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Thursday December 8th, 2022

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

ECONOMYNEXT – Media rights activists have expressed concern over a proposed Singapore-style regulatory framework for Sri Lankan websites purportedly to combat fake news and hate speech online.

Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told a Ministerial Consultative Committee on Mass Media last Saturday (21) that the proposed mechanism will be introduced in two weeks.

The committee has reportedly studied Singapore’s controversial Infocomm Media Development Authority Act (IMDA) and Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which critics say will be emulated by Sri Lanka’s proposed regulatory framework in its mandate to curb reporting and content that spread falsehoods and incite racism.

Singapore’s IMDA passed in 2016 is one of the applicable acts to the statutory body responsible for broadcasting and content regulation (irrespective of the transmission medium) in Singapore. It received criticism from various quarters including the International Press institute over allegations of controlling the media.

Under POFMA, passed in 2018, the Singaporean government can issue a “correction notice” to an individual or organisation for online content about a public institution that the authorities deem false or misleading. The government can even amend such content in the name of public interest. According to various international media reports, the law has been accused of targeting civil society activists, NGOs and opposition lawmakers. Allegedly false statements published by media websites in Singapore can, under POFMA, carry hefty fines up to 1 million SIngapore dollars (USD  731,000) and jail sentences of up to 10 years.

Sri Lanka’s proposed answer to POFMA has drawn criticism from activists who caution that it could stifle freedom of expression for the island nation’s growing number of netizens.

In an email response to EconomyNext, researcher and founding editor of Groundviews Sanjana Hattotuwa said that self-regulation would be preferable to any regulation the government of Sri Lanka imposes.

“Regulation can’t be talked about in a vacuum, without taking into consideration the nature of the state, the history of policies by a government, and the kind of individuals pushing for new legislation,” he said.

Hattotuwa, who is currently based in New Zealand, claimed that Groundviews was Sri Lanka’s first website with guidelines around what would or would not be acceptable on the site, from content to comments.

“This extended to the curation of our Facebook page as well. On Twitter, we have no control over tone and thrust of tweets directed at us, but abusive, venomous accounts – even if directed at the Rajapaksas – were blocked or muted,” he added.

In early 2019, a number of civic groups and researchers in Sri Lanka voluntarily signed the Social Media Declaration: a code of conduct for responsible social media use. Recalling this relatively unknown initiative, Hattotuwa said the declaration was the result of conversations with individuals and institutions across the country and was the first pledge of its kind in Sri Lanka. Initiatives like this, he said, are far more desirable than any state regulation of websites in Sri Lanka.

The government’s plans to introduce regulations similar to Singapore’s IMDA and POFMA, Hattotuwa said, would lead to a chilling effect, in turn leading to heightened self-censorship and arbitrary use and abuse of the law to silence critics.

“It will stifle dissent, and restrict, even more than today, investigative and independent journalism if productions and published content are perceived to transgress the law or regulations. If loosely defined terms like hate speech are codified in the law and become offences one could be sent to jail for, the impact will not just be on those who are the targets of lawsuits, but the entire community of social media users across all platforms, in all languages,” he said.

Hattotuwa noted, however, that social media regulation is a reality in a number of countries.

“Even countries such as France, Turkey and soon, perhaps New Zealand too will consider it. Section 230 in the US will under a Biden administration be revised even if it isn’t completely abolished. Social media companies are not against regulation either,” he said.

“So the enemy isn’t regulation, but it is regulatory frameworks and laws that are poorly drafted as a strategic choice, so as to give the widest possible leeway for interpretation and application,” he added.

Hattotuwa further said that regulation is a choice repressive governments make to ride the wave of public anxiety and anger over rising hate speech on social media platforms to bring about laws that can help contain and control criticism and dissent.

“Steamrolling new laws with no public discussion and using the worst possible template to base domestic laws on (i.e. POFMA from Singapore) isn’t the way to address what is a growing challenge of content inciting hate and violence online – and worth stressing, one that this government has directly contributed to and condoned the rise of,” he said.

Meanwhile, digital media analyst and science communicator Nalaka Gunawardena who also spoke to EconomyNext via email noted that the government has not yet defined the specifics for the proposed regulations.

“We only hope that such a law will be drafted within the framework of the right to freedom of expression,” he said.

However, Gunawardena said the right to free expression is not an absolute one, and some limits may be imposed when justified.

“International human rights law has narrowly defined the allowable restrictions that must pass a three-part test of legality, legitimacy and proportionality,” he said.

