Delhi govt’s move to let the public flag hate speech and take action on it based on expert reports is commendable
Earlier this month, the Delhi government’s Peace and Harmony committee, constituted in response to the riots that swept the north-eastern part of the city late-February, announced that sharing hate messages and/or fake messages on social media and messaging platforms would be punishable with three years’ imprisonment. Now, members of the public can alert the government of the circulation of provocative messages and fake news—a WhatsApp number, and an email ID were announced specifically for this purpose. The complaints would then be scrutinised by a nine-member panel, comprising legal and IT experts as well as senior leaders, and then forwarded to the police for criminal prosecutions. Should a flagged complaint, after preliminary enquiry, be found actionable and result in an FIR being filed, the complainant would receive a Rs 10,000 reward.
Given the menace that fake news has become, and the proportions to which incendiary speech/misinformation can blow up—even social media giants are trying to counter this—the criminalisation of hate speech can prove a deterrent. Including members of the public in stemming hate speech and information spread with mala fide intent makes the society responsible unto itself. As per an Indian Express report, the committee had received 7,732 complaints till Tuesday, of which it had scanned 2,110, finding 504 “inflammatory, provocative, and inflammatory in nature”, and made out a case for registration of an FIR in two cases. To some, this might sound like slow progress. But, it must be borne in mind that the definition of “hate speech” has always been nebulous, and the initiative could also, possibly, result in critics of religion/religious practice being labelled hate-speech deliverers—the government must ensure safeguards if it is to protect citizens’ right to free speech.