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'Outrageous conduct' by Sri Lankan government in passing Online Safety Bill - TISL

(Cartoon by Awantha Artigala)

Transparency International has spoken out against Sri Lanka's controversial Online Safety Bill that was signed into law last week, issuing a statement that said many of the amendments proposed by the Supreme Court are not in the final bill. 

“TISL is appalled by the outrageous conduct of the government of Sri Lanka, parliament, Attorney General, and the Speaker in signing off a version of the Online Safety Act that does not contain several of the amendments required by the Supreme Court in its determination on the bill,” TISL said in a statement released on X/Twitter. 

The organisations further said that this is a “blatant violation of the constitutional safeguard provided for citizens to seek the redress of the court against the attempts of the legislature to impose unconstitutional laws.”

It strongly condemned what it calls “unprecedented abuse of power by the legislature” and has demanded that corrective action be taken immediately. This is however not the first time that the Online Safety Act has come under fire for its inconsistencies and unconstitutionality. 

The newly passed bill has come under a slew of condemnation across the island and around the world.

Speaking to members of the American Chamber of Commerce last week, US Ambassador to Colombo Julie Chung in her speech said, “When major global tech companies characterise the bill as 'unworkable' and stifling innovation and democracy, instead of actually addressing online crimes, frankly this sends a negative signal in Sri Lanka’s path towards reform and recovery."

She added that the Sri Lankan government will need to do better in the future to work on legislation and reforms that will be durable, enforceable, and wise. 

Posting on the social media platform X, the OHCHR said "The new Online Safety Act will have far-reaching negative implications for human rights, including freedom of expression. We urge the Govt. to consider amending the law to address the concerns of civil society and industry groups and ensure it complies with human rights obligations."

Meanwhile, Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena was quick to issue a statement on Tuesday, claiming that his office had followed due procedures and trashed statements that there are inconsistencies with the Act and Supreme Court recommendations. In a detailed three-page statement, the speaker says that according to the determination of the Supreme Court, the relevant Ministry incorporates the proposed amendments with the aid of the Legal Draftsmen’s Department. "The incorporation of these amendments is done by the party that presented the bill, to be consistent with the Constitution, as per the determination of the Supreme Court," he claimed. "The Online Safety Bill followed this same process, and the amendments were distributed to all Members of Parliament in  three languages on the morning of the 23rd of January 2024, which was the first day of debate in respect of the Second Reading of this Bill."

He goes on to assert that as the speaker of parliament, he has no authority to accept, propose or reject amendments that have already been suggested by the Supreme Court since the authority to do so rests with the House and its members. The full statement in Sinhala can be read here.

Despite the speaker's assertion that the parliament followed due procedures, Tamil members of the house, called the debate a sham, insisting that due procedures were not followed.  

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.”

MP Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, leader of the Tamil National People's Front (TNPF) also 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.”

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