‘Objectionable’ social media posts against Nitish govt, officials now a crime in Bihar
A Bihar administrative order making it a cybercrime to post offensive, objectionable or critical content on social media against the state government, its ministers, officials, members of Parliament and members of the legislative assembly triggered a political row in the state on Friday, with critics describing it as an attempt to muzzle free speech.
The order was issued by additional director general (ADG) of the economic offences unit (EOU) Nayyar Husnain Khan on Thursday. Individuals and organisations who post such content will invite “appropriate action” under the law, the order said.
Khan said the EOU would lodge a first information report, after conducting an inquiry, under sections 409 (criminal breach of trust) , 420 (cheating and dishonesty) and 467 (forgery of valuable security) of the Indian Penal Code, and sections 64 (recovery of compensation), 65 (tampering with computer source documents) and 67 (publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form) of the Information Technology Act.
“The order seems to be an administrative direction which is vague and intended towards intimidation of the press and public that use social media demanding accountability of public administration,” said Apar Gupta, a trustee of the Internet Freedom Foundation.
As a political slugfest ensued, the police clarified on Friday that “constructive criticism” wouldn’t fall afoul of the directive.
The directive, which was sent to all principal secretaries and secretaries, cited an increasing number of complaints against the trend of posting slanderous and offensive content on social media platforms against government ministers, officials, MPs and MLAs by individuals as well as organised entities.
“Such acts are against the law and come under the category of cybercrime. It is imperative that appropriate action is taken against such acts and persons putting posts having offensive/ abusive tenor. So, it is requested to all that on information of any such offensive posts in the social media, the EOU is informed so that an inquiry is made and necessary action as per law is taken,” the order read.
Leader of the opposition in the assembly Tejashwi Prasad Yadav of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) attacked chief minister Nitish Kumar on Friday for the edict, comparing the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), leader to Hitler. Yadav challenged the chief minister to arrest him, accusing Kumar of promoting corruption, patronising criminals and also alleging that Bihar Police was involved in the illegal sale of liquor in a dry state. “I dare the chief minister to arrest me for (making) these accusations under the new directive,” he said. Congress leader and member of the legislative council (MLC) Premchand Mishra said the directive showed that the state government was scared of criticism and called it an unacceptable violation of the right to freedom of speech. RJD national spokesperson Manoj Jha said the directive illustrated how Bihar had become a “Talibani” state, adding that people of Bihar wouldn’t tolerate what he called a “Tuglaqi farman”, referring to Muhammad Bin Tughlaq, the sultan of Delhi from 1325 to 1351, who was known to act on whims and fancies.
“It means that the police would now put anybody in jail or harass a person if he is critical of the government or puts posts highlighting failure of the government. This is nothing but an attempt to suppress free speech and gag the people’s voice. This directive has to be withdrawn immediately,” Jha said.
The ruling JD(U) and its partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), defended the decision, claiming it would help in checking abusive social media posts against the government and its officials. “It is a good step as these days one can notice how people put objectionable and offensive posts against government officials and others on social media. This is wrong and needs to be checked,” said deputy chief minister Tarkishore Prasad of the BJP. JD(U) spokesperson Rajiv Ranjan said the directive would deter “unscrupulous elements” from using social media to post offensive content. Khan, the official who issued the directive, called it a routine order.
“We will act against any attempt to malign the image of any political leaders or government officials if the department receives a complaint from the victim. The EOU would lodge an FIR [first information report] after a proper inquiry,” he said.
Some Indian Police Service officers said the directive should have made the posting of offensive content targeting ordinary people a crime as well. “In a democracy, every person has a right to an opinion and express the same. If action could be taken against criticism of government officials and ministers, why not action be taken against critical posts against common man,” said a senior IPS officer on condition of anonymity.
Legal experts also questioned the purpose behind such an order. “This letter is wholly unwarranted and erroneous. It doesn’t clarify under which law it would be an offence justifying legal action,” said senior advocate Sashi Kant of the Patna high court.
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