Sri Lanka government enacts social media crackdown law, tables new anti-terrorism law 

By Sanjaya Jayasekera.  

Sri Lanka Speaker, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena last Thursday (01) signed into law the Online Safety Act (No 09 of 2024) (OSA), a piece of legislation long prepared by the ruling class to crack down upon freedom of dissent in the country. The law was approved by the Parliament late January, with a majority of 46 votes, including provisions not in compliance with even the limited amendments proposed by the country’s Supreme Court in its determination on the Bill delivered last October. Subject to such proposals, the Supreme Court found the law, as a whole, constitutional.

This law is patently anti-democratic. It empowers a government body, the Online Safety Commission (OSC), the sole power to determine and declare the “falsity of any statement“, which would be published on an online portal, and thereupon prosecute anybody who makes and communicates a statement contrary to such “truth” declared. 

“False statement” is defined as “a statement that is known or believed by its maker to be incorrect or untrue and is made especially with intent to deceive or mislead”. This knowledge or belief is presumed to be shaped by what is declared as false by the OSC, or what the government authorities have claimed to be true.  

A person could be prosecuted for the offenses, among others, of “communicating a false statement” online and (a) posing “a threat to national security, public health or public order” or “promoting feelings of ill-will and hostility between different classes of people” (Section 12); (b) where such statement amounts to contempt of court; (c ) giving “provocation to any person or incites any person intending or knowing it to be likely that such provocation or incitement, will cause the offence of rioting to be committed”; (d) voluntarily causing “disturbance to any assembly lawfully engaged in the performance of religious worship or religious ceremonies”; (e) insulting or attempting to insult “the religion or the religious beliefs of that class” with “the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of persons”; (f) inducing “any other person to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility” with “intent to cause any officer, sailor, soldier, or airman in the navy, army or air force of Sri Lanka to mutiny”  or with “intent to cause fear or alarm to the public”. A person, “who wilfully makes or communicates a statement”, either true or false, “with intention to cause harassment to another person” (“target person”) by publishing any “private information” of the target person or a related person and causes such person “harassment”, also commits an offence. All such statements are “prohibited statements”.

Attempting, abetting and conspiring to commit these offences are also crimes.

The punishments for these offenses range from three to five to seven years imprisonment and in some instances may be doubled in the event of a subsequent offence, coupled with fines up to one million rupees. 

The OSC has sweeping powers to order any internet service provider or internet intermediary (which provide the service of social media platforms) to disable access by end-users to an online location (such as a website, webpage, chatroom or forum), which contains a prohibited statement. It can also order removal of such statements. It can blacklist a website, social media account or a platform as a “declared online location”. The commission is also empowered to seize “property movable, and immovable and to sell, lease, mortgage, exchange, or otherwise dispose of the same”. 

Criminalizing “fake news” has been the demand of the ruling class for some time. It was on the agenda of successive governments during the recent past – a draft law was on the table during the former Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government in 2019, following the Easter Sunday bomb attacks, and then under former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was ousted by the mass struggles of April-July 2022, mainly organized through social media. These attempts were defeated temporarily by wider objections raised by civil society groups and international organizations, and right-wing political parties who demanded a social media and internet regulatory law that is in line with the “international standards”. 

Sri Lanka’s President Ranil Wickremesinghe salutes military parades at the the government’s 76th Independence Day celebrations in Colombo, on February 4, 2024. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Presenting the Bill in the Parliament, Public Security Minister Tiran Alles claimed that this law is required to fight online harassment against women and children. This is only a pretext. He also revealed the intention to curb “misinformation” that damaged the reputation of parliamentarians. This is a reference to the extensive social media activism during mass struggles of 2022 that rejected the whole parliament. 

Every opposition party in the parliament agrees with the government for a social media regulatory law placed in their hands.

During the parliament debate, National People’s Power (NPP) Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake concurred with Alles declaring that “things that should not happen also are taking place [in social media]”.

Main opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) member of parliament, Harsha de Silva worried that international tech giants would abandon Sri Lankan online space. His is the concern of the tech profiteer capitalists, whom de Silva wants to confer unbridled freedom to attract investment.  Around the world, these companies have already been complicit in government censorship of free speech. 

If and when in power, these parties will also ruthlessly employ these laws against the working class and political opponents, particularly from the left, to meet the demands of international financial capital. 

Pseudo-left FrontLine Socialist Party (FSP) Education Secretary Pubudu Jayagoda told media, the proposed law is redundant because, “there are already laws to deal with situations of this nature [those covered by the new law]”, and conveyed FSP’s subservience to the oppressive legal system of the bourgeois state and the parliament.  Its “People’s Council” programme is an appendage of the parliamentary system. 

Another view among the middle class has been vocalized by Gamini Viyangoda, writing in the pseudo-left paper “Anidda” on Sunday (04). Viyangoda says that the Bill is politically maneuvered for the government  “to prepare an environment to safely face the upcoming critical elections”. President Ranil Wickremasinghe, who himself knows to have a rare chance for him to gain a presidential election win, is not making these laws for himself, but for the capitalist establishment,  all of whom,  including NPP and SJB, have affirmed their readiness to go ahead with the austerity measures dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), on the back of the people. This is the very truth that these radicals conceal from the people. 

While OSA is made law, the government placed on the pipeline a new anti-terrorism law, surpassing the powers of arrest, administrative detention or custody and prosecution under the existing draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act  (PTA) of 1979. More than 35 parties challenged the proposed law last month in the country’s Supreme Court. Poet Ahnaf Jazeem, who is a former torture victim of PTA, petitioned the court and submitted that “this authoritarian law… is essentially designed to be used as a weapon of collective punishment against the working class… It is driven by class hate.

Soon after his appointment as president, Wickremasinghe declared his government’s class war against the working people and the poor, poised to implement harsh austerity measures dictated by the IMF. In this backdrop, these laws are the new arms of Wickremasinghe’s armory to be used against political dissent, especially left-wing political ideas and movements, journalists and activists, to intimidate, harass, question, arrest, and imprison them, and block websites and social media accounts. Sri Lanka police is notorious for employing draconian anti-terrorism, public security and hate speech laws against social media activists, artists, protesters and ethnic-minorities. 

Recently, Alles deployed special police forces to “fight drug menace” and arrested over 56,000 since December 17. This operation, falsely named “Yukthiya” (Justice), is intended to terrorize urban and rural impoverished areas, intimidating working people and youth throughout the country. Last month, the government commenced using facial recognition technology, according to Alles, as part of plans to “eradicate” the under-world and drug-trafficking. 

Wickremasinghe has come a long way toward a police state, with dictatorial powers conferred to him under the country’s communal constitution. He has deployed tri-forces as strikebreakers and used essential services laws to witch-hunt worker leaders. 

The global imperialist crisis, however, has not left Wickremasinghe alone in this onslaught against the masses. Just one month before OSB was tabled in parliament, the United Kingdom passed a similar law targeting social media freedom. In India, websites and social media platforms are now required to remove content about the Union Government, when notified by the Press Information Bureau (PIB) as “fake”.

The trade union leaders have succumbed to Wickremasinghe’s  IMF “economic restructuring” plans and have no political programme to fight against austerity, nor to defend democratic rights. It is only the working class, which can and should fight to abolish these repressive laws and defend democratic rights. This requires organizing in their own independent organizations, united across ethnic divisions and industries, to bring about a government of the working people, free the economy from the siege of international financial capital and restructure the economic life on socialist lines.  

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