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Wednesday December 7th, 2022

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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Crisis-hit Sri Lanka sees recovery in cruise ship tourism from zero

ECONOMYNEXT – Seventeen cruise ships are scheduled to arrive in Sri Lanka next year with
Queen Mary 2, one of the largest and popular ships, Colombo’s harbor master said, as the island nation is looking for alternative avenues to boost its faltered tourism sector.

The rise is expected to bring thousands of high end tourists with higher spending capacity after two years. The island nation saw a record high 54 ships in 2019, rising from the previous year’s 42, Nimal Silva, Colombo Port Harbor Master said.

“The 2019 was one of the best years and in 2020 there were more than 60 scheduled vessels to
call but with COVID pandemic all hell broke loose,” Silva told EconomyNext.

Fourteen cruise ships are scheduled to call from January-May next year and another three are scheduled to arrive in Colombo in November, when the peak tourism season begins.

Cruise tourism cycle begins in Sri Lanka from October to May with a dip during the monsoon
seasons.

Sri Lanka welcomed two cruise ships in November after almost two years.

Three ships are scheduled to arrive in December and Azamara Quest, carrying at least 722 tourists, arrived in Colombo on December 3 and is now heading to Hambantota.

On December 18, Le Champion carrying 264 will arrive in Colombo and depart to Mumbai and the third vessel, Silver Spirit will arrive in Colombo on December 23 carrying up to 648 passengers.

There are two scheduled in January, one in February, and four in March next year, according to the harbormaster.

“Next year more ships could schedule, so far these are the confirmed ones now,” he said.

This also generates income for the port and the prices are charged according to the size of the
vessel.

Silva said the first medium sized-cruise vessel, 229 meters long, generated about 14,000 dollars
for docking in the port for a day.

He said Queen Mary 2, a 325 meter long ship and one of the largest cruise ships in the world, is also
scheduled to call at Colombo in February. It can carry up to 3200 passengers.

Silva said almost all the ships that were scheduled have arrived on the island and therefore, he is
confident all the ships including Queen Mary 2 will arrive in Sri Lanka.

“Only one ship has been canceled thus far. There are no last minute cancellations if there were some they would have informed us by now,” Silva said. (Colombo/Dec07/2022)

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Sri Lanka President says 2015-2019 policy struggle was ‘warfare’

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe said his attempts to reverse the inward-looking protectionist policies and fix state finances during his last term as Prime Minister was opposed both by politicians and business interests.

“In the 4.5 years as prime minister it was an effort to take this economy out in a different direction,” President Wickremesinghe told an economic forum organized by Sri Lanka’s Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.

“We were able to get a surplus in the primary budget. But it was warfare.

“Politicians wanted to protect their power, businessmen wanted to protect their profits and many others wanted to see what the country would provide them free of charge.”

Wickremesinghe was unable to bring private investment to the port under apparent internal political opposition. Relations with President Maithripala Sirisena also soured and he appointed his own economic advisors.

Meanwhile Wickremesinghe’s free trade agenda was hit by monetary instability as the central bank printed money under flexible inflation targeting and triggered forex shortages which were followed by trade controls.

Related

Sri Lanka controls imports in ‘Nixon-shock’ move to protect soft-pegged rupee

Sri Lanka President calls to expand Nixon shock as rupee falls

Wickremesinghe’s ‘Yahapalana’ administration also went on a spending spree called ‘100-day program’ in 2015 triggering a currency crisis in 2015/2016 as the central bank printed money to suppress rates.

The central bank however had already started injecting liquidity and losing reserves (by terminating term repo deals) from the fourth quarter of 2014 as domestic credit recovered from a 2012 currency crisis before his administration came to power.

The rupee fell from 131 to 152 and stabilization policies led to an output shock. The International Monetary Fund then taught the agency which had already depreciated the currency from 4.70 to 152 to the dollars seeking bailouts 16 times, how to calculate an output target.

Under Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera taxes were raised and budget were fixed in 2018 to bring deficits back to pre-2015 levels, though state spending went up from 17 to around 20 percent of GDP under the spendthrift ‘revenue based fiscal consolidation’ where cost cutting was dropped.

The central bank then printed money by purchasing bonds from banks to target the yield curve, jettisoning a bills only policy established by ex-Central Bank Governor A S Jayewardena, through term reverse repo and overnight injections taking the rupee from 151 to 162 to the US dollar.

The central bank also created money by entering into a swap with the Treasury in 2018, a type of strategy used by speculators to bring down East Asian pegs putting, further pressure on the currency from around July 2018 onwards.

Related

What went wrong; Sri Lanka’s illiberal economics and unsound money : Bellwether

Stabilization policies then led to another output shock. As forex shortages came Sri Lanka resorted to heavy external borrowing as it was unable to settle maturing loans with domestic borrowings.

After two currency crises and output shocks, macro-economists of the new administration cut taxes saying there was a ‘persistent output gap’ and printed even more money for stimulus (close the output gap). (Colombo/Dec07/2022)

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China calls for joint effort to ease Sri Lanka’s debt burden, no mention of restructure

ECONOMYNEXT — A top Chinese official has expressed hope that countries and multilaterals like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) work with Beijing to play a constructive role in easing Sri Lanka’s debt burden, stopping short of an assurance on debt restructuring.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning was quoted by international media as saying on Monday December 05 that China attaches high importance to Sri Lanka’s difficulties and challenges.

She was responding to a question on media reports that an IMF team will be in China this week to discuss faster progress on debt restructuring for countries including Sri Lanka, which is negotiating for an IMF bailout.

“On Sri Lanka’s debt issue, I’d like to stress that we support the financial institutions in working out ways with Sri Lanka to properly solve the issue,” said Ning.

“We also hope relevant countries and international financial institutions will work with China and continue to play a constructive role in helping Sri Lanka overcome the current difficulties, ease its debt burden and realise sustainable development,” she added.

She said China has long-standing sound cooperation with the IMF and other international economic and financial institutions.

The spokesperson avoided any mention of debt restructuring, a prerequisite for the IMF extended fund facility (EFF).

Nearly a fifth of Sri Lanka’s public external debt is held by China, according to one calculation. The emerging superpower has been generous in Sri Lanka’s time of need, extending much needed assistance in the form of rice, medicine and other commodities.

The latest arrival in the Colombo port from China was 2 billion Sri Lankan rupees worth of essential medicines and medical supplies, delivered on Tuesday.

However, critics say China is doing everything but what Sri Lanka really needs: agreeing to restructure its outstanding debt.

At least one Sri Lankan opposition MP has demanded that China agree to a restructure.

Related:

Sri Lanka debt restructuring: opposition MP warns of “China go home” protests

Tamil National Alliance (TNA) legislator Shanakiyan Rasamanickam, who had been on the warpath with Beijing over an apparent lethargy in helping the crisis-hit island nation restructure its debt, recently warned of a “China, go home” protest campaign similar to the “Gota, go home” protests that unseated the country’s powerful former president in July.

The MP told parliament last Friday December 02 that Sri Lanka owes 7.4 billion dollars to China, a nearly 20-trillion dollar economy, and if the latter was was a true friend, it would agree to either write off this debt or at least help restructure it.

Colombo has been vague at best on the status of ongoing restructure talks with Sri Lanka’s creditors, and opposition lawmakers and others have expressed concern over what seems to be a worrying delay. Rasamanickam and others have claimed that China, Sri Lanka’s largest bilateral creditor, is the reason for the apparent standstill. (Colombo/Dec06/2022)

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