New media versus online censorship

In a lecture at New York University yesterday I was asked a question about web censorship in Sri Lanka. We are nowhere near Iran or China in the scope of online censorship, but there have been disturbing signs nevertheless about the government desire to control and contain the freedom of expression on the web.

RSF has an interesting article on growing contest between web censorship and web media leveraged to strengthen dissent online. But the way I see it, it’s not just the usual suspects who seek to control information flows online. We must deride in principle all countries that seek to regulate content on the web for disturbingly parochial reasons, often guised as measures that benefit society and protect morals.

The RSF article notes,

The outcome of the cyber-war between netizens and repressive authorities will also depend upon the effectiveness of the weapons each camp has available: powerful filtering and surveillance systems for decrypting e-mails, and ever more sophisticated proxies and censorship circumvention tools such as Tor, VPNs, Psiphon, and UltraReach. The latter are developed mainly thanks to the solidarity of netizens around the globe. For example, thousands of Iranians use proxies originally intended for Chinese surfers.

Global pressure makes a difference, too. The major world powers’ geo-strategic interests are finding a communications platform on the Web. In January 2010, the United States made freedom of expression on the Internet the number one goal of its foreign policy. It remains to be seen how the country will apply this strategy to its foreign relations, and what the reaction of the countries concerned will be.

Censored – Forum theatre on freedom of expression at a time of war

“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist. Without the freedom to challenge, even to satirise all orthodoxies, including religious orthodoxies, it ceases to exist. Language and the imagination cannot be imprisoned, or art will die, and with it, a little of what makes us human.”

Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands

It’s the first time I’ve written on theatre on this blog, and with good reason. Censored, a forum theatre production by Beyond Borders in association with the British Council, will take to the stage on the 20th of this month.

Watch it. Participate in it.


Censorship has been with us ever since the production of knowledge, and it certainly won’t go away. The internet and web were supposed to emancipate us from shackles of parochialism and ignorance, and to an extent have. However, governments, non-state actors and today, even Internet Service Providers, constantly find new ways and new reasons to curtail and block information flows.

From burning ‘satanic Harry Potter‘ books, to the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum, from the Licensing of the Press Act of 1662 in England to more recent moves in Sri Lanka to censor information on the internet and mobiles, polity and society everywhere has grappled with the free production of information and the maintenance of public order, national security, morals et al.

In Sri Lanka, the Rajapakse regime censors every way they can, everything they can, as often as they can – beginning at Sri Lanka’s borders and extending to TV, websites and war reporting. But censorship in Sri Lanka isn’t a new phenomenon. As Asanga Welikala, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives (and close friend of this author) notes in A State of Permanent Crisis: Constitutional Government, Fundamental Rights and States of Emergency in Sri Lanka:

In May and June 1958, in Ceylon, occurred what were up till then the most serious communal riots in Sri Lanka’s troubled history of ethnic relations. In retrospect, the events of 1958 were mere portents of the horrors that were to come. A contemporaneous journalistic account of what happened was written by Tarzie Vittachi, editor of Asia’s oldest newspaper, the Ceylon Observer, satirical columnist, and intrepid political commentator. In the context of the blanket censorship imposed under Sri Lanka’s first post-independence experience of emergency rule, the manuscript was published in London under the title Emergency ’58 by Andre Deutsch, in what has now become a classic of Sri Lankan political literature. The book was banned in Ceylon, and Tarzie Vittachi subsequently left the country, under the cloud of death threats.

The issue of censorship recently came to a head with the Private Television Broadcasting Station Regulations introduced by the Rajapakse regime. Overbroad, ill defined and outrageously conflating technical standards and concepts such as IP TV with video over the internet, with no definition of broadcast and with for reason other than to clamp down on dissent and criticism of the Rajapakse regime, journalist Namini Wijedasa was spot on when she said that the regulations placed media at the mercy of idiot ministers.

The regulations have a particularly sinister bent, in that they can be used by the regime as well as by ISPs (fearful of losing their broadcast license) to censor video over the internet, which affects all bloggers in Sri Lanka whether they produce video content themselves or wish to consume content on sites such as YouTube.

The freedom of expression is by no means an absolute right. One finds in European and American jurisprudence, particularly with regard to the interpretation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights by the European Court of Human Rights and the First Amendment of the American Constitution by the US Supreme Court respectively, a healthy debate on the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression. My own interest in the issue comes from the perspective of communicative rights, that all peoples have a right to access and participate in the creation of a wide and diverse range of information and views.

Sri Lanka is far removed from a country able to discuss, openly and meaningfully, what freedom of expression really means and why it is important to safeguard and strengthen even when dealing with terrorists and terrorism. As Martin Luther King, Jr. noted

“Curtailment of free speech is rationalized on grounds that a more compelling American tradition forbids criticism of the government when the nation is at war…Nothing can be more destructive of our fundamental democratic traditions than the vicious effort to silence dissenters.”

If I have a gripe, it is that the performance is only slated for a single night. Given the monumental challenges facing the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka, I encourage the producers to consider staging Censored again, and importantly, staging it out of Colombo and the Western Province.

