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Bloggers battle India's supreme court over prosecution for internet threats

by Sanchia de Souza last modified Apr 02, 2011 04:17 PM
Article by Randeep Ramesh in the Guardian, 26 February 2009
India's supreme court is facing the wrath of the country's bloggers over the prosecution of a student because of anonymous comments published on a social networking group he created.

The computer science student, named as Ajith D, was arrested over allegations that death threats had been posted on his "anti-Shiv Sena" group on Google's networking site, Orkut. The 20-year-old also faces charges of criminal intimidation and hurting religious sentiments.

The Shiv Sena (Army of Shiv) is a political party that made its name in the 1990s for populist policies that were anti-Muslim and favoured locals over outsiders. Its leader, Bal Thackeray, has been quoted as admiring Hitler.

Mumbai police had been monitoring the site since the Sena staged violent protests against Orkut for carrying anti-party statements, vandalising cybercafes across Mumbai. Officers contacted federal authorities in Delhi before bringing charges.

In response, the lawyer representing the student asked the supreme court to quash the case, saying his client had published nothing provocative. However India's chief justice, KG Balakrishnan, refused the application saying: "We will not do that. Anything that is posted on the internet goes to the public. The internet is open to the world."

The case highlights how India, the world's largest democracy, deals with the thorny issue of freedom of speech on the internet. A law about to arrive on the statute books places the onus for publishing material on the web, not on hosts of the material, such as Google's Orkut service, but on individuals who create blogs and websites.

"The difficulty here is that my client did not make the threats. He simply set up a community group and left it unmoderated," Jogy Scaria, Ajith's lawyer, said. "He only created the anti-Shiv Sena site."

Orkut is one of India's most popular social networking sites and many bloggers vented their fury online. "I am not able to gather how it is possible that bloggers can be hit with libel and criminal suits on the basis of anonymous postings on their websites," wrote one on Ekawaaz-One Voice.

Lawrence Liang, India's foremost authority on freedom of speech on the internet, wrote about the case on

"When organisations like the Shiv Sena start using defamation laws, it smacks of chutzpah to me … What other way can we describe the bizarre situation of the violence-prone macho men, who suddenly run around screaming about the violation of their legal rights and the slurring of their reputation?"

India's constitution guarantees freedom of expression as long as this does not extend to libel, national security, contempt and a broad category of public morality – which includes "hurting religious sentiments".

Pranesh Prakash of Bangalore's Centre for Internet and Society, a thinktank specialising in web civil rights, said the internet had allowed "everyone to become a publisher but not the awareness of what responsibilities of a publisher. The way the law is dealing with it is highly problematic."


To read the article at the Guardian website, click here.

Filed under:
ASPI-CIS Partnership


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