Defense tools for Sri Lanka’s online onslaught

Sanjana Hattotuwa, the founder of the citizen journalism website Groundviews, sent us the links to a new series of posters and videos focused on digital communications security. The material, which is aimed at a Sri Lankan audience, is available in English, Sinhala, and Tamil, but is relevant to anyone who uses the Internet or a mobile phone.

Hattotuwa asked that the links be shared as widely as possible. “Awareness on these issues is absolutely critical, especially at a juncture when the government is actively pursuing even more draconian and antiquated laws to censor inconvenient content online, and viciously target producers of such content,” he said in an email.

The “draconian and antiquated laws” he mentions are wrapped up in a July 13 announcement by Keheliya Rambukwella, the minister of mass media and information. According to Rambukwella, new regulations were being implemented in which news websites would be charged a registration fee of 100,000 Sri Lankan rupees (US$750), along with a 50,000 rupee (US$375) annual re-registration fee. The minister said that the charges would “ensure that contents of the websites do not harm defenseless individuals.”

In addition, the ministry also said, on its website the week before, that an amendment to the Sri Lankan Press Council Act of 1973 would incorporate the monitoring of news websites in order to prevent “mud-slinging” and to allow “new regulations … and guidelines aimed at streamlining websites.”

With the growth of digital media, the government’s attention has increasingly been directed at online sites. The most recent incident came in late June, when police raided the Colombo offices of the Sri Lanka Mirror and Sri Lanka X News and rounded up the staff. According to the ministry’s post, when Rambukwella was asked about the shutdown of two “mud-slinging” websites, the minister said that several allegations had been made against the two websites. “I’m not in a position to divulge information right now, but there have been various allegations against these websites,” he said.

Nor has Rambukwella discussed the websites that had been temporarily blocked in November. The BBC reported that several sites had been shut down for maligning top government officials, including engaging in “character assassination” of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. And in May, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court slammed the door on a case about the shutdown of four websites that had failed to register with the government. In giving its decision, the court appeared to rule that freedom of expression in Sri Lanka was not an absolute right and could be restricted–and that you didn’t need to pass a law to do so.

The government’s various rationales for its anti-online campaign are hard to reconcile with the climate of intense intimidation and violence against critical opposition journalists. At least 23 Sri Lankan journalists have gone into exile, fearing retaliation, CPJ research shows. The country ranks fourth in the world in combating anti-press violence, according to CPJ’s global Impunity Index.