“What is evident around us is a mood of urgency and even impatience. This is especially so, because a large and influential part of our societies consists of young people, inspired by new ideas and looking forward with enthusiasm to a promising future for themselves. They cannot be kept waiting for long. Patience is not infinite.” President Mahinda Rajapaksa, opening speech at the SAARC Summit.
“Governments will be caught off-guard when large numbers of their citizens, armed with virtually nothing but cell phones, take part in mini-rebellions that challenge their authority.” Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, ‘The Digital Disruption: Connectivity and the Diffusion of Power’, Foreign Affairs, December 2010.
The policeman from the Cinnamon Gardens police station who visited me in office was young and polite. Five minutes in, it was evident he didn’t himself understand what he had come to order me to do. This was in 2009, just after the end of the end of the war and the government introduced a peculiar website called www.citizens.lk. Everyone, the Ministry of Defence said, was supposed to register. The policeman said I should, if I hadn’t already. I said I would, if he could tell me under which law the site required me to do so. He didn’t have an answer. No one did, because the site was 100% extra-judicial. But out of fear or favour, many did in fact register. Few were concerned that the early versions of the site, as others and I blogged about at the time, were a privacy nightmare. Few were concerned about the fake security certificates of the site that – and I am not making this up – were registered, explicitly under an SLT Internet Data Centre email address, to ‘SomeOrganization’, in ‘SomeCity’, under ‘SomeState’ in ‘SomeOrganizationalUnit’. Small wonder then that in Firefox, the site would not even load. I showed this to the policeman who came to see me, we both laughed, he shrugged his shoulders and left.
This then was clearly farce. The blocking of websites a week ago, the requirement to register news websites and the news that the Government is about to introduce new media regulations can be seen as an extension of this farce. But it is more than that. It is dangerous. Web and Internet censorship, it can be argued, is better than murdering, abducting and physically harming critical journalists. Perverse progress however is no measure of a healthy democracy. In 2008, during the height of the war, independent defence correspondents and media were accused of ‘terrorist propaganda’ by the Ministry of Defence, which then went on to impose guidelines that debarred media from being critical of military strategy or seeking to analyse it, scrutinising promotions and transfers within the armed forces, questioning military procurements and the processes adopted for these, espousing or discussing anti-war positions and obtaining information from military officers other than officially designated spokesmen. With the end of the war, these guidelines aren’t talked about anymore, but resulting self-censorship amongst journalists continues. Fear persists. But tellingly, not just amongst independent media.
The Rajapaksa regime is scared. The more powerful it becomes domestically and says it doesn’t care about international opinion, it in fact does and feels, rightfully, under increasing scrutiny. The more it says it is doing things to protect the public and national security, it is in fact acting in self-interest. The more we hear the Defence Secretary railing against the forces hell-bent on regime change, the more we suspect he has much to hide. And perhaps that’s the root of all this fear – the possibility of a socio-political uprising here, or what Google’s Schmidt and Cohen said would happen with the increasing spread of the Internet and mobile phones before ‘Arab Spring’ was a movement or idea to be feared. Let’s unpack this. It took years of grassroots mobilisation to get to the tipping point now called the ‘Arab Spring’. Though technology and online media enabled citizens to increasingly connect and bear witness, the disenchantment and frustration took place offline, on the streets, for years. Mubarak’s Egypt tried to quell dissent and growing unrest by, quite literally, pulling the plug from the Internet. King Gyanendra Shah in Nepal tried much the same a few years ago, when he was faced with popular uprisings against his rule. The success of both efforts is now historical record. What lessons are there for the Rajapaksa regime, if it chooses to – and I am inclined to believe it will – go down this censorious path?
Firstly, it will fail. Miserably. If anything, the only guarantee of censoring web and online content is that it will always find a way to re-emerge. Block a website, it can go up on WordPress.com or Blogger.com, popular blogging platforms used by tens of thousands of Sri Lankans in the country, and outside. Block these platforms, and there’s the micro-blogging site Tumblr. Block Tumblr and there’s Facebook, where one can publish notes, photos and videos in English, Sinhala or Tamil. Facebook’s used by well over a million Sri Lankans, and that number is rapidly growing. Block Facebook and there’s Google+. By the time the Government gets around to blocking Google+, activists would have uploaded photos to Flickr, videos to Vimeo and YouTube, audio to Audioboo and SoundCloud, tweets to Twitter, updates to Yahoo Meme and torrents of vital files and evidence to BitTorrent servers. Block them, and there are dozens of alternatives. Cut Sri Lanka off from the Internet (and that means no ATM withdrawals or banking, no stock trading, no emails, no mobile services, no commerce) and you can still send out gigabytes of information in the form of DVDs, CDs, USB drives and laptops. In short, we are now in an age of radical transparency, Wikileaks, mobile phones and pervasive web services. Web censorship is certainly still possible, but very impractical, expensive and embarrassing for those who espouse it.
Secondly and connected to infeasibility of web censorship is the political fallout of doing it, which secures precisely that which the Government seeks to avoid – increased domestic and international scrutiny. By censoring online content, it is the Government that loses out and not sites that until they were blocked, were actually known about, read or taken seriously by many. The Sinhala adage “spitting with one’s face up” just about captures Government reaction to inconvenient truths online.
Thirdly, online censorship is not something the Government can hide. Attacks against journalists during the war were often been put down to mysterious third parties or armed groups. Murderous attacks have often been excused by noting that the journalists brought it upon themselves by ‘unpatriotic’ writing or productions. As recently as last week, Mohan Peiris, Sri Lanka’s Attorney General had the chutzpah to suggest at the 47th Session on Sri Lanka at the Committee Against Torture that Prageeth Eknaligoda, missing since 24 January 2010 and now presumed dead, has taken refuge in a foreign country and that the campaign against his disappearance is a hoax. The sheer insensitivity of such a statement is mind-boggling and is emphatically not an approach that will work with web censorship. A site that cannot be accessed cannot be said is any different. It is an unequivocal fact which can be independently and immediately verified. The more online censorship, the more Government will have to devise laws that justify it. The more laws it creates to justify censorship, the more it will come under pressure in domestic and international fora to remove these laws. The more it doesn’t heed this pressure, the more dissent and critical content will grow and the more sophisticated it will become.
Fourthly and finally, web censorship is plain silly. The Government is strong. It is popular. No one really cares if these sites are blocked, for few in the country read them. This is precisely why it is revealing that they are in fact blocked. If sites as marginal as any that operate today producing and publishing critical commentary on Government are seen as threats by the Ministry of Defence, how then will Government react to more popular uprisings? As the President himself notes, patience is not infinite, and with Tamil youth, ordinary citizens and politicians in the North beaten up by the Army, how long before they take their grievances online to connect with precisely the same groups in the diaspora the Government says are pro-LTTE? Will the response at home against ordinary citizens who publish their frustration be virtually the same as Nandikadal? Censoriousness compounded by violent enforcement and impunity compels citizens to rise up for justice. For sure, it won’t, unlike what the UNP grasping at straws tragi-comically prophesised earlier this year, take place tomorrow, the day after or even a year hence. But it will. The Internet and web make it possible. The Government’s policies and practices will make it inevitable.
If only out of enlightened self-interest, this is not a road Sri Lanka wants to embark on.
Published in The Nation on 13th November 2011.