The Supreme Court’s order releasing freelance journalist Prashant Kanojia, arrested for “defaming” Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, is a welcome development. The apex court has upheld the right to liberty, which is non-negotiable. The journalist was arrested after he shared, with his own mocking comment, a video on Twitter and Facebook where a woman is seen speaking to reporters of various media organisations outside Yogi Adityanath’s office, claiming that she had sent him a marriage proposal. There has been a disturbing trend across the country of the governments going after the dissenting voices and arresting people on flimsy grounds. Five people, including Kanojia, were arrested in two days in UP on charges of posting allegedly objectionable content online targeting the Chief Minister. The arrests sparked a huge debate on social media on freedom of expression. Similar arrests were made in West Bengal and Karnataka over social media posts allegedly defaming the respective Chief Ministers. Such actions reflect the high-handed and arbitrary approach of the governments and amounted to authoritarian misuse of laws. Instead of ordering arrests on flimsy grounds, the aggrieved politicians have the option of filing a civil defamation suit. In West Bengal, a woman was jailed last month for sharing a meme of Mamata Banerjee. In Odisha, an analyst spent two weeks in jail for a humorous comment about an ancient monument. This has become an epidemic which, if left unchecked, will destroy press freedom and free speech in India.
It is time the judiciary suggested some steps that can serve as an effective deterrent to such blatant abuse of the law. Equating criticism of any Chief Minister with disturbing law and order is contrary to freedom of expression in a democracy. There is also a need for revisiting the provisions of the defamation law in the wake of routine misuse of its provisions by the police. Criminal defamation has often been used to curb people’s freedom of speech and expression. It must be remembered that the colonial rulers had introduced this provision to penalise the voices of dissent, primarily targeting the national movement. Its continuance in Indian law, particularly when it is routinely misused to curb freedom, defeats the very idea of free speech and opinion that forms the foundation of the Constitution. Criminal defamation should not be allowed to be an instrument in the hands of the state, especially when the Code of Criminal Procedure gives public servants an unfair advantage by allowing the state’s prosecutors to stand in for them when they claim to have been defamed by the media or political opponents. Defamatory acts that may harm public order are covered by certain IPC sections. Criminal defamation does not serve any overarching public interest.