Lanka’s law seeks to criminalise political dissent

With elections round the corner, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has pushed the controversial Online Safety Bill to regulate online content
Image used for illustrative purposes only.
Image used for illustrative purposes only.Express illustration | Sourav Roy

The Rajapaksas of Sri Lanka were known for their curb and control tactics. They had multiple tools in their political arsenal to keep the population under control. During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 10 year-rule, the island’s human rights record was a national embarrassment.

His brother Gotabaya who was the powerful defence secretary at the time swore that Sri Lanka would not see a right to information law during his tenure. He kept his word. The RTI law was enacted only after the 2015 surprise defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Majoritarian to the core, at least they did not pretend to be political liberals who couldn’t care less for western preaching of human rights.They ruled as if world opinion was a mild irritant as long as China stood with them.  

The cult worship of the Hambantota ruling clan may be cured since 2022, and today, the Rajapaksas are deeply unpopular and faulted for the current economic crisis. The replacement president Ranil Wickremesinghe has worked to placate multilateral lending agencies to stand by Sri Lanka in a critical moment and secured a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Regrettably, (though not surprisingly), this self-declared political liberal has adopted an operational style inked by the Rajapaksas. He has moved swiftly and surely to control dissent, first offline, terming it as a necessity to restore law and order, and now to control the online space.

It was Wickremesinghe who pushed the RTI law as prime minister in the Maithripala Sirisena administration. Yet he wasted no time in pushing a draconian law to control online expression, the Online Safety Bill (OSB) carried in parliament with a thumping majority on January 25. A day later, on January 26, he prorogued parliament for two weeks, thwarting any further discussions on the controversial bill.

The bill was rushed through parliament. A total of 52 cases challenged it before the Supreme Court for snuffing out people’s fundamental freedoms coupled with protests.

Wickremesinghe is considered an extension of Rajapaksas’ political interests with his survival tied to the support of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). The new law is seen as an instrument serving twin purposes: a vengeful effort to crush political dissenters who campaigned for Rajapaksa’s ouster to end family rule and a legal tool to bury dissent in an important election year. The bill will soon be certified by the Parliament Speaker, making it law, and the OSB will be the new tool in the political arsenal to command online silence, especially in this election year.

Now that it’s fait accompli, the government’s argument has been that the OSB is meant to combat cyber-crimes and protect vulnerable sections of society. The new Act offers broad powers to an online safety commission which can determine what constitutes “prohibitive statements” and make recommendations to internet service providers to remove such content and disable access of those considered offenders. There is a provision to hold service providers such as Google, Facebook accountable for the content posted on their platforms.

President Wickremesinghe and the father of the obnoxious bill, Public Security Minister Tiran Alles have claimed the law is not an attempt to curb media freedom but a move to prevent cybercrimes, data theft and digital fraud. Former president Maithripala Sirisena was heard speaking in a self- congratulatory tone that he had to shut down social media for a week to contain a violent situation fuelled by social media.

But Sri Lanka’s current reality is different. It is teetering on the brink of economic collapse. The IMF may have offered a lifeline but a real roadmap for economic recovery is yet to emerge. There can be no bigger priority for Sri Lanka than to put the heads together to overcome the current financial crisis and rebuild an economy in shambles. This requires all party consensus and immense effort. But sadly, the politicians are eyeing the next election, after failing to run their country and pushing it to despair.

It’s possibly a South Asian political malaise that our formula of governance is to rule with an iron fist and invariably control fundamental freedoms to secure public compliance. Wickremesinghe too follows this model. He cracked his whip the moment he assumed office and crushed legitimate dissent under offering ‘normalcy’ to the country. He has remained consistent in wiping out dissent and using force to crack down on protesters. He has moved from offline to online with the OSB, practically criminalising dissenting online expression, giving rise to governance concerns and impacting the economic front.

Sri Lanka is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and freedom of expression is a constitutionally protected fundamental right. Yet, Sri Lanka has a long history of cracking down on protests and free speech. Naturally, the OSB has drawn both local and international condemnation.

In response, the Asia Internet Coalition a group of social media companies have warned of the possibility of terminating all communication and collaborative links with the island including Meta, YouTube, Google and X. This may result in the tech companies ending their cooperation with the Computer Crime Division of police, CERT, telecommunication regulatory commission, and President’s office, impacting ongoing investigations into cybercrimes.

Besides, there would be repercussions for Sri Lanka’s digital economy while the country is striving to make an economic comeback. It is necessary that Sri Lanka addresses the false and harmful content online. Expressing dissent should not be an opportunity to cause harm.

Come election time, despite the OSB and other deterrent laws, closed groups, covert influencer operations, fake accounts and disinformation campaigns will reign.  Many such operations, political operatives, disinformants-for-hire, campaigns to tarnish opponents or drive public anger will run at the behest of politicians. If the online space is hateful, it is only a reflection of our reality.

There is every chance that OSB is being used to crush political dissent. Perhaps it is a quirk of fate that it was Wickremesinghe himself who earlier opposed the move to regulate online free speech  and lauded the internet revolution for democratising the information ecosystem by making information sharing inclusive and engaging.

(Views are personal)

(dilrukshihandunnetti@gmail.com)

Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Award-winning journalist and lawyer. Founder and director of Center for Investigative Reporting

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