Bengaluru: Kerala journalists are viewing the Kerala Police Act Amendment ordinance as a new attempt to gag the media, saying the new legality gives the state legal grounds to object to reports the ruling party may deem unfavourable.
Governor Arif Mohammed Khan Saturday signed the ordinance seeking an amendment to the Kerala Police Act to control online bullying and virtual abuse of women and children.
“The ordinance only helps the police to track unwanted elements on social media,” a senior official attached to the Chief Minister’s media cell told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity.
Reading the fine print
According to a press release issued by CM Pinarayi Vijayan on 21 October, the Kerala cabinet recommended to the Governor the promulgation of the ordinance to insert Section 118 (A) into the Act.
The state government recommendation to amend the police act says that if the government finds any media platform including social media producing, publishing or propagating content that could threaten, insult or harm an individual, they will be punished with a fine of Rs 10,000, imprisonment of five years or both.
While state officials said this would give law enforcers more teeth to prosecute the guilty, media houses said the law could be used to gag them.
“The government has been planning to take control of the media in the disguise of controlling cyber bullying. However, the amendment doesn’t specifically mention cyber bullying but ‘mass media’. This means, all media fall under this purview,” K.P. Reji, Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ) president, told ThePrint.
The Pinarayi Vijayan cabinet had in October decided to amend the Act after a group of women activists confronted and attacked a video blogger for broadcasting derogatory videos against them. The women claimed they took matters into their own hands and tracked down the blogger after no action was taken despite filing police complaints.
A video of the group’s attack of the blogger was shared on social media, following which the Kerala government felt there was a need to control such incidents.
‘Need clarity on what law means’
The KUWJ said the ordinance was an attempt to muzzle the media and categorise as a legal violation any news report that could be unfavourable to the ruling dispensation.
“We submitted a memorandum to the Governor as well as the CMO (Chief Minister’s Office) asking that the ordinance should not be signed and there should be clarity whether the media will be curbed,” Reji said.
The senior official with the CM’s media cell said that media houses were “misrepresenting the ordinance”, which is meant to curb bullying of women and children online. The amendment is only about making intimidation, defamation or insulting persons using social media a punishable offence.
“Freedom of speech is a fundamental right mentioned in the Constitution and there has been no attempt to muzzle the media,” the official added.
On 16 November, CM Vijayan announced that his government planned to set up a fact-check team to verify reports that appear in the media and ensure that articles published are not fabricated.
Vijayan, who was speaking at a seminar organised by the Kerala Media Academy, said the move would help prevent fake news. However, journalists raised objections, claiming it was an attempt to gag the media.
Vijayan countered the objections on the grounds that many media houses reported unverified facts, half-truths or fabricated stories. He even accused the media of being biased and not attempting to confirm facts before reporting.
To exemplify his point, Vijayan cited that the regular press conferences held by the CM and health ministry were being criticised as a public relation exercise.
Kerala govt’s track record
This isn’t the first time Vijayan’s government has been accused of attempts to gag the media. In 2018, the CM had stopped regular cabinet briefings and said the meeting highlights would be shared by the state public relation department (PRD).
He also issued instructions to ministers saying media interactions could only take place after approval by the PRD.
The CMO issued a circular in December 2018 that mandated taking permission from the PRD for holding press meets on the grounds that the media creates “unnecessary crowd” at public places.
In 2017, Vijayan, who was chairing a bilateral meeting between the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the BJP, instructed the management at the hotel where the meeting took place to not allow the media. When the media eventually managed to get in, the CMO summoned the hotel manager, seeking a written explanation.
The Vijayan government, though, had not only faced criticism in the issue from the media, but also from the Congress and BJP.