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Saturday November 27th, 2021
Free Speech

Sri Lanka govt mulls ways to control websites amid rising online activism

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s government is contemplating legislation that will target websites whose posts it deems “defamatory” and have no visible ownership, amid concerns of a clamp down on freedom of expression.

The government will first focus on websites without owners names and addresses, according to one minister.

The ministries of justice and media are developing a mechanism to control websites carrying allegedly defamatory content, Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said, as online criticism of the establishment mounts in the island. The idea is to “protect the rights of the people” without hindering freedom of expression or freedom of the press, he said.

Rambukwella told reporters at the weekly cabinet briefing Tuesday (10) morning that there ought to be a balance between freedom of expression and the personal freedoms of people.

“There is an opinion that there should be some measures with regard to websites that do not have owners and defame certain people deliberately, manipulating facts,” he said.

“This is not only a problem in this country. It has been discussed in five-star democracies too, and some of them have introduced regulations,” he added, without naming the countries.

Last week, Labour Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva lamented that Sri Lanka did not have China style ‘mardana’ laws to combat social media.

Related: Ban or regulate social media in Sri Lanka, top minister tells parliament

In April this year, Justice Minister Ali Sabry defended a move to criminalise social media posts deemed ‘fake’ through a law to be styled after Singapore’s POFMA, a controversial piece of legislation that has drawn widespread criticism as a tool to control the media and free speech.

The minister said at the time that discussions were under way at the cabinet level to introduce laws similar to the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), a move the government of Sri Lanka has reportedly been contemplating since November last year.

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

Minister Rambukwella said at Tuesday’s cabinet briefing that the lack of ownership for the stories that appear in some websites is a problem.

“There is no problem if somebody is responsible for the content or opinion expressed on their websites. But if there is nobody to take responsibility (for the content), then there should be some legal framework to deal with it. This is my personal view and my professional opinion as well,” he said.

“The justice minister and I are working carefully on how to protect the rights of the people without hindering personal freedom of expression and media freedom. We are now in the process of that. We need such a law in this country,” said Rambukwella.

The minister said the government is obligated to protect the rights of the people as much as it must ensure media freedom.

“There is a need for a legal framework to protect them. It is the duty of all,” he said.

On June 08, Sri Lanka police said 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.

Related: Poorly worded legal provisions can be construed to cover “fake news”: Sri Lanka lawyer

In November last year, media reports said Minister Rambukwella had told a Ministerial Consultative Committee on Mass Media that a regulatory framework for Sri Lankan websites was on the cards.

The committee had reportedly studied Singapore’s controversial Infocomm Media Development Authority Act (IMDA), in addition to POFMA, which critics said 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). 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. (Colombo/Aug11/2021)

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