Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith filed a petition in the Supreme Court alleging curbs on freedom of speech
In this photo illustration taken on June 20, 2021, a user checks out a social media post on his laptop in Colombo after Sri Lanka's military launched an investigation after social media posts showed soldiers humiliating minority Muslims by forcing them to kneel on the streets during Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown. (Photo: AFP)
Church and rights groups including media organizations and political parties have challenged the legality of the Sri Lankan government’s “online safety bill” listed for debate in the parliament.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, who filed the petition in the Supreme Court on Oct. 16, said certain clauses in the draft law seriously curtail freedom of speech and fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution.
The bill reportedly proposes to compel social media platforms to divulge the identities of anonymous users who post information that government regulators consider to be "false" or “offensive.”
It stipulates a five-year prison sentence for social media users and a 10 million rupee ($31,000) fine on social media platforms for non-compliance.
Rights groups have called it “a wholesale effort” to stifle criticism of the island nation's beleaguered government.
Cardinal Ranjith said the law plans to give “arbitrary and unreasonable wide-ranging powers have been given to the president” to appoint or remove the president and members of the Online Safety Commission.
He urged the Supreme Court to order a referendum on the issue and ensure the bill cannot be approved by parliament without a two-thirds majority vote.
Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, who also filed a petition challenging the bill, said it violates several articles of the constitution.
Manoj Nanayakkara, an attorney-at-law, said the draft law was meant to curtail the impact of social media.
"People learn about fraud and corruption in the country not through mainstream media, but through social media,” he said.
Sunila Hewavitharana, a rights activist from Kurunegala, said the government was trying to curb public criticism and street protests by imposing curbs on social media.
Wajira Abeywardana, chairman of the United National Party of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, said the bill must be passed in the parliament.
"We have tabled the bill and the parliament should pass it in the national interest," he said at a media briefing in Colombo on Oct. 16.
The bill was tabled in parliament for its first reading on Oct. 3.
The government claimed the bill aims to protect children and women from negative impacts like pornography and online fraud.
The Supreme Court began hearing the bunch of petitions challenging it on Oct. 10 and will continue until Oct. 20.
President Wickremesinghe has been accused of cracking down on dissent since coming to power last year at the height of the South Asian island nation's unprecedented economic crisis.
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