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Sri Lanka considers censoring social media sites

Laws targeting users could have serious 'implications' reporter, Colombo
Sri Lanka

July 1, 2014

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The Sri Lanka government is gearing up to take legal action to block social media users who are critical of the government, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) said on Tuesday.

“Right now the only way to get information is social media as most of the independent news websites have been blocked by the government and pressure has been imposed on traditional print and electronic media,” said Lal Wijenayake, chairman of the Standing Committee on Rule of Law at BASL and convener of the group Lawyers for Democracy. 

During anti-Muslim violence that left three dead and 150 injured in the coastal towns of Aluthgama and Beruwala last month, social media was widely used to publish news and photos. At the time, most news outlets were prevented from entering the areas by security authorities.

Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, warned this weekend that stern action would be taken against anyone who promotes racial or religious hatred via social media, and called for legislation to be introduced, according to local media reports.

Wijenayake said the phrase ‘hate speech’ would need to be clearly defined in law, otherwise it could be misinterpreted to implicate anyone who criticizes the government via social media. He added that the government has a track record of manipulating data to service its own ends.

“The government all this time has covered up all negative information about it, but now they are being exposed," he said, pointing to recent news stories that revealed that the government fabricated statistics about the country's economic growth to attract investors. 

BASL President Upul Jayasuriya also said government censorship of social media would have serious implications.

“The entire media is already blocked by way of threatening journalists and media institutions, or by buying them off,” Jayasuirya said.

Charitha Herath, secretary of the Ministry of Mass Media and Information, told a local media outlet that while the right to free speech should be respected, there should also be established criteria for social media to prevent miscreants and troublemakers from misusing it for harmful purposes.

At least eight news websites which are known to be critical of the government have been blocked in Sri Lanka since 2007. The most recent were blocked earlier this year. 

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