Responding to the passing of the draconian Online Safety Act in the Sri Lankan Parliament today, Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, Regional Researcher for South Asia at Amnesty International said:
“The passing of the Online Safety Act is a major blow to human rights in Sri Lanka. The Act is the newest weapon in the government’s arsenal of tools that could be used to undermine freedom of expression and suppress dissent. Authorities must immediately withdraw it and ensure respect for the human rights of everyone in the country.
The Act is the newest weapon in the government’s arsenal of tools that could be used to undermine freedom of expression and suppress dissent.Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, Regional Researcher for South Asia at Amnesty International
“Many parts of the Act do not meet international human rights standards including overbroad provisions that would restrict the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of expression and privacy online, and vaguely worded, subjective offences such as ‘prohibited statements’ as determined and declared by a powerful ‘Online Safety Commission’. The rights to freedom of expression and privacy are guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Sri Lanka is a State party.
“As people grapple with and voice their concerns amid hardships during Sri Lanka’s economic crisis and the impact of government’s austerity measures, this legislation will be ripe for misuse by authorities and will be used to further restrict civic space, and crackdown on critics and opposition. In a year of elections, with a long history of cracking down on protests, the Sri Lankan authorities must demonstrate the political will to uphold their international human rights obligations and commitments by guaranteeing and ensuring respect for human rights before, during and after elections.”
On 24 January, the Sri Lankan parliament voted to pass the Online Safety Act. The Online Safety Act provides broad powers to an ‘Online Safety Commission’ including deciding on what constitutes as “prohibited statements” and making recommendations to internet service providers to remove such content and disabling access for those deemed offenders. The Act also includes a prohibition on ‘communicating a false statement’ which poses a threat to national security, public health or public order or promotes feelings of ill-will and hostility between different classes of people or; voluntarily causes disturbance to any assembly lawfully engaged in the performance of religious worship or religious ceremonies.
The Bill has been criticised by many activists, civil society members, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) who said the bill will have ‘a chilling effect on freedom of expression.’