The Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI), its constituents and affiliated organisations are deeply concerned over the proposed ‘Online Safety Bill’, which is supposed to be presented to the Parliament during the coming week. The regulation of internet intermediaries, encompassing content-sharing platforms and messaging services, fills a significant void within the existing legislative framework, as it bridges this gap by providing oversight and accountability to these service providers. Yet, the implications of the bill extend beyond the intermediaries to impact all online platform users, including the media.
The Bill seeks to PROHIBIT ONLINE COMMUNICATION OF CERTAIN STATEMENTS OF FACT IN SRI LANKA; SUPPRESS THE FINANCING AND OTHER SUPPORT OF COMMUNICATION OF FALSE STATEMENTS OF FACT AND FOR MATTERS CONNECTED THEREWITH OR INCIDENTAL THERETO.
The SLPI is of the opinion that the present bill has several controversial elements that are not conducive for the media community. The proposed bill consists of an overbroad and vague definition such as “statement of facts” and it is not clear as to who decides its definition? Furthermore, the Online Safety Commission, appointed by the Executive, has the power to issue notices and the ability to stop the spread of ‘false’ statements. This raises concerns on the potential misuse of the term “false statement” and its interpretation. The Bill also criminalizes communication of facts that could be considered harassing, potentially impacting media freedoms, as reporting news could be seen as “alarming or distressing” to someone.
As the country navigates this juncture, the challenge lies in finding a balance between regulating online content and safeguarding freedom of expression. It is evident that the constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights of citizens, in terms of freedom of speech and expression, is threatened through the proposed Online Safety Bill. While the SLPI acknowledges the need to address disinformation and hate speech online, we emphasis that this concern should be met by measures that are both necessary in a democratic society and proportionate to the objective thereto. SLPI reiterates that the instant bill does not reflect such a balance in its content and purpose.
The SLPI would also like to reiterate that it had also provided a solution through the proposed Sri Lanka Media Authority outline, which is based on self-regulatory principles and a co-regulatory model for managing mainstream and online media, which was developed in consultation with its constituents, affiliated organizations and submitted to the relevant Ministers.