Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 25 September 2023

Fake news and misinformation

Source: By Ankita Deshkar: The Indian Express

Over the past few years, police in various states have opened investigations against a large number of people for allegedly spreading misinformation and fake news, the most recent example being that of a TV anchor who was booked by Karnataka Police this week.

Fake news is a serious problem around the world, and spreading misinformation or disinformation is a crime under both the Indian Penal Code and the Information Technology Act, 2000Disinformation is understood as false information that is created or spread with the deliberate intent of causing harm; in the case of misinformation, the element of intent is thought to be absent.

Police generally invoke one or more of the following sections of the law against an alleged offender.

IPC sections

Section 153A: This section pertains to “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religionraceplace of birthresidencelanguage, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony”. It criminalises acts that promote hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, or linguistic groups, and actions prejudicial to the maintenance of communal harmony. The punishment for this offence can range from imprisonment of up to three years, a fine, or both.

Section 292: This deals with sale of obscene books, etc. It criminalises the saledistribution, or public exhibition of obscene books, pamphlets, or other materials. Violation of this section can result in imprisonment for up to three months, a fine, or both for the first offence, and imprisonment for up to two years, a fine, or both for subsequent offences.

Section 295A: This section relates to “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings”. It penalises actions that insult or offend religious beliefs with deliberate and malicious intent. Violation of this section can lead to imprisonment for up to three years, a fine, or both.

Section 499: This section pertains to the offence of defamation. It defines defamation as making a false statement to harm a person’s reputation. Exceptions include “imputation of truth”, which is required for the “public good” and thus has to be published, on the public conduct of government officials, the conduct of any person touching any public question, and merits of the public performance.

Section 500: While Section 499 defines defamation, section 500 prescribes the punishment for criminal defamation. In India, defamation can be both a civil and a criminal offence. The punishment for criminal defamation can include imprisonment for up to two years, a fine, or both. It is under this section that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was sentenced to two years in prison, which triggered the law that led to his disqualification from Parliament.

Section 503: This relates to the offence of “criminal intimidation”. It criminalises the act of threatening another person with injury to their person, property, or reputation with the intention to cause fear or compel them to do something against their will. The punishment may include imprisonment for up to two years, a fine, or both, depending on the circumstances and severity of the threat.

Section 504: This section deals with “intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace”. The punishment includes imprisonment for up to two years, a fine, or both.

Section 505: This pertains to the offence of making “statements conducing to public mischief”. It criminalises spreading statements, rumours, or reports with the intent to incite fear, alarm, or provoke a breach of peace. It carries a punishment of imprisonment up to three years, a fine, or both.

Section 505 (1): This section deals with the offence of “making, publishing, or circulating statements, rumours, or reports with intent to incite a class or community to commit an offence against any other class or community”. It criminalises the deliberate spread of statements to incite hatred or provoke violence between different groups. The punishment includes imprisonment up to three years, a fine, or both.

Sections under IT Act, 2000

Section 67: This section pertains to “publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form”. It carries a three-year prison term, a fine, or both.

Section 69: This section empowers the government to interceptmonitoror decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received, or stored in any computer resource in the interest of national security. It does not specify a punishment but outlines the government’s authority to access such information under certain conditions and procedures.

Section 79: This provides “safe harbour” provisions for intermediaries, shielding them from liability for user-generated content if they follow certain due diligence requirements. It does not specify punishment but defines the legal responsibilities and immunities of intermediaries in handling user content.

Other sections

Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 says: “If any person circulates any fake news or warning as to disaster, or regarding its severity or magnitude, which leads to panic among the public, then such person shall be punished with one year of imprisonment or with fine.”

The Digital Personal Data Protection Bill 2023 (which has not been implemented yet) has provisions to curb the misuse of individuals’ data on online platforms.

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