Sri Lanka Implements Controversial Online Safety Act, Sparking Protests and Concerns Over Freedom of Speech

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka’s new Online Safety Act, which has recently come into force, is facing backlash from rights groups who argue that it is an attempt to suppress freedom of speech. The act grants extensive powers to a government commission to assess and remove content deemed “prohibited.” Despite claims from authorities that the act is aimed at combating cybercrime, critics contend that it is a means to stifle dissent in the lead-up to elections.

In 2022, during a period of economic crisis, social media played a crucial role in protests that ultimately led to the removal of the then president. The passing of the Online Safety Act on January 24, marked by protests outside parliament, has now empowered a five-member commission appointed by the president to enforce regulations such as penalizing the spread of false statements about incidents in Sri Lanka and the misuse of bots, among other offenses.

Under the new legislation, social media platforms will also be held liable for the content posted on their platforms. Tiran Alles, the Publicity Security Minister who introduced the draft legislation, argues that it is necessary to tackle offenses related to online fraud and statements that threaten national stability. Last year alone, over 8,000 complaints were filed regarding cybercrimes in Sri Lanka.

However, pro-democracy groups have voiced concerns that the government is using the legislation to silence dissent and suppress civic activism at a time when the country is grappling with its worst economic crisis. Following the declaration of bankruptcy in April 2022, food prices and inflation have soared, leading to public anger and protests that forced the former president to resign.

The March 12 Movement, a Sri Lankan pro-democracy group, warns that the government’s relentless pursuit of this legislation indicates its true intention to rule through coercion. They assert that the citizens’ silence amidst rising living costs and hunger should not be mistaken for obedience, but rather a catalyst for a potential backlash against governmental authority.

Amnesty International, a prominent human rights organization, has also criticized the act for its broad provisions and ambiguous language, arguing that it curtails freedom of expression and privacy online. They believe that this law is just one more tool in the government’s arsenal to undermine dissent and limit individual expression.

The United Nations has previously expressed concern about the draft law, highlighting the potential for authorities to restrict and label opposing expressions as “false statements.” With Sri Lanka’s upcoming presidential elections looming, there is heightened importance placed on safeguarding citizens’ rights to free speech and privacy online.

As Sri Lanka adapts to the digital age, debates surrounding online safety and freedom of expression will continue to shape the country’s political landscape. The enforcement of the Online Safety Act, while aiming to combat cybercrime, has raised concerns among activists who fear it will be exploited to suppress democratic values and silence dissenting voices.