Remarkable improvement in media scrutiny; future corruptors beware
Posted on February 2nd, 2024

Chanaka Bandarage

Up to 2015 or so there was little media scrutiny of bribery and corruption in Sri Lanka.  True the private electronic media like Sirasa did investigative journalism, but that did not go far enough. The 2005 – 2015 government was   very clever and ruthless in suppressing decent.  Some media personnel made the supreme sacrifice with their lives; Lasantha is the most famous.

After the Yahapalanaya government came to power, the tables turned. Ranil being a strong liberal allowed free media. This was the time that social media was resurging; it was happening in an unprecedented way. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram etc were providing incredible opportunities for ordinary individuals to criticise governments and raise alarm on bribery and corruption.

But, these platforms also gave free and immeasurable access to their users to insult, despise and shame individuals. Their excuse was that in the name of free speech, it is alright.

These money hungry platforms do not have any concern that the reputation and integrity of innocent people can be destroyed/tarnished due to the improper use of their systems.

Mr Zuckerbarg, Chairman, has expressed sorrow that so many people had committed suicide due to mental health issues created by Facebook and Instagram.

The Yahapalanaya government’s positivism boomeranged on them. The Central bank bond scam became the number 1 news item during their entire terrain until the Easter bombing. The Central Bank Governor had to resign and flee the country.

Today Sri Lanka has some of the world’s bravest social media activists. They have taken the full advantage of fearless reporting. It is incredible that we have come to this. It is thanks to them that many corruptions have been highlighted. And now the arrest of Keheliya.

The civil activists were celebrating in jubilant yesterday night. They are entitled to do so. It is sad that they did not have the decency to thank their injured comrade Sanjaya Mahawatte who is still in hospital.  Without Sanjaya Keheliya would not have been behind bars.  

It is to be acknowledged that some social media activists are operating without regard to law,  ethics, courtesy and decency. Freedom of Speech does not mean giving a free licence to attack anyone wiilly nilly. Lots of popular YouTubers seem to have little concern about societal ethics and religious respectfulness.

YouTube has become a platform to attack Buddhist monks. Monks are being called in various derogatory terms such as Yellow Pets or Pests, කහකඩයෝ, චීවරධාරියෝ etc. It is widely believed that some of these YouTubers are pawns of powerful private/overseas institutions and NGOs.

Is there a concerted effort to attack Katharagama Devalaya? Thanks to some YouTubers pilgrim numbers to this holy place has dwindled. The small traders who survived selling provisions to pilgrims are in utter distress.

Why are they only attacking Buddhism, Buddhist monks and Buddhist sites?

Other religions are untouched.

The government has introduced the Online Safety Act 2024. This is a strange Act. It is designed to  tackle ‘false and harmful’ content published on internet. But, the state has prosecuted individuals for these same charges prior to this enactment.  The government has lots of weapons in its armoury. It has used the  Criminal Code and associate legislation, Police Ordinance, ICCPR Act and Civil Defamation to prosecute/sue individuals.

Perhaps the government wanted to widen its net. The new Act states it applies to an overseas person who has done ‘the false and harmful act’ to Sri Lanka or to a Sri Lankan.

The Act uses the terminology යම් තැනතෙක්කු විසින්  …. Does this mean if a US citizen makes a false statement about incidents in Sri Lanka or does an act with the express intention of hurting religious feelings in Sri Lanka, he/she can be prosecuted under the Act? This is bizarre.

Our courts have jurisdiction only within Sri Lanka. It cannot make orders for acts done in a foreign land, even if they were done by a Sri Lankan living overseas.

It seems Sri Lanka now considers the offences stipulated in the Act as international crimes?

Then, our courts have the jurisdiction to prosecute such people.

But, international crimes are the most heinous crimes like war crimes, crimes against humanity.  Surely insulting Sri Lanka or someone related to Sri Lanka on the internet cannot be considered as an international crime.

The Yahapalanaya government decriminalized defamation. It boasted its achievement. Now what can they say?

With this Act,  the government has surely criminalized defamation.

The new Act is not available for perusal on internet yet. In accordance to the  gazetted Act, a person can receive a jail sentence up to 5 years. The maximum fine is Rs 500,000.

The Act has criminalized the use of fake internet accounts to insult another. This can create legal minefields.

The draft Act intended to cover online platforms. This means to take action against online social and video sharing platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter (now X Corp). This was a brave move on the government’s part. But, in the final draft (the Bill that was passed in the parliament on 24 January 2024), it seems the government has given up that idea.

Whatever the measures that the government takes to suppress and control social media, it is foolish to believe that the activists would simply go away. They are a very clever and intelligent lot. They are very powerful also. Surely, they would find new ways and means to express views without succumbing to the Act.

Who will win the ultimate battle? The Government or the activists? The writer thinks the latter. Any way, it is  interesting to wait and watch.  

The Act seems to be full of errors and anomalies. But, since the Act is now passed  no one can challenge it. This is a big drawback in our law. Prior to 1978 any Act could be challenged any time in the Supreme Court. We must re-introduce that provision in our Constitution.

Of course the Act could be amended. Perhaps the President sits with the activists and try to reach a compromise. Only a bold, compassionate, visionary leader would embark on such a pathway.

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