Wrong Message: Bihar sets a poor example for other states by gagging social media

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January 26, 2021 6:15 AM

Last week, in a circular, Bihar government said that any social media posts against ministers, MLAs, MPs and government functionaries, if found “objectionable or inappropriate” will be considered a cybercrime.

Last week, in a circular, it said that any social media posts against ministers, MLAs, MPs and government functionaries, if found “objectionable or inappropriate” will be considered a cybercrime.The number of social network users in India is likely to jump to 447 million by 2023.

Given the backlash the Kerala government faced over its ordinance curbing free speech on social media—the government had wanted to penalise publishing or propagating of content that threatens, insults, or harms the reputation of, an individual—you would have thought no other state would repeat the same mistake. Indeed, the Kerala government had to withdraw the ordinance.

But the Bihar government seems to have failed to draw any lessons. Last week, in a circular, it said that any social media posts against ministers, MLAs, MPs and government functionaries, if found “objectionable or inappropriate” will be considered a cybercrime.

The order issued by ADG, Economic Offences Unit (EOU)—the nodal agency for handling cybercrime—to all the principal secretaries and secretary-ranked officials comes when there have been reports from various states on free-speech clamp-down attempts.

The bigger problem is that states seem deliberately oblivious of the repeated warnings from the Supreme Court and, indeed, the striking down of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act in the Shreya Singhal case.

The apex court, in the case, had opined that “a statute which is otherwise invalid as being unreasonable cannot be saved by its being administered in a reasonable manner”, and while striking down the Section had remarked that the language of the Section was too broad.

Yet, states seem to keep using such broad definitions to gag social media. Even if the Bihar order eventually does not stand judicial scrutiny, it shall certainly encourage copycat laws in other states.

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