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Govt Bringing Back 66A? These Lessons From Russia And Turkey Tell Us Why That’s A Bad Move

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By Aparna Kalra:

New Delhi: Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra is still anxious a month after the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional, a controversial law that led to his arrest for emailing a cartoon mocking West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

On April 27, 2014, his lawyer will rise in Alipore court, Kolkata, and ask that a chargesheet filed against the professor on the basis of section 66 – which dealt with “computer-related offences” that were ‘grossly offensive or menacing’, or caused annoyance or inconvenience – of the Information Technology (IT) Act, be withdrawn.

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Across the peninsula, in Goa, counsel for shipping professional Devu Chodankar expects no further police action against his client, who was arrested in June 2014, for posts against the Prime Minister on his Facebook page. “If Modi is elected as PM this election, Christians will lose their identity in South Goa,” read his posts.

The police have not yet filed a chargesheet against the Goan, although they booked him under 66A and a clutch of other sections of the Indian Penal Code.

The Supreme Court’s removal of section 66A, which sought jail terms of up to three years for posts or messages that were “grossly offensive or menacing” or “causing annoyance or inconvenience” was welcomed by free-speech advocates. They said the law was open to wide interpretation and was used to intimidate people who posted anything negative online – for instance, against a company’s service or often against political leaders.

Now, there are indications the government may not let the law fade away.

The government is mulling 66A in clearer and better form to deal with posts that are a threat to “national security” or to “incite people”, reported The Economic Times.

When does dissent threaten national security?

Many governments arm themselves with laws that do not draw a line between dissent and terrorism. The power of social media in organising uprisings or protest marches was seen in the Arab Spring or even the Anna Hazare sit-ins, and, therefore, online dissent is particularly frowned on.

An indication of the sweeping powers available to governments that crack down on online dissent is available from Turkey and Russia, both democratic countries by constitution. Russia has, among other crackdowns, prosecuted a blogger questioning corruption and put dissident rock band Pussy Riot in jail for their online protest videos. It also has strict laws on registering blogs and has blocked opposition websites.

When protesters gathered in Istanbul in 2013, Turkey’s prime minister burst out against Twitter. “To me, social media is the worst menace to society,said Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Prime Minister, and now President of Turkey.

Paris-based non-profit Reporters without Borders has not placed India too high above Russia and Turkey in its 2015 Press Freedom Index; India is ranked 136th, Turkey 149th and Russia 152nd.

“Democracies often take liberties with their values in the name of national security,” said the report. “Faced with real or spurious threats, governments arm themselves routinely with an entire arsenal of laws aimed at muzzling independent voices. This phenomenon is common to both authoritarian governments and democracies.”

A law almost never used against terrorism

While the government mulls a new 66A, two things have been forgotten: that there is no clear evidence or data that the section was ever used against terrorism; and that the original remit of the law’s most dangerous section (Part c of 66A) was to stop spam, according to a paper written by Pranesh Prakash, Policy Director at the Centre for Internet and Society, a Bangalore-based advocacy.

IndiaSpend identified about 20 high-profile cases where the law was used, among them Mahapatra, Chodankar and two teenagers in Maharashtra arrested for their Facebook actions — one had merely “liked” a post—criticising a shutdown in Mumbai after the death of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray.

None of them involved terrorism. There were more unpublicised cases, with The Hindu reporting that 500 cases would now be closed in Kerala alone. A cross-section of lawyers and activists who fought 66A said it was almost always used against common people.

Another portion of the IT Act, section 66F, is well-equipped to deal with cyber terrorism, while the 155-year-old Indian Penal Code (IPC) has provisions to deal with religious incitement and the spread of messages that could incite riots, such as naked or morphed pictures of gods. So strict is 295A of the IPC, the provision that guards religious feelings with jail terms, that just the threat of it has been used to ban books, most famously to get book publisher Penguin India to pulp ‘The Hindus’, a book by US Indologist Wendy Doniger.

“..the Indian Penal Code, and in particular section 295A of that code, will make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law,” Penguin said last year in its defence, after an outcry on its decision to withdraw the Doniger volume.

Source: National Crime Records Bureau
Source: National Crime Records Bureau

The danger of 66A was not just the law itself but also that it was used to invoke colonial-era sections of the IPC, such as those that covered charges of sedition. Lawyer N.S. Nappinai said the absence of 66A law is not a loss to policing of the cyber world. “If they bring 66A in a different avatar, they have to be specific, what are they trying to do?” said Nappinai, who explained that only cyber-bullying and hoax calls seem to be out of the purview of existing laws.

Cyber security laws: Inadequate data, unforeseen complexities

Cyber crime and cyber security are complex animals, ranging from threatening e-mails, such as this one sent to RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan, to hacked government sites or even an attack on a private company website, such as Sony, in the U.S. from outside the country’s borders.

Source: Fifty-Second Report of Standing Committee on Information Technology, 2013-14
Source: Fifty-Second Report of Standing Committee on Information Technology, 2013-14

The US government position is that such hacking highlights the need for better cyber security laws, although critics wrote that the hacking had more to do with lax company operations.

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As many as 4,356 cases of cyber crime were registered under the IT Act; another 1,337 under the Indian Penal Code, said a 2013 report by the National Crime Records Bureau. A Bureau official, requesting anonymity since he is not authorised to talk to the media, said new data would show cyber crime by the laws used. Such data should help the government decide if it needs a new law.

In many cases, as we mentioned, existing laws are enough. For instance, cyber-stalking, not covered when 66A came into being, is now provided for by the stricter anti-rape law of the Criminal Amendment Act 2013.

In most countries, cyber security laws are still works-in-progress; they often involve surveillance of the general population and run counter to privacy safeguards. In the US, rights advocates have struggled with the over-reach of a cyber crime law which led to the suicide of a computer hacker and activist arrested after he wrongly accessed free online documents.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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