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Indore government curbs COVID-19 related speech on social media

We missed this earlier: The District Magistrate of Indore on April 20 issued an order placing restrictions on comments and forwards related to coronavirus made on social media platforms. The order, which threatens prosecution for non-compliance, was issued under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPc), 1973.

“That the restriction is imposed on the comments made on Social Media platform related to breaking of Corona transmission chain in an unrestrained manner and if any such post will be forwarded/extended forward on social media, then the proceedings will be initiated for violation of The Epidemic Disease Act, 1897, National Disaster Management Act, 2005 and violation of this Order. If any person forwards the message to provoke the public, then police will register a case against the said persons. The Admin of various social media group are requested to remove the members spreading wrong message with immediate effect.” – April 20 order

The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) on Monday filed an application seeking the withdrawal of this order. This is not the first time a district administration has bypassed the central government in issuing such orders. On April 27, the Jabalpur district administration imposed curbs on COVID-19 related posts that are “objectionable, inciting and gory” on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for two months under Section 144 as well.

Not long before the Jabalpur order, the centre ordered Twitter to censor tweets critical of the government. Twitter complied with government requests to censor 52 tweets that mostly criticised India’s handling of the second surge of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ill-advised measure: IFF

IFF on Monday filed an application under Section 144(5) addressed to the Collector of Indore arguing that “the measure is ill-advised, adversely affects the battle against COVID-19, and is not permissible in law.”

Stating that social media has not only played an important role in holding the government accountable during the pandemic but has also been incredibly useful in helping “crowdsource scarce resources such as oxygen, medicines, plasma and even patient care,” IFF argued that it is “distressing” to see the government takedown posts and curb freedom on social media.

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The following points were made by IFF in its application

  1. Overbroad order: The order prohibits comments related to “breaking of Corona transmission chain in an unrestrained manner” but IFF argues that this is “a vague, overbroad, and arbitrary standard which is unrecognised in law.” By failing to clearly specify what it wants to block, the order restricts freedom of speech, IFF argues.
  2. Chilling effect on free speech: Since violating the order carries persecution, the individuals in Indore will choose not to freely express themselves. This could be detrimental because it could also curb vital information that could help during the pandemic. “Thus, the Order violates the right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution,” IFF stated.
  3. Irregular exercise of the power: IFF argues that the order that Section 144(1), CrPC “confers upon magistrates the power to impose directions to prevent danger to human life” but requires material facts that prove the same. But this order does not cite any material which suggests that “comments on social media have adversely affected the public at large or the battle against COVID-19.”
  4. Does not comply with the directions of the Supreme Court’s decision in Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India, (2020) 3 SCC 637: In this case, the Supreme Court “directed magistrates to apply least intrusive measures while imposing Section 144,” but this order doesn’t do that because it “disproportionately curbs speech which is otherwise permissible and threatens prosecution.”
  5. Contrary to observations of the Supreme Court in Suo Motu Writ Petition (Civil) No. 3 of 2021: The Supreme Court order dated April 30, 2021, directed Central government and State governments to “ensure that they immediately cease any direct or indirect threats of prosecution and arrest to citizens who air grievances or those that are attempting to help fellow citizens receive medical aid.” The Court also noted that restricting sharing of COVID-related information is “against the interest of the nation and without such information, it is possible that COVID-19 may turn into a tragedy worse than what it already is.” The Indore order goes against Supreme Court’s direction, IFF stated.

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