ITN’s website on Thursday featured a story on the caring side of government, if this wasn’t already evident to citizens. It noted, “There have been continuous complaints from the general public about certain websites publishing malicious, defamatory and row (sic) filth and stories defamatory to the characters of certain people. Therefore, it has become necessary to protect the dignity of the general public being victimized by these filthy websites”.
The government’s genius solution to this perceived conundrum was to slap a steep and recurring tax on ‘news websites’, which at the time of writing remains a loosely used term. Obviously, mainstream media websites will fall under this new tax. But online, anyone from anywhere at any time can report something newsworthy, so this new regulation could potentially and very quickly embrace personal blogs, micro-blogs (Twitter accounts), Facebook groups and fan pages, content on platforms like Bundlr that curate news items over the long-term or around a certain issue or event, Flickr photo-streams that are on current events and YouTube video channels. In addition the government announced it would amend the relevant legal framework, dating from 1973, so that anyone associated with running or curating any of these platforms, blogs or websites can be, at the government’s whim (or through a paid proxy in court) be slapped with lawsuits, fines and even imprisonment.
The development is a seriously disturbing one, but in it lies an opportunity as well. For years, independent media online has published the most damning accounts of government excesses, including graft, corruption and probing debates on allegations of war crimes. Post-war, this trend will increase. The change in legislation and the imposition of tax are points of no return. During the years of war, government never tired of saying there was no official censorship in place. That’s gone now – the law and tax are very real, and the unspoken yet palpable threat is that perceived non-compliance will most likely lead to content censorship coupled with duress and possible criminal proceedings.
What’s new is the fact that anyone, anywhere in Sri Lanka is now liable for prosecution at the sole discretion of government. It is likely this columnist’s paper, one of the first to register with the government even when there was no legal requirement to do so, as well as other mainstream media will immediately pay the tax and supinely comply with the law. A tremendous increase in self-censorship will be the result of this. It’s unlikely a single media institution in this country will have the backbone to resist it. Where things get interesting is when it comes to blogs and social media, sites that are located out of Sri Lanka and the other web and mobile based platforms which can be easily and effortlessly set up by individuals, groups, institutions or political parties. Henceforth, no matter whether you write, photograph, record or tweet – if what you say is newsworthy and seen as particularly inconvenient, you will be blocked, and if identified and geo-located within Sri Lanka, face criminal proceedings. And because it’s now the law, the government will say this clamp down on media freedom is all very democratic.
The opportunity in all this lies in the impossibility of the intended goal – which is to control content with extreme prejudice. Going after a few voices online for entirely parochial reasons, the Rajapaksa’s have grossly underestimated the scope and fallout of what they have now brought about. Fighting new forms of dissent – agile, multi-platform, real-time, glocal and mobile – with antiquated means and mind-sets was tried early last year in Tunisia, for example. Didn’t exactly turn out as expected for Ben Ali et al. Forget about higher democratic ideals – a modicum of enlightened self-interest would suggest that the government simply cannot sustain this level of censorship without serious domestic and international repercussions. And mind-bogglingly, it sees fit to propose these laws to secure decency and dignity when Gotabaya Rajapaksa, not for the first time, demonstrated to the world and us just how unhinged he is, and Mervyn Silva, despite the most heinous violence, threats and language in public for years on end, roams free after being found innocent of any wrongdoing by government.
The impunity of powerful individuals, retrogressive laws and censorious taxes respectively showcase so much of what’s wrong and getting worse with the freedom of expression our country. We are impervious to the violent censorship of Tamil dissidents in the country, writing against both LTTE and the State, during and after war. But the noose now ensnares a larger community. If you’re producing content on how you see and choose to describe Sri Lanka, you’re now liable for criminal prosecution, regulation and possible taxation. It’s as simple as that.
Published in the print edition of The Nation, 15 July 2012.