Posting On Social Media? Get Ready For Jail Term!

The pitfalls in social media writings, postings and sharings are far too many. A number of persons were arrested all over the world for postings that hurt, lampoon or criticize the people in power. The dismissal of former chief secretary of Andhra Pradesh IYR Krishna Rao from the chairmanship of Brahmin Corportation is part of this trend.
Representative Image

Madabhushi Sridhar

You write something adverse to rulers on Facebook only to get arrested or lose your position. This is not freedom of speech.

Eminent lawyer Fali S Nariman says:

“Freedom after speech – that is really what freedom of speech is all about. Never forget this. You are allowed to speak, speak as much as you like, but there is a fellow waiting there to nab you and put you in so you can’t speak again. That is the protection we are asking for.”

Former Andhra Pradesh Chief Secretary IYR Krishna Rao was removed from the post of chairman of the AP Brahmin Welfare Corporation and chairman of the AP Endowments Archakas and Other Employees Welfare Trust. Unstated reason is that he made comments adverse to TDP Government on Facebook. “Today, prior to my removal, some NRIs said some of my posts on Facebook were against the government. I answered, ‘Why do you bother? My posts are addressed to the government. Let it respond. I will explain the reasons for my post.’ The government has not given me a chance to explain….On April 22 police arrested a person, Ravi Kiran, for posting some political satires. I felt very bad and opposed the arrest. Are we in a democracy or in a fascist state to curtail freedom of speech? Facebook is a platform to express ourselves,” said Krishna Rao at a press conference addressed at Press Club in Hyderbad on the same day he was sacked unceremoniously.

Is it a crime to criticize government? Passing defamatory comments could be a crime or civil wrong, but making adverse remarks or critical analysis of attitude of government is not an offence but part of freedom of press. Facebook or social media is just a different platform similar to print or electronic media. Strength of freedom cannot get diluted with change of mode of expression. Legal threat to free speech was Section 66A of Information Technology Act, 2000, as amended in 2008. It says: 66A. Punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service, etc: Any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device,—(a) any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or (b) any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will, persistently by making use of such computer resource or a communication device, (c) any electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.

In March 2015, Section 66 A was scrapped. The Supreme Court had said that “Section 66A is so widely cast that virtually any opinion on any subject would be covered by it, as any serious opinion dissenting with the mores of the day would be caught within its net. Such is the reach of the section and if it is to withstand the test of constitutionality, the chilling effect of free speech would be total.” After some time the Government officers were quoted to bring S 66A in a different form.

The Supreme Court on August 7, 2015 observed that there is a necessity for a new law that will regulate social media in order to curb defamatory messages circulated online. In response to senior advocate L. Nageswara Rao’s petition saying that a message about him being involved in a case of Section 376 of IPC, i.e. rape was circulated on WhatsApp. The bench also said that Parliament should bring a new law to reduce the misuse of social media. The bench said, “Section 66A was quashed because it was not properly drafted and was vague. We can ask Parliament to bring a new law. We have earlier also suggested to Parliament to enact a law on other issues and we can suggest it to pass a legislation on this issue also.” (the first post article)

Striking down of S 66A did not make any difference on the ground, as the critical netizens are put behind the bars.  In 2015 around 4154 cases were reported but only 155 ended as final report false. Total cases under investigation were 7572 and arrests were 5102.  In 61% of cases

police arrested the netizens.  Police were restrained from arresting four comedians for their AIB show, by the Bombay High Court. It said though the language used in show in Pune was vulgar it was not obscene.

Section 66E punishes for violation of privacy, 66F punishes cyber terrorism, and Section 67, 67A, 67B prescribed imprisonment for transmitting material that describes sexually explicit act in electronic form etc.  Section 69 gives powers to intercept and 69A empowered Government to direct blocking public access to an information through computer resource.  Apart from this, the penalties for defamation under IPC also work against social media writings.

Net Freedom in US

A writer Nicholas Demas on July 17, 2013, reported that several persons were arrested in US and other countries for posting false information on Facebook or twitter, some of them appeared to be terrorism related remarks.  If it is just false information, its circulation cannot attract any imprisonment.  It could be a wrong, which could be rejected by the people and cause the credibility loss for its originator.  If the comment has a tinge of terrorism or potential to cause insecurity, it could be an offence.

Some young children may make inappropriate comments. Some others may threaten to shoot up a school. The state has to take the later seriously.  With increasing terrorist threats and attacks state need to take care of those dangerous trends. Sinister intentions cannot be recognized or proved, but the expressions need to be probed.

