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Monday March 4th, 2024

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 rupee opens at 308.20/50 to the US dollar

Sri Lanka stocks reversed its falling trend and gained for the first time in six sessions on Tuesday closed stronger on Tuesday (21).

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s rupee opened at 308.20/50 to the US dollar Monday, from 308.80/90 on Friday, dealers said.

Bond yields were broadly steady.

A bond maturing on 01.08.2026 was quoted stable at 10.90/11.00 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.09.2027 was quoted at 11.90/12.00 percent from 11.90/12.05 percent.

A bond maturing on 01.07.2028 was quoted at 12.20/30 percent from 12.15/35 percent.

The Colombo Stock Exchange opened up; The All Share was up 0.60 percent at 10,755, and the S&P SL20 was up 1.24 percent at 3,077. (Colombo/Mar4/2024)

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Sri Lanka central bank swaps top $3.2bn by December

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s central bank borrowed US dollars from various counterparties through swap transactions, which had topped 3.2 billion US dollars by December 2024, official data show.

The net short position, including swaps disclosed by the central bank, grew by over almost 1.28 billion US dollars from December 2022 to 3,280 million dollars.

The gross position grew from 2,263 million dollars to 3,280 million US dollars over the year.

The central bank supported some state banks with dollars to cover their dollar exposures, which had since been paid back.

By December reported gross reserves of the central bank was 4,491 million US dollars, against swaps of 3,280 billion US dollars.

Swaps of around 1500 related to the People Bank of China.

Swaps allow a central bank to increase gross reserves, without raising domestic interest rates.

Swaps with domestic counterparties lead to liquidity being injected into money markets, which can be mopped if domestic credit growth is moderate.

At the moment many private banks have large dollar positions invested outside the country, which cannot be used for transactions domestically because of a money monopoly given to macro-economists. (Sri Lanka repays debt or collects reserves of U$5bn via banking system since rate correction)

However unwinding swaps after private credit has picked, or engaging in swaps after private credit has picked up, may lead to money being injected to maintain the policy rate, leading to excess credit by banks and balance of payments deficits and or currency collapses, analysts say.

Central bank swaps in the third quarter of 2018 led to a collapse of the currency under the ‘exchange rate as the first line of defence’ policy peddled to Sri Lanka, critics have said earlier.

Domestic currency proceeds of swaps were the primary ammunition to bust East Asian currencies in 1997-98.

Any depreciation after the swap proceeds have been used for imports (effectively mis-targeting rates) a central bank will run a forex loss.

The PBOC however had put a rule, preventing the use of the swap after gross reserves fell below 3 – months of imports, preventing Sri Lanka from getting into further trouble through the use of official reserves for private imports.

Sri Lanka’s central bank also used borrowings from the Reserve Bank of India, via the Asian Clearing Union to run BOP deficits.

Losses from exposed dollar positions of central banks which have gained ‘independence’ from fiscal rules and parliaments and engaged in macro-economic policy, including the Fed, have led to taxpayers bearing the losses in the end.

Swaps were invented by the Fed in the early 1960s, as it deployed macro-economic policy (printed money for growth) threatening its gold reserves and the Bretton Woods system.

Sri Lanka has other borrowings also, including from the IMF, which has made net foreign assets of the central bank negative. (Colombo/Mar05/2024)

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Sri Lanka loses MICE tourists to Thailand on minimum room rates

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka has lost Meetings, Incentive Travel and Exhibition travelers to competitors in East Asia and India due to minimum room rates as higher standard rooms were available in other countries at lower prices, industry officials said.

President of the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tourist (SLAITO) Nishad Wijetunga said they the industry managed to retain a majority of booking made before the minimum room rates were imposed by the state last year.

“However, there were MICE groups that were supposed to come and cancelled Sri Lanka and went to places like Thailand and other parts of India and we lost,” Wijetunga told EconomyNext.

“We know that large groups of MICE (tourists) are affected.”

India is a key source of MICE tourists to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s businesses have got used to protectionism and try to push up prices with import taxes to extract more money from customers using the coercive power of the state, with tiles and steel being among the most prominent examples.

RELATED: Stand-alone hotels unviable in Sri Lanka due to high construction, capital costs

High priced tiles and steel in turn makes hotels expensive to build and make the leisure industry less competitive, analysts say.

However, in tourism, unlike in building materials customers are not trapped within the country and are free to move to other markets.

Managing Director of CEC Events and Travels, Imran Hassan, said the industry lost groups to East Asia due to minimum room rate.

In one instance, an operator was in discussions to get a group of 900 passengers.

“And that moved out to Thailand,” Hassan said. “Like that, there are many instances that the minimum room rate was not conducive.”

Thailand in 2023 attracted 28.04 million tourists.

A group that used to come to Sri Lanka annually used to take 40 to 50 five-star hotel rooms. This time Sri Lanka competed by offering lower standard.

“This year, they’re only giving 10 rooms to the five-star hotels,” Hassan explained. “They are staying in smaller hotels because they can’t afford it because it has become so expensive.”

“But overall, we are working with the authorities to correct it.

“We don’t mind demand and supply situation taking the rates up as in the Maldives. But what we are saying is keep an open market.”

RELATED : Sri Lanka should say good bye to minimum room rates: President

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has said Sri Lanka cannot progress with protectionism and the country has to learn to face competition. (Colombo/Mar04/2024)

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