ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s ongoing efforts to criminalise “fake news” or alleged falsehoods on the internet is an attempt by the government to intimidate the public into self-censorship, opposition National People’s Power (NPP) parliamentarian Dr Harini Amarasuriya said.
What with the COVID-19 epidemic situation preventing opposition parties and the public from taking to the streets, social media has become a site of protest where people express resistance to an increasingly unpopular government, she said, adding that the plans to criminalise arbitrarily defined fake news is an attempt to quell that expression of dissent.
“It’s really rich coming from a government that routinely uses fake news to for its own projects,” Dr Amarasuriya told EconomyNext in a phone interview June 10 afternoon.
Sri Lanka police said on June 08 that citizens publishing or sharing news deemed false on social media can be arrested without a warrant. Police said anyone creating, publishing, sharing, forwarding, or otherwise aiding and abetting the spread of “fake news” on social media will be considered to have committed an offence under provisions in the police ordinance, the penal code, the prevention of terrorism act (PTA), the computer crimes act and other laws.
According to human rights lawyer Dr Gehan Gunatilleke, broadly and poorly worded provisions in the PTA and the Computer Crimes Act can be construed in bad faith to cover alleged falsehoods disseminated online. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) has also expressed deep concern that these provisions could be misused by police to stifle free speech.
Dr Amarasuriya concurs.
“We in the NPP think it’s an attempt by the government to scare people into censoring themselves. If you look at the statement made by the police, it’s not actually referring to any new law. It’s listing a whole lot of existing laws that can be used to prosecute people,” she said.
“This is a form of intimidation. It’s threatening behaviour,” she added, noting the irony of a government known for what she called its well-oiled machinery of fake news production attempting to criminalise it.
A deeply unpopular government that’s very much on the defensive is trying to block any critique, claimed Amarasuriya.
The dissemination of misinformation causes real harm, however, as pointed out by those defending the move. Asked about this, the MP said, “I think that’s a separate conversation to be had. “
The academic turned politician believes the role fake news plays in forming public opinion needs to be discussed, but it should not be up to the state to determine what is or isn’t fake news.
“I would say even more than fake news, opinions have become news. Stories without any evidence to back them up become fact. That’s problematic. But that’s a conversation we as a society need to have – about what we consider newsworthy, our ability to assess stories and separate those based on evidence from the rest, and how we can sift opinion from analysis,” she said.
“The state cannot – I mean, who is going to determine what’s fake or isn’t? Who is the authority that’s going to do that?”
Noting that Sri Lanka has no laws that define fake news, Amarasuriya, echoing Gunatilleke, said some provisions in the PTA and other laws can be misused.
“This idea of disturbing the peace has been misused in the past, and it can be misused again,” she said.
“The intention here is to curtail free speech and critique of the government; nothing else,” she added.
The fact remains, however, that fake news can and does cause significant damage. Countless examples of misinformation online translating to tangible harm can be found the world over. If the state doesn’t intervene, who does? Do we leave it to big tech, known for dodging regulation?
Amarasuriya believes the end-user must be educated in responsible use of social media and exercise a degree of informational awareness when posting or sharing news online, akin to the self-regulation practiced by mass media over the years.
“As the NPP, we’re more in favour of letting the media regulate itself. We think when the state tries to intervene in these things, it’s never innocent. It’s never a natural intervention. It’s never with the well-being of larger society in mind. It’s almost always to protect a government, not to protect society.
“For us it’s more important that we create the kind of conditions where the press can regulate itself. And that goes for social media as well,” she said.
Amarasuriya agrees that big tech’s profit motive complicates matters.
“Certainly it’s complicated, because of the involvement of big companies who profit from allowing this to happen. That is a problem of how those companies function. There’s a commercial intent there that needs to be regulated. But we do not think that citizens’ right to express themselves should be limited in any way.”
Is the NPP then advocating a different kind of self-censorship where even ordinary citizens essentially watch what they say?
“It’s like this. If the government wants to get involved at all, it should be in educating people about these issues. It should invest in education so that people will be better equipped to assess something for themselves and form informed opinions. That’s what the government should be doing.”
Amarasuriya claimed the move to criminalise “fake news” is a reaction to growing popular opposition in the country, expressed as it is on social media amid an island-wide lockdown.
“When we’re all in a lockdown, our ways of expressing resistance or dissent are severely circumscribed. Even as a political party we cannot meet people or go outside and protest. I can tell you there are plenty of issues for us to get on the road about right now, if we only could. But we can’t, and neither can people.
“Obviously social media becomes a site and a space where people can express that dissent and resistance. The government is trying to control that too now. They’ve got people off the streets. Now they want to get people off social media as well, because obviously they can’t tolerate any kind of criticism or opposition,” she said.
A common criticism has been that Sri Lanka’s opposition parties have not been able to mobilise this popular dissent and politically capitalise on a seemingly endless series of tragic missteps by the administration. Asked to comment on this, Amarasuriya said the media still doesn’t give the NPP the space it deserves, while increased social media presence requires the kind of funds that are simply lacking at the moment.
“I don’t think we have been silent. We have almost weekly press conferences. We’ve been putting out statements. We’ve been speaking in parliament. Even with the lockdown in place, we organised a protest against the Port City economic commission bill.
“Parties like the NPP have always had to fight for space in the media – that’s a real disadvantage. We feel the government is benefiting from that. We are saying things, but what we’re saying is not reaching people because of limitations of the spaces within which we can say it. Whether it’s the media who won’t pick up on it, or how social media functions, there is a problem,” she said.
This problem is something that’s almost beyond her party’s control, said the MP. The party wants the epidemic brought under control as soon as possible so it can go out and “do this with the people”, she said.
“We do try to use social media as much as we can to express our opinion and also to reach out to people. But this is where I think the commercial aspect of it also becomes an issue. You need money. You need to spend money to be visible on social media, and we’re simply outspent,” said Amarasuriya.
The NPP and the parties affiliated with it are simply not able to compete for social media visibility with the government and even the main opposition the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) with their deep pockets, said Amarasuriya.
“We’re completely outspent. And it shows.
“It’s a very unfortunate situation. The government is deeply unpopular, but I think it’s also necessary for us to take this outside of the social media space and actually engage with people and mobilise that unpopularity,” she said.
Given the epidemic, said Amarasuriya, most including the NPP are functioning primarily on social media, and social media may be presenting a distorted picture of this seemingly popular resistance.
“Out on the street, in different parts of the country, there’s much more work to be done. I think there’s a deep sense of anxiety and a dissatisfaction overall. But to turn that dissatisfaction and unhappiness to actual resistance requires mobilisation that has to take place beyond social media. And right now, that is exactly what we’re prevented from doing.”
While it’s not insurmountable, she said, it’s still a challenge.
“We can’t be an irresponsible opposition and deliberately violate quarantine laws in the middle of a pandemic. But that is why we’ve been urging the government – and we’ve been raising this inside and outside parliament – that the COVID situation be brought under control soon.”
Amarasuriya also accused the government of politicising COVID-19.
“The pandemic can’t be manipulated like this for political gain. It can’t be politicised. We suspect the government is using it for political reasons – in silencing opposition,” she said.
“We feel they don’t really want to bring this under control either,” she added. (Colombo/June12/2021)