Colombo: The first arrest made under Sri Lanka’s newly enacted Online Safety Act has sparked a contentious dispute between government officials, revealing conflicting narratives surrounding the incident.
According to Public Security Minister Tiran Alles, Sri Lanka witnessed the first arrest under the newly enacted Online Safety Act, marking a significant step in the government’s efforts to regulate online behaviour. The arrest involved a man allegedly involved in a smear campaign against the government in exchange for monetary gain.
The suspect was arrested by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) while in the process of exchanging currency. At the time of arrest, the suspect was found in possession of approximately LKR. 400,000.
The suspect reportedly confessed to utilizing social media platforms to orchestrate the smear campaign, claiming to have acted upon the instructions of a political figure.
However, the Department of Police has contradicted these reports, asserting that no such arrest has occurred under the Online Safety Act. Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG) Nihal Thalduwa made a statement that the individual in question was apprehended under previous legal provisions, casting doubt on the Minister’s statements.
This conflicting information underscores the complexity and controversy surrounding the enforcement of online regulations in Sri Lanka.
The Online Safety Act, which recently obtained legal endorsement from Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana following parliamentary debates and amendments, has sparked considerable controversy both domestically and internationally. Critics, including local and international human rights groups, media organizations, and diplomats, have expressed concerns over its potential negative implications for fundamental human rights, particularly freedom of expression.
Concerns raised by the Human right activists, including those from Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in a report, submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Special Procedures prior to the bill’s legislation highlights deep seated worries about potential violations of Sri Lankans’ human rights. The complaint underscored the government’s failure to address concerns expressed by UN Human Rights Council special procedures regarding the bill’s implications.
Talking to the News21, Rasika Gunawardena, a human rights defender who played a significant role in submitting the report to the UNHRC Said “With the bill now approved, the concern is amplified”.
“Especially the appointment of individuals with criminal records to key governmental positions, such as Deshbandu Tennakoon as Acting Inspector General of Police, raises significant alarm, we as civic activists, journalists, and lawyers together seek to protect the human rights of all Sri Lankan citizens amidst these concerning circumstances.
But these recent developments in our country underscore the urgent need for continued advocacy to ensure the protection of human rights in this evolving digital world.” He added.
Early this month The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a warning about this Act saying it could seriously impact people’s rights, like the freedom to express themselves.
Using the social media platform X (formerly Twitter) the UN Human Rights Office put out a statement advising the Sri Lankan government to think about changing the law.
The tweet said “The new Online Safety Act will have far-reaching negative implications for human rights, including freedom of expression. We urge the Govt. to consider amending the law to address the concerns of civil society and industry groups and ensure it complies with human rights obligations.”
The Act has drawn particular condemnation for its vague provisions and the establishment of an ‘Online Safety Commission’ with broad powers to censor online content.
Despite opposition objections and Supreme Court rulings striking down some parts of the bill as unconstitutional, it was passed amidst strong protests from lawmakers.
Civil society groups criticized the bill, saying it could stifle free speech, while major global tech companies also raised serious concerns.
The US ambassador to Colombo, Julie Chung, raised concerns about this suggesting it could hinder the country’s progress in reform and recovery.
Speaking to members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka, she highlighted the negative perception created by the bill’s characterization as “unworkable” by global tech companies. She emphasized the importance of crafting legislation that takes into account feedback from stakeholders and ensures durability, enforceability, and wisdom.
Pointing out that previous bills, such as the Personal Data Protection Act, took longer to develop but were more inclusive of stakeholder feedback, Chung stressed the need for the Sri Lankan government to improve its approach to legislation and reforms in order to enhance the business climate.
Despite opposition claims that changes to the original bill did not align with the Supreme Court’s suggestions to make it constitutional, the bill was hurriedly passed through parliament.
Ambassador Chung has also emphasized the importance of transparent communication about reforms to the public, even if it slows down the legislative process, as it leads to better legislation and reforms.
She stressed the need for clear communication and inclusive processes to ensure the effectiveness and legitimacy of legislative initiatives in Sri Lanka.
Amnesty International’s Regional Researcher for South Asia, Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, denounced the Act as a tool for stifling freedom of expression and suppressing dissent.
Ruwanpathirana highlighted the Act’s overbroad provisions and warned against its potential misuse to curtail civic space and silence critics, particularly in the context of upcoming elections.
As Sri Lanka grapples with economic challenges and political tensions, the implementation of the Online Safety Act raises significant concerns about the government’s commitment to upholding human rights standards and fostering an environment conducive to free expression and democratic discourse. It remains to be seen whether the government will heed calls for amendments to address these concerns and uphold its international obligations in the realm of online safety and freedom of expression.