The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, today vehemently criticized the government of the Indian state of Kerala for promulgating an ordinance criminalizing defamation and urged its immediate withdrawal.

The Kerala Police Act amendment ordinance, which was approved by the Governor of the Southern Indian state on November 22, criminalizes publication of “any matter which is threatening, abusive, humiliating or defamatory”. The ordinance provides for three-year imprisonment and a fine of Rs 10,000 (about €115) if found guilty of the offence.

“This ordinance is a major blow to press freedom not only in Kerala but all over India, as it threatens to set a precedent that other state governments in the country may follow to stifle critical voices and independent media”, IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi said. “The restrictions imposed by the ordinance are so broad and vaguely worded that it would criminalize the dissemination of news of great public interest, in breach of the fundamental principles set by India’s constitution and long democratic tradition. It should be immediately withdrawn and struck off from the statue book leaving no possibility for it to be brought back in the future.”

Amidst widespread criticism, the chief minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Viajayan, today announced that the ordinance will not be put into effect by the government. ”The chief minister’s assurance is not sufficient redress to the democratic concerns as each day the ordinance remains a law, it is a Sword of Damocles hanging over the media”, Trionfi said.

The provisions in the ordinance are ambiguous and open to interpretation by the police, leading to the possibility that it could be used to arrest or prosecute journalists and media organizations for their reporting.

The ordinance states that: “Whoever makes, expresses, publishes or disseminates through any kind of mode of communication, any matter or subject for threatening, abusing, humiliating or defaming a person or class of persons, knowing it to be false and that causes injury to the mind, reputation or property of such person or class of persons or any other person in whom they have interest shall on conviction, be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine which may extend to ten thousand rupees or with both.”

Moreover, the timing of the ordinance raises doubts about the real intention behind its promulgation and appears to be an attempt to muzzle the media. The ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) has come under heightened public scrutiny for corruption scandals involving ruling party politicians and senior bureaucrats. The principal secretary to the chief minister was recently arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for his involvement in a gold smuggling cases after which the state government withdrew the blanket permission to CBI to investigate cases in Kerala. On November 14, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, the state secretary of the CPM, a constituent of the ruling LDF, resigned after his son was arrested for dealing in drugs.