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Arrests over “objectionable content” on Facebook back despite Sec 66A being scrapped

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In two separate incidents, eight persons in Uttar Pradesh were arrested over posting “objectionable content” on social networking website Facebook last week.

The Times of India reports that seven people were arrested in Bahraich district as one Vipul Singh had posted “objectionable content”  and the others had liked and commented on the same. They were arrested  following an FIR filed by supporters of the Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) and were booked under the sections 153B, 295A, 504 of the Indian Penal Code. The above sections deal with hate speech in the country as they sought to promote “disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities.”

The report further states that police would also consider invoking the National Security Act (NSA) would be invoked against people accused of spreading communal tension and added that guidelines had been sought from the state government for invoking NSA in earlier cases.

Meanwhile in Sambhal district, the Press Trust of India reports one Navneet Varshney was arrested for sharing “objectionable” post on social networking site Facebook against Samajwadi Party leader Shafiqur Rehman Burq. Again, he was booked under the sections 153 A, 505, and 504 of the IPC which deals with hate speech.

It’s worth noting that in earlier in March this year, a class 12 student was arrested in Uttar Pradesh for commenting against Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan. The student was booked under Sections 153A , 504 and 505 of the IPC and Secton 66A of the IT Act. Later in April, the Section 66A charge was dropped following the  Supreme Court’s decision that it was unconstitutional. However, proceedings under the other charges remained against the student.

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Our take

We had mentioned earlier that the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) was seriously considering bringing back Section 66A of the IT Act, 2008 albeit in a slightly different avatar. However, it seems that leaders in Uttar Pradesh have found a workaround over Section 66A and have used the existing laws on hate speech and extended it to social networks as well.

According to the Section 153A of the IPC:

Whoever (a) by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, promotes or attempts to promote, on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, or (b) commits any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, and which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquility, . . . shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.

Perhaps the hate speech laws of the IPC need to be amended so as to ensure that they are not abused by those in power. After all, ‘liking’ a post on Facebook is not the same as writing, speaking hate speech, it is merely endorsing a point of view. Also, often on social networks, people share memes whose origin cannot be traced and sharing the post does not mean that a person wrote it or created it.

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