Sri Lanka’s online regulations highlight restrictions sweeping South Asia
From Pakistan to India, activists warn of tendency to throttle the net as elections near
By Kamala Thiagarajan
MADURAI – New legislation to regulate online content in Sri Lanka has renewed concern over freedom of expression ahead of expected elections. It also highlights a growing habit of restricting the internet across South Asia, from India to Pakistan.
The Sri Lankan Parliament approved what was dubbed the Online Safety Act in late January, with 108 lawmakers voting in favour versus 62 against. Under the law, “false statements” that pose a threat to national security, public health and order or hurt religious sentiments or promote hostility between different classes can be subject to hefty prison terms.
Activists say the bill provides sweeping powers to the new Online Safety Commission, consisting of five members appointed by the president. This panel can decide what constitutes a prohibited statement and issue takedown orders to internet service providers and social networks.
When introducing the bill in Parliament on Jan. 18, Public Security Minister Tiran Alles said it was meant to address problems related to online fraud and other crimes – more than 8,000 complaints were filed last year related to crimes such as scams, data theft and sexual abuse, according to the government. He insisted that the bill was not drafted to harass the media or political opponents.
But suspicion of authority runs deep as the country digs itself out of severe political and economic crises. Sri Lanka defaulted on its sovereign debt in 2022, and protests fuelled by severe shortages of essentials subsequently forced out President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe took over as president and went on to secure a $2.9 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But many continue to face acute hardship, and the political temperature is heating up as the country looks toward elections expected around September.
The online bill sailed through despite a public outcry, which has not dissipated since. The legislation is “vague, unclear and a threat to free speech,” said Ashila Dandeniya, executive director of the Stand Up Movement Lanka. “It also comes at a time when on-the-ground scrutiny and surveillance of grassroots activism is at its peak.”
Stand Up Movement Lanka recently registered as a trade union, the Stand Up Workers Union. It seeks to protect the most vulnerable groups, ensuring labour rights for sex workers, the LGBTQI community and factory garment workers. Dandeniya said extensive monitoring of the organization has resulted in nervous landlords, forcing them to move three times over the last three years and driving up costs. “The online space was our last safe refuge for our activism,” she said. “However, this law, when it comes into effect, can easily weaponize anything that is said on social media.”
Even the US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Julie Chung, voiced concern on the X messaging platform. She said it had passed “without incorporating important input from key stakeholders, including civil society and tech companies,” and that the “vague, overtly restrictive legislation can hinder investment and the development of a digital economy, undermining the economic growth that Sri Lanka needs.”
She said the US urged Sri Lanka to “prioritize transparency and ensure any legislation does not stifle the voice of its people”.
But Sri Lanka is far from alone in tightening control of online discourse. Governments around the world are struggling to strike a balance between allowing free speech and checking the toxic tendencies of netizens. Some veer into outright censorship and internet shutdowns.
According to data from the digital rights organization AccessNow and the #KeepItOn coalition, a global movement to end internet blackouts, there were 187 such shutdowns across 35 countries in 2022.
In South Asia, Pakistani authorities in recent months have allegedly throttled social media to curb virtual political rallies held by the allies of jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Officials blamed the outages on technical glitches.
India has been one of the most prolific countries when it comes to switching off online access, according to rights groups — especially in the disputed territory of Kashmir as well as the strife-torn northeastern state of Manipur. Human Rights Watch and the Internet Freedom Foundation said in a report last year that “since 2018, India has shut down the internet more than any other country in the world.”
While authorities do so in the name of public safety, the rights groups stressed that such actions clash with the country’s efforts to become a more digital society. “Without the internet, people can’t reach government food and work programs or conduct activities like banking,” they said.
At times, online censorship can be more stealthy — such as the blocking this month of the Indian hate crime tracker Hindutva Watch, which kept an eye on religiously motivated right-wing crime, often perpetrated by those who support the ruling party. The move came just ahead of India’s elections due in April and May.
New broadcasting laws in India have also drawn criticism from activists who say they give authorities broad powers to regulate entertainment, journalism and the internet.
In Bangladesh, too, in the run-up to the country’s controversial election in early January, United Nations experts cited “internet shutdowns to disrupt protests” as one of several anti-democratic moves that left them “deeply disturbed”.
Back in Sri Lanka, Ambika Satkunanathan, a human rights activist and former commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, acknowledged that the Online Safety Act had passed with a clear majority but said there was not enough time for informed debate.
Hers was one of 51 petitions that opposed the law in the Supreme Court in 2023. The court suggested that some amendments be made to the bill. But, she said, “MPs did not have time to view the consolidated version of the bill before the debate started.” Some opposition lawmakers argued the final bill did not comply with all of the court’s recommendations – an argument the government brushed aside as a stalling tactic.
Even with this controversial inclusion of some amendments, Satkunanathan said the bill is concerning. “It curbs dissent, restricts freedom of speech and puts so much power in the hands of authorities,” she said. “Of most concern are the provisions that amount to criminalizing defamation, [which] can easily be misused. As a result, there’s a great deal of fear, anxiety and misinformation among the general public.”
-Kamala Thiagarajan is a contributing writer Nikkei Asia where this article was originally featured