The amendment to the Kerala Police Act "will in no way be used against free speech or impartial journalism", Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said Sunday in the face of an avalanche of criticism against a "draconian" ordinance the opposition alleges could be used to muzzle free speech, target the media and silence critics of the government.
The ordinance, signed by Governor Arif Mohammed Khan on Saturday, punishes those guilty of spreading content by any means (including social media) that is said to be derogatory or defamatory. Punishments include three years jail time, a fine of Rs 10,000 or both.
Mr Vijayan said the state had a duty to protect individuals' liberty and dignity, but that no action would be taken against the media or critics who stay "within the limits of the Constitution".
"The new amendment will in no way be used against free speech or impartial journalism. Apprehensions to the contrary are unfounded," the Chief Minister's Office said.
"Along with ensuring freedom of press, the Government also has the responsibility of upholding a citizen's individual freedom and his/her dignity, as enshrined in the Constitution. The popular idea that one's freedom ends where the other's nose begins needs to be respected. However, there have been instances of this idea being repeatedly violated," the CMO statement added.
Referring to "the use of personal likes, or dislikes, political or non-political interests... to unsettle the peaceful atmosphere of families... to settle scores", the Chief Minister said in his statement that such attacks did not fall under the category of journalism and were "personal vendetta".
Mr Vijayan said his government had "repeatedly received complaints against the misuse of social media, especially by certain online channels".
The opposition was swift to express its concern, with the Congress's Shashi Tharoor, the MP from Kerala's Thiruvananthapuram, called it "troubling" and pointing out that the ordinance was "so loosely drafted it could also be used against political opponents".
"This law can and will be challenged in the courts, because any political attack on social media against a party or "class of persons" (eg 'sanghis' or 'libtards') could attract its provisions. It must be revised to narrow its application to flagrant cases of abuse and threats only," he said.
2/2 This law can & will be challenged in the courts, because any political attack on social media against a party or "class of persons" (eg "Sanghis"or "libtards") could attract its provisions. It must be revised to narrow its application to flagrant cases of abuse& threats only.— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) November 22, 2020
Union Minister V Muraleedharan hit out at the "draconian" ordinance and said it threatened freedom of speech. In his tweet the minister from Kerala said the ordinance was a sign of the Pinarayi Vijayan government "loosing confidence".
"As the noose tightens around @CMOKerala on #Goldscam & #DrugsScandal, government is resorting to undemocratic means. The ordinance giving arbitrary powers to police to arrest anyone for expressing their opinion is draconian and goes against freedom of speech," he said.
Kerala BJP chief K Surendaran criticised the use of the police "as a tool of repression".
The controversy over the new amendment relates to what are widely seen as similarities to laws struck down by the Supreme Court - Section 66A of the IT Act and Section 118(d) of the Kerala Police Act.
The state had said the repeal of these laws left it with no alternative to "effectively (deal) with crimes".
Back in October, when the LDF government recommended the addition of this provision to the Kerala Police Act (2011), its ally, the Communist Party of India (CPI) expressed similar concerns.
Meanwhile, Kerala DGP Lokanath Behera has said that a SOP (standard operating procedure) will be prepared for cases to be filed under the amendment.
"This is to ensure the ordinance won't be misused," he was quoted by news agency ANI.
With input from ANI