Kerala governor Arif Mohammed Khan cleared a state government ordinance amending the Police Act to allow any person or the authorities to file a case over social media posts that are intimidating, insulting or defamatory, a move the administration said is meant to counter cyber bullying but critics have called it a threat to free speech and media freedom.

At present, defamation cases under Section 499 and 500 of Indian Penal Code can only be filed by a person who has been targeted. Kerala’s new law will allow any third person or a police officer to file complaint.

Anyone producing, publishing or disseminating such content on social media will face a prison term of up to five years or a fine of up to Rs10,000 or both.

The Governor, who returned to the official residence recently after recovering from Covid-19, signed the ordinance, according to an official at Raj Bhavan who asked not to be named.

“We agree cyber bullying of women and children should be contained at any cost. But in the guise of fighting cyber crime, the government may target journalists who are exposing many misdeeds. Some of the wordings in the ordinance buttress our fear," said opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala.

But the government defended its position saying existing laws were not effective in dealing with such crimes. It also pointed out that the High Court had directed the state chief secretary and the director general of police (DGP) in May to initiate effective steps to curtail hate speech and bullying in social media.

“Apprehension in this regard is ill-founded. Our only aim is to curb cyber attacks that are posing a major threat to private life," said state law minister A K Balan. But the opposition wasn’t convinced.

The government decided to fast-track the ordinance after three women activists, including dubbing artist Bhagyalakshmi, assaulted Youtuber Vijay P Nair last month for allegedly derogatory comments that he made on video.

The High Court pulled up the activists for taking law into their hands, but they contended that they filed a complaint and police failed to take any action.

Cyber and legal experts said the law could lead to serious misuse. “It will do more harm than any good. No blogger, online media person or cyber activist can write on any topic. It can be used to settle scores. Intention is good, but implementation will be disastrous," said legal expert and cyber activist Jiyas Jamal.

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