New Delhi: Popular cartoonist Manjul has told ThePrint that he is insulted at being branded a violator of Indian law, while speaking on the controversy surrounding the notice he received from Twitter India.
Twitter India had early Friday mailed the cartoonist, informing him about a “request” it had received from “Indian law enforcement” regarding his handle, @MANJULtoons, which allegedly violated the “law(s) of India.”
The mail further said that though Twitter India has not taken any action on the “reported content,” it was giving Manjul an opportunity to evaluate “the request” (of law enforcement) and, if he wished, to take appropriate action to protect his interests.
“I was at first taken aback to see the mail, which as per the details was mailed to me at 1:30 am Friday. I was left wondering if I had committed any illegal act,” Manjul told ThePrint. “I first cross-checked whether the mail was actually sent by Twitter India or not. On confirming their URL address, I then checked my cartoons. The entire episode of branding me as a violator left me feeling insulted and that’s why I posted the mail on my Twitter handle.”
The cartoonist added that he was puzzled by the mail as the notice does not disclose the name of the law-enforcement agency that put out the request to Twitter, nor does it specify the law under which the social media platform was told to act against his Twitter handle. It is even silent on which of Manjul’s cartoons are offensive or in violation of the law.
“Going by the contents of the mail, it appears whichever agency has written to Twitter has problems with my handle,” Manjul said.
In his recent cartoons, Manjul had sought to highlight the devastation caused by the second Covid wave and the slow pace of vaccination drive, besides taking a dig at the elections held amidst the devastating pandemic.
Twitter’s notice has sparked a furore on social media, with some accusing the Narendra Modi government of being “dictatorial”.
“If the notice is at the behest of the government, then it shows how intolerable it has become,” Manjul said, adding that he sees it as an assault on one’s creative expression, falling within the ambit of free speech and expression.
He further said cartoonists trained under the traditional medium know their limits and lines. “Although social media has blurred such limits, we still maintain and try not to violate it,” Manjul explained.
His cartoons, he added, vent concern on a grim situation with a humorous touch. “I do not see why any government should be annoyed with them,” Manjul said.
Senior cartoonist Ajit Ninan refused to comment on Manjul’s cartoons or the Twitter notice, but added that the current situation is quite “tight for a cartoonist.”
“Leaders from the two prominent national parties have approached me in the past with a request to share with them my cartoons on them,” he recollected.
Ninan, however, felt that “sometimes cartoons on social media do slightly go overboard,” and advised cartoonists to “think of ethics” before putting them out.
ThePrint contacted the spokesperson at the Union Ministry of Information and Technology for a comment, but did not get a response until the publication of this report. Similarly an email to Twitter India also remained unanswered. This copy will be updated once a formal response is received.
Experts question legality of ‘govt request’
Experts who ThePrint spoke to questioned the legality of the “request” broadly on two grounds.
They said it was in violation of a cartoonist’s right to free speech and expression and second, it was too wide and vague.
They even found fault with Twitter India’s move to forward such a request to Manjul, saying the micro-blogging platform should now take a stand, when it comes to free speech of citizens.
According to legal experts, there are several landmark judgments supporting an artist’s creative freedom and Manjul’s case is squarely covered by it. Further, the Information Technology Act, under which an intermediary (in this case Twitter) can be directed to remove an objectionable post or content from its platform, requires the notice to highlight the alleged illegal post.
Section 69A of the IT Act, 2000, allows the Centre to block public access to an intermediary “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence relating to above”. The procedure to act under this section is listed in the IT rules.
Senior Supreme Court advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan said by sending Manjul a notice, Twitter appears to have carried out its due diligence, thereby protecting itself from any legal action.
“It appears that Twitter has not provided him with a copy of the request it received from the law-enforcement agency. So, Twitter’s mail to the cartoonist is not sufficient,” the lawyer explained. “If someone has an objection to the contents uploaded by me, I am entitled to know the objectionable post and under what law it should be brought down.”
Manjul’s cartoons, on merits, do not even qualify as an exception under the restriction clause of Article 19 (1)(a) – right to freedom of speech and expression — that gives law-enforcement agencies a reason to pull down content that is likely to incite or cause law and order problems, according to IT expert and senior advocate Vivek Sood.
“There are landmark judgments in support of an artist’s right to creative expressions. Cartoons should be encouraged and appreciated, it falls within the purview of the right to free speech and expression,” he said.
Sood added it was not correct for the intermediary to push Manjul to seek legal recourse, rather Twitter should stand up for free speech.
Senior advocate Sanjay Hegde, who is contesting a case against Twitter after the latter blocked him, echoed the view.
“Twitter is called upon to take a stand as to how long it will continue to defend free speech against an increasingly censorious government,” he said. “Twitter would be well within its rights to insist upon a court order with regard to a specific content, rather than simply acceding to a government notice to de-platform the cartoonist.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)
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