Sri Lankan media rights group Centre for Journalism and Education on June 7th called for transparency in forming the new fake news legislation proposed by the Sri Lankan government earlier this month, and a public discussion of the bill with civil society and community groups. In a statement, the group said that although such laws are needed, it also recognises the “negative import and impact of such legislation if not crafted after diligent and careful consideration”. It points out the following issues surrounding the new bill:

1. Scant public information about the bill: The only information available to the public, said the Centre, is the proposed 5-year jail term and Rs 1 million fine prescribed for offenders. The bill will be made public when it’s presented to the Parliament, but “this will not be enough time to peruse and understand legislation of such a far-reaching nature”, said the Centre.

2. The bill comes with elections around the corner: It also notes that Sri Lanka’s national elections are approaching and the bill will likely be presented to voters as a symbol of action being taken at a dire time, and for MPs to be seen voting along party lines.

3. What are the implications of possessing false information, and who will be held liable: The Centre questions what the consequences for possessing fake information would be: for example what about posts another party sends from a person’s phone? Who will be held liable for this – the originator, creator, or the platform itself? It questions if Sri Lanka is capable of forensically investigating online information that is not directly attributable.

When malicious maligning of individuals online, especially of girls and women, is currently badly handled and not adequately prosecuted, how will the authorities handle this?

Proposed amendments to take action against people spreading fake news

Earlier this month, the Sri Lankan Cabinet 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. 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 latest development comes a few days after the Oversight Committee on National Security had said it was considering new laws to regulate social media to control dissemination of information that can have a “harmful influence”.