ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s plans to bring a law to arbitrate on the truth or otherwise of statements made online to “hurt” religious sentiments is drawing concern given the potential of any such law to undermine free speech.
Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa questioned whether it was an attempt to suppress democratic dissent, since online action has been a key method used by citizens to organise themselves in the recent past.
On the face of it, the Bill appears to harm freedom of expression of the people guaranteed by the constitution, Premadasa told parliament on September 19.
Premadasa said according to the law, a commission appointed by the President would arbitrate on the truth.
He questioned whether North Korean style systems were being made in Sri Lanka.
Premadasa questioned what sections of the affected public was concerned.
The objectives of this the law was to:
(a) to protect persons against damage caused by communication of false statements or threatening, alarming or distressing statements;
(b) to ensure protection from communication of statements in contempt of court or prejudicial to the maintenance of the authority and impartiality of the judiciary;
(c) to introduce measures to detect, prevent and safeguard against the misuses of online accounts and bots to commit offences under this Act; and
(d) to prevent the financing, promotion and other support of online locations which repeatedly communicate false statements of fact in Sri Lanka.
Directions would be given to various parties by an “Online Safety Commission”.
“Given our observations on similar legislation in Southeast Asia and South Asia, this is an extremely sensitive and problematic area,” Rohan Samarajiva, Chair of ICT policy think tank, LIRNEasia told EconomyNext shortly before the actual bill was published.
“What I would suggest is that the text should be made available for discussion and not gazetted.”
“Ideally, this kind of legislation that has a clear bearing on people’s freedom of expression, which is protected by the constitution, should be released in full form as a bill or as a white paper.”
“And there should be adequate time for those affected, that is the general public, knowledgeable experts, media, platforms, etc., to comment on the draft.”
Earlier this month the public was told that the cabinet of ministers had already approved a draft law to “safeguard the general public from the damage caused by false information.”
Among the offences listed in the draft bill were: communication of false statements on the incidents within Sri Lanka, false statements causing defamation, disturbing religious assembly through false statements, communication of false statements with the sole intention of hurting religious emotions, communication of false statements with the sole intention for the abomination of religious emotions.”
In addition to the question of online truths, the the bullet points also lumped together criminal activities including fraud, cheating and child abuse, as part of ‘Online Safety’ according to the bullet points released to the public.
“Who decides truthfulness?” Lawyer and rights activist Sanjaya Jayasekara questioned. “Who is going to decide upon what is true or not? It is maybe a scientific truth, it may be a sociological truth. Who will decide that?
“What they are planning to do is to abolish this democratic space, which is called social media. This law, if it is passed, would be a very anti-democratic law and an attack, a deadly blow against democratic freedom of expression.”
According to the law a commission would be appointed by the President.
The state has in the past has used speech related laws such as the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Computer Crimes Act, Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the Penal Code, to prompt legal action against critical voices.
There are best practices from other free countries that can be drawn upon to improve online safety, there should be more substantive discussion, experts said.
“For example, there’s a possibility that there currently exists of a code of conduct that can be even tried out with the cooperation of the tech companies, like in New Zealand and a few other jurisdictions, where you could see how the thing actually works,” Samarajiva said.
“And then based on those learnings, a bill can be drafted and enacted.
“It’s a complex piece of legislation. We don’t know what kind of expertise was drawn upon when drafting it.
“Given the fact that it seems to come out of the blue, it would be useful to have an open discussion on an actual draft.”(Colombo/Sep19/23)