Featured image courtesy Sri Lanka Brief
On November 8, 2017 news began to spread that website Lankaenews had been blocked across all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in Sri Lanka. The website itself has continually been mired in controversy – in 2016, a lawyer filed 14 contempt of court charges against its editor, for making defamatory statements towards judges. Yet the blocking of the site is also chillingly reminiscent of 2010, when the site was blocked before the release of the results of the Presidential election. Following this, the website was blocked again in 2011, along with several others, including Groundviews and Transparency International – a move which drew condemnation from the Committee to Protect Journalists. At the time, the TRC denied that the sites were blocked. The Pugoda Magistrates Court also ordered the police to arrest the LankaeNews editor in 2011, for publishing a false report on an ongoing issue pending in court. More recently, President’s Counsel Hemantha Warnakulasuriya implicitly admitted that LankaeNews had been blocked, commenting in his capacity as a member of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC).
Given that the Rajapaksa regime regularly and arbitrarily blocked websites critical of its policies, this move was cause for concern. After civil society flagged the blocking of Lankaenews, Groundviews, Vikalpa and Maatram filed RTI requests in order to gain more information around the process of the blocking of news websites.
These were the questions submitted to the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission on November 10:
- Complaints against news websites received by TRC from January 2015 to date and identity of authorities making requests
- Any websites blocked to ISPs in Sri Lanka as a result of complaints from 2015 onwards, and reasons given for the block
- Any complaints against news website Lankaenews in 2017, and identity of State authority making the complaint
- Any order to block Lankaenews in November 2017, identity of the authority making the order and reasons given for the same.
- Records of TRC involvement in blocking Lankaenews, if any.
It has to be noted that sister website Maatram, which publishes content in Tamil and filed a request three days later, on November 13, faced numerous difficulties. The TRC asked Maatram if they could not submit their request in English or Sinhala, and admitted it would have to outsource translation of the request, as they were not equipped to process it. In fact, the TRC said this was the first RTI request they had received in Tamil.
Our sister website Vikalpa, which publishes content in Sinhala, also lodged RTI applications with the TRC on similar grounds. However, both Vikalpa and Maatram’s requests were rejected on grounds of national security. This was particularly odd given Warnakulasuriya spoke about the block on national television, as the Island article revealed.
On the other hand, the TRC did respond to Groundviews on November 28, noting that question 1 was “not under their possession, custody, or control”. Questions 3, 4 and 5 were rejected on the grounds that it would undermine the defence of the State or national security, under Section 5 of the Right to Information Act. However, they did release a list of websites blocked by the TRC. (Question 2 of the request). It has to be noted that while Maatram also asked for details of websites blocked to Internet Service Providers from 2015 onwards, they did not receive this information – presumably because the material was unavailable in Tamil.
The information released by the TRC revealed that 13 websites had been blocked from 2015 onwards. The websites blocked included a number of websites publishing political news, and a few sites publishing pornographic material.
List of blocked websites, according to the TRC
The supporting documentation provided showed the process behind blocking each of the websites named in the letter.
While it was the Media Ministry who issued the final order to the TRC, the initial order came directly from as high up as the Presidential Secretariat, for at least four of the websites.
Letter from the Presidential Secretariat
This letter, signed by then Presidential Secretary P B Abeykoon, notes that the listed websites have reached the President’s attention. Interestingly, some of the URLs flagged are clearly to specific articles, rather than an entire website.
From here, the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media writes to the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (in a letter signed by then Ministry Secretary Nimal Bopage).
The TRC in turn sends a letter out to the CEOs of all the major internet service providers.
This identical letter was sent to the CEOs of Mobitel, Dialog, Etisalat, Airtel and LankaBell
Many of the orders to the TRC around the blocking of websites appeared to originate from the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media, which ordered the blocks temporarily, “pending investigations.” When contacted, Director General of Government Information, Sudarshana Gunawardena said that the Ministry was not conducting any ongoing investigations into blocked websites, to his knowledge. However, he confirmed that a lawyer representing LankaeNews had sent across a letter of demand with regard to the blocking of their website, which was forwarded to the Attorney General’s Department. “It is not our policy to block websites,” Gunawardena said, adding that such matters were possibly a matter for the TRC, though he could not confirm this.
