The announcement, carried as an advertisement in the mainstream print media, read like an April Fools joke, a few weeks early. From the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media and published in the mainstream print media, the notice required “all news websites operating in Sri Lanka” to register with the Ministry before the end of the month, after which all unregistered websites would be considered unlawful. This is rich, considering the edict itself has no discernible basis in the law. As some websites have already recalled, it was Sri Lanka’s current Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera who just four years ago asked for relief from the Supreme Court against a website, stridently critical of the Rajapaksa’s and operating under him, for being raided and shut down by the CID. The then Chief Justice agreed with the petitioner, noting that the CID had no basis in law to say that the website in question was operating illegally.
And yet, we have this edict in 2016.
Let’s get a few things out of the way regarding this notice, the question of dubious legality aside. In 2012, when it was dawning on the then government that web media posed a threat to regime continuity that no murder, buy-out, torture or threat could effectively neutralise, the Rajapaksas tried to stifle critical voices online by imposing an overreaching regulatory framework that had no basis in law. The intent was not the regulation of websites, but the fuelling of anxiety and fear, leading invariably to self-censorship. What was technically infeasible and unworkable then, is even more so today. It is unclear what the government considers a “news website”. Facebook revamped its Notes feature a few months ago, making it an extremely capable platform for the publication of news and opinion. This feature aside, is an account set up solely or primarily to disseminate news and information also a “news website”? Does this mean that the public Facebook profiles, website and Twitter accounts of most MPs today will also need to be registered and regulated? What about blogs, hundreds if not thousands of which in Sinhala, Tamil and English provide news, opinion and information? What about Instagram profiles – for example, the compelling account of Abdul Halik-Azziz, one of this country’s most revered photographers on the platform, who regularly juxtaposes captivating photography with insightful political, social and cultural commentary? What about Google Docs, Microsoft OneDrive and similar cloud services that offer publishing platforms that can be easily leveraged for news gathering and dissemination? What about Skype public groups, WhatsApp groups or the use of Viber group chats, the last of which according to former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, helped topple the Rajapaksa regime? What constitutes ‘news’, and what is the government’s definition of it? The Rajapaksa regime, under the now defunct Media Centre for National Security (MCNS), regulated every single text message sent out by leading SMS news providers. Is the most recent advertisement a reminder that these services will also soon be once again under official scrutiny, with content production is subject to MoD approval? What about YouTube channels and other citizen produced video channels online? What about innovative new content production and dissemination like Katha, which can be used to record audio and distribute it over mobiles – are these apps and services also at risk of an asinine and anachronistic regulatory framework? We are left to believe that not unlike the Rajapaksas, the intent yet again is not so much the regulation of news sites but the creation of a culture of fear and subservience to government fiat.
The advertisement in the media notes further details can be obtained from the Media Ministry website. The website has an application form for a “news casting web site”. This seems to be an entirely original term. Perhaps those in the Media Ministry believe that not unlike prime time news on TV, websites and social media also have news casters, a clear indication of the ossified mentality of those at the Ministry, which is its own tragedy. More importantly, the form itself has no basis around the technical underpinnings of the social and new media landscape, and by extension, is simply unworkable. You cannot fill I the form honestly even if you wanted to, if any news operation – almost the norm today – is anchored to social media apps, platforms and services. For example, bizarre questions like “places of uploading” would, given Sri Lanka’s coast to coast wireless broadband connectivity, require listing out almost every single village in the country, because for a news gathering and dissemination operation today, especially for citizen journalism and civic media, every and any place there is signal is also a place where news can be reported on or content can be commented on.
It may be the case that someone, or a misguided coterie at the Media Ministry, keen to score brownie points with the Prime Minister – who has recently been abrasively vocal against certain media and journalists – resurrected this bizarre regulation from the past. So instead of say a broad public discussion around the need for self-regulation, an understanding of ethics in the media including in civic media spaces, the enduring need for media literacy, the revamping of existing codes on professional journalism to embrace new and social media or determining means through which to effectively counter malicious rumour and misinformation – all of which would benefit from the government’s leadership and input – we have instead silly season.
In damage control mode and responding to what was a deluge of pushback around the ad by the Media Ministry, Acting Mass Media and Parliamentary Reforms Minister Karunaratne Paranavithana on Thursday noted that the reason for registration was in fact to give due recognition to web journalists, to bring them on par with mainstream media journalists. The response, which appeared in State print media, strikes a conciliatory tone and reassures readers that the government is not interested in blocking sites, censorship or curtailing the freedom of expression. Noting that registration is no hindrance to content generation, the Acting Minister nevertheless says that the registration fee and annual renewal fee remained unchanged from when the regulation was first introduced under the Rajapaksa regime. Firstly, there is no mention of any of this whatsoever in the ad that was first published. It perhaps escapes Mr. Paranavithana that a registration fee is in fact more than a hindrance for news operations – it is a warning. Ill-defined regulatory frameworks where punitive measures are entirely at the discretion of a few in government serve one – and only one purpose – to stoke anxiety and fear. Mr. Paranavithana also conflates recognition and regulation. The recognition of web journalism is one thing, and long overdue. The regulation of web content is another thing, impractical and technically close to impossible. Finally, why also deem illegal the plethora of websites, and social media voices, who don’t seek, of even if awarded, accept any recognition by the Ministry? Instead of an open dialogue that embraces a vibrant media landscape around how best to recognise voices vital to democracy through responsible reporting of issues, we have a Ministry that takes upon itself the role of monitoring, judging and penalising, all ostensibly because of an underlying benevolence.
As is usually the case, there is in Sinhala a phrase that, though it can never be translated adequately into English, captures the best possible response to all this.
First published in The Sunday Island, 6th March 2016.