Beginning in 2007 (and starting with TamilNet), Gunawardena recalled, successive governments have been blocking access to websites with political criticism, dissenting views, or websites that contain information on human rights issues, government accountability, corruption and political violence.

“Such web censoring is typically carried out by the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (TRCSL) ordering internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to specific domain names.

These TRCSL directives have been arbitrary, without a legal basis and lacking any judicial oversight. There is no indication that ISPs have ever challenged the TRCSL’s blocking orders with the commission itself or through the courts,” he said.

He added that Sri Lanka does not have an independent body that website editors or bloggers could turn to in the event of a site being blocked or censored, their only recourse being a fundamental rights petition filed in the Supreme Court.

Citing findings of US-based research group Freedom House from October 2020, Gunawardena said internet freedom “remained constrained in Sri Lanka”. The group’s Freedom on the Net 2020 report assessed Sri Lanka’s internet freedom as ‘partly free’ with a score of 52 out of 100 (where zero means least free, and 100 means most free). The report’s coverage period was from June 2019 to May 2020.

According to the report, Sri Lanka’s government “does not systematically block or filter websites and other forms of online content, although a few independent websites and other sites are blocked.” There was no blocking of global social media platforms like Facebook or YouTube during the coverage period.

The report also noted: “New evidence suggests that government actors manipulate information across major platforms. Separately, COVID-19 brought more arrests for online activity as well as enhanced data sharing between service providers and military intelligence.” (Colombo/Nov23/2020)

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  1. sacre blieu says:

    There has been much too much vilification using media and apps like Facebook, etc., by those who, thrive on humiliating people, use pseudonyms, to the degrading level and do such damage to these lives and have got away with it.

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  1. sacre blieu says:

    There has been much too much vilification using media and apps like Facebook, etc., by those who, thrive on humiliating people, use pseudonyms, to the degrading level and do such damage to these lives and have got away with it.

Sri Lanka in deep talent drain in latest currency crisis

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka businesses are facing a drain of talent, top business executives said as the country suffers the worst flexible exchange rate crisis in the history of its intermediate regime central bank and people lose hope.

“We are seeing a trend towards migrating,” Krishan Balendra, Chairman of Sri Lanka’s John Keells Holdings told an economic policy forum organized by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.

“We have seen an impact mainly on the tourist hotels side, quite an exodus of staff (migrating) to countries we have not seen in the past. 

“We have seen people go to Scotland, Ireland. It has usually been the Middle East and Maldives. Australia seems like a red hot labor market at the moment.”

Sri Lanka’s rupee collapsed from 200 to 360 to the US dollar after macro-economists printed money to suppress rates.

Sri Lanka operates a ‘flexible exchange rate’ where errors in targeting interest rates are compensated by currency depreciation especially after the 1980s.

Classical economists and analysts have called for the power to mis-target rates and operate dual anchor conflicting monetary regimes should be taken away to prevent future crisis.

Currency crises are problems associated with flexible exchange rate central banks which are absent in hard pegs and clean floats.

“Something new we are seeing is that older people, even those in their 50s, which was a surprise, are looking at migrating,” Balendra said.

Businesses are trying to retain talent as real wages collapse.

Balendra said as businesses they see some stability returning and based on past experience growth is likely to resume, and they were communicating with the workers.

“We have a degree of conviction that the economy should get better, its the stability phase now and it will get better going forward so without the way our businesses are placed we should see good growth,” Balendra said.

“We can’t chase compensation that’s just not practical and we are not trying to do that especially if people are looking to immigrate but what we can do is show the career opportunities in the backdrop of the situation that people would rather stay here because its home.” 

Sri Lanka unit of Heineken says it is also trying to convince workers not to leave, with more success.

“We are all facing the effects of brain drain and it’s not just the lower levels… What we are doing is a balance of daring and caring,” Maud Meijboom-van Wel – Managing Director / CEO, Heineken Lanka Ltd told the forum.

“Why I say daring is, you have to be clear in what you can promise people, when you make promises you have to walk the talk. So with the key talents and everyone you need to have the career and talent conversations.

“I am a bit lucky because I am running a multinational company so my career path goes beyond Sri Lanka so I can say if you acquire certain skills here, then you can move out of here and then come back too, that is a bit easier for me but it starts with having a real open conversation with walking the talk – dare and care.” (Colombo/Dec7/2022)


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Despite losses, Sri Lanka to resume “park & ride” transport after complaints  

ECONOMYNEXT –  Sri Lanka’s state-run Transport Board will resume its loss-making City Bus service from January 15, 2022 Cabinet Spokesman Bandula Gunawardena said, after the service abruptly discontinued with the state-run firm’s director board citing losses.

