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Sunday April 14th, 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.

LGBTQIA+ Rights: Europe and South Asia See Similar Discriminatory Practices

ECONOMYNEXT – The rights and protections of the LGBTQIA+ community have been fraught with challenges and continue to be so, despite the many gains achieved in recent years.

Nor are those handful of rights universally applied, a recent discussion which looked at the European and South Asian perspectives on same-sex rights and unions revealed. Most developed nations have introduced protections for those identifying as LGBTQIA+, and a view from a distant lens paints a picture of tolerance. Yet, a closer look at the European arena throws up the many gaps that are evident in the application of the law.

In the so-called conservative South Asian nations, changes to legislation are slow to be implemented. That may come as a surprise, for, contrary to popular belief, same-sex relationships were culturally acceptable in the South Asian region and is not a Western concept points out Ruhaan Joshi, a Public Policy Practitioner from India.

Society’s view on same-sex relationships dimmed with the imposition of Western values and the criminalisation of such relationships with the advent of colonial rule.

While the LGBTQIA+ communities in South Asian countries currently battle to have same-sex relationships decriminalised and their unions legally accepted, the irony is that countries that first made such relationships punishable by law have moved on to be more welcoming, though some discriminatory practices continue.

Joshi was part of a discussion themed ‘On Being Queer and LGBTQIA+ in South Asia and Europe, held in Germany on April 9 this year. The discussion which included the release of two papers which examined the rights and protections of the LGBTQIA+ community in Europe and South Asia, respectively, was organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.

Joining Joshi in the discussion were lawyer and parliamentarian Premnath C Dolawatte from Sri Lanka, Milosz Hodun, President, Projekt Polska Foundation, Poland, Michael Kauch, a Member of the European Parliament and RENEW Europe Group and Inaya Zarakhel, a Dutch-Pakistani actress and an activist on Queer Rights, who moderated the discussion. The two papers were presented by Hodun and Joshi, respectively.

In his opening remarks, Kauch pointed out that while the view of the liberals is that the rights recognized in one member nation of the EU must be accepted by all member countries, that is not the ground reality, the issue of Rainbow families being a case in point.

In the context of the European Union, though the Court of Justice has ruled on the freedom of movement of those in same-sex partnerships and their families, the ruling is not universally applied by member nations.

In Italy, and some European nations, surrogacy which helps childless couples to become parents is illegal. In other situations where same-sex parents are of different nationalities a child in that union faces restriction of movement or the possibility of being stateless if one parent hails from a country where such parental rights are not recognised.

Hodun meanwhile stated that in Poland transgender persons must first sue their parents for the gender assigned to them at birth, to have their gender marker changed on documents.

Some countries such as Russia and Azerbaijan resort to State-sponsored homophobia, and in many instances politicians and political parties promote such biases to boost their voter base it was pointed out. Even where laws are in place for the protection of LGBTQIA+ rights, there is no political will to implement them.

In Europe where migrants arrive in droves seeking asylum, and are frowned upon by many of those countries, LGBTQIA+ members face even more discrimination Hodun says, both by other refugees and governments, where most often the state ignores the situation despite the guidelines issued by the UN and the European Court of Justice. Hate speech and hate crimes too are on the rise he adds stating that at least 80 per cent go unreported.

Increasingly the LGBTQIA+ community has experienced a diminishing of their safe spaces as right-wing and populist governments are elected across the globe. Taking a dig at feminism, meanwhile, Kauch states that though feminists uphold a woman’s right to opt for an abortion, they take a different approach on the topic of surrogacy.

Dolawatte who waded into unchartered waters when he presented a Private Member’s Bill to decriminalise same-sex relationships through an amendment to section 365 of the Penal Code and the repealing of section 365A in its totality, is hopeful that the Bill will pass its third reading. It’s been an uphill battle he says, referring to the case filed in the Supreme Court against the Bill. The court ruled in his favour.

He had little or no support from his own party members, but says the President of the country, and younger party members are with him on this issue. Apart from making Sri Lanka a safe space, it would encourage foreign nationals identifying as LGBTQIA+ to visit without fear, and thus boost tourism he opines.

