Defamation laws in India, often used as a tool to stifle free speech online, are archaic. That could change soon.
Member of Parliament Tathagata Satpathy is moving a bill in the lower house, Lok Sabha, to reform these laws so that defamation is no longer a criminal offence.
The new 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.
The Biju Janata Dal MP Satpathy is unusual among politicians in India. He’s among the few who have openly opposed the ban on cannabis and Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises homosexuality, and has backed net neutrality crusaders in India in their campaign last year.
The newly formed Internet Freedom Foundation (started by the people who ran the Savetheinternet campaign) is backing the bill. A website speechbill.in has been setup for people to pledge support online.
They have also enlisted comedy group All India Bakchod (the guys who made this massively popular video on net neutrality) to take the cause to the masses.
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 dishonor 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.
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