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)