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.

Update

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.

Full text: Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility, October 2008

Available as a PDF in English, Sinhala and Tamil.

Also see emphasis on Internet freedom and respecting blogger’s rights here.

~

On the Occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedomand Social Responsibility (“Declaration”), we, the undersigned:

Reaffirming our commitment to the principles and values articulated in the Declaration, and to the process of Reform of Media Laws that we set out on.

We take this opportunity to revisit the Declaration, to acknowledge the positive developments that have taken place since then, to remind ourselves of the many goals that remain unfulfilled, and to chart out new challenges that have arisen since the Declaration

We note that the Government of Sri Lanka was one of the signatories to the Colombo Declaration on Media, Development and Poverty Eradication, Colombo, 2006 (“UNESCO Declaration”) and its commitments under this Declaration include the promotion of a free, pluralistic and independent media committed to social justice and development. We recall further that the Windhoek Declaration of 1991 asserted that the right to a free press is a fundamental right underpinning participatory democracy.

We believe that one of the ways of achieving a free, pluralistic and independent media is by implementing the reforms suggested in the Declaration of 1998 and by guaranteeing to journalists the constitutional right to practice their profession while ensuring their safety and security.

Towards that end, we take this opportunity to present a revised version of the 1998 Declaration, and we pledge to work towards translating the normative aspirations of the Colombo Declaration into lived reality.

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Revisiting the Colombo Media Declaration: Rough transcript of presentation

Rough transcript of presentation made at the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) on the occasion of revisiting the 1998 Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility.

Good afternoon.

In a very brief presentation I wish to lay out some issues that I think are pertinent if we are going to revisit the 1998 Colombo Declaration.  By integrating some of that which Prof. Samarajeewa also spoke about I think our two presentations complement each other quite nicely, and with that foundation in mind I just want to leave some thoughts with you that the drafters of the new revised declaration can perhaps keep in mind when they are making the final document.  But of course we need to ground this in the current context and citizen journalism and new media are terms that might be applicable in other countries, but in Sri Lanka they have specific meaning and indeed because of the particular context we are living in, a specific importance.

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Revisiting the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom: The importance of new media, the web and Internet

I was invited to present some thoughts on a session on new media organised by the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) as part of a workshop that would renew the 1998 Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom.

Before the panel began, D.B. Nihalsingha, the Chair for the panel, asked Rohan Samarajiva and I what the acronym ICT stood for and what the ICT Agency did in Sri Lanka. It wasn’t a good omen. In the 10 minutes he wasted introducing the topic, he noted that DVDs were also part of new media. Perhaps D.B. Nihalsingha believes that Web 2.0 can be installed off a DVD…

The Chair also tragi-comically cut off my presentation, which is below.

I noted in an email sent to SLPI that placing a media dinosaur like Nihalsingha, with no demonstrable wit to engage with, much less understand or use new media, to moderate a session on the issue and related technologies was akin to putting someone from SLPI as moderator on a panel discussing molecular biology at a bio-ethics workshop.

 

Faith or intervention?

In a pursuant discussion with co-panelist Rohan Samarajiva on the points I noted in my presentation, it emerged that he believed that the incompetence of the Rajapakse regime was it own best safeguard against measures such as the filtering of pornography on the web and other measures taken to curtail, block and undermine communications over the web and Internet. We agreed on the point of the regime’s incompetence.

Where I disagreed was the point that this alone was a safeguard against policies and practices that would and could seriously undermine communications over the web and internet that sought to hold the regime accountable for its actions, make governance transparent, expose corruption or strengthen debates on human rights.

I also made the point that ISPs today – the likes of Mobitel, Dialog, Suntel etc – are supinely subservient to the MoD and the Rajapakse regime. Rohan pointed to existing regulations and legislation that was in place to ensure that there was in theory a paper trail for government – ISP interactions and communication. We both laughed at the fact that existing legislation and regulations, in the context of a Supreme Court operating on personal bias and an Executive operating on alien logic at best was pretty much useless in practice.

 

Holding ISPs in Sri Lanka accountable

I went on to make the point that given their capacity to covertly monitor, curtail and block communications at the whim and fancy of the regime to meet its parochial interests, ISPs needed to be held up to public scrutiny. Their policies and practices needed to be explicit on how they would handle extraordinary requests from government to monitor communications.

I was cognisant though that the lack of an enabling Right to Information legislation in Sri Lanka severely hampers consumer awareness and protection in this regard. As citizens, we have no choice but to accept what government and ISPs tell us they are doing to protect our privacy.

This is simply not good enough.

The market in Sri Lanka will not check or hold accountable practices that target communications and the sources of content that embarrasses big business and its egregious complicity with a brutish regime. One mobile phone provider / ISP had explicitly told someone who had met them recently to find out about partnership opportunities for civil society content production and dissemination that it would not entertain any content on its network without clearing it first internally and then also through the MoD. Another telco had informed a customer that it was discontinuing its teleconferencing services for ‘security reasons’.

The burden of proof of on-going measures taken to ensure customer privacy and non-discriminatory network management lie with ISPs, not with consumers. Yet who in Sri Lanka is looking at this and calling for such proof? As I noted in a recent email to some colleagues,

It’s ironical – we are able to measure telcos’ quality of service in a technical sense. Yet, the open and sustained condemnation of practices and policies inimical to the freedom of expression by telcos over their networks is much harder to come by. All our telcos choose to operate in a manner that is supinely sycophantic towards the Mahinda administration. This has a direct, real impact on human rights. It’s time telcos were told this in no uncertain terms.

That said, my fear is that inspired by the proposed Data Communications Bill in the UK (see The rise of Big Brother in the UK: The problems for the rest of us), the new anti-porn ISP filtering regime in Australia and the antics of the NSA in the US (see When civil liberties are trumped and communications intercepted) Mahinda’s regime and Sri Lankan telcos are going to get much worse.

As I noted in the presentation (Slide 24) we need to name and shame ISPs and telcos that encourage policies and practices inimical to human rights, privacy and the freedom of expression.

 

A Sri Lankan EFF?

One idea that I wanted to emphasize before the Chair cut me off was the creation of a (in)formal body on the lines of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to monitor practices and policies of ISPs in Sri Lanka, using tools like Switzerland (Slide 22). It could mature into an entity that provided education on web security, undertook pro-rights / pro-consumer Public Interest Litigation and also provide bloggers with legal protection and advice. 

 

Recommendations for the new Colombo Declaration

What the audience missed out on, and what may be most important to the drafters of the new Colombo Declaration, were 6 recommendations from Reporters Without Borders and the OSCE to ensure freedom of expression on the Internet. These are worth underscoring here as principle deeply relevant to the context of new media, telecoms regulation and internet / web communications in Sri Lanka. 

 

  1. Any law about the flow of information online must be anchored in the right to freedom of expression as defined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  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. Filters should only be installed by Internet users themselves. Any policy of filtering, be it at a national or local level, conflicts with the principle of free flow of information.
  3. Any requirement to register websites with governmental authorities is not acceptable.
  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.
  5. All Internet content should be subject to the legislation of the country of its origin (“upload rule”) and not to the legislation of the country where it is downloaded.
  6. The Internet combines various types of media, and new publishing tools such as blogging are developing. Internet writers and online journalists should be legally protected under the basic principle of the right to freedom of expression and the complementary rights of privacy and protection of sources.

Perhaps if the SLPI and PCC moved away from geriatrics and engaged more with vibrant, compelling content produced by Sri Lankan bloggers and citizen journalists, there would be a better chance of progressive conversations, inter-generational learning as well as mutually beneficial exchanges of technologies and ideas hugely relevant to journalism in the future.