The arbitrary blocking of four websites by the Ministry of Media and Telecommunication Regulatory Commission stands contrary to the idea of freedom of expression. Last week the supreme court of Sri Lanka heard a case brought on behalf of the banned websites. We received several emails describing the case and we have used them to put together the description of events below.
Sunil Jayasekara and Udaya Kalupathirana of the Free Media Movement, acting on behalf themselves, the Free Media Movement and the general public recently bought a petition stating that blocking websites prevented them from exercising their right to expression alongside having access to information to form opinions.
According to the Ministry of Media and Telecommunication Regulatory Commission blocking the websites could be justified because “some websites are defaming VVIPs (Very Very Important People – clearly a reference to the President and his Brothers) and their privacy is under attack.” They further argued in Court that the owners of the four websites blocked had not come forward to identify themselves and register when “invited” to do so. In light of Sri Lanka’s appalling record on free speech and expression coupled with the disappearances of numerous journalists, such an invitation would be daunting at best. The Government therefore disputed the rights of FMM to bring this case – FMM nobly countered by arguing they were petitioning as viewers who were using the unique opportunity offered by cyber media to participate actively through comments.
Attempting to stifle public opinion which may criticise government not only stands contrary to the tenets of democracy but may also, in this case be extra-judicial. Indeed as detailed by the petitioners, the blocking of neither websites nor the registration of such is not prescribed by law. The respondents (the Ministry) further failed to mention which specific laws had been violated, which highlights the arbitrariness of the action. According to the Ministry, the grounds to block the websites stemmed from complaints which were consequent to an inquiry. Yet, despite this justification, no such inquiry was produced before the Court. Indeed, the Sri Lankan Courts have previously recognised the right to access to information as stemming from the Freedom of Opinion and so to restrict the right in this case would be inconsistent.
And yet in spite of all of that, a three judge bench chaired by the Chief Justice dismissed the case. The petitioners will now have to file a complaint with the UN Human Rights Commission.
This is yet another blow to freedom of speech in Sri Lanka and yet another damning indictment of the Supreme court’s cowardice when it comes to actions against the Government. In order for commitments to democracy by Sri Lanka to be truly taken seriously, there cannot be such a flagrant breach of the right to expression and opinion by citizens wishing to participate in their country’s politics. A culture of intimidation cannot be a base for democratic values and aims.