In January, in a post titled HRW 2007 Report’s essay on Internet & Web Censorship – Lessons for Lanka?, I wrote:
While the Sri Lankan government, for instance, is not (as yet, or to the best of my knowledge) directly censoring content on the web and internet, the blanket anti-terrorism and emergency regulations give them the necessary means through which to curtail online free speech. In other words, in countries like Sri Lanka, while censorship of online content may not be overt, existing legislation and other regulations may in effect have severely detrimental effects on media freedom in general, and its corollary, freedom of expression on the web. Censorship of print and electronic media have, in other words, a direct effect on web and internet free speech – and it is the contest between local censorship and the global diffusion of voices & nodes of dissent that the web & internet offers that will be an increasing battle-ground for free speech advocates and those who are opposed to it.
The Government’s current block on Tamilnet – as illogical, imbecilic and myopic as we have come to expect and identify the actions and policies of this government – is nevertheless a disturbing marker that may well set a trend that restricts the free flow of information on the web & Internet.
A blog post I point to in Policing the Internet avers:
Not to say that terrorism should be tolerated, but is the internet really the source of the problem? Isn’t this merely skirting the issue, and grasping at straws? Even if the Al-Qaida presence is shut down online, will that really end terrorism? At best, it slows them down temporarily. Is that worth the cost? If you start policing the internet for terrorists, why stop there? Why not take down any anti-American website? Why not take down any site that isn’t completely pro-America? Even if you shut down a terrorist site, it’s only a matter of time before it reappears. Perhaps we should be worrying about physical terrorism, instead of online terrorist conversations. If nothing else, these sites give us an insight into what the terrorists are thinking. These sites aren’t doing any harm, it’s the terrorists themselves that are the problem. Leave our blessed internet alone.
The FMM stresses that the danger of censoring the web & Internet is that it gives a Government and State agencies with no demonstrable track record of protecting & strengthening human rights and media freedom flimsy grounds to violate privacy, curtail the free flow of information and restrict freedom of expression – thus adding a heavy price in terms of diminished civil liberties to the high toll exacted by terrorism itself.
The action by the Sri Lankan Government also contravenes established best practices in the free flow of information on the Internet and internationally recognised principles of the Freedom of Expression on the web. In particular, the ban goes against the declaration by Reporters Without Borders and the OSCE on Freedom of the Media in 2005 that states, inter alia;
#2. In a democratic and open society it is up to the citizens to decide what they wish to access and view on the Internet. Filtering or rating of online content by governments is unacceptable… Any policy of filtering, be it at a national or local level, conflicts with the principle of free flow of information.
#4. … A decision on whether a website is legal or illegal can only be taken by a judge, not by a service provider. Such proceedings should guarantee transparency, accountability and the right to appeal.
Blocking access to media and restricting information are characteristic of the reprehensible strategies adopted by terrorists. The FMM is gravely concerned that the Sri Lankan government, in adopting the same tactics and strategies, severely undermines media freedom and the freedom of expression and calls upon it and relevant State authorities to immediately rescind the orders to block the access to Tamilnet.
The RSF & OSCE declaration referenced in the FMM statement can be read in full here.
For those in Sri Lanka who don’t know how to or can’t be bothered with setting up / accessing proxy servers, there’s an easy way in which you can continue to access Tamilnet posted on Groundviews.