As Joshi states society has come a long way from when LGBTQIA+ were made fun of and were subject to violence to the positive portrayal in movies. Such movies are also well-received by society. Transgender identity has a distinct recognition in South Asian religious beliefs. Hijra, Khwaja Sara or Kinnar are some names given to transgender folk and they have, since ancient times been an accepted group in society. On the one hand, there’s Afghanistan and the Maldives which make no allowances for the LGBTQIA+ community, while Nepal became the first South Asian nation in 2023, to register a same-sex marriage, Joshi states. In most South Asian nations, the courts have ruled in favour of relaxing the rules against this community, and, like in Europe, it is the governments that drag their feet.

For governments to change their stance, society must take the lead in fighting for the unconditional dignity of the individual, freedom of movement, and safeguarding the tenets of democracy, he says adding that it must also run parallel with the LGBTQIA+ community looking beyond themselves at issues that impact democratic values, and the societal restrictions non-LGBTIQIA+ groups face, such as opposition to inter-caste marriage and the right to adopt outside their caste systems and equal access to many other privileges.

While the panellists advocated working together across the global divide as a step towards achieving equal rights for all, Dolawatte also called for caution; too much pressure on such issues from Europe he said may not be welcome, and must be handled with care.

With right-wing and populist governments getting elected across the globe, Kauch claims the forthcoming EU elections will prove crucial in deciding how future and current governments ensure tolerance and diversity amongst their citizenry.

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Sri Lanka making new economic laws to embed structural reforms

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka is making new laws and also revising old legislation following a comprehensive review of past experience and lessons learned, Treasury Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana has said.

Most of these new laws focus on structural changes of the existing executive and administrative structures, Siriwardana was quoted as saying in a speech to ministry officials on April 08.

The laws related to public finance, procurement, public private partnerships, state enterprises and also a law on the offshore economy.

The following new laws are being made:

a. Public Financial Management Bill
b. Public Debt Management Bill
c. Economic Transformation Bill
d. Management of State Owned Enterprises Law
e. Public Private Partnership (PPP) Law
f. Investment Law
g. Public Procurement Bill
h. Unified Labor Law Bill
i. Food Security Bill
j. Public Asset Management Bill
k. Microfinance and Credit Regulatory Authority Bill
l. Secured Transaction Bill
m.Offshore Economic Management Bill
n. New law for facilitating proposed agricultural land lease programme
Public Service Employment Bill
o. Sri Lanka Accounting and Standard Monitoring Act

Changes are planned to the following laws

a. Amendments to Agrarian Development Act
b. Amendments to Excise Ordinance
c. Amendments to Customs Ordinance
d. Amendments to Finance Act
e. Amendments to Foreign Exchange Act. Colombo/Apr15/2024)

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After PM’s Chinese visit, US NSA talks to Sri Lanka President’s advisor on peace, security

ECONOMYNEXT – The United States National Security Advisor (NSA) Jake Sullivan held talks with Sri Lanka President’s Senior Advisor on National Security Sagala Ratnayaka focusing on regional security issues this week.

The conversation between the two comes days after Sri Lanka Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena ended an official visit to China in which he met President Xi Jinping and his counterpart Li Qiang in Beijing amid discussions over further investments in Sri Lanka and concerns over banning Chinese research ships.

The United States along with India is highly concerned over increasing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, which is located in a strategic location in the Asia.

China already owns a port and a proclaimed land next to the main Colombo port in Sri Lanka and analysts say the Beijing’s ownership of assets has raised doubts if China is planning to use Sri Lanka as a military base. China has denied this and said its relationship with Sri Lanka is only based on commercial aspects.

The discussion between Sullivan and Ratnayaka focused on a range of crucial topics aimed at bolstering bilateral relations between the two nations, the President’s Media Division (PMD) said.

“Central to their discussion was the unwavering U.S. commitment to supporting Sri Lanka’s security and sovereignty,” the PMD said in a statement.

“Acknowledging Sri Lanka’s ongoing endeavours, Sullivan emphasized the importance of completing the fiscal, monetary, and governance aspects of the IMF program.”

The US along with India has raised possible threats of increasing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, government officials have said. Both  countries see China as a security threat to the Indian Ocean region, they say.

“The conversation also delved into future prospects for collaboration between the two countries, exploring avenues for enhanced cooperation in various spheres,” the PMD said.

“Sullivan conveyed his keen interest in fostering continued engagement with Sri Lanka, underscoring the mutual objective of advancing peace and security in the region.”

“This dialogue marks a pivotal moment in U.S.-Sri Lanka relations, demonstrating a shared commitment to promoting stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.” (Colombo/April 13/2024)

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