Government denies plans for web filtering, wants to establish online ethics

Two news stories published today address concerns over recent reports that the Sri Lankan government was planning to filter critical dissent online, in a context where websites have been blocked arbitrarily and without any legal authority. Ironically, pornographic sites that have been banned by the law are more easily accessible than those than are not!

Both stories quote the TRC, which is in the centre of recent controversy over web censorship. The one on Lanka Business Online notes,

“There is nothing in the cards,” Anusha Pelpita, director general the Telecom Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRC) said. “Monitoring websites is not in the TRC mandate. Even if we wanted to, it will take at several months to bring in such legislation.”

Monitoring cyberspace to regulate anti-govt. content by Satarupa Bhattacharjya in the Sunday Times also quotes Palpita,

“We do not have such regulations yet. But I think there should be a proper system of monitoring and regulating content,” Palpita told the Sunday Times. The nature of content – whether political, cultural, religious or pornographic – should be checked if they “create problems in society,” Palpita said.

Palpita reiterates that there is no validity to the claims made by, for example, by UNP MP Dayasiri Jayasekara in the media, that Chinese engineers were assisting the TRC in framing an electronic surveillance model for online content. Satarupa’s article ends on an interesting note,

“The Government, ISPs and citizens’ bodies could sit together and work out some kind of a code of ethics,” an official of the Information and Communication Technology Agency told the Sunday Times, on condition of anonymity.

There is in fact, among other guidelines, the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility 2008, which I had some part in shaping, which addresses this avowed concern of Government. The comprehensive ethical guidelines included in this declaration can easily be interpreted to cover online media as well, especially the websites of well known traditional print and broadcast media. As importantly, this declaration was signed on to by media industry giants including the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, Free Media Movement, Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka and the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka.

I am not opposed to discussion on online ethics, but we must not forget the Rajapaksa regime’s rather poor track record in this regard. Three examples suffice, both attempts at controlling and containing free expression online and in traditional media over the past 3 years. Both never made it to legislation, but clearly demonstrate the approach to and understanding of the freedom of expression by the Rajapaksa regime:
  • The Private TV broadcasting regulations in 2008. A detailed critique of this atrocious piece of legal drafting can be read here.
  • Draft National Media Policy, 2007. Read a critique of this terrible policy draft, written together with Article 19, here.
  • In a slight different vein, read my comments on ‘National Policy on Local Government’ as published in the Daily News, 25th September 2009. This brief note responds to several points enumerated in the draft National Policy on Local Government on the proposed use of Information Communication Technology at local government levels, with a specific focus on leveraging mobiles and encouraging citizen journalism in the vernacular.

In fact, the discussion over online ethics that is already taking place in some web media. Way back in 2007, I noted in an editorial titled The pretense of professionalism – the flipside of media freedom in Sri Lanka on Groundviews that,

While attention is concentrated on the growing challenges to free media – and rightly so given the growing repression and censorship – less attention is paid to the unprofessional conduct of media that in their careless abandon of the rights of readers and contributors exacerbates significant problems facing the development of professional media in Sri Lanka… The point is simply that until media fully ascribes to, in spirit and practice, established codes of professional conduct, they are in no position to agitate for greater media freedom.

My submission on Groundviews took into account two other existing codes of conduct and ethical guidelines for media,

It is possible that the anonymous official at ICTA quoted in the Sunday Times news story is ignorant of these existing guidelines. It is possible that a national media charter introduced after elections is censorious in nature, and worse than that which was proposed in 2007. The actions of the government this year alone to quell online dissent do not inspire confidence in progressive legislation, or any meaningful dialogue with civil society before such legislation is enacted. And so while traditional media needs to be more professional and more fully ascribe to existing guidelines, it is also the case that outrageous attitudes and practices of the Rajapaksa government have since 2005 place independent media on the guillotine.

As a result, despite Palpita’s repeated assurances to the contrary, there is little confidence that the government will allow the growth of independent media online without dire consequences to producers and publishers.


As was pointed out to be by some readers, there is in fact another news story, also in the Sunday Times, that suggests the Chinese will be in Colombo shortly to work on online censorship. Chinese here for cyber censorship by Bandula Sirimanna notes,

Experts from China — which is embroiled in a battle with global search giant Google over allegations of web censorship — will help Sri Lanka to block “offensive” websites. IT experts of China’s Military Intelligence Division will be here within the next two weeks to map out the modalities required for this process. The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) will introduce necessary legislation to make registration with the institution compulsory for all news websites. These websites should obtain the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses from the TRC under new regulations that will be introduced shortly. In addition action will be taken to impose controls on the Google search engine as well in relation to these issues.

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