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Transparency needed on proposed fake news legislation: CJE

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The Centre for Journalism and Education (CJE) yesterday called for transparency when formulating new legislation on fake news as proposed by the Government this week, to prevent misuse and abuse. 

The full statement issued by the CJE is given below: 

The proposed amendment to the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code to allow for legal action against fake news, including statements that affect national security and incite violence between communities, was approved by Cabinet this week. 

In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks of 21 April and the subsequent violence – in its many forms – perpetrated against Muslims, as well as Sri Lanka’s long spate of violence committed against minorities, frequently incited and inflamed by false statements, the Centre for Journalism and Education (CJE) recognises the need for such laws as will allow incorrupt authorities to investigate, charge and prosecute such offences. 

However, we also recognise the negative import and impact of such legislation if not crafted after diligent and careful consideration. This is also pertinent at this time when elections are close by and the potential for abuse is rife. Our recent history can lay testament to this.

The only information regarding this proposal, submitted to Cabinet by Public Administration Minister Ranjith Madduma Bandara, available to the public at this point in time is that it allows for offenders to be fined up to Rs 1 million and/or imprisoned for up to five years. While the proposed bill will be made available to the public at the time it is presented to Parliament, this will not be enough time to peruse and understand legislation of such a far-reaching nature. 

Furthermore, the Sri Lankan Parliament has showcased a consistency to not make the effort to understand the full implications of legislations under its assessment and to not engage in constructive debate that will see legislation shaped to better form. Instead it is likely to be presented as a symbol of action being taken at this dire time to voters, and for MPs to be seen voting along party lines, in the long run re-victimising the marginalised it is supposedly meant to protect.

All Sri Lankan citizens are entitled to the truth/facts and to not be manipulated by false information by government, corporate or private entities or individuals. But who will be the final arbiter of fact? Will it be the Government in power, whatever its composition may be, that can use this to suppress and censor news that dissents against its administration?

Furthermore, what will the implications of possessing false information, for example messages and posts sent to one’s device by another party? Who will be blamed? The originator/creator? The platform? Do we even currently possess the capabilities to forensically investigate 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?

The Centre for Journalism and Education (CJE) thus calls for complete transparency on the proposed bill immediately, awareness created amongst the public of its various statutes, and a public forum to be held where concerned civil society organisations and other community groups as well as individuals can make their concerns known, prior to this being tabled in Parliament. This is necessary legislation for the country to move forward and for citizens to feel safe, so let’s make sure we get it right.

The Centre for Journalism and Education (CJE) is dedicated to the development of journalism in Sri Lanka with a focus on professional reporting, ethics and capacity building of citizen journalists. 


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