The Sri Lankan Cabinet on Wednesday approved a proposal to amend to the country’s Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code to take action against people spreading fake news, including statements that impact national security and incite violence between communities, Sri Lankan newspaper Daily FT reported. Under the proposal, those caught spreading fake news and hate speech on social media could face a five-year jail term and a fine of up to Sri Lankan Rs 10 lakh (about 4 lakh Indian rupees). The amendment to the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code was proposed by the acting Minister of Justice and Prison Reforms Ranjith Madduma Bandara. Since the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka in April, the country has temporarily blocked access to social media platforms on three occasions (see below).
The bans did little to control the spread of fake news, however, and may have made the problem worse. The Times of India reported recently, citing experts, that Sri Lankan social networks saw an increase in fake news after the Easter bombings despite the blocks, which highlighted the inability of governments to contain disinformation this way. Many social media users simply switched to virtual private networks (VPNs) or the TOR network to bypass the blocks, the report said.
The latest development comes a few days after the Oversight Committee on National Security said it was considering new laws to regulate social media to control dissemination of information that can have a “harmful influence”. Sri Lanka also recently drafted a new Cyber Security Bill that seeks to to protect vital information and essential services from cyber attacks.
Social media bans in Sri Lanka since the Easter bombings
Since the Easter Sunday bombings on April 21, which left 261 people dead and 407 injured, the Sri Lankan government has more than once blocked access to social media networks to curb the spread of misinformation that could incite violence. Here’s a timeline:
April 22: Sri Lanka blocked multiple social media networks, including Facebook and WhatsApp, a day after the terrorist attacks to halt the spread of misinformation. YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, and Viber were also inaccessible, according to internet freedom tracker NetBlocks. The ban was lifted after 10 days.
May 6: The government temporarily banned access to social media platforms again to control the spread of misinformation following ethnic tensions in Negombo, one of the cities targeted in the bombings. The ban was lifted the next day.
May 13: Sri Lanka once again temporarily banned some social media and messaging services after mosques and Muslim-owned businesses were attacked, reported Reuters. NetBlocks confirmed that Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, Viber, Snapchat and Facebook Messenger were blocked on leading internet providers. This ban lasted 4 days.