NEW DELHI – Christians in India fear new Internet guidelines laid down by the federal government could curb freedom of speech and be used against minorities.

Under the new rules, websites must tell users not to publish any posts that are blasphemous, incite hatred, are ethnically objectionable, infringe patents, or threaten India’s unity or public order.

The government will be able to block any website or remove any “objectionable” content within 36 hours without explanation, said Nikhil Pahwa, editor of MediaNama, an electronic media website.

Department of Information Technology officials say that, with Internet usage growing, there needs to be monitoring and regulation.

But both the Church and the Internet industry are opposed to the new guidelines, albeit for different reasons. The industry says it will add to its financial burden while the Church is concerned the guidelines might be misused.

Fr Jude Botelho, director of the National Institute of Social Communications Research and Training says the guidelines are too generic and open to interpretation. It could be a tool to “target” minorities or anyone who does not toe the government line, he said.

“The medicine should not worsen the sickness,” said Fr George Plathottam, the Catholic bishops’ social communications secretary.

Hindu fundamentalists can easily claim Christian literature is meant for religious conversion and have it removed, he said.

Fr Botelho agrees the guidelines can easily be manipulated to suit vested interests.

“We have examples of this in some countries where minorities are harassed and threatened with imprisonment for so-called blasphemy,” he said. The new rules definitely have potential for abuse, said Mr Pushkar Raj, general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).

“The PUCL is exploring the possibility of challenging the constitutionality of the new rules.”

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