The City Bus service was introduced in 2021, under the government of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, from Makubura to Pettah and Bambalapitiya.

The service was started to reduce the number of automobiles travelling to and from Colombo and suburbs by providing a comfortable, convenient and safe public bus transportation for passengers and riders who use cars and motorcycles as their means of transportation.

During the time period in which the service was initiated, there were 800 hundred vehicles that would be parked and would use the system, Gunawardena, who is also the Transport Minister, said.

The service was later collapsed due to inconsistencies in scheduling and it was completely stopped after

“Without informing the Secretary or the Minister of the relevant Ministry, the Board of Directors have come to a conclusion that this is loss making route and must be halted,” Gunawardena said.

“The users of the City Bus service brought to our notice and therefore I gave the Secretary to the Ministry of Transport the approval to start the City Bus service from January 15.”

“If we stop all loss making transport services then massive inconveniences will occur to the people in far parts of the island.”

The chairman of the state run Ceylon Transport Board has been asked to handover the resignation letter by the Minister Gunawardana citing that the head has failed to implement a policy decision approved by the government. (Colombo/ Dec 06/2022)

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Sri Lanka may see rates falling next year: President

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s interest rates are high and hurting small businesses in particular but interest rates are required to maintain stability, President Ranil Wickremesinghe said.

“One is, all of you want to know what’s going to happen to the interest rates?,” President Wickremesinghe told an economic policy forum organized by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.

“I wish I know. The governor has told me that the inflation has peaked. It’s coming down. You all understandably want some relief with the interest rates to carry business on.”

“I understand that and appreciate the viewpoint. It’s not easy to carry business on with such high interest rates. On the other hand, the Central Bank also has to handle the economy. So maybe sometimes early next year we will have a meeting of minds of both these propositions.”

Sri Lanka’s interest rates are currently at around 30 percent but not because the central bank is keeping it up. The central bank’s overnight policy rate is only 15.5 percent but the requirement to finance the budget deficit and roll over debt is keeping rates up.

Rates are also high due to a flaw in the International Monetary Fund’s debt workout framework where there is no early clarity on a whether or not domestic debt will be re-structured.

After previous currency crises, rates come down after an IMF deal is approved and foreign loans resume and confidence in the currency is re-stabilished following a float.

This time however there has been no clear float, though the external sector is largely stable and foreign funding is delayed until a debt re-structure deal is made.

Sri Lanka’s external troubles usually come because the bureaucrats do not believe market rates are correct when credit demand picks up and mis-uses monetary tools given in 1950 by the parliament to suppress rates, blowing the balance of payments apart.

The result of suppressed rates by the central bank are steep spikes in rates to stop the resulting currency crisis.

A reserve collecting central bank has little or no leeway to control interest rates (monetary policy independence) without creating external troubles, which is generally expressed as the ‘impossible trinity of monetary policy objectives’.

However, it has not prevented officials from trying repeatedly to suppress rates, perhaps expecting different results.

After suppressed rates – supposedly to help businesses – trigger currency crises, the normalization combined with a currency collapse leads to impoverishment of the population.

The impoverishment through depreciation leads to a consumption shock, which also leads to revenue losses in businesses.

The suppressed rates then lead to bad loans.

In the 2020/2022 currency crisis the sovereign default has also led to more problems at banks. Several state enterprises also cannot pay back loans.

“…[T]he bad debt that is being carried by the banks is mainly from the private sector or the government sector,” President Wickremesinghe said.

“Keep the government sector aside. We’re dealing with it. How do you handle it? Look, one of our major areas of are the small and medium industries. You can’t allow them to collapse, but they’re in a bad way.”

Classical economists and analysts have called for new laws to block the ability to central bank to suppress rates in the first place so that currency crises and depreciation does not take place in the first place.

Then politicians like Wickremesinghe do not have to take drastic and unpopular measures to fix crises and there will be stability like in East Asia.

Sri Lanka had stability until 1950 when the central bank was created by abolishing an East Asia style currency board. The currency board kept the country relatively stable through two World Wars and a Great Depression.

In 1948 after the war (WWII) was over “we stood second to Japan” Wickremesinghe said.

“But we started destroying it from the sixties and the seventies,” he said. :We started rebuilding an economy, which was affected by a (civil) war, and thereafter the way we went, is best not described here.”

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