For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
a. Arbitrary blocking or filtering of content
During the latter part of the war, websites that purported to provide alternative coverage on the war were blocked. From June 2007, allegedly on the orders of the Sri Lankan government, all Internet service providers in Sri Lanka blocked users from being able to access the website Tamilnet.com.24 The website was regarded as being supprtive of the LTTE and the Government accused it of being a propaganda instrument of the movement. To date, the Government has denied any knowledge of the unavailability of Tamilnet.com. The Government spokesperson at the time and current Mass Media and Information Minister Keheliya Rambukwella denied any government involvement in the blocking of Tamilnet.com and added that ‘the government is looking to hire hackers to disable Tamilnet but could not find anyone yet’.
Article 19, an international human rights group, condemned the government for cutting off an important source of independent and alternative views.26 Local media watchdog Free Media Movement criticised the government as follows:
The ban on Tamilnet is the first instance of what the FMM believes may soon be a slippery slope of web & Internet censorship in Sri Lanka. It is also a regrettable yet revealing extension of this Government’s threats against and coercion of print and electronic media in Sri Lanka since assuming office in late 2005…. 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.
For example, although not completely blocked during the latter part of the war, the website of Human Rights Watch remained regularly inaccessible. Other websites such as TamilCanadian.com, Lankanewsweb.com, Nidahasa.com and Lankaenews.com were also blocked. Despite the fact that the website was not shutdown, the Attorney General’s Department noted that ‘the government has received a complaint that the Tamil National Alliance website directly contributes towards dividing the country and that it promotes the concept of a separate Eelam State.
On the eve of the Presidential election, a number of Sri Lankan news websites were also blocked. Lankaenews.com, Lankanewsweb.com, Infolanka.com and Srilankaguardian.org websites were blocked hours before the results of the presidential election were announced. The sites were inaccessible from Sri Lanka’s main ISP, the state-owned Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT). However, the sites were accessible by the privately owned ISP Dialog WiMax. It was further reported –
according to a source who worked for SLT – that ‘verbal directives were given’ to block the websites. Several complaints were made to the Election Commissioner, who had in turn referred the complaints to SLT. SLT, however, refused to answer any questions. Reporters without Borders condemned the government by stating that,
Such censorship reflects a beleaguered government’s nervousness and readiness to resort to manipulation…The free flow of news and information during an election offers one of the few guarantees against massive fraud. We urge the government to restore access to these sites.
On the 20th of June 2011, Groundviews34, a citizen journalism initiative, was completely inaccessible for over eight hours on SLT (Sri Lanka Telecom) ADSL broadband connexions. Since it began operations in 2006, this was the first time the site was inaccessible over an ISP in Sri Lanka. Several reader reports from across Sri Lanka confirmed the site could not be accessed, as well as that over ISPs like Dialog and Etisalat the site continued to be accessible. Reader reports also indicated that the vernacular citizen journalism initiative Vikalpa and the website of
Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) was also inaccessible over SLT ADSL broadband connexions at the same time as Groundviews. In response to widespread news reports of the issue, TRC Director General, Anusha Palpita, responded by stating that the TRC has “not taken measures to block any news sites during the past year except for the LankaeNews website, which was following a court order.”36 It is interesting to note that the requirement of a court order appears to have been overlooked with regard to websites such as Tamilnet.com and a number of
other websites mentioned above that were intermittently and arbitrarily blocked in the past.
Following the conclusion of a court case concerning Lankaenews this year, it was reported in October that access to the site had once again been blocked sans any legal basis and due to its coverage of an incident of intra-party violence.
The concerns over a possible registration process that were mooted by the TRC in 2010 were realised when the Director General of Government Information Department issued a press release on the 5th of November 2011, which pointed to a requirement of all ‘websites carrying any content relating to Sri Lanka or the people of Sri Lanka… uploaded from Sri Lanka or elsewhere’ to ‘register’ for ‘accreditation.’ On the same day, the TRC moved to block several websites without allowing an adequate period of time for the owners of websites to respond to the request.
There were several other issues about the request, which highlight the arbitrary nature of policy-making and imposition of regulations by the government, as well as the threat to freedom of expression on the Internet. A statement issued by civil society organisations and concerned individuals noted the following,
Firstly, there was no clarification about what the process of registration will entail and
whether any sort of liability or conditions will be imposed.
Secondly, the press release does not establish with sufficient clarity the categories of either websites or persons who are required to register with the Ministry.
Thirdly, it is not clear whether and how the requirement for registration will apply to international news websites and websites operated by international organisations that publish news on and in Sri Lanka.
Finally, in the interests of transparency, consistency and equal treatment, the Information Department did not explain in the statement the legal framework and process under which registration of this nature can be enforced.
