In February 2019, in a village in Karnataka, a Muslim chicken shop owner bought a smartphone and scrolled through Facebook. A few weeks later, he, who was illiterate, was charged with sedition.
This was the time of the Balakot Strike by India against Pakistan post Pulwama attack. Like others who rushed to social media to hail the army, the 21-year-old too selected a picture of soldiers to post, captioned in English, which read “I stand with Pakistan Army,” which he couldn’t read. When he realised what the caption meant, he deleted the post in panic, but the screenshots spread through the village, “five minutes later, the police came to the shop and took me away. I told them repeatedly it was an error,” said the chicken shop owner.
He was charged under Section 124A (sedition) and section 153 (provocation with the intent to cause a riot) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. By evening, his chicken shop was burned down. His family was driven into debt. When he returned from jail, he was already a traitor. A report, by Article 14, states that Karnataka has more sedition based on social-media posts than any state and most are illegal.
Before we understand the contemporary aspect of sedition, let’s go back to history during the Post-independence era. Abolition of the sedition law was deliberated since the sole basis of democracy is citizens’ freedom to hold conversations, debate and criticise the government. Yet, the very controversial first amendment of the constitution in 1951 reimposed this law. This poorly defined law gives the government the right to suppress opinions that are against its ideals and values, quoting them as ‘inciting offence’ or ‘against the national interest’, without distinctly defining the acts that are “seditious”.
There have been numerous instances where past governments have misused sedition laws to stifle dissent. The Congress government in Bihar in 1962 charged Kedarnath of sedition. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court reprimanded the government and set rules to apply “Sedition” against anybody. “It is only when the words, written or spoken, etc., which have the pernicious tendency or intention of creating public disorder or disturbance of law and order that the law steps in to prevent such activities.”
Evidently, on June 25, 1975, when an Emergency was proclaimed due to internal unrest without sufficient justification, it was done so by the then prime minister Indra Gandhi. She undermined democracy during the Emergency and restricted press freedom in addition to the civil and constitutional rights of the populace. On February 11, 1976, the Prevention of Publication of Objectionable Matters Act of 1976 likewise went into effect.
Similarly, The IT Act of 2000 was amended to add Section 66A, which outlined the penalties for delivering inflammatory messages via communication services. However, the Supreme Court, in 2015, declared this to be unconstitutional.
While Congress too used the Sedition Law to keep check on the press, the current government has not left any stone unturned to regulate media in general and the internet in particular.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau report, out of the 10,938 Indians charged with sedition since 2010, 65 per cent were arrested after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into power in 2014. In some circumstances, seditious expressions could be as simple as waving posters or as complex as raising slogans or posting on social media. For example, three Kashmiri students were accused of sedition in Agra in October of last year for allegedly “posting happy messages” on social media following Pakistan’s victory over India in a T20 cricket match.
In February 2021, then IT, Law, and Justice Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad announced new rules for digital media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and independent media websites like The Wire and The Quint. The new rules allow the government to remove “objectionable” online content. It also limits people’s right to privacy on social media and encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp. This practically brings everything that happens online under the government’s surveillance, further endangering the conditions for press freedom.
When the print and broadcast media are imperilled by increasing pressure either from the political parties or from big businesses, the government has decided to clamp down on one of the few remaining avenues for constructive journalism in the country.
In an editorial in The Hindu noted that even mainstream media, which is rarely critical of the government, expressed concern about the new rules. It called them “a wolf in watchdog’s clothing” and “deeply unsettling”. The editorial warned that they “will end up giving the government a good deal of leverage over online news publishers and intermediaries.”
The government has claimed that the new rules level the playing field by regulating internet content in the same way that newspapers, television, and movies are regulated. The press release to announce the guidelines term the measures as “progressive” and “liberal”. “We want them to be more responsible, more accountable,” said Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister of Information Technology.
Although it is termed self-regulation, the fact that such regulatory measures exist and governments who can potentially use them is not a regulation but censorship. Siddharth Varadarajan, Editor, The Wire said that these rules are an “oppressive architecture” that grants the government “powers that are antithetical to the constitutional guarantee of press freedom” by granting them the ability to erase or edit content.
A recent example is the massive farmers’ protests that have used social media, such as Twitter, as a crucial organising and information tool. In response, the government has attempted to exert control over the platforms, such as by ordering Twitter to delete hundreds of accounts critical of the government and threatening Twitter employees with arrest if they do not comply.
Chief Justice of India, N.V. Ramana, criticised the law in July 2021 while hearing arguments from the Editors Guild of India. He said, “It restricts freedom. It was used against Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi. Do we still need this law after 75 years of independence?”
The government through these new digital media rules is trying to alter the way radically how the citizens get information and how they share it. The inexplicit provisions of these laws and this entire culture of putting forward the ‘national interest’ are somewhat vague to me. For the government national interest is not going against it and for the digital media platforms, it is about speaking truth to power and demanding better from the people in power as it is vital for our democracy. And as vigilant citizens of this country, it doesn’t only become our responsibility, but also our right to assert the freedom that the constitution has guaranteed us. There’s still a flicker of hope left for journalism to sustain in our country, and we can’t let it succumb to the government’s oppression. Reforms are needed and they start with us. If we do not fight this and support digital independent media platforms, then all these laws and so-called regulations by the government can fundamentally alter how news publishers operate over the internet and gravely jeopardise media freedom in India.