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The Online Safety Act; For Whose Safety? - EDITORIAL

29 Jan 2024 - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}      

On 18 September 2023, the government gazetted a draft bill to establish an Online Safety Act with defined powers and functions. It was tabled in the Parliament on the 3rd of October 2023. The Act sets out to establish an ‘Online Safety Commission’ consisting of five members appointed by the Executive President of the country, with specific objectives. 

According to a survey carried out by Verité Research, 56% of those surveyed said the Online Safety Act would curtail the freedom of those using social media.
The legislation was passed in Parliament on the 24th of this month (January).  

A summary of the government’s reasoning to bring in this controversial piece of legislation is to protect the public from the damage caused by the communication of prohibited statements and defamatory articles, and to prohibit the usage of unauthentic online accounts for prohibited purposes, as well as to flag specific online platforms and websites as ‘declared online locations for the propagation of false statements’.
The Act has the power to criminalise what a person posts or shares online, with a sentence of imprisonment up to 20 years.

The Supreme Court determined that 31 clauses in the proposed bill be amended for it to be passed with a simple majority. Else, in its original state, a special majority of a two-thirds was required for its passage.
As mentioned earlier the bill was passed with a simple majority.

A popular columnist writing on the ‘Online Safety Bill’ (OSB) has queried whether Parliamentarians who voted to make the piece of legislation part of this country’s law had really understood the bill they backed. To back her claim, she quotes a number of government politicians, whose names we have not revealed to save them further embarrassment. 
Among the quotable are:

MP ‘A’: “There is no freedom for a man to bathe, no freedom to wear a short dress, no freedom to sing a song at a club. Those days in the village, girls used to bathe in the river. That was the norm. Now girls can’t do this because some boy would take a photograph of this and publish it”

MP ‘R.A.’: “This even affects our Opposition Leader. There is one social media post showing him (Opposition Leader) going on a footbridge, when there’s a bridge. That’s his choice…” 
We could go on ad nauseam, but the two examples serve to expose the ‘simplistic reasoning’ of persons empowered to govern our country. It is not surprising therefore that our country has sunk into the mess we find ourselves in today – bankruptcy.

All media publishing houses in the country have opposed the Online Safety Bill which is seen as an attempt to stifle criticism. 
Adding voice to concerns raised by local critics of the controversial legislation has been the US, via its Ambassador, Ms. Julie Chung. 

According to Ms Chung, ‘the US remains concerned about the potential impact of Sri Lanka’s Online Safety Bill, which was passed on the 24th,  without incorporating important input from key stakeholders, including civil society and tech companies who say the legislation threatens the Freedom of Expression, Innovation and Privacy...’
Whilst thanking the US Ambassador for her very vociferous concern regarding the Freedom of Expression in our country, we would wish the US also takes steps against the outright mass murder, its ally Israel is committing on unarmed men, women and children in Palestine.

Since 7 October, Israel has killed at least 26,257 Palestinians, and wounded around 64,797 in attacks on Gaza’s civilian population. Israeli attacks have killed at least 10,000 children – one Palestinian child killed every 15 minutes, according to Palestinian officials in the Gaza Strip. Thousands more are missing under the rubble, most of them presumed dead.

What is worse, the US continues blocking any discussion of Israeli massacres at the UN Security Council. It has also blocked the Security Council calling for a ceasefire in Palestine.
While thanking the US and Ms Chung for standing up for media freedom in Sri Lanka, it would be best, if the US calls on Israel to stop its attacks on innocents in Gaza.