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Paatal Lok: Punjab & Haryana High Court issues notice on suit to censor web series

The Punjab and Haryana High Court issued notice on Monday in a lawsuit to take down the series Paatal Lok from Amazon Prime Video, and more broadly, to censor web series. The petition, filed by lawyer Gurdeepinder Singh Dhillon, asks the government to regulate web series, a demand that is also being adjudicated in other courts (more on that below). Dhillon had filed a police complaint to get the show taken down on May 24. We have reached out to Amazon for comment.

Netflix, ALT Balaji, Sony Liv, Voot, Hotstar, MX Player, and ZEE5 have also been impleaded in this case.

Petitioner’s arguments

  • Derogatory to Sikhs: The petition argues that the way Sikhs are depicted in the show — committing murder, gang rape, and using casteist slurs — “has the effect of creating enmity by provoking feelings of hatred against a particular community, in other communities”.
  • Violation of Section 67 of IT Act: In addition to what the petition describes as “violent, vulgar, distorted, anti-social, illegal and minority oppressing content”, the petition also argues that scenes in Paatal Lok that depict sexual assault violate Section 67 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 — which gives the government broad powers to punish content that depicts “sexually explicit act[s], etc.”
  • Indecent representation of women: The petition also argues that a gang rape scene in the show’s third episode violates the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986. That Act was amended in 2013 to include digital media but also included an exception for content “in the interest of science, literature, art or learning or other objects of general concern”. Dhillon argues that since the censor board did not clear Paatal Lok, the show defies the IRWP Act. The petition also says that the show violates Section 298 of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits “uttering words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings of any person”, and Section 153A, which prohibits “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc.”
  • Choice to not watch content ‘basically flawed’: Dhillon says that streaming services’ argument that content is provided on-demand and viewers can choose not to watch it is “basically flawed” as “this choice is also given in case the person goes to cinema hall to watch films that duly submit their content to regulation by statutory censors and certification boards”.

Repeated petitions to censor web series in Indian courts

Petitions to censor web series are not a new demand in Indian courts.

  • In February 2019, the Delhi High Court dismissed a petition which demanded that the government create a grievance mechanism for content complaints to regulate streaming services.
  • In 2018, Nikhil Bhalla, a Congress party lawyer had initially wanted Netflix to edit out a reference to late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, but later amended his petition at the Delhi High Court to demand regulation of streaming services. He was also turned away last April by the court, which cited the Justice for Rights judgement. In Bhalla’s case, the government filed an affidavit saying that it already had legal authority to regulate online content, and said it did not support the creation of newer frameworks to regulate streaming services.
  • The Karnataka High Court rejected a similar petition in August 2019.
  • More recently, the Delhi High Court refused to grant a stay on the Netflix show Hasmukh.
  • The Supreme Court is hearing an appeal of one of the Delhi High Court cases, filed by Justice for Rights Foundation (read our interview with the petitioner), and the next hearing on that case is tentatively scheduled for July.

Of late, the government has pushed streaming services to develop their own self-regulatory body for streaming services. This process has been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as disagreement within the Internet and Mobile Association of India, whose members are split on the creation of a Digital Content Complaints Committee that would have powers to penalise streaming services; the committee is now trying to find common ground on the issue to proceed.

Read: Dhillon’s Petition

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

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