Amnesty International India and the Centre for Internet and Society have joined forces to ask India's Prime Minister and Minister for Communications and IT to uphold the right of the people to freedom of expression...both on and off the Internet.
Minister for Communications and Information Technology
Government of India
In recent months, the Government of India has targeted individuals numerous times for exercising their constitutional right to free speech and expression on the Internet. In the name of preserving peace or protecting religious sentiments, authorities have detained or arrested people for the peaceful expression of their opinions and beliefs
The arrests of 21-year old Shaheen Dhada and her friend Renu Srinivasan in Maharashtra - for Facebook comments questioning a recent Mumbai bandh - are just the latest example of a government crackdown on online speech and freedom of expression.
In October, the Puducherry police arrested businessman Ravi Srinivasan for a Twitter post referring to allegations that the son of Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram was corrupt. A month earlier, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested in Mumbai for publishing a series of cartoons parodying India’s national symbols. In April, the Kolkata police arrested Professor Ambikesh Mahapatra for posting a cartoon critical of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
In all these cases, authorities relied partly on one law - Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 [amended in 2008]. This provision criminalizes online communication that is “grossly offensive or has menacing character”, as well as persistent sending of information, that is known by the sender to be false, to cause “annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will”.
Amnesty International India and the Centre for Internet and Society believe that Section 66A is not in line with the Constitution of India and internationally accepted standards on freedom of expression.
The Constitution of India guarantees in Article 19(1)(a) the right to freedom of speech and expression.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises the right to freedom of opinion and expression. A similar right to freedom of expression is guaranteed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which India is a state party. In June this year, the UN Human Rights Council affirmed - in a resolution endorsed by India – that Governments must ensure that freedom of expression is also protected online.
The ICCPR does allow for certain restrictions on the right to freedom of expression. However these must be demonstrably necessary and proportional for specific public interests or the rights of others. Restrictions should be precisely defined to guard against over-broad or abusive application.
Amnesty International India and the Centre for Internet and Society believe that Section 66A is imprecise and over-broad. Some restrictions dealing with information of menacing character or for purposes of criminal intimidation may reflect recognizably criminal offences. However other restrictions – including on sending information that is grossly offensive or causes annoyance and inconvenience, etc – are inconsistent with the international human rights law and standards on freedom of expression.
The Internet should be a force for political freedom, not repression. People have the right to seek and receive information and to express their peaceful beliefs without fear, or interference. But under Section 66A, even a peaceful posting could lead to a prison sentence of up to three years.
Two writ petitions have already been filed challenging the constitutionality of the section. In solidarity and support of these petitioners, Amnesty International and the Centre for Internet and Society call on the Government of India to:
(a) Review Section 66A of the IT Act and bring it in line with international human rights law standards on freedom of expression; and
(b) Lay down clear and comprehensive explanations of the restrictions on free speech either in the IT Act or in the IT Rules in order to prevent the abuse of the provision by various state law enforcement officials; the explanations should be framed after public consultation.
We ask that you highlight these points during your meeting on 29 November convened to discuss the arrests of Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan.