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Online Safety Bill passed in Sri Lanka's parliament despite opposition

(File photo)

The controversy-rigged Online Safety Bill was passed in Sri Lanka's parliament today, despite international concern and opposition claims that it is inconsistent with a Supreme Court determination.

The proposed bill, touted as one that will regulate online content, has sparked criticism from activists, international organisations including the UN human rights office, and opposition politicians, who state the government is trying to crackdown on dissent and stifle freedom of speech.

However, following the second reading of the bill, the measure was passed 108-62 in parliament. 

Despite opposition members highlighted purported inconsistencies with the Supreme Court’s determination that some of the clauses are unconstitutional, Sri Lanka’s speaker announced it would proceed with the bill since the amendments were approved by the Attorney General. 

Tamil members of parliament denounced the vote to debate the Online Safety Bill on Tuersday, calling the proceeding in the House a sham.

Speaking in parliament, Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) MP M A Sumanthiran called the debate “illegal” and contrary to Standing Orders. He told the Tamil Guardian that they had raised their concerns during a party-leader meeting however they were assured that the amendment would be made. “We queried as to why this needs to happen in two stages when we can debate it once the amendments are included," he said. "But the ruling members squashed the request and proceeded with the vote.”

“What has been tabled is being called a report, but it is not a report. This insults the basic intelligence of all the members of this house and worse it insults the intelligence of the people of this country. It says ‘The sectoral oversight committee agreed the bill is subject to the amendments proposed by the Supreme Court and resolved that the report of the committee thereon be presented'. But there is no report.”

He told the House they were informed by the Speaker that this has been the practice of parliament. However, he produced the report issued by the Committee on Public Finance which includes all of the amendments, observations, and matters that have been acknowledged. Noting that this procedure had not been followed in the case of the Online Safety Bill. 

“This is an illegal debate," he told parliament on Monday. "Simply because there are more numbers on the government benches doesn’t mean that this is a report. What we have demonstrated to the country today is that the members who voted a little while ago cannot read. It exposes to the country the literacy of the government members today. The government members have said that this is a report when it’s not a report. The whole country must know that these are the people who are on the government benches today, who cannot even read.”

He said the House could have followed a process where both sides agreed but instead, it had chosen the wrongful path of bulldozing through. “This is the characteristic of this government that uses the false majority they have, to bulldoze through oppressive, draconian, pieces of legislation in this house.”


Meanwhile, MP Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, leader of the Tamil National People's Front (TNPF) told the House that the members “are debating something unofficial".

"The only document we have is the original bill of which 34 sections are to be amended," he continued. "Nothing has been tabled neither a report. And it is outside the Standing Orders. You are expecting members of parliament to rely on something that is outside procedures.”

The MP read out a section under the standing orders which said that “The Sectoral Oversight Committee may suggest amendments to the bill. But no further proceeding to be had until the committee has reported back to parliament”.

“This whole section is very clear that when there are amendments, MP can have a consolidated document and debate upon it. The only document we have is the original bill out of which at least 34 sections need to be amended. No report has been tabled. This is not the report that the oversight committee is supposed to submit.”


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