Bill that aims to protect free speech delayed again

Ramarko Sengupta February 3, 2017 3 min

The Speech Bill, which aims to decriminalise defamation and protect freedom of speech and expression, has once again been delayed. It was due to be presented in the Parliament on Friday. But, both houses of the Parliament ended up getting disrupted on Friday afternoon, leading to adjournment till Monday. Member of Parliament Tathagata Satpathy was to move the Bill in the form of a ‘Private Member’s Bill‘ and introduce it after 3 pm on Friday, his chief of staff Meghnad S told FactorDaily.

The Bill will now be listed after March 9, in the second half of the Budget Session of the Parliament, he said.

The Speech Bill, formally known as the ‘Protection of Speech and Reputation Bill, 2016’, assumes great importance as archaic defamation laws in India are often used as a tool to stifle free speech online.

Defamation suits are rampant in India with students, politicians, journalists being slapped with them every now and then for expressing themselves either on a public or online platform. In November 2016, a student in Madhya Pradesh was arrested for allegedly defaming the state’s chief minister in a social media post. During the same month, senior Karnataka journalist Gauri Lankesh was convicted in a defamation case for one of her writings.

According to the Lok Sabha listing where the item is listed at No. 97, the Speech Bill aims “to balance the right to personal reputation within the right to free speech by providing for repeal of substantive offence of defamation and its punishments; consolidate the common law relating to civil defamation; comprehensively provide for the protection of speech and reputation.”

The Bill removes provisions that criminalise defamation but brings in a civil law to deal with defamation more effectively. Civil suits usually are between citizen or private entities where the court can direct the defendant to fulfil a duty or pay damages. However, in criminal suits, the court can not only ask to pay damages, but can also award a sentence to imprison the defendant. Defamation is punishable with up to two years in jail.

Satpathy, a Biju Janata Dal (BJD) Lok Sabha member, had earlier aimed to introduce the Bill in the Winter Session of the Parliament but could not do so owing to both the houses getting repeatedly adjourned.

The Speech Bill has garnered support from 54 organisations that range from media houses to publishing companies to educational institutions and include the likes of Harper Collins India, MediaNama, IIM Raipur among others.

The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), which is a body of lawyers, technology activists and journalists, also supports the Bill.

According to the campaigners:

The criminal law of defamation is a colonial law that served a need that no longer exists. It is a law that was made to prevent death by duels, usually done by “society” men who were acting to purge their family’s dishonour in 18th century England. While none of us are fencing and drawing blood, the criminal defamation law is being used to threaten and silence voices.

The Bill seeks to amend sections of the Indian Penal Code which deal with defamation as well as the deletion of Section 199 of the Code of Criminal Procedure act, 1973.

Note: Copy and headline updated at 1:40 pm to add about Parliament getting adjourned.


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