When 66A is scrapped, thank the free press

  • Prasanto K Roy
  • |
  • Updated: Nov 29, 2012 13:02 IST

In a column in Hindustan Times on November 28, 2012, investor Mahesh Murthy argued that the Indian IT Act's draconian section 66A was proof of our press not being free.

I suspect he was joking.

Section 66A is living proof of our free press.

First, because the violent reaction against the abuse of section 66A is a result of the free press - arguably, in overdrive.

Look at the reaction to the 66A arrests. With wars, disasters, scams, deaths all over the world, our media was dominated by (and rightly so) by the news of the two girls arrested for a Facebook post. Because that arrest symbolised a dangerous trend: that free speech could be silenced so easily.

It's as a result of explosive anger across the country at Shaheen and Rinu's arrest, initiated on social media but mainly amplified through the media, that not only are the two free but there is unprecedented action against the police officials (and even the magistrate) who criminally abused their position to act against innocent citizens. Even Justice Katju's strong note to Maharashtra's chief minister had the impact it did because of its amplification by the media.

Second, 66A would not have been needed if India's press had been controlled.

There are two ways to view 66A. The charitable view is that it was simply poorly drafted, loosely worded, and then made more sweeping because of security considerations (as someone closely associated with the drafting told me).

And the uncharitable view, that it was created by devious ministers who wished to use it as an instrument of state suppression, as it has been in several recent cases, to silence dissidents by throwing a few of them into jail.

Take the worst-case scenario: the second view. Why would the government need a law like this, if the press was already controlled? The same laws that 'censor media' would by default extend to all information media, or could have been be so extended by a minor amendment.

Staying with the uncharitable view, the government felt it needed control over social media, because media wasn't controlled.

I don't subscribe to the uncharitable view. I believe 66A reflects stupidity and lack of foresight about an umbrella law that covers everything, rather than devious intent to throw citizens into jail.

Section 66A has also been used "fairly" - in as many as 50 cases in Delhi alone - to tackle online sexual and other harassment and other crimes. But like its wording, its implementation is arbitrary, depending on the judgment of the police official on the spot, and the profile of the complainant.

Yes, there are "holy cows" such as Mr Thackeray, about whom you would be careful what you write if you live in Mumbai. But in government, where are the holy cows? Politicans have gone to jail, thanks to mega-scams exposed in the media. In the free press. Major accusations have been made against both ruling and opposition politicians, accusations that would have instantly attracted the defamation laws in the UK.

66A has to go. It's a bad law. There are enough provisions in the Indian Penal Code to take care of the crimes attempted to be covered by 66A. If a specific crime is not covered, a separate, specific section is needed for that.

And it WILL go, if the media keeps up its pressure. And keeps on channelling the voices of strong dissent. Like that of Mahesh Murthy - which voice was carried in the mainstream media - thanks to India's free press.

Prasanto K Roy (@prasanto on Twitter) is editorial advisor at CyberMedia


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