In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre Paris, which sparked international marches for freedom of expression, the Indian government wants to prohibit online content that offends religious sentiment.
The government told the Supreme Court that while "extreme political views or contrary views and decent humor cannot be prohibited," it wanted to curb the circulation of online content that offends religious sentiments, the Press Trust of India news agency reported Tuesday.
The matter came up during a hearing in the Supreme Court on petitions seeking to scrap an Indian law that allows the police to arrest people for sending offensive messages. At the hearing, a high-ranking law officer for the Indian government presented documents that supported the prohibition of Facebook posts that had the potential of "outrageously and directly offending" religious sentiments.
From the Press Trust of India:
"The extreme political views or contrary views and decent humor cannot be prohibited," the Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Tushar Mehta, told a bench comprising Supreme Court justices.
The ASG, however, placed documents indicating that those posts which had the potential of "outrageously and directly offending" religious sentiments needed to be prohibited in the cyber world.
Mehta also wanted that the documents, placed in sealed cover, should be only for the perusal of the bench but when the opposite parties demanded them, he was asked by the judges to supply them the material.
The law officer then requested that the contents of the documents prohibited from posting in the social networking sites, should not be allowed to be circulated.
The Supreme Court is hearing petitions seeking to scrap Section 66A of the Information Technology Act which empowers the police to arrest people for posting "offensive messages" online.
According to Section 66A, "punishment for sending offensive messages through communication services" (such as a mobile phone or tablet) can extend up to three years imprisonment with a fine.
The petitions heard by the Supreme Court list incidents where police misused and abused the law to arrest people. One of the incidents cited in the petitions included the 2012 arrest of two Indian women for their Facebook activity. One of the arrested women, Shaheen Dada, had written a Facebook post saying that a city-wide shutdown enforced in Mumbai, India's financial capital, after the death of a divisive right-wing political leader, was "due to fear, not due to respect." Her friend, Renu Srinivas, who "liked" her post, was also arrested.
Their arrests caused activists and the media to criticize the abuse of the law and the government's attempt to curb freedom of expression.
The government has admitted to the abuse of power in some of the incidents and taken action against the police officers. However, the Supreme Court has stated that Section 66A does "not give any specific guidance on when to invoke it" and that even a person's "annoyance" could be used to invoke the law.
Tasneem Nashrulla is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Tasneem Nashrulla at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.