Here are certain incidents of incarceration of netizens for their expressions. A 15-year-old Chicago teen was arrested and charged with felony after he posted on his Twitter that he would commit “mass murder” if George Zimmerman was found not guilty, which he later was.  A 19-year-old Justin Carter, who was thrown in jail for making a Facebook comment referring to shooting up a kindergarten. “I think I may shoot up a kindergarten… And watch the blood of the innocent rain down…And eat the beating heart of one of them.”

The 18-year-old High School student, Cameron D’Ambrosio in Massachusetts was jailed after posting rap lyrics to Facebook suggesting that he wanted to outshine the actions of the Boston Marathon bombings. “I’m not in reality, So when u see me [bleeping] go insane and make the news, the paper, and the [bleeping] federal house of horror known as the white house, Don’t [bleeping] cry or be worried because all YOU people [bleeping] caused this [bleep]. [Bleep] a Boston bombing wait till u see the [bleep] I do, I may be famous rapping, and beat every murder charge that comes across me!” He was charged with “communicating terroristic threats.” His supporters said that it was merely an artistic expression. Later charges were dismissed.

Matt Woods was imprisoned for inappropriate comments regarding a 5-year-old, on Facebook  saying: “I woke up this morning in the back of a transit van with two beautiful little girls, I found April in a hopeless place.” and “Who in their right mind would abduct a ginger kid?” He claimed he was drunk during the time he made the post.

Paul Chambers was annoyed by cancellation of her flight after heavy snowfall at the Robin Hood Airport in the U.K. She took to Twitter, saying “You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”  About a week later, she was arrested under the Terrorism Act. When she disregarded a court order to delete an offensive Facebook post, a judge sentenced her to a 2-day jail stay for contempt of court.

The 18-year-old posted on the social media site about her reckless driving after she hit another car carrying 4 passengers. “My dumb (expletive) got a dui and I hit a car…lol,” she posted. She later apologized.  “I didn’t think ‘lol’ would put me in jail.”

Two friends Leigh Van Bryan & Emily Bunting were met by armed guards after landing at Los Angeles International Airport in January 2012. After Leigh Van Bryan tweeted another friend asking for some preparation before he was going to “go and destroy America,” the travel pair had their passports detained and was interrogated by Homeland security agents for hours. The confusion resulted from the term “destroy” being British slang for “party.” Bryan said that “the Homeland Security agents [treated] me like some kind of terrorist.” After spending the night in separate cells, the pair was  put on a plane back home (mic.com report).

In India, we are no different. Several netizens were arrested for their remarks on social media.

Ridiculing leaders

Mr. Abhishek Mishra (19) was arrested by Madhya Pradesh police for his social media posts attacking PM and CM on demonetization (Hindustan Times report on 29.11.2016). The police filed a FIR against him under the section 469 of the Indian Penal Code (forgery for harming reputation) and 66C of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (identity theft). His defence counsel, Ajay Mishra alleged that he was arrested for posting a newspaper clipping which showed the police had seized money from a BJP’s leader car in Hoshangabad district. However, police have charged him for fraudulently replacing the BJP leader’s photo with that of the chief minister. The cyber cell has seized Mishra’s laptop, dongle, mobile phone and other gadgets until the case is over. The Hindustan Times also reported earlier that a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minority cell in Morena district was arrested on November 25, “for allegedly posting a morphed photograph of Prime Minister Narendra Modi wearing a garland of shoes on a Whatsapp group.” (the wire report)

Ship-building professional Devu Chodankar, Goa,

was booked on May 2014 for posting a comment against PM on Facebook. Case was registered under sections 153(A) and 295(A) of the IPC and section 125 of the Representation of the People’s Act and 66(A) of the IT Act.

Objectionable writings

Seven people were arrested in a week for posting ‘objectionable’ things against Uttar Pradesh CM on social media. It says, Rahat Khan was arrested by Greater Noida Police for status update, while on March 21, a few hours after UP CM was sworn in, four were arrested for Facebook posts against CM. Prior to that an FIR was lodged against a Bengaluru woman for a Facebook post allegedly portraying CM in ‘poor light’. (Hindustan Times reported on March 24, 2017)  Seven such incidents where citizens were arrested for sharing posts against politicians were listed as follows:

Class XI student, Rampur, March 2015 was arrested for allegedly posting on Facebook “objectionable” comments attributed to Uttar Pradesh Minister Azam Khan. The youth was later released on bail and the SC sought explanation from UP Police on the circumstances leading to the arrest.

Police arrested CPI-M worker Rajeesh Kumar in Kerala, on Aug 2014 for posting “abusive” comments and photos on Facebook about PM depicting in a picture shown with an imprint of a shoe on his face. Police claimed one post could have sparked communal tensions.

