A sweeping amendment to the Kerala Police Act 2011, aimed at giving local law enforcement more bite to fight defamation, sparked an uproar among opposition parties, journalistic bodies and public officials. civil rights activists, seeing a threat to press freedom and freedom of expression in Kerala.
The governor of Kerala, Arif Muhammad Khan, recently signed an ordinance amending the law to give the police more power to prosecute people who exploit various communication platforms to slander their fellow citizens.
The ordinance introduced a new provision, Article 118-A, into the law. The amendment proposes three years in prison and a fine of up to ₹ 10,000 for those found guilty of producing, posting or disseminating derogatory content by any means of communication to intimidate, insult or defame any person.
Congress reacted strongly to this decision. Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala said the amendment would reverse the course of media freedom, muzzle free speech and undermine civil liberties.
Former Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram tweeted: “Shocked by the law of the Democratic Left Front [LDF] government of Kerala publishing so-called “ offensive ” post on social media [three] years in prison “.
KPCC chairman Mullapally Ramachandran said the new law gives law enforcement wide latitude to clamp down on free speech and browbeat critics, journalists and commentators are complying.
Former Kerala Legal Secretary BG Harindranath said the amendment gave police unfettered power to review published and broadcast content and record cases, even in the absence of a specific complaint. The new law made defamation a punishable offense.
The amendment resuscitated the “same legal vices” that the Supreme Court had “destroyed” by deleting Article 66 A of the Information Technology Act.
“Giving the police the power to assess mental health injuries, loss of reputation and such matters as a result of the dissemination of information would lead to widespread abuse.” Amendment could restrict freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19  of the Constitution, ”he said.
IUML State Secretary General KPA Majeed criticized the move as an attempt to muzzle the press. Various journalists’ unions echoed a similar sentiment.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the amendment targeted defamatory social media posts and online content. He did not seek to curb reporting, political satire, opinion, free speech, impartial journalism or commentary.
The State Government has repeatedly received complaints against the widespread misuse of social media, in particular through specific online channels, to launch “inhuman and vile cyber attacks” against individuals and their families under the guise of journalism. However, the ordinance did not specifically mention social media posts.
The CM said such attacks smacked of personal vendetta and had tragic consequences for the victims, including suicide. The government has a responsibility to defend the freedom and dignity of citizens.
Mr. Vijayan said that the “traditional media” functioned mainly within the limits of the law. However, “some” online channels do not respect the law and violate the rights of others with impunity.
Such outlets have “created an atmosphere of anarchy which could alter the social order, which cannot be allowed”, declared the CM. The government was open to “creative opinions and suggestions” regarding the amendment, he said.