Human Rights India’s top court halts prosecution for online offenses

India’s top court halts prosecution for online offenses

Some Church leaders upset as all criminal cases under a scrapped provision of Information Technology Act are to be dropped

Church officials in southern India have expressed concern over India’s Supreme Court asking to drop criminal cases filed under a controversial provision meant to ensure government control over social media.

Human rights groups including a Catholic priest though say the move will stop the government machinery from unfairly targeting its critics and innocent citizens.

The Supreme Court on Oct. 12 directed the federal and state governments to drop all cases initiated under the provision of section 66A of the Information Technology Act 2000, some seven years after it was scrapped.

The provision criminalized online communication that was “grossly offensive, menacing,” or the sender knew to be false “to cause annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will.”

A Bench led by Chief Justice of India U.U. Lalit directed “all Directors General of Police as well as Home Secretaries of the States and competent officers in Union Territories to instruct their entire police force in their respective States/Union Territories not to register any complaint of crime with respect to alleged violation of section 66A,” reported The Hindu newspaper.

Father Jacob G Palakkappilly, the spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops Council of Kerala, said the Church is concerned because the provision was helpful in checking social media campaigns maligning its leaders including bishops, priests and nuns.

He said Church officials had filed more than 1,200 police complaints against offensive social media posts, fake news, and untrue statements being circulated “deliberately aiming to tarnish the Church’s image.”

He said the government must “evolve an effective legal system” to curb social media activities that spread hate, violence and misunderstanding in society.

Father Michael Pulickal, secretary of Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council’s Commission for Social Harmony and Vigilance, told UCA News that the Church in Kerala has been facing the ire of social media platforms for quite some time.

“Now we do not know how to deal with all such cases,” he said.

Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash, a human rights activist based in the western Indian state of Gujarat, begged to differ and welcomed the court order.

“The top court order will put to an end the targeting of those airing opinions against government policies and programs, especially by law enforcing agencies,” Father Prakash said.

The Jesuit priest said though the law was originally meant to ensure the right to freedom of speech and expression, political parties in power misused it to target people who opposed their policies and actions.

“Mostly innocent citizens and activists who wanted the betterment of the society got trapped by the scrapped provision,” Father Prakash added.

The top court struck down the draconian provision in March 2015, but the federal and state governments continued to register cases under it against those who criticized them.

“No citizen could be prosecuted under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000,” the Supreme Court said in its latest order on a petition filed by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties.

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