Like or Share and get jailed

Two young girls from Palghar, Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan, were arrested in Mumbai, during November 2012 when one of them posted a question on her Facebook page questioning why the city was shut down for Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray’s funeral. One of them commented that the shutdown was out of fear, not respect. The second girl, her friend, was arrested for liking the post.  The cause was allegedly for “hurting religious sentiments” under section 295(a) of the IPC and section 66(a) of the IT Act. All charges were later quashed by a court.

A Puducherry businessman Ravi Srinivasan was arrested in October, 2012 for allegedly posting ‘offensive’ messages on Twitter about Congress leader P Chidambaram’s son Karti Chidambaram.

Indecent jokes

Air India cabin crew members Mayank Mohan Sharma and K V J Rao were arrested in May 2012 by the cyber crime cell of Mumbai police for allegedly posting indecent jokes about then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other politicians and for insulting the national flag. Both of them said they had merely shared information that was easily available on the internet. They spent 12 days in jail and were suspended till the charges against them were dropped some months later.

Wrongful arrest for lampooning cartoon

Jadavpur university professor Ambikesh Mahapatra and his neighbour Subrata Sengupta were arrested at Jadavpur April 2012, for allegedly circulating a cartoon that lampooned Mamta Banerjee. A 93-page charge sheet was filed. CM thought that the cartoon contained a coded message to kill her.  In March 2015, the Calcutta high court directed the West Bengal government to pay Rs 50,000 to the duo. (Hindustan Times Report)

Political Punch gets Police Punch

Inturi Ravi Kiran popular with his social media page ‘Political Punch’ was arrested for comments deriding the AP CM’s family, and mocking the TDP government’s decisions. (Outlook report)

In Borneo

Kuching Police have arrested on 26 February 2017 two social media users in Sibu  of Borneo (near Malaysia and Indonesia) for posting a status that was found to be completely false. The posting of photos and comments suggested that a group of student thugs were assembling illegally to commit violence.  Those photos were taken during a normal time and no such incident occurred. (Sunday Karen Bang report from Beorneo)

German law against hate speech

Germany made a new law, under which the social media companies would face steep fines for failing to remove “obviously illegal” content — including hate speech, defamation, and incitements to violence — within 24 hours. They would face an initial fine of €5 million, which could rise to €50 million. Web companies would have up to one week to decide on cases that are less clear cut.  Government has argued that it is necessary to curb the spread of hate speech, which is strictly regulated under German law.  This law does not make the netizens straight away liable for posting even hate speech. In the next step, that is if such post is not removed, the company will face the fine, not the individual.  Yet digital rights activists have broadly criticized the law, saying it would infringe on free speech, and that it gives tech companies disproportionate responsibility in determining the legality of online content.  (theverge.com report)

Racist or offensive remarks in UK

Newsome was arrested by West Yorkshire police for sending network message ‘that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing nature”. Newsome was jailed for six weeks, after pleading guilty.  Robert Riley, a 42-year-old former bus driver from Port Talbot in Wales, was sent to prison for eight weeks after his tweets about Maguire, in which he said he would have killed her colleagues as well, led to complaints and the unearthing of other offensive material on his Twitter feed, including racist insults. A teenager from Cardiff was also arrested and bailed.

In October 2012 Matthew Woods, 19, was jailed for three months for posting sexually explicit comments about the abducted child April Jones. Also in 2012 Azhar Ahmed was prosecuted for a post made two days after six British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, in which he wrote that “all soldiers should die and go to hell”, and biology student Liam Stacey was jailed for two months for racist tweets sent after footballer Fabrice Muamba suffered a heart attack – a sentence criticised by European human rights commissioner Thomas Hammarberg.  Writer and campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez faced a campaign of harassment and violent threats on Twitter, for which two people were jailed. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian.  (theguardian.com report)

Worse than Censorship

Censorship of print media news and articles was serious limitation during Emergency period. But arresting at early hours for posting on social media is more than Emergency assaults on press freedom.  Media is organized and there are institutions and associations to protest and fight against the assaults. The netizens are widespread but sparsely located. Hence they became easy targets for the ruling forces. An adverse remark on print and electronic media is to some extent being tolerated but even liking or sharing an adverse remark is being retaliated with incarceration.

Social media offers individuals and non-journalists or those who are not connected with corporate media houses enormous space for their voluntary expression. It reaches millions in minutes through twitter or Facebook. The political parties realized the potential of social media and started using it in a big way. An organised political party uses its wings and worker-force to spread messages on social media, which is believed to be true. Lot of fake news on this platform has more effect than the breaking news on tv channels. Social media messages have far reaching impact than any other media.  Any attempt to limit the social media expression is a serious attack on civil rights of citizens and also netizens.

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