For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
The government has, true to form, donned the armour of a knight errant to further its own interests deftly, if not cunningly, on the pretext of protecting the citizens’ rights against mud-slinging websites. Having ordered police raids on two such Internet publications, it has sought to impose a huge registration fee on news websites across the board. Ironically, even some of the worst critics of the government see eye to eye with it on the draconian measures being adopted purportedly to regulate news websites.
Legal action against those who abuse and pollute the Internet to defame others is, no doubt, welcome but it must necessarily be properly targeted. It is imperative that the government be prevented from passing laws that allow the powers that be to suppress people’s right to information and freedom of expression under the guise of dealing with abusers and polluters of the Internet. What the government has done by way of regulating errant news websites is like imposing heavy taxes on kitchen knives, renewable every year and restricting their use, on the grounds that they have become lethal weapons in the hands of some criminals! Instead of meting out collective punishment, the government ought to trace the anti-social elements responsible for the dissemination of incendiary or pornographic or defamatory material via the Internet and bring them to justice.
There is no way anyone could upload anything illegal without being found out if the civilised world gets its act together. We already have effective regulatory mechanisms in place to entertain and investigate complaints against the print and electronic media and the existing laws could be amended or new legislation brought in, of course in consultation with the stakeholders like media practitioners and rights groups, to deny web publications the freedom of the wild ass.
Sri Lanka, one of the countries that have incurred international opprobrium for their appalling human rights records and attacks on the media, has been under tremendous pressure to emulate the western world, especially the US, in handling the media. Yes, it has a great deal to learn from other countries, but let it be urged to refrain from taking a leaf out of America’s book as regards the control of information via the Internet.
President Barack Obama has recently signed an Executive Order granting himself wide authority to control all private communications in the country in times of disasters. His order has triggered a howl of protest as media rights groups believe that a section in his order allows him and his Secretary of Homeland Security what they call the control of the ‘on/off switch to the Web’.
President Obama is said to have overtaken his predecessor Bush, who drew flak over his targeted action such as tapping individual cell phone conversations of known terrorist associates residing in America when they were calling overseas. The manner in which the Obama government has sought to tackle the media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests and its transgressive Internet regulations not only run counter to the letter and spirit of the famed First Amendment but also have tarnished America’s image. No wonder the US is tumbling on the Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index; it ranks 47th at present.
Regrettably, President’s Obama’s order has come close on the heels of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s exhortation to the world to facilitate the free flow of information. It was only the other day that she welcomed a UN Human Rights Council Resolution on Promotion, Protection, and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet. She declared, “[It] makes clear that all individuals are entitled to the same human rights and fundamental freedoms online as they are offline, and all governments must protect those rights regardless of the medium … the free flow of news and information is under threat in countries around the world. We are witnessing an alarming surge in the number of cases involving government censorship and persecution of individuals for their actions online––sometimes for just a single tweet or text message.”
Never mind the double standards of the self-appointed guardians of right to expression, whose conduct makes us ask a la Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? People’s right to express themselves and have access to news and views of others via the Internet must be safeguarded. The alternative media have over the years graduated to web publishing to gain a wider reach at a low cost. Increasing their costs by means of heavy financial burdens in the form of registration fees etc is tantamount to an attempt to throttle them. This is the danger we see in the government’s proposed course of action aimed at dealing with errant web publications.