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Sri Lanka's proposed Online Safety Bill an assault on freedom of expression - ICJ

In a move that has raised eyebrows and drawn criticism, Sri Lanka's Ministry of Public Security has proposed a new Online Safety Bill, aiming to regulate online communication. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has expressed deep concern over the potential implications of this legislation, asserting that it could significantly curtail freedom of expression and further constrict the already limited civic space on the island.

The bill, gazetted on September 18, 2023, seeks to regulate online content, including that shared by the general public. The ICJ has identified several problematic provisions in the proposed legislation, warning that they could undermine human rights and fundamental freedoms, particularly freedom of information and expression.

Ian Seiderman, the Legal and Policy Director at ICJ, stated, “While the spread of online hate-speech and disinformation need to be tackled, this bill is deeply flawed in its design and would be open to abuse by the Sri Lankan government, which has persistently failed to uphold freedom of expression.”

“It risks being used to suppress important public debate regarding  the conduct of the government and matters of public policy,” he added.

A key concern highlighted by the ICJ is the establishment of an "Online Safety Commission" with broad powers to regulate online communication, including the authority to prohibit certain statements of fact and declare online locations used for prohibited purposes.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka has called for the immediate withdrawal of the bill, urging meaningful consultations with all relevant stakeholders before enacting legislation with a significant impact on the community.

“The current draft fails to adhere to the principles of legitimacy, necessity and proportionality required for any State activity that restrict rights. It must be withdrawn or amended to be brought in line with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations guaranteeing freedom of expression, opinion, and information.” Seiderman added.

The ICJ contends that the proposed bill should not be considered in isolation but in conjunction with existing and proposed legislation that poses threats to human rights. These include the ICCPR Act of 2005, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Bureau of Rehabilitation Act, and the proposed Anti-Terrorism law, collectively fostering a chilling effect on fundamental freedoms.

The ICJ further scrutinised specific flaws in the Online Safety Bill, highlighting the wide-ranging powers of the proposed Online Safety Commission and appointed experts. The bill grants the president unprecedented discretion in appointments, raising concerns about accountability and potential abuse.

Moreover, the ICJ pointed out vague and overbroad offences in the bill, noting that certain provisions exceed the restrictions allowed by the ICCPR and the Sri Lankan Constitution. The inclusion of offences related to religious feelings is particularly worrisome, potentially enabling selective application to silence non-Buddhist voices.

The proposed punishments in the draft bill are deemed disproportionately hefty by the ICJ, including fines and imprisonment ranging from one to five years. The absence of judicial review and protection for the Commission and experts from legal scrutiny further raises concerns about accountability and potential misuse of power.

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