The requirement of registration coupled with the blocking of websites, which potentially constitutes a form of prior-censorship, not only produces a chilling effect on the freedoms of expression and information on the Internet, but also constitutes a prima facie violation of a number of constitutionally protected fundamental rights, including Article 14(1)(a) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka. The obligations of the government with respect to international standards are made clear by Sri Lanka’s ratification of enforceable international legal instruments, which includes the ICCPR. Needless to say, these measures also do not meet broader standards of international best practice as reflected in the Special Rapporteur’s report. An added concern with regard to the issue of filtration has been the emerging global trend of ISPs utilising offline URL filtering, which is ‘the best option for ISPs that need to conform to
government regulations to censor the Internet’ and where the ‘…system performs URL filtering on Web traffic “destined” to arrive at a filtered Web site, and this can be determined based on the destination’s IP address.’ Given that offline URL filtering is a relatively cost effective option when compared to DNS and IP filtering, and further allows ISPs to block specific URLs rather than entire websites, this new form filtering provides an effective solution for governments to block web content that is considered offensive or deemed to be in violation of very broad national security legislation.
In August 2008, the President ordered the country’s TRC to block access to adult entertainment websites. The Government spokesperson explained that the move was designed to prevent children from viewing pornography over the Internet. The ISPs were to filter out sexually explicit material by default and only make it available to adults who request and pay an additional fee to access the unfiltered service. Obviously the directive had been issued without much consideration as to how such a ban would be effectively implemented. In any event, to date the directive has
not been effectively implemented. Foreign pornography websites continue to be available even on an SLT (the state-owned ISP) Internet connexion. In June 2009, on an application brought forward by the Inspector General of Police, the Colombo Magistrates Court ordered the TRC to ban twelve Sri Lankan pornography websites. Once again, the extent to which the court order has been implemented is questionable. Ironically this official ban on websites appears to be less
effective than the unofficial ban on websites such as Tamilnet.com. Four of the twelve banned pornographic websites were available on a Dialog Internet connexion.
In the post-war context, the government’s concern over pornography has not lessened. It was recently reported that the Women and Child’s Bureau within the Police has formally requested that pornography websites be banned on mobile phones. As a result, it was estimated that up to 400 websites could be banned under such a request. Director General of the TRC has confirmed that it had received such a request, but had stated at the time that it is waiting on Cabinet approval prior to implementing such a ban.
The Sri Lankan government has proposed new stringent legislation under the Obscene Publications Act of 2011 that would ‘prohibit the publication, exhibition, print, telecast, broadcast or lets on hire or knowingly sells or distributes or in any manner introduces into circulation through any medium of communication – print or electronic – object or thing which is obscene or imports, exports, makes, produces, prints or knowingly transmits, transports or possesses or does any other act whatsoever with regard to any matter object or material which is obscene, for any purpose’ in the country. It is unclear at this point what new restrictions will be imposed online and how the TRC as well as ISPs will respond to the provisions of the legislation. The Ministry of Justice has placed emphasis on the need to prevent the circulation of child pornography, which has also been noted by the Special Rapporteur as an urgent requirement in order to prevent the sexual exploitation of children. The immediate concern with the new legislation is the lack of, firstly, detailed provisions and, secondly, an exact definition of what may constitute ‘obscene’ content. The latter in consideration with the Ministry’s stress on
the need to ensure that print and electronic media conforms to ‘cultural, religious and moral values’ in the country, could result in the manipulation of legislation leading to the imposition of restrictions on legitimate forms of expression that oppose conservative norms, religious doctrine and cultural values.
As the critics have noted, protecting children from pornography is a worthy policy objective. However, the question remains whether banning all pornography – even from adults – is the appropriate response. The Special Rapporteur notes the following with regard to protecting children from pornographic content, while the protection of children from inappropriate content may constitute a legitimate aim, the availability of software filters that parents and school authorities can use to control access to certain content renders action by the Government such as blocking less necessary, and difficult to justify.
This is an issue that other jurisdictions have grappled with. In Australia, when a move to filter pornographic content was mooted, Internet service providers pointed to the infeasibility and unworkability of such a broad filtering regime.49 In the US, the Supreme Court held that though removing access to pornographic content from children is acceptable, withholding adult access to such content would be in violation of the First Amendment.50 Critics of the Chinese attempts to block pornography have pointed out that the Chinese government in its objective to block ‘vulgarity’ has also blocked other social and political content that is critical of the Chinese
(This is the part 4 of the report Freedom of Expression on the Internet in Sri Lanka published by CPA, Sri Lanka.)
For the full report including the foot notes see: Freedom of Expression on the Internet in Sri Lanka