An Echelon Media Company
Saturday December 4th, 2021
Free Speech

Stand up for the interwebs

ECONOMYNEXT – When news broke in late November that the government was developing a Singapore-style regulatory framework for Sri Lankan websites, alarm bells rang in the corridors of slacktivism. The spectre of authoritarianism had crept into their own backyard: the internet, that last bastion of free expression subject to the whims of big tech and ISPs. With their sizzling hot takes facing imminent existential danger, the purveyors of liberal democracy had to speak up. At least until the next controversy in the 24-hour selective outrage cycle.

A couple of fire tweets and some decidedly non-threatening grunts were made, but it didn’t take very long for everyone to hit the snooze button and go right back to sleep. The pandemic, a cricket tournament and a popular reality TV show have since dominated the conversation, occasionally interrupted by self-righteous hysteria over an ill-advised advertisement or the other (as if most advertising isn’t deeply and fundamentally problematic) and, one week into December, the news about the coming regulations is all but forgotten. Incidentally, so is that admittedly hideous ad, which only serves to underscore the point; but I digress.

Perhaps some of the blame lies with the government itself. Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told a Ministerial Consultative Committee on Mass Media on November 21 that the proposed mechanism would be introduced in two weeks. It’s been well over three weeks, and it’s unclear at present what the status of this framework is. When asked about it last week, the minister told journalists that it was still being worked on. Is Big Brother slacking, too?

Either way, chances are that it’s coming and when it eventually does, many will be caught napping, including the online activists that cried foul for, like, a day.

Members in the consultative committee in question had reportedly studied Singapore’s controversial Infocomm Media Development Authority Act (IMDA) and Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which some believe will be emulated by Sri Lanka’s proposed regulatory framework in its mandate to curb reporting and content that purportedly spreads falsehoods and incites racism.

The IMDA, passed in 2016, is applicable to Singapore’s statutory body responsible for broadcasting and content regulation (irrespective of the transmission medium) which has 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 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.

It is well known that politicians here cannot pass up an opportunity to casually bring up Singapore as a model island of plenty for Sri Lanka to aspire to in virtually every sphere of social and economic development. It’s hardly surprising then that we would want to ape its darker side too. National People’s Power (NPP) parliamentarian Dr Harini Amarasuriya said it best when she spoke in parliament on November 25: “When we hold Singapore up as this model [for all things Sri Lanka needs to do], we tend to overlook the fact that it’s an extremely tightly controlled society where the idea of dissent and protest, so essential for democracy, is not tolerated. Just recently, it was reported that a Singaporean man was arrested for unlawful assembly, for holding a placard with a smiley face in front of a police station. Internet freedom is limited in Singapore, and the government has high powers of censorship which it uses to stifle criticism and opposition views. Is this what we aspire to? I don’t think so.”

Amarasuriya and others worry that the proposed regulatory mechanism will be used to stifle criticism of the government on the pretext of controlling the very real problem of fake news and hate speech online. There is no question that falsehoods and inflammatory content on social media poses a serious threat to the well-being of society. There is also no question that a democratically elected government, which – like it or not – the ruling SLPP administration is, must tackle this problem head on. Critics, however, are concerned that the end result will be an intellectually castrated, self-censoring public that will reliably look the other way, every single time. This might sound like a fallacious, slippery slope argument, but given the ruling coalition’s track record on media freedom, it’s not entirely unfounded.

In a letter written to Google’s CEO in December last year, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chairman Dr Paul  Tambyah complained about a ban Google had imposed on political advertising in that country in the run-up to this year’s parliamentary polls. In a written response, Google Vice President Ted Osius cited a code of practice related to POFMA in instituting the ban. While we’re not quite there yet, it is not unreasonable to imagine that a situation as dire is not far off if this legislation materialises without being subject to wide stakeholder consultation and scrutiny. It is here where the online community comes in, and their silence and their lethargy have been discouraging to say the least.

The proposed regulatory mechanism may or may not become a reality, and the fears expressed about it may well be exaggerated. However, if there is even the smallest chance of its being taken to its dystopian extreme, it is imperative that those whose voices are most likely to be silenced as a result speak up now, and speak up loudly, while they still can. Of course, speaking up alone would not suffice. A vast majority of writers and creators who are active in citizen journalism and on social media don’t have the kind of proximity to power that some of Colombo’s more privileged civil society activists enjoy. Rather than subtweeting the powers that be and moving on to tomorrow’s controversy, these “elite” activists and so-called thought leaders can perhaps look at ways in which they could have some input in the decisions made with regard to free speech and web content online. They could represent the interests of those who stand to lose the most if this dreaded Orwellian nightmare comes to pass.

Online activism has, not unfairly, a reputation for being lazy and self-important. But it would be dishonest to write it off as being totally ineffective. And, if the memes are anything to go by, Sri Lanka’s social media users are particularly savvy and quite literate politically. It would be folly to think that the establishment hasn’t noticed. It would be unwise to not be prepared. Shakthika Sathkumara and Ramzy Razeek will attest to that. Sri Lanka’s increasingly vibrant internet community is growing every day and is becoming ever bolder. It is up to the self-appointed thought leaders to protect this precious space where, despite insidious encroachments from corporate and state interests, despite gross violations of the very spirit of democracy, a semblance of truly free expression still remains. The internet, at least for the time being, is where so many can still get away with being their true selves. If its own users don’t stand up for its defence, who will? (Colombo/Dec08/2020)


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