Govt.’s Website Registration Call Under Scrutiny

The government since last year has blocked nine websites on recommendations made by the Media Ministry.

The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) has temporarily blocked these websites carrying Sri Lankan news on the basis that these websites had published articles defamatory of various individuals. The TRC says the Commission has no plans on blocking any more websites and that it has not received any recent requests from the Media Ministry to do so.

Deputy Director General of TRC, U. H. C. Priyantha said websites have not been blocked by the TRC, but the service providers have been asked by the Commission not to host certain websites operating in the country on a temporary basis.

He explained that the websites that have been temporarily blocked operate from overseas and that in most instances, they could be viewed from other countries although it is blocked in Sri Lanka. “The Media Ministry would have to do the monitoring of the websites that are temporarily blocked once the TRC requests the service providers to do so on a Ministry directive,” he said.

When inquired about the process followed by the TRC when taking action to block a website, Priyantha said that it is done only if there’s a court order. However, the blocking of nine websites according to the TRC’s legal division had been carried out on directives issued by the Media Ministry. “The Media Ministry following an inquiry, requests the TRC to block certain websites claiming that there is no way to contact a person responsible for these sites. Most of the websites blocked by the TRC do not even have contact details of a person responsible,” Head of the TRC’s Legal Division Gauri Moragoda said.

She added that the Media Ministry has called for the blocking of these websites stating they have also not been registered with the Ministry.

However, the Media Ministry’s call for the registration of websites has now come under scrutiny with opposition politicians calling on the Ministry to explain which law requires websites to register with the ministry. The government last week confirmed the no such law exists. Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told the Cabinet press briefing that existing laws would be amended in future to regulate websites. Rambukwella, while claiming that media freedom in the country was not under threat, said the government would amend the Sri Lanka Press Council Act to enable the Press Council to take websites under its purview.

“Free media is not under threat. All we want is to ensure the right of reply for people who may be maliciously targeted by certain sections of the media. It is with this in mind that we directed all news websites to be registered,” he said.  He explained the websites have to be categorized under a separate category since they cannot be included under the print or electronic media.

According to Rambukwella, the print and electronic media in the country are regulated and the websites also need to be regulated.

However, the Minister noted that in two cases filed before court by several websites against them been blocked, the court had upheld that the websites needed to follow the guidelines of the Media Ministry. “It has been directed by court that websites follow the guidelines of the Media Ministry. Therefore, anyone who does not abide by it could be held in contempt of court,” Rambukwella said. Media Ministry Secretary W. B. Ganegala said there are currently about 52 websites that have registered with the Ministry. He observed that there were many unregistered websites and the Ministry did not have a count on them. “We have called on all websites operating in the country to register,” he said. The Media Ministry in November last year issued notice on all websites to register after blocking several websites. When asked what action the Media Ministry would take against websites that have failed to register, Ganegala noted that the Ministry would only continue to request the websites to register. “The print and electronic media have to register in the country and we want the websites also to follow such a process,” he said. He further noted that the Ministry’s intention was to create an environment of accountability among the websites and to ensure that they follow the media ethics recommended by the Editors’ Guild and the Free Media Movement (FMM).

As for the CID raid on the office of the websites Sri Lanka Mirror and Sri Lanka X News, Ganegala said that only Sri Lanka Mirror is registered with the Ministry. When asked as to why a registered website was raided by the CID and equipment confiscated and persons taken into custody, the Media Ministry Secretary said it was a matter handled by the CID. Chief Coordinator of the Sri Lanka X News website and Head of the UNP’s Communications Division, Mangala Samaraweera said the website would not be registered since there was no law in the country calling for such action.

“Government officials talk of registering websites, but there’s no law in the country stating websites should be registered,” he charged.

He claimed that Sri Lanka Mirror and other websites have been blocked mainly stating they have not been registered. “However, Sri Lanka Mirror went to court and the judiciary has upheld that the blocking of the website is illegal,” Samaraweera observed. He explained that a new law could only be applied after parliamentary approval.

“A new law can be enforced only after parliamentary approval and not by a circular issued by a ministry secretary,” he said. Citing Section 14 of the Constitution which guarantees right to express opinion, Samaraweera said the Sri Lanka X News website is the official website of the UNP Communications Division and it would not be registered.  “X News is not registered and will not be registered,” he said. Dismissing reports that the Sri Lanka Mirror and Sri Lanka X News office has been sealed after the CID raid, he pointed out that the websites were functioning. “We are determined to continue with Sri Lanka X News since it was initiated to publish uncensored news about the government since many media institutions have now imposed a self censorship on exposing the government,” Samaraweera said. He denied that the consultant of the two websites, Ruwan Ferdinands was absconding arrest.

“He is the consultant of the two websites and is my coordinating secretary for over 20 years and he is not in hiding. However, he is keeping a low profile since we have received credible information that there are attempts to abduct him,” he said, adding that there was no warrant for his arrest or any request by the police for him to appear before a police station or court.

While Sri Lanka Mirror and Sri Lanka X News have re-commenced operations, the case filed against the two websites and staff is ongoing before the Colombo Magistrate’s Court. Interestingly, the CID when taking into custody nine persons employed by the two websites and presenting them before the Colombo Magistrate’s Court exposed its

ignorance of the country’s laws. The CID  had charged the suspects with a section of the Penal Code that had been repealed in 2002 by the then UNF government. A CID officer told court that the suspects had violated Sections 118 of the Penal Code dealing with the publication of the articles defamatory of the President and section 120 of the Penal Code that caused the public disaffection of the President and higher authorities. Counsel Saliya Pieris with Upul Kumarapperuma appearing for the suspects has then told court that the Section 118 of the Penal Code had been repealed by an Act No. 12 of 2002. Section 118 of the code makes it an offence to bring the Queen into contempt by contumacious, insulting or disparaging words (spoken or written). The counsel therefore called on the court to release the suspects since they could not be arrested under a provision of the law that has been repealed. “The charge had then been changed by the CID and the staff members of the website are now being charged under Sections 115 and 120 of the Penal Code,” Samaraweera said.

Meanwhile, the Colombo Magistrate’s Court last week ordered the CID to get a report on the computers that were seized by the Department from the office of Sri Lanka Mirror and Sri Lanka X News.

Colombo Additional Magistrate Prasanna Alwis directed the head of the Colombo University’s IT department to analyze the data on the seized computers, recover the deleted data, and present a report to the court. Meanwhile, the CID has informed court that several websites that were not registered with the government had been accessed through the computers that were seized.

The CID has further noted that the administration of several websites had been conducted at the premises. According to the CID, text and imagery defamatory of the President and the government had also been recovered from the computers. According to Media Minister Rambukwella, the CID’s raid on the office of the two websites had been made following a complaint received by the CID and the Media Ministry did not have any role in it. “As the Media Minister and the Ministry, we would say that the media should not act unethically and especially websites could do their reporting without acting like hooligans,” Rambukwella said. However he noted that all media need to follow media ethics and especially websites need to follow these ethics.

The Temporarily Blocked Websites
The TRC has requested service providers to temporarily block nine websites on a request made by the Media Ministry.
Following are the nine websites:

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