End disinformation on social media | Sunday Observer

End disinformation on social media

10 September, 2023

Minister of Public Security Tiran Alles has submitted a proposal to the Cabinet for approval of the proposed bill aimed at ensuring online security and subsequently presenting it to Parliament for approval.

The primary objective of this initiative is to protect the public from the detrimental consequences of the widespread dissemination of false information and malicious posts on social media.

As per the Act, the following actions have been interpreted as offences: Communicating false statements about events in Sri Lanka, making false statements that result in insult, gratuitously inciting a riot through a false statement, disrupting a religious meeting via a false statement, communicating a false statement with the clear intention of harming religious sentiments, disseminating a blatantly and maliciously false statement with the intent to offend religious feelings, fraud, impersonation, intentional slander through a false statement with the intent to incite a breach of the peace, circulation of a false statement with the intent to forment rebellion or commit an offence against the Government and child abuse or engagement in any criminal activity related to children.

Given the significant discussions occurring on social media regarding this matter, we sought the opinions of religious leaders and civil activists to gather diverse perspectives.


Lawmakers must also reform themselves

Harassment of religious and ethnic groups should be stopped

Asgiri Chapter Registar, Prof. Ven. Madagama Dhammananda Thera

“In recent times, social media platforms have been increasingly used to insult and level accusations against individuals. Disturbingly, this extends to the organised insult of religious harmony, religious figures, the Sangha, and Buddhist cultural heritage. Such actions not only defame their respect but also erode devotion. This issue demands thorough consideration. It’s crucial to prevent the unrestricted ability to insult individuals of different statuses, including public figures and politicians, without a valid reason. Sri Lanka is currently witnessing a concerning surge in gossip and slander within our society, which does not bode well for the nation’s future.

Hence, there is unanimous agreement among us that concerted efforts are needed to curb actions that jeopardize our nation’s existence and undermine our collective welfare. We also observe instances where Members of Parliament, who serve as lawmakers, misuse their privileges by intentionally engaging in insults, slander, and false accusations against specific interests. It is essential that lawmakers, who introduce laws and regulations to society, maintain ethical conduct and rectify such behaviour.

Statements that promote discord within the country’s community, particularly those targeting ethnic and national sentiments, can lead to significant social divisions. It is of paramount importance for both those proposing such laws and those drafting legislation to exercise great caution in addressing these matters.


Non-implementation of existing laws is the issue

Implementing such a law is good in every way

Sri Lanka Bhikkhu University, Department of Buddhist and Pali Studies, Prof. Ven. Dharshanasuri Pateygama Gnanissara Thera

The issue in our country doesn’t lie in the creation of laws but rather in their lack of enforcement. Implementing a law of this nature is beneficial in preventing such problems from arising. We’ve observed the challenges people face in a context where even defamation laws have been repealed. When someone faces insults on social media platforms, it’s imperative that the law is enforced.

Hence, the introduction of such laws is commendable.

The right to free speech is frequently misunderstood by many. It’s important to clarify that the right to express one’s opinion doesn’t imply the freedom to say or write anything without facing criticism. If such unrestricted expression were allowed, it could enable organised groups to disseminate harmful ideas and mislead society. Therefore, it is incorrect for anyone to assume that free speech grants them the liberty to say whatever they please without consequences.

The right to free speech does not encompass the publication of ideas that undermine human relations, disregard or disrespect human values, or pose harm to social coexistence. Every expression must adhere to ethical standards.


Existing laws are sufficient

Identify wrongdoers and punish them under existing law

– Director, National Catholic Communication Centre, Father Jude Krishantha Fernando

Social media networks are undeniably valuable tools in contemporary society. Their potential for positive impact is boundless. Social media can also be misused to tarnish individuals’ personal images, incite hatred, and foster divisions among different racial and religious groups. However, addressing these issues does not necessarily require the prohibition of social media or the imposition of new laws. Existing legal frameworks can be employed to identify and penalise individuals who engage in such harmful activities.

Introducing new laws to address these issues can indeed carry the risk of potential misuse, such as targeting individuals out of personal vendettas. Existing laws and regulations often provide sufficient provisions to address harmful behaviours on social media.

In developed countries, expressing diverse opinions about religions is generally not considered a major social issue. The key concern is when individuals attempt to impose their beliefs on others, rather than the act of expressing their opinions.

In many cases, existing laws are adequate to address any issues related to the misuse of this freedom, making the introduction of new legislation unnecessary, in my opinion.


Certain elements attempting to cause disharmony between Hindu - Buddhist communities

Some trying to divide Hindus and Buddhists

Secretary, International Hindu Federation, Prof. Shiva Ramachandran Kurukkal Babusharma

Some individuals are attempting to create divisions between the Hindu and Buddhist communities, with the intention of undermining the existing peace. Efforts to divide the country, especially if fueled by foreign interests and false propaganda, should not be tolerated. Some individuals may engage in such activities for personal gain, and it is essential to safeguard the nation’s unity and stability. Introducing appropriate laws to prevent such actions can be a prudent step.


Who will determine the veracity of information?

Strong dialogue needed

Mass media and social media analyst, Nalaka Gunawardena

The intention behind including a range of offences covered by existing laws in this Act is not entirely clear. Offences such as cheating, fraud by impersonation, child abuse, and communicating a false statement with the intent to hurt religious sentiments are already addressed by existing laws in the country.

If the proposed bill aims to reintroduce criminal defamation as an offence, there is a potential risk of reversing the progress made since 2002 in this regard. Among the offences proposed in the draft, one of the most contentious is “communicating false statements about incidents in Sri Lanka.” The question arises: who would serve as the arbiter to determine whether a piece of information is true or false? It could be the Minister of Media, a court judge, a religious leader, or even a university professor. If this proposed law is enacted, it might necessitate that all statements made by the Government are subject to the same scrutiny and verification.

There is a potential risk that this approach could stifle open discussion and alternatives to the Government’s stance on various issues, interpreting dissent as ‘illegal.’ If the Government or a Court is deemed to have a monopoly on determining the truth, it could raise concerns about the preservation of democratic principles in the country. Journalists are well aware that in today’s intricate society, verifying information can be a formidable undertaking. Not everything asserted by the Government can be taken as an absolute truth. Recent experiences in many countries have shown that attempting to control disinformation through legislation can be an arduous task. Before Sri Lanka potentially moves in a direction that limits public discourse, the proposed draft law should undergo extensive public debate and scrutiny.


New laws unnecessary

New laws unnecessary, enforce existing ones

General Secretary, All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, Sheikh Arkam Nooramith

When a draft law is proposed, it is crucial for the responsible authorities to engage with the clergy and the people to gather their input and opinions. However, it appears that in this instance, such consultations have not taken place.

This lack of transparency can be viewed as a challenge to democratic principles. The rushed introduction of laws without adequate consultation or transparency can indeed be a source of frustration and confusion.

It’s important to ensure that existing laws are enforced fairly and equitably, regardless of an individual’s race, caste, or ethnicity.

Since 2012, there have been numerous instances of false accusations, hate speech, and harassment directed at Islam and the Muslim community. The ICCPR Act could have been utilised to address these issues, but unfortunately, no concrete actions were taken. In our view, there is no requirement for new legislation; instead, the focus should be on the effective enforcement of existing laws.