The Indian legal system does indeed have some teeth to tackle instances of fake news or rumours, be they in the real world or online. The problem is that such regulation is largely focused on hate speech and defamation.
In reality, as we know, fake news goes much beyond hate speech. “It’s high time that we have some direct provisions to govern fake news and rumours. At the time when the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was enacted, these problems did not exist; hence the current laws are inadequate,” advocate and cyber law expert Karnika Seth remarked.
So, Section 124A of the IPC punishes any form of speech as an act of sedition when it is aimed against the State, while Section 153A of the IPC prohibits and punishes promotion of enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, etc. Instances of circulation of any statement or rumour causing public mischief and hatred between classes as well as deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion are also punishable under the IPC.
However, how does the law deal with seemingly benign rumours and morphed videos and messages? Indian cyber laws have no direct provision governing rumours on social and electronic media. The Information Technology (IT) Act, however, imposes a limited liability on intermediaries such as search engine giant Google for providing a platform to any objectionable content. While exempting intermediaries from liability for any third party content, Section 79 of the IT Act imposes an obligation on them to remove any such content pursuant to takedown notices by law enforcement agencies.
In the absence of proper laws, the government and law enforcement agencies as well as the district magistrate(s) are increasingly using the immense powers they have under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 to prevent individuals from committing “a breach of the peace” or “disturbing the public tranquillity”. That’s why India is increasingly resorting to internet shutdowns. According to think-tank ICRIER, there have been 16,315 hours of Internet shutdowns in India during the period 2012 to 2017.
Similarly, wary of the impact that fake news can have on voting during the Karnataka state elections, the Election Commission in May sought help from the technology firms in the region to identify instances of fake news on social media. “People need to be aware of WhatsApp messages that can create havoc. People circulate the messages blindly. Law needs one to be mindful”, warned Seth. Acknowledging that law-making is a long process, she recommended that the government must come up with advisories till the time there are no specific provisions of law to tackle the issue.
Any legislative endeavour to curb the epidemic of “fake news” is akin to walking through a minefield as the consequential repercussions of a stringent law against fake content include its possible impact on free speech and freedom of press.