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.

SLT blocks Tamil websites

Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) has blocked access to the following websites as of today from its ADSL network:

Reports I have received indicate that these are still accessible on Dialog.

All ISPs in Sri Lanka have repeatedly blocked access to, but actions today indicate that the scope of websites being blocked that are perceived to be pro-LTTE is increasing apace.

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.

Continue reading

2008: Celebrating the growth of media freedom and the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka


Media freedom and the freedom of expression took a nose dive in 2008, following trends from the year before. Print, electronic and web media were severely undermined by government and LTTE supported violence – both physical and verbal – against dissent, independent opinion and investigative journalism. Framed by escalation of hostilities in the North and East and the demise of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), journalists and media personnel were killed, received death threats, were abducted, stabbed, beaten, grievously hurt, abused, their families attacked, houses ransacked and forced to go into hiding or flee the country. Based on spurious logic and evidence, many independent journalists as well as media establishments were branded traitors and pro-LTTE.

Continue reading

Citizen journalism on Groundviews and Vikalpa’s YouTube channel interrogates assassination of Lasantha Wickremetunge


The Editor in Chief of the Sunday Leader and one of Sri Lanka’s best known journalists Lasantha Wickremetunge was murdered on 8th January 2009 en route to work. He was beaten and shot repeatedly and succumbed to his injuries in hospital. The first post on Groundviews on the assassination can be read here.

Lasantha was 50 at the time of his assassination. No group to date has claimed responsibility. In a tremendously powerful and moving editorial published posthumously the Sunday after he was killed, Lasantha notes that “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.

For its part, the Rajapakse administration points to a mysterious armed force hell bent on discrediting the government. It has done what it does best – expressed outrage, ordered a full investigation and appointed a committee to investigate the attacks. Yet it conveniently forgets, inter alia, that the Cabinet subcommittee to look into the grievances of journalists set up in June 2008 is largely forgotten today. No one knows whether it exists, how to reach it, what it does, or came up with as recommendations to protect journalists. Journalist J.S. Tissanaiyagam still languishes in jail on the most ludicrous charges under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The government is silent on his plight and on-going case, despite widespread local and international condemnation and calls for his release.

Well over eleven thousand came to Groundviews from 8th to 13th January alone to read and actively engage with content published on Lasantha’s assassination and what it portends for independent media and democracy in Sri Lanka.

Amongst regular voices was the former President of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, who wrote in to the site in response to a comment left by Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva. You can follow this conversation here. This was the first comment by the former President on Lasantha’s murder featured in any local and international media.

Also significant was the thrust and parry of debate between Indi Samarajiva, Sri Lanka’s best known and perhaps most read blogger (and architect of the country’s leading blog aggregation site Kottu) and Dayan Jayatilleke. Follow the conversation thread through to its interesting denouement here.

Groundviews was also honoured to receive strong protests in verse from award-winning and internationally acclaimed Sri Lankan poets. Vivimarie Vanderpoorten, winner of the Gratiaen Prize in 2007, Malinda Seneviratne and Indran Amirthanayagam wrote strong poems against violence and Lasantha’s assassination. They were joined by Cry Lanka, an anonymous poet. Most recently, Francesca wrote in from the US. Born in Sri Lanka, Francesca was moved to write about Lasantha’s killing from the point of view of someone from the diaspora. Her poem is here.

Several others wrote in expressing their disgust, shock, sadness and concern. Lionel Bopage, a former General Secretary of the JVP states that,

These assassinations and the repressive culture being imposed upon the Sri Lankan society, culminating with the killing of Mr Wickramatunga, should provide the impetus to stimulate all political forces and individuals in Sri Lanka and overseas, who are committed to protecting the human and democratic rights of its people, to come together and oppose this state of fascism.

Prof. Sumanasiri Liyanage, who teaches political economy at the University of Peradeniya, suggests an alternative proposal for our consideration when he notes that,

Attack on Sirasa and killing of Lasantha Wickramatunga have made me convinced once again my earlier proposal that any protest and opposition to the present government should be a part of a bigger political exercise aiming at naming a non-party peoples’ candidate with minimum transitional program that include the change of the constitution in order to make the state more accommodative, power-dispersed and the politicians more accountable through built-in checks and balances.

Groundviews also featured several videos on Lasantha’s assassination taken from the Vikalpa YouTube video channel. These videos include interviews with civil society, coverage of his funeral as well as the first hours after he was admitted to the Kalubowila hospital.

As a mark of protest and respect Groundviews changed its homepage on the day of Lasantha’s burial to black, featuring links to key articles on his murder.

Groundviews on Lasantha

This site exists to demonstrate that it is possible, using web media strategies, to create spaces for voices at risk to be heard and archived for posterity. In a small but significant way, the original content and conversations on Lasantha’s assassination on this site rigorously interrogated issues of culpability, impunity, democratic governance, media freedom and violence.

At the end of the day, Lasantha’s dead and gone. Yet through these evolving and vital conversations on the web and Internet, he will continue to inspire us.

Sanjana Hattotuwa

Gagging the web and Internet: Implications of the proposed Private TV Broadcasting Regulations in Sri Lanka

Censorship of media in Sri Lanka isn’t a new phenomenon, but the Rajapakse regime took it a step further recently when it recently promulgated a new set of regulations through a gazette notification, called the Private Television Broadcasting Station Regulations. The over broad and ill-defined regulations, in parts copied and pasted verbatim from Indian Cable TV and IP TV regulations, were a measure to further undermine independent media in Sri Lanka.

On 14th November 2008, the Supreme Court, issuing a stay order suspending the operation of these regulations, granted a case lodged by the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association and others who opposed the proposed regulations as an affront to the freedom of expression leave to proceed. The case is to be heard on 26 January 2009.

Disturbingly, the proposed regulations are a significant challenge to all bloggers in Sri Lanka, since they seek to hold accountable all ISPs for the qualitative nature of the content transmitted, accessed and produced using their networks and further, makes no distinction between IP TV (e.g. SLT’s PeoTV) and TV / televisual content over the web and Internet (e.g. YouTube, Vimeo).

To discuss the implications of these proposed regulations, I’ll facilitate a roundtable discussion together with Beyond Borders on the 22nd November, from 3.45pm to 6pm at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI). I hope this discussion will animate youth activists and bloggers in Sri Lanka to take individual and collective action against these regulations which particularly under the Rajapakse regime and also future governments can be used to censor, at will, (video) content on the web and Internet.

Read the agenda for the discussion here. Read the background briefing for the discussion, written from the perspective of a new media producer / blogger / web activist critiquing the proposed regulations as a PDF here.

The participation I have in mind are youth activists, new media producers and bloggers, NOT mainstream media journalists, or senior staff / heads of the communications units of of NGOs, INGOs or CSOs. There’s no real cut off age, but I want to target this discussion at compelling new voices, who may not agree with each other, but are passionate about self-expression using web and online media on the Internet. We already have the confirmed participation of some of Sri Lanka’s most recognised and respected voices in the blogosphere.

Please confirm your participation with Beyond Borders or myself, since seats are limited at the venue.

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.