Thailand and Malaysia clamp down websites

In moves bound to embolden Sri Lanka’s own regime to officially clamp down on websites, Thailand and Malaysia blocked or shut down hundreds of websites this week. Thailand’s manifestly idiotic and regressive lese majeste laws were used to shut down 344 out of a total of 400 sites it shut down. As this Asia Media report notes,

The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Ministry said that between March and August this year, it detected more than 1,200 sites disturbing the peaceful social order and morality of the people, and/or which were considered detrimental to national security.

And you then wonder why private ISPs such as Dialog Telekom (a subsidiary of Telekom Malaysia International BhD) supinely accede to diktats by our incumbent regime to block access to Tamilnet.

Not to be outdone in South East Asia’s silly season on the web, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission earlier this week ordered all 19 of the country’s Internet service providers to block the controversial political portal Malaysia Today. As noted in CNet News the MCMC states that,

“It is being blocked because we found that some of the comments on the Web site were insensitive, bordering on incitement”.

What’s particularly pernicious about the Malaysian case is that the Malaysian government has broken a promise not to censor the Internet. As the CNET News story goes on to note, this was “a commitment it first made when the nation launched its Multimedia Super Corridor strategy in 1996. Under the MSC Malaysia 10 Point Bill of Guarantees, the government pledges to ‘ensure no Internet censorship.'”

I was in Malaysia last year during GKP III amidst street demonstrations and unrest, when news reports of the ethnic and communal rifts that were turning violent read like capsules of Sri Lanka’s own sordid history of ethnic marginalisation and discrimination.

I strongly feel that it is only a matter of time before the Sri Lankan regime begins to follow the reprehensible examples of Thailand and Malaysia.

Independent media websites hacked in Sri Lanka?

On the same day The Island newspaper cited net terrorism (sic) as the cause for an outrageous gaffe in its Children Section came news that the Lanka Dissent website had been hacked into. I don’t for a moment believe that The Island was a victim of Internet “terrorism” but as an excuse it’s credence was strengthened at a time when questions are being increasingly posed as to whether the government of Sri Lanka is actively targeting independent media on the web. 

The Lanka Dissent website makes a rather serious claim in this regard:

The Defence Ministry recently set up an electronic media observation unit at a building adjacent to Standard Chartered Bank in front of the President’s House in Colombo to monitor websites reporting on the situation in Sri Lanka.

LD learns through reliable sources that this particular unit staffed with electronic and IT experts, is experimenting on how to disrupt websites.

It gives no further sources or proof to back up this claim, which if true is very disturbing. Further, the LD letter isn’t very well penned, shows no real understanding of the term “hacking” (it’s not always a pejorative term) and the four key points it makes can be seriously contested.

Point #1 on the website is conjecture and just conspiracy theories. Tissa languishes in jail, but his website is still up on the web, though its (for obvious reasons) not been updated from early March. I don’t know enough about Point #2, the “hacking” of the Daily Mirror poll, to comment. However, online polls unless carefully setup are often the targets of those who wish to skew the poll in their favour by repeated voting. So this may not have been “hacking” at all. Point #3 is so convoluted that it barely makes any sense. Point #4 on the alleged travails of The Island to wrest control of its emails from “hackers” is to me very suspect when juxtaposed against the incident that brought this supposed case of “net terrorism” to light

Anyway, LD’s emails have been broken into and it sees this as signs of growing web media repression. 

We wish to stress that this cannot be a ‘lone hacker’ enjoying his/her exploits. We have reason to believe this is an attempt in blocking local news going out into the local and the international community. This is an attempt at suppressing the remaining independent part of the Sri Lankan media and thus a serious infringement on the right for information and expression. Perhaps the beginning of official hacking in suppressing total dissemination of information.

There’s an element of hyperbole there, but as the Free Media Movement notes in a statement released today, LD’s concerns must be taken seriously in the larger context of media censorship and attacks against the press in Sri Lanka. It warns that if true, web censorship places us in the same league as China and Russia, which ain’t a place we want to be at or descend to. 

The FMM urges the authorities to immediately clarify the existence and nature of the electronic media-monitoring unit by the Ministry of Defence as noted by Lanka Dissent.

Thwarting independent media especially on the web and Internet is brings us in line with the reprehensible censorship and thinly veiled government sponsored hacking of countries such as China and Russia, now friends of Sri Lanka. Further, it is simply not possibly to shut off access to independent journalism unless like Myanmar after the Saffron Revolution, Information and Communications Technology in the entire country is shut down.

Though Tamilnet is still blocked and high powered members of the Government have called for outright bans on independent media, there’s a very active SL blogosphere and other independent media websites don’t seem to have been touched. Yet. Anyway, wouldn’t it just be more effective for a Government that certainly has no qualms in doing so to just physically roughen up or kill journalists it doesn’t like with a view to silencing dissent? Plausible deniability doesn’t work with IP blocks. 

As the FMM points out, it’s really quite difficult to shut down information flows and ICTs today. It’s easy on one level – a Government can just pull the plug – but it’s impossible to hide that you’ve done it. Every citizen is a potential reporter today. You’ll have to go down the path of Myanmar and shut every cellphone, ISP and shoot every carrier pigeon to completely halt information flows. Hell, even then information will get out. 

I may be very wrong, but I don’t think this regime is foolish enough to block websites on a large scale. Not because it doesn’t want to do it, but because it’s got more effective means at its disposal against those who promote inconvenient truths.

For starters, just ask Iqbal Athas or J.S. Tissainayagam.