Equally revealing were the reasons given for the blocking of websites. The reasons given for blocking four websites (www.vigasapuwath.blogspot.com, www.ukussa.org, www.lankanewsweb.today, and www.lankacnews) was for “publishing incorrect information and damaging the President’s reputation”. Two others, www.lankanewsweb.today and www.sinhala.lnwtoday were blocked for “publishing false information.”
Website www.newjaffna.net was blocked for making defamatory comments about judges in Jaffna. Two of the flagged websites published pornographic material, and were blocked following an investigation by the Cyber Crimes Division.
It is the blocking of websites for publishing incorrect or false information that is of particular cause for concern – especially as the arbiter of what is considered false or incorrect appeared to be the President, in at least four of the documented instances.
This also throws a new light on the comments recently made by President’s Counsel Hemantha Warnakulasuriya (who is also a member of the TRC and appointed by President Sirisena) defending the block on Lankaenews. Warnakulasuriya said the website couldn’t be allowed to propagate lies at the expense of Government, political parties and individuals, adding that it was the responsibility of the Government to counter propaganda campaigns. It is clear that this view is not just held by Warnakulasuriya. Yet, this Government campaigned (and came into power) promising transparency and greater media freedom.
The dates too are worth noting. Only four of the 13 websites were blocked in 2017 – the two pornographic sites (following a court order dated August 11) www.sinhala.lnwtoday (order from the Ministry of Media issued on May 19) and a site called www.gossipplanets.com (order from the TRC, dated August 28). Most of the others were blocked on September 6, 2016, while www.newjaffna.net was blocked after an order from the Ministry of Mass Media and Parliamentary Reforms on October 28, 2016.
In the past, questions around political interference in the blocking of websites was met with relative silence, or at times with outright denial. The question of the ISP complicity and intermediary liability in blocking the sites has been raised several times in the past – questions which have remained unanswered until now. It is revealing that the TRC has already declined to provide information with regards to the blocking of LankaeNews. Groundviews has filed an appeal with the TRC, in the hope that this too will be revealed in the coming weeks. Vikalpa and Maatram will also appeal the rejection of their requests on grounds of national security.
In 2008, the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility called on the Government to recognise and protect free speech on the Internet, particularly by avoiding the banning, blocking or censoring of websites without reasonable grounds. Apart from this, there is no comprehensive law regulating Internet access, nor promoting it as a medium for free expression (though there are several laws – the Computer Crimes Act the Sri Lanka Telecommunications Act, the Information & Communication Technology Act and the Electronic Transactions Act which address various issues around the usage of the Internet.) There have been several attempts to regulate or impinge on free expression online in Sri Lanka – from the Department of Government Information requiring news websites to register in 2011, and again more recently in 2016 – to the Ministry of Media and Information admitting that they had blocked 6 websites on grounds of ‘character assassination’ and ‘violation of privacy’. Yet, as then Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression Frank La Rue noted, the right to freedom of expression must be a norm on the Internet, and any limitations considered as an exception to this norm. In particular, he expressed deep concern at the use of blocking or filtering mechanisms for censorship.
Domestically, the legality of the TRC blocking this website has also been called into question (this would fall under Section 53 of the Sri Lanka Telecommunications Act, 1991.)
My reading of the Telecommunications Act is that the TRC has no power to block a transmission without invoking judicial proceedings or obtaining an order from the Minister. But I’m sceptical of the value of an RTI request. A writ is better.
— Gehan Gunatilleke (@GehanDG) December 7, 2017
It is also worth reiterating that while the TRC released this information to Groundviews, it did not do so to Maatram. Maatram’s editor had to produce his Identity Card in order for his request to be logged, as the Information Officer did not know enough Tamil to read his name on the form provided.
— Groundviews (@groundviews) November 13, 2017
It appears that the language barrier led to Maatram’s request on the same score being rejected, despite the TRC possessing the information. This raises the additional (and no less important) question: How many of the Government departments are equipped to respond to RTI requests in Tamil?
The paper trail is clear, and leads as high as the President. This is a matter entirely separate to the relative merits (or lack thereof) of the websites blocked and their content. The fact that this practise remains, even post January 2015, must be condemned as a barrier to media freedom and the freedom of expression.
Editor’s Note: Also read “Online Freedom of Expression in Sri Lanka” and “A Tale of Incompetence: RTI Reveals CMC Inaction Leading up to Meethotamulla Tragedy“