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Thursday December 9th, 2021
Free Speech

Another Sri Lanka govt MP calls for social media regulation amid online backlash

SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam

ECONOMYNEXT – Spokespersons for the government of Sri Lanka continue to advocate the regulation of social media, as the general public increasingly take to online platforms to vent over the rising cost of living and other frustrations.

In the most recent of such pronouncements from the government, MP and general secretary of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Sagara Kariyawasam speaking in parliament on Thursday (21) called for the regulation of social media content claiming that it has become the primary source of news for younger Sri Lankans who he said have moved on from print and broadcast media.

“Today, wrong and hateful views are being propagated on social media. There is no legal framework around it,” said Kariywasam.

“I think those who harm the country and destabilise the country have seized the opportunity,” he added.

The MP claimed that social media was weaponised against former president Mahinda Rajapaksa in his second term.

“A similar situation has emerged today,” he said.

“I would like to propose therefore that information that is posted on social media – I’m not saying ban social media – but if some institute could verify the accuracy of information that is posted on social media and make a statement on that information and regulate it, it would be of benefit to the country,” he said.

Kariyawasam did not elaborate on how he proposes to regulate online content which takes the form of thousands of Facebook posts, tweets, memes, TikTok videos and other types of content on a daily basis.

The main opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), too, is for regulation, according to MP Thalatha Athukorala.

“We too would like if there were some laws and regulations, [turning to Justice Minister Ali Sabry] Hon Minister of Justice, that were robustly implemented. We would like that very much, because we all know how it was used for just one side before November 16, 2019, and how it is being used now,” Athukorala told parliament on Thursday.

Both government and opposition parties in Sri Lanka have routinely used social media campaigns, particularly during elections, to varying degrees of success and with questionable regard to ethics.

Though abuse and misinformation is certainly rampant, the ubiquity of the medium has also allowed ordinary users to freely express themselves online and react to the status quo, without an agenda.

In August this year, another government MP broached the subject of curtailing social media in the country, calling for either a total ban on social networking sites or a robust regulatory mechanism.

Labour Minister Nimal Sirispala de Silva, who had addressed parliament on the matter of child abuse, told the house on August 05 that social networking sites such as Facebook are 90% responsible for the exploitation of children because of an alleged tendency to “constantly highlight” such incidents.

“There are no laws in this country to suppress (mardanaya kireema, Sinhalese for suppress)  or to regulate these websites. I have raised this matter at the cabinet level, too,” said de Silva.

“In China, there is no social media. We’re not like that.  We open the stable door first and then try to catch the horse after he’s bolted,” he added.

China is, in fact, the world’s biggest social media market, according to the BBC, even with its ban on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Domestic social media such as Weibo, Renren and YouKu are immensely popular among Chinese youth.

Minister de Silva called on MPs to draw their attention to curtailing social media in Sri Lanka.

“These sites either need to be banned, or regulated, or this won’t stop,” he said.

Sri Lanka has flirted with the idea of a ban on social media or some form of regulation of websites, particularly news sites for some time now.

In November last year, news broke that the government was developing a Singapore-style regulatory framework for Sri Lankan websites, purportedly to combat fake news.

Related: New S’pore-style regulatory framework for Sri Lanka websites; activists concerned

More recently, Sri Lanka police said in a controversial statement on June 08 that citizens publishing or sharing news deemed ‘false’ on social media can be arrested without a warrant.

Related: Sri Lankans posting information deemed ‘false’ on social media face arrest without warrant

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) responded to the police media statement later that week, expressing deep concern that the move could stifle free speech.

“Whilst the BASL has no objection to enforcing laws relating to hate speech and incitement to voilence, it is important to ensure that authorities do not use such laws to stifle genuine expression of dissent and criticism,” the BASL said in a statement on June 11. (Colombo/Octw1/2021)

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