Sri Lankan government deploys police to crack down on social media

The Sri Lankan government has announced new undemocratic measures and mobilized the police to suppress so-called fake news from social media.

On June 7, police media spokesperson, Senior Deputy Inspector General Ajith Rohana, said the Criminal Investigation Service had set up a special team to “patrol cyberspace” and search ” false news related to COVID-19 or any other sensitive subject “.

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa attends the 2020 event to mark the anniversary of the country’s independence from British colonial rule. [Credit: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena]

It was an offense, Rohana said, “if a person created a panic situation by spreading false news.”

The next day, a police press release detailed the new measures. People who spread false information, photos or videos, he said, could be arrested without a warrant for disturbing public order, creating ethnic or religious discord or contributing to the sexual harassment of women and children.

Those arrested could be charged under one of the country’s tough laws, including the Criminal Code, Computer Crime Law, Prevention of Terrorism Law (PTA) and Pornography Law.

These laws can be used to punish anyone who opposes or criticizes the government and the capitalist state. Those arrested under the draconian PTA can be detained for up to 18 months, with any confessions obtained during this period being used as evidence.

Addressing parliament on June 8, Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara repeated police statements, saying the decision to crack down on social media was taken at the highest level of President Rajapakse’s government.

The government claims to be defending religious and ethnic harmony or fighting misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic are outright lies.

Successive Sri Lankan governments, including the current regime, are responsible for countless anti-Tamil and anti-Muslim provocations, including the nearly 30-year anti-Tamil civil war against the Liberation Tigers separatists of Tamil Eelam .

Likewise, the government is responsible for spreading false information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Medical experts have repeatedly expressed concern that the number of infections and deaths is higher than those recorded by Sri Lankan health authorities, especially under conditions of very low testing rates. Moreover, as has been the case internationally, the Sri Lankan government has sought to downplay the severity of the pandemic, to justify its inadequate and profit-driven response.

In reality, the measures taken by the Rajapakse regime to criminalize so-called fake news on social media are a response to the worsening political and economic crisis of the Sri Lankan capitalist class and the growing social opposition to it. Colombo’s criminal mismanagement of the worsening pandemic.

Government and corporate imposed wage and job cuts, along with rising costs of food and other essentials, provoke working class resistance with strikes and worker protests the public sector of health, education, railways, electricity and water.

Nervous by this growing opposition, President Rajapakse used the Basic Public Services Act on May 27 and June 2 to ban strikes for virtually all public sector workers. Colombo has also systematically militarized the state apparatus, appointing senior serving and retired officers to key positions in the administration. The government’s attack on social media is an integral part of these repressive preparations.

On June 13, five days after the police announcement, Mass Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said Sunday morning that sharing fake news on social media had seen some people “push the country towards re-enactment of criminal defamation law.”

The notoriously undemocratic Criminal Defamation Act (previously repealed in 2002) was initiated during British colonial rule, but continued after Sri Lanka’s official independence in 1948. The law has been used by successive governments to intimidate and censor civilians. media.

In April, the cabinet announced that it had approved a document, presented by Justice Minister Ali Sabry and Media Minister, for new laws to “protect society” from “the damage caused by false propaganda on Internet “.

Sabry said the cabinet was discussing the introduction of laws similar to Singapore’s punitive “Protection from Lies and Online Manipulation” law, which provides for fines of nearly US $ 750,000 and sentences of. imprisonment for up to 10 years.

In a statement condemning Colombo’s anti-democratic measures against internet users, the Journalists for Rights in Sri Lanka group said the government “is trying to intimidate users of social media.”

On June 11, the Sri Lanka Bar Association released a statement expressing concerns that the police would be allowed to arrest without a warrant anyone accused of publishing false news. He warned that the new measures meant that “the police are allowed to decide what is or is not fake news and, based on their subjective decisions, to arrest and detain such people.”

The parliamentary opposition parties and the unions do not oppose these repressive measures. Samagi Jana Balawegaya, the main opposition party, has tried to hide its support by saying its youth wing will provide legal support to anyone arrested for holding views against the government.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, the Tamil National Alliance and the United National Party, as well as the unions, have not said a word about the new measures. They also did not oppose government orders on essential anti-strike services. Like the government, these organizations are terrified of the rise of workers’ opposition.

These attacks on social media in Sri Lanka are part of a growing attack on freedom of speech and expression, underway across all continents.

In the United States, Twitter suspended the account of data scientist Rebecca Jones in early June because she posted real information about COVID-19 infections in Florida. Jones opposed reopening schools during the pandemic last year and refused to change the number of infections and deaths on the state’s coronavirus dashboard.

In April, Twitter deleted more than 20 accounts in India at the request of the Modi government because they had made critical comments about New Delhi’s response to the pandemic.

the World Socialist Website also continues to be censored by Google search engines and on social media platforms.

Galle Face Green protest in 2018 to support the wage demands of plantation workers (Source: WSWS Media)

In every country, social media provides a powerful weapon for workers to organize their struggles. In Sri Lanka, its use has grown exponentially in recent years. According to the Asia-Pacific Institute for Digital Marketing, 63% of Sri Lanka’s 10.1 million internet users were active on social media in 2020.

In 2018, during the plantation workers’ struggle for higher wages, thousands of plantation youth, working in and around Colombo, with the support of other youth, used social media to organize a protest in Galle. Face Green to support workers’ wage demands. Colombo fears that this will be repeated, on a much larger scale, by the working class and the rural masses to challenge the existing order on the basis of a socialist and internationalist program.

About Madeline Powers

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