ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s speaker Mahinda Abeywardana said a bill for ‘online safety’ has drawn 30 more petitions to the Supreme Court.
After a draft law is tabled by the rulers, citizens can file a legal challenge seeking compliance with the constitution.
The law seeks to set up a commission to determine the truth or otherwise of content published online.
The planned bill, described as ‘draconian’ had drawn widespread criticism from activists, civil society groups, the UN and lawyers.
The International Committee on Jurists said “several provisions of the bill would serve to undermine the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the country, including freedom of information and expression.
“Of particular concern are provisions related to the setting up, appointment and functions of an Online Safety Commission and other experts, the vague and overbroad wording of conduct designated as punishable offences and unnecessary and disproportionate punitive sanctions.”
Given below are among the most serious problems summarized by the International Committee of Jurists.
Sri Lanka: Selected flaws in the Online Safety Bill
• Wide ranging and overly broad powers of the Online Safety Commission and appointed Experts
The bill provides for the establishment of a five-member ‘Online Safety Commission’ that is to be appointed on the sole discretion of the President (clause 5). This is in contrast to other notionally independent commissions in Sri Lanka, the appointments to which require the consent of the Constitutional Council by way of nomination or ratification. This bill would give the president unfettered discretion where both appointment and removal is concerned.
The Commission would also be vested with a wide range of powers, some of which encroach into the functions of the judiciary. It essentially acts as sole arbiter of matter of fact and is entitled to issue notices or directives against any person, internet service provider (ISP) or internet intermediaries who/which is alleged to have communicated a prohibited or false statement. The bill does not specify the process through which the Commission would arrive at this decision.
Moreover, the Commission is granted authority to block websites and instruct ISPs to restrict access to specific online locations. This may result in undue government overreach and censorship and impermissible limitations on the exercise of the right to information protected by Article 14A of the Constitution and international law.
Further clause 37 allows for the Minister to appoint ‘Experts’ to assist police officers in investigations. The experts are private individuals who can accompany police officers during search procedures, but are also given the power upon authority granted by a police officer above the rank of a sub-inspector to require a person to hand over any documents or device, provide traffic data or be orally examined (clause 37 (6)). Such excessive powers in the hands of unaccountable private individuals provide avenues for abuse.
The bill does not provide provide for judicial review of the Commission’s decisions or procedures. Instead clause 49 seeks to protect the Commission, its staff, or any expert appointed under clause 37 from being brought to court for any act or omission done in good faith.
• Vague and overbroad offences
A particularly problematic aspect of the bill are provisions of vague and overbroad definitions of offences.
Article 19(3) of the ICCPR provides that the right to freedom of expression and opinion may be subject to certain restrictions, but that these restrictions must be provided by law and necessary for one of a limited numbers of legitimate purposes, namely to protect the rights and reputations of others, national security, public order or public health or morals. The measure of limitation must be proportionate, using the least restrictive means possible to achieve the purpose. The requirement that any restrictive measure be provided by law means that they must comply with the principle of legality, by which the law must be stated with precision as to allow persons to be able to conform their conduct in compliance.
Similarly, Article 15 (2) of the Sri Lankan Constitution provides for possibility of restriction of the right “as may be prescribed by law in the interests of racial and religious harmony or in relation to parliamentary privilege, contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”
The prohibitions listed in this draft legislation go beyond the restrictions allowed for under the ICCPR and the Sri Lankan Constitution, as clause 12 states that “any person who poses a threat to national security, public health or public order or promotes feelings of ill-will and hostility between different classes of people, by communicating a false statement, commits an offence.”
In addition, several acts that would constitute offence are only vaguely defined, if at all. This includes communicating a false statement “with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any other person” (clause 16) or “outraging the religious feelings of any class of persons, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class” (clause 17). These clauses are overbroad in that they would encompass expression that is protected under human rights law. Clause 14 makes it an offence to ‘wantonly giving provocation by false statement to cause riot’. This language is open to abuse by the authorities, as evidenced by practices arising from other legislation, including the ICCPR Act and the PTA.
Repeated mention of ‘religion’ in these provisions is a cause for concern as they come in a context where there is ongoing strife relating to contested religious sites between majority and minority religious communities, thus creating risk of selected application to silence expression by persons from minority religious communities.
• Disproportionate Punishment
The draft bill prescribes unjustifiably hefty punishments of fines and a period of imprisonment ranging from one, two, three or five years for overbroad and ill-defined offences. It also states that “in the event of a second or subsequent conviction, such term of imprisonment or fine or both such imprisonment and fine may be doubled.”
Clause 25 of the bill, which refers to ‘failure to comply with the directives of the Commission’ would make it an offence to fails to comply with such directive within a period of 24 hours and makes the person liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or to a fine not exceeding one million rupees.