party accepts the apology. The law exists for all these situations. It is because we already have very strong laws on the subject and our judiciary is not only independent but powerful that we never required the legal provisions of Sec 66A of the IT Act. It is in this context that the Supreme Court ruling declaring it unconstitutional has been welcomed across the board. In so far as offenders of the law are concerned, let them learn a few lessons in bona fide exercise of this right at their own cost and nobody is going to object to it. Some people learn their lessons through paying costs. That is why this site is titled “Vaaniyog”, meaning self-restraint in use of language. Language is a valuable asset, it can be acquired by great perseverance and hard work. But once somebody is able to master it, he grows from an ordinary to an extra-ordinary being. It is necessary that people are encouraged to use language as much as they can so that the individual gains by assimilating the treasure from the language and simultaneously enriches it by his own contribution. What better way to do that than using the social media responsibly to the maximum for the well- being of all of us on this planet?