Explain why Facebook girls were arrested: SC to Maharashtra

Last Updated: Friday, November 30, 2012 - 13:50

Zeenews Bureau

New Delhi: Hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking to scrap Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, the Supreme Court on Friday issued notices to the Central government as well as four states, including Maharashtra, West Bengal, Puducherry and Delhi.

The SC was hearing the PIL filed by Shreya Singhal, a student, after people were arrested for violating the IT Act for posting comments critical of political leaders or events on the social networking site Facebook.

In its notice, the apex court directed the Maharashtra government to explain the circumstances under which its police arrested two girls from Palghar in Thane district for posting comments on Facebook on the November 18 shutdown for Bal Thackeray`s funeral.

"The Maharashtra government is directed to explain the circumstances under which the two girls - Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Shrinivasan - were arrested for posting comments made by them on Facebook," a bench comprising Chief Justice Altamas Kabir and Justice J Chelameswar said.

The bench asked the state government to file its response within four weeks.

The bench also made as parties the governments of West Bengal and Puducherry where similar incidents had happened in the recent past.

It also issued notice to the Delhi government along with them and sought their response within four weeks and posted the matter for hearing after six weeks.

The bench also made as parties the governments of West Bengal and Puducherry where similar incidents had happened in the recent past.

It also issued notice to the Delhi government along with them and sought their response within four weeks and posted the matter for hearing after six weeks.

Clarifying the position of the government after being called by the SC to appear before it, Attorney General GE Vahanvati said the arrests were unjustified but added that there was no need to strike down Section 66A of IT Act.

The government is coming out with guidelines to ensure that Section 66A is not misused, Vahanvati added.

"Please examine section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and I will assist the court on this issue," Vahanvati said.

The AG also referred to the guidelines which say that cases to be registered under the provision of the IT Act has to be decided by senior police officials of the ranks of DGP for cases pertaining to rural areas and IGP for metros.

"This can`t be done by the head of the police stations," the AG said, adding that this was a matter which required the court`s consideration.

Meanwhile, senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Shreya, sought a direction from the court that no cases be registered across the country unless such complaints are seen and approved by the DGP of the state concerned.

Rohatgi said that the provision of the IT Act, which gives power to arrest, is "wholly unconstitutional" and needed to be done away with.

Meanwhile, some other civil rights group and NGOs submitted to the court that they be also allowed to intervene as parties to the ongoing hearing on this issue.

Speaking to a news channel, petitioner Shreya Singhal expressed happiness with the SC response.

“The freedom of speech is of utmost importance... it should be upheld,” she said.

“We are not arrested for speaking on TV, then why after writing on the Internet,” she said separately.

While admitting the plea yesterday, the Supreme Court had said, "The way things have taken place, it needs some consideration so that in future it does not happen again."

"Children were arrested on the charges of...and there was also a case of (arrest of) a professor of Jadavpur University that involved a chief minister`s cartoon," the court said.

The Section 66A of IT Act deals with punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service...which cause annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will, the court observed.

The apex court bench of Chief Justice Altamas Kabir and Justice J Chelameswar asked Vahanvati to appear before it after senior counsel Mukul Rohtagi told the court that Section 66A of the IT Act violated constitutional provisions.

The petition also sought issuance of guidelines to reconcile Criminal Procedure Code Section 41 (power of police to arrest without warrant) and 156 (1) (police officer`s power to investigate cognizable cases) with the Constitution`s Article 19(1)(a) (right to freedom of speech and expression).

In April, West Bengal`s Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra was arrested in Kolkata for circulating a cartoon depicting Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

A young woman, Shaheen Dhada, and her friend were arrested in Maharashtra for a Facebook post questioning Mumbai`s shutdown following Bal Thackeray`s death earlier this month.

While admitting the plea, Chief Justice Kabir said: "We were wondering why nobody has filed petition on this issue. In fact, we were considering taking suo motu cognizance of these incidents."

The petition said that like crores of other citizens, she too was a user of Internet and of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter and the recent events involving action taken by various authorities under the Section 66A of the IT Act had left a chilling effect on her and others.

The "phraseology of the Section 66A is so wide and vague and incapable of being judged on objective standards, that it is susceptible to wanton abuse," the petition said.

"...this provision is indeed capable of wanton abuse in view of the subjective discretion of police and the susceptibility of it being invoked cavalierly. In fact, the...recent events fortify the apprehensions of the petitioner...," the petition said.

The government, meanwhile, yesterday issued guidelines that state approval from an officer of DCP level at rural areas and IG level in metros will have to be sought before registering complaints under section 66A of the IT Act.

(With Agency inputs)



First Published: Friday, November 30, 2012 - 09:07

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