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Sri Lanka: Proposed Online Safety Bill would be an assault on freedom of expression, opinion, and information – ICJ

29/09/2023

The ICJ is concerned that the newly proposed Online Safety legislation, if adopted in its present form, would serve to crush free expression and further contract an already shrinking civic space in Sri Lanka.

On 18 September 2023, the Ministry of Public Security gazetted a bill titled “Online Safety” intended to dramatically regulate the content of online communication, including by the general public.

The ICJ considers that several provisions of the bill would serve to undermine the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the country, including freedom of information and expression.  Of particular concern are provisions related to the setting up, appointment and functions of an Online Safety Commission and other experts, the vague and overbroad wording of conduct designated as punishable offences and unnecessary and disproportionate punitive sanctions.

“While the spread of online hate-speech and disinformation need to be tackled, this bill is deeply flawed in its design and would be open to abuse by the Sri Lankan government, which has persistenty failed to uphold freedom of expression,” said Ian Seiderman, ICJ’s Legal and Policy Director. “It risks being used to suppress important public debate regarding  the conduct of the government and matters of public policy,” he added.

The Bill would establish an “Online Safety Commission” that would act to: “prohibit online communication of certain statements of fact; prevent the use of online accounts and inauthentic online accounts for prohibited purposes;  make provisions to identify and declare online locations used for prohibited purposes in Sri Lanka and to suppress the financing and other support of communication of false statements,” as well as other unspecified matters.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka has called for the immediate withdrawal of the bill and for the adoption of a process of meaningful consultations with all relevant stakeholders prior to gazetting bills which ‘have a serious impact on the community at large.’

“The current draft fails to adhere to the principles of legitimacy, necessity and proportionality required for any State activity that restrict rights. It must be withdrawn or amended to be brought in line with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations guaranteeing freedom of expression, opinion, and information.” Seiderman added.

The ICJ considers that the Bill should not be evaluated in a vacuum, but instead must be read in conjunction with existing and proposed legislation that threaten human rights. Such laws include the extremely misused ICCPR Act of 2005, the Prevention of Terorrism Act (PTA), the Bureau of Rehabilitation Act, and the proposed Anti-Terrorism law which seeks to replace the PTA. This body of legislation, taken together, fosters a chilling effect on the exercise of fundamental freedoms restricting civil society while unduly expanding the reach of the security state.

Article 14 (1) (a) of the Sri Lankan Constitution gurantees the freedom of speech and expression. Article 19 of the International Covernant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sri Lanka is a party, affirms the right to freedom of expression and opinion.

In July 2018, the UN Human Rights Council adopted by consensus a resolution  affirming that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

Contact: Ian Seiderman, Legal & Policy Director, e: [email protected]

See annexed below a summary analysis of some problematic aspects of the Online Safety Bill.  

Sri Lanka: Selected flaws in the Online Safety Bill

  • Wide ranging and overly broad powers of the Online Safety Commission and appointed Experts

The bill provides for the establishment of a five-member ‘Online Safety Commission’ that is to be appointed on the sole discretion of the President (clause 5). This is in contrast to other notionally independent commissions in Sri Lanka, the appointments to which require the consent of the Constitutional Council by way of nomination or ratification. This bill would give the president unfettered discretion where both appointment and removal is concerned.

The Commission would also be vested with a wide range of powers, some of which encroach into the functions of the judiciary. It essentially acts as sole arbiter of matter of fact and is entitled to issue notices or directives against any person, internet service provider (ISP) or internet intermediaries who/which is alleged to have communicated a prohibited or false statement. The bill does not specify the process through which the Commission would arrive at this decision.

Moreover, the Commission is granted authority to block websites and instruct ISPs to restrict access to specific online locations. This may result in undue government overreach and censorship and impermissible limitations on the exercise of the right to information protected by Article 14A of the Constitution and international law.

Further clause 37 allows for the Minister to appoint ‘Experts’ to assist police officers in investigations. The experts are private individuals who can accompany police officers during search procedures, but are also given the power upon authority granted by a police officer above the rank of a sub-inspector to require a person to hand over any documents or device, provide traffic data or be orally examined (clause 37 (6)). Such excessive powers in the hands of unaccountable private individuals provide avenues for abuse.

The bill does not provide provide for judicial review of the Commission’s decisions or procedures. Instead clause 49 seeks to protect the Commission, its staff, or any expert appointed under clause 37 from being brought to court for any act or omission done in good faith.

  • Vague and overbroad offences

A particularly problematic aspect of the bill are provisions of vague and overbroad definitions of offences.

Article 19(3) of the ICCPR provides that the right to freedom of expression and opinion may be subject to certain restrictions, but that these restrictions must be provided by law and necessary for one of a limited numbers of legitimate purposes, namely to protect the rights and reputations of others, national security, public order or public health or morals.  The measure of limitation must be proportionate, using the least restrictive means possible to achieve the purpose. The requirement that any restrictive measure be provided by law means that they must comply with the principle of legality, by which the law must be stated with precision as to allow persons to be able to conform their conduct in compliance.

Similarly, Article 15 (2) of the Sri Lankan Constitution provides for possibility of  restriction of the right “as may be prescribed by law in the interests of racial and religious harmony or in relation to parliamentary privilege, contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”

The prohibitions listed in this draft legislation go beyond the restrictions allowed for under the  ICCPR and the Sri Lankan Constitution, as clause 12 states that “any person who poses a threat to national security, public health or public order or promotes feelings of ill-will and hostility between  different classes of people, by communicating a false statement, commits an offence.”

In addition, several acts that would constitute offence are only vaguely defined, if at all. This includes communicating a false statement “with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any other person” (clause 16) or “outraging the religious feelings of any class of persons, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class” (clause 17). These clauses are overbroad in that they would encompass expression that is protected under human rights law. Clause 14 makes it an offence to ‘wantonly giving provocation by false statement to cause riot’. This language is open to abuse by the authorities, as evidenced by practices arising from other legislation, including    the ICCPR Act  and the PTA.

Repeated mention of ‘religion’ in these provisions is a cause for concern as they come in a context where there is ongoing strife relating to contested religious sites between majority and minority religious communities, thus creating risk of selected application to silence expression by persons from minority religious communities.

  • Disproportionate Punishment

The draft bill prescribes unjustifiably hefty punishments of fines and a period of imprisonment ranging from one, two, three or five years for overbroad and ill-defined offences. It also states that “in the event of a second or subsequent conviction, such term of imprisonment or fine or both such imprisonment and fine may be doubled.”

Clause 25 of the bill, which refers to ‘failure to comply with the directives of the Commission’ would make it an offence to fails to comply with such directive within a period of 24 hours and makes the person liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or to a fine not exceeding one million rupees.

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