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Sri Lanka: Noose Tightens Around Online Freedom of Expression

A new government regulation is targeting online freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. Every ‘news’ website will now have to pay Rs. 25,000 (US$193) to register and Rs. 10,000 every year to maintain their registration.

Some are worried the broad implications of the law could extend to personal blogs, and may even prompt bloggers to resort to self-censorship, out of fear.

Registration fees

In May 2012, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported:

Sri Lanka's Supreme Court slammed the door on a case about the shutdown of four websites that had failed to register with the government. In handing down its decision, the Court appeared to rule that freedom of expression in Sri Lanka is not an absolute right and can be restricted–and you don't need to pass a law to do so.

The ruling came after the defense argued that there is no law that requires web owners to register, so the Ministry of Media and the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission cannot arbitrarily block websites. But authorities quickly took measures to fix that.

On July 12, Sri Lankan Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella announced that the government is planning to enact new regulations under the Press Council Act to control “news” web sites. He mentioned that the government “would charge Rs. 100,000 (US$770) to register a web site and Rs. 50,000 every year to maintain the registration”.

He also said, “if any person or institution is disturbed or defamed by erroneous news reports, photographs published in any newspaper they could complain to the Sri Lanka Press Council.”

If a complaint amounts to defamation, a defendant can be punished with a fine of up to 5,000 rupees or two years’ imprisonment, or both. Penalties can also be imposed for publishing cabinet proceedings, “official secrets,” government financial information or defence matters. (World Socialist Web Site)

This move prompted strong reactions on and offline. Leaders of opposition parties together with activists protested in Colombo.

Thoughtful Kani writes:

Getting registered is one thing. But the fee of Rs.100,000 is absurd.

On July 27, Secretary to the Ministry of Media and Information Charitha Herath said in Colombo that the Right To Information Act will not be placed in parliament any time soon. The incumbent government has been resisting it for long.

On August 9, the government confirmed that the cabinet vetted the registration fee of news websites and announced reduction of upto 80% from the original proposal. The registration and the annual renewal fee of websites were refixed at Rs 25,000 and 10,000 respectively.

Online freedom of expression under threat

Indi.ca lashes out at the decision:

The government has mass producers of raw filth on public payroll, like Mervyn Silva. They just don’t like criticism or information leveled against them, ie free speech. This is an absolute travesty and a shame.

Patta Pal Boru comments:

This desire to control everything is at the heart of the problem.

The blogger fears that this ruling will lead to utter confusion as to what exactly constitutes a ‘news’ website. This may prompt bloggers to enforce self-censorship out of fear, which of course plays in the favour of govt censorship.

Sanjana Hattotuwa writes about the impact of the new rule:

Obviously, mainstream media websites will fall under this new tax. But online, anyone from anywhere at any time can report something newsworthy, so this new regulation could potentially and very quickly embrace personal blogs, micro-blogs (Twitter accounts), Facebook groups and fan pages, content on platforms like Bundlr that curate news items over the long-term or around a certain issue or event, Flickr photo-streams that are on current events and YouTube video channels.[..]

What’s new is the fact that anyone, anywhere in Sri Lanka is now liable for prosecution at the sole discretion of government.

Groundviews started a Bundlr curation titled ‘Web censorship in Sri Lanka: Documenting a growing trend‘, which has for months logged Sri Lanka’s web censorship and the state of Freedom of Expression online.

According to Patta Pal Boru:

It is very important to build a forum, a movement, and people’s agitation, against the use of media in this way. Only a state that cannot fear criticism, is worthy of being a civilized one.

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