Aggressive online harassment: Why complaints in India are frequently ignored by law enforcement

silence“Fearful Silence: The Chill on India’s Public Sphere”, a joint research project by the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law; PEN Canada, the Canadian Centre of PEN International, PEN International, has assessed how the state of freedom of expression had changed in India since May 2014. Based on interview with authors, activists, journalists, and lawyers in Delhi, Hubli and Jaipur, the research work points to how the unchecked abuse of India’s vague and overboard legislation, and its inefficient legal system, have helped to create a chill within Indian society and throughout its public sphere. “As a result”, it says, “A relatively small number of aggrieved citizens can successfully deter many others from speaking out on sensitive issues, thereby limiting the scope of India’s broad and pluralistic culture and endangering some of its key democratic freedoms.”  An excerpt:

Online harassment is a global phenomenon, but it is especially aggressive in India, where complaints about online threats are frequently ignored by law enforcement. The obvious consequence, as illustrated below, is that people are forced into silence by the online mob. This is the chilling effect in action. Aggressive online trolls, hoping to silence their victims, have taken aim at political dissenters, sexual and religious minorities, women, and human rights defenders.

There is also evidence that this harassment is condoned by those in government. On 1 July 2015 Prime Minister Modi stirred up controversy after meeting privately with ultra-nationalist social media activists accused of online abuse. Apar Gupta, a Delhi lawyer well-known for his work on freedom of expression cases, said the trolling is coordinated:

“People have these Twitter groups where you get draft tweets and hashtags dropped in, and you’re told to tweet it out. And 50 to 60 people tweet it out.”

Nikhil Pahwa, a leading net neutrality advocate, stopped using Twitter for several days after receiving several harassing messages. He has noticed an increase in this type of online harassment over the last two years: “I think the chilling effect is there to a greater degree. You can feel it more. At the same time, the fight back against it is also pretty strident. So there’s a great degree of polarization because there are people who are saying that we won’t be kept silent. And there are armies waiting to attack them.”

Often harassers prevail through self-censorship. PEN spoke with a young female journalist based in Delhi who had written an article about the movement for the establishment of Khalistan (a separatist homeland proposed by Sikh nationalists that would occupy the Punjab region). The article was published with an innocuous headline.

When reproduced online, however, with a title that included the word “terrorist”, she began to receive abusive messages via Facebook and email, including at least three threats. One read: “We can find you, and we can hurt you.” Another said: “I hope somebody rapes you.” As a result, she deleted her Facebook account and asked her editor to change the headline. “It makes me feel like I need to understand what could piss off the authorities that I haven’t thought about,” she said. “It has made me less likely to do, I think, as many of those stories.”

Women are especially vulnerable online, and rape threats are commonplace. While men face harassment for their views, women face threats of physical and sexual violence and are dismissed as ‘sluts.’ This phenomenon may be increasing. Non-writers, merely expressing their thoughts online, also receive abuse.

Shoikat Roy, a government employee in Rajasthan, received threats after publishing a Facebook post critical of extreme nationalist attitudes. Roy described the chill this sort of harassment can inflict on young professionals:

“There are lots of stray cases of random students and professors being beaten up here and there because of a tweet or [Facebook] post – often involving tacit police complicity. Chances of a job in government are also tied to your social media activity. Many people tend to tell me to keep quiet because of that – if you want to work within the corridors of power, don’t write this, etc.”

Some authors told PEN that they tend to avoid controversies because they do not believe the police will protect them from harm. The result is self-censorship. This perception of police indifference to online threats and harassment can be easily exploited by would-be censors.

Apar Gupta notes that:

“If you go to the police here and you say that this person threatened to rape me, he will say, ‘He just said it. He’s not done it. He’s just threatened you. What’s wrong in it? And it’s over the Internet. You shouldn’t go on the Internet.’85 This problem, and the general lack of legal knowledge among both police and victims, has been noted elsewhere.”

Anja Kovacs, a scholar of digital expression rights, notes that “With lack of faith in the police… emerged as one crucial factor in the decision [by women] to delay a police complaint as long as possible.” One of Kovacs’ case studies describes her experience with police after experiencing online harassment:

“[The Deputy Superintendent’s] first question to me was, ‘Where is my husband?’ I said, ‘I have come alone and my husband is not with me. Can’t I go to a police station on my own?’ He then asked me why I put my photos on Facebook. I told him that it is not against the Indian Constitution to put pictures on Facebook. I insisted that I am a citizen and I have got all rights and that he should accept my complaint. Then he started complaining about how many such cases he has and how he is burdened by them. After sometime, he suddenly starts talking about [a popular regional actress] and he said something to the extent that my pictures are sexier than her pictures. I was shocked!”

Teesta Setalvad, a noted journalist and human rights activist, has faced frequent online abuse and harassment.89 She told PEN that she has periodically sent complaints to the police. “Sometimes they have acted on it, sometimes they have not.”

Actress Shruti Seth, speaking to the BBC, stated that she had experienced something similar:

“[The police] say it’s very difficult to track down the abusers, and it’s not worth it. Then they tell you, be careful, don’t get out of your house. Okay, then what are the cops there for, if I have to hide at home and look after myself?”

Pavan Duggal, a cyber-law expert, told the BBC that the police are “more comfortable with the traditional laws for the physical world.”

Reliable investigations of alleged online threats would encourage freer expression of a wider range of views. Although PEN opposes restrictions on disagreeable and even vitriolic speech online, there is clearly a need for the Indian police to investigate criminal threats and harassment. In the absence of credible efforts to clamp down on such threats, writers and others will continue to steer clear of certain sensitive topics, fearful for their safety.

Recommendation

  • Launch a public awareness campaign to inform and educate citizens of their legal rights against online harassment, abuse, stalking, etc.
  • Train more police to recognize and investigate online threats and abuse that meet the threshold of criminality under international law and that can be prosecuted under existing provisions of the IPC, such as, for example, s.354D (stalking) or s.507 (criminal intimidation by anonymous communication).
  • Provide adequate resources for police to pursue such claims to the fullest extent of the law.

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