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RTI Reveals Lanka E News Blocked On Order

from President’s Office

President’s gaze on illicit commission blinded him : Faces retributive justice
after ousting Sinniah !

RAISA WICKREMATUNGE- 04/11/2018
In December 2017, Groundviews received a list of 13 websites that had
been blocked from 2015 onwards by the Telecommunications Regulatory
Commission (TRC), via a Right to Information request. The documentation
uncovered the process that goes into blocking a website in Sri Lanka. In at least
four instances, the order came directly from the Presidential Secretariat, who via
the Media Ministry made applications to block specific websites, often on the
grounds of providing incorrect or false information about the President.
Subsequent information received by Groundviews confirms that the website
Lanka E News was blocked following a complaint from the office of the President
in November 2017. This information was initially denied to Groundviews on
national security grounds, but has since been released following an appeal to the
RTI Commission.
The following were the questions Groundviews posed in the original RTI request.
1. Complaints against news websites received by TRC from January 2015 to
date and identity of authorities making requests
2. Any websites blocked to ISPs in Sri Lanka as a result of complaints from
2015 onwards, and reasons given for the block
3. Any complaints against news website Lanka E News in 2017, and identity of
State authority making the complaint
4. Any order to block Lanka E News in November 2017, identity of the
authority making the order and reasons given for the same.
5. Records of TRC involvement in blocking Lanka E News, if any.
The TRC only responded to question 2. On question 1, it said the information was
not in their possession, custody or control. This was strange as the question asked
for complaints received by the TRC, which meant that there should, theoretically
be documentary record of it. Questions 3 to 5, which were on information
pertaining to the blocking of Lanka E News, was rejected on national security
grounds. Lanka E News has a chequered history, having faced 14 contempt of
court charges against its editor. The site was also blocked in 2010 and 2011,
though the TRC denied involvement in some instances.
In the past, the Rajapakse regime regularly blocked news sites critical to them. As
such, news of the block of Lanka E News in November 2017 was cause for
concern, under a government that came to power promising a marked change
from the previous regime. It was for this reason that Groundviews decided to
appeal the decision, arguing that information on the blocking of news websites
was in the public interest, and asking on what basis providing this information
could undermine national security. The appeal was first heard before the Right to
Information Commission on December 29, 2017.
On Question 1, the TRC, represented by Information Officer and Assistant Director
– Legal Sujeewa Rodrigo, said that they only received telecommunication-related
complaints, while complaints on news websites were lodged with the Media
Ministry. Since the request made specific reference to the TRC, they decided not
to forward the request, Rodrigo said. However, as the Commission pointed out,
public authorities have a duty to transfer requests to the correct public authority
in instances where the Information Officer is aware of the correct authority to
apply to, under Regulation 4 (6) of the Right to Information Regulations of 2017.
Despite the TRC knowing that the information provided would likely be at the
Ministry of Finance and Mass Media, they did not forward the request as per the
regulations. The RTI Commission subsequently and based on our appeal, directed
the TRC to forward the request to the Media Ministry. Groundviews today
received acknowledgment that this request has been forwarded to the
Presidential Secretariat.
On the question of Lanka E News, the TRC asked for time to make submissions. At
the next hearing, on March 23, 2018, the Director General of the TRC, P.R.S.P.
Jayathilake also attended. The explanation given by the TRC for using the national
security exemption was that the editor of Lanka E News, Sandaruwan Senadeera,
was based overseas. Attempts to contact him for corrections on stories published
by Lanka E News had been unsuccessful, leading to the decision being made to
block the website.
The RTI Commission in its ruling noted that the request made
by Groundviews was legitimate and that there was no reason for it to be denied
on national security grounds. Below is the scanned copy of the ruling providing
details of the case.
(Click to view each image in high resolution)
During the hearing, the Commission noted – as has been noted before – that
while the RTI Act allows for national security to be cited as an exemption, it does
not allow for blanket use. The public authority must justify the use of the national
security exemption. In this instance, the TRC did not do so, even upon appeal to
the Designated Officer, Director General P.R.S.P Jayathilake. Noting this, the
Commission ordered the release of the information on Lanka E News.
This is a significant step forward from the past, and before the passage of the
Right to Information Act. In a broader political context, national security has been
used as justification for everything from the arrest of those who photograph
official Government buildings (under the Official Secrets Act) to the unimpeded
use of intelligence services and the arbitrary detention of political prisoners even
after the end of the conflict. The blanket use of the term, along with legislation
such as the Official Secrets Act, has allowed for a lack of transparency on the part
of the State.
The information provided on appeal however, was very revealing.
A letter dated November 6, 2017 and issued from the Office of the President
noted that the website Lanka E News had been publishing false articles about the
President and family members. The letter, signed by Dharmasri Bandara
Ekanayake from the President’s Media Unit, notes that the site is run from
outside Sri Lanka, and that the office had tried to contact the Lanka E News editor
via email and phone. It adds that the President’s Office could not proceed with
legal action, since the editor was based outside the country. The letter directed
the Director General of the TRC to examine the regulations and “take suitable
action”. It was following this letter that Lanka E News was blocked.

Printed copies of specific articles were also provided as evidence that Lanka E
News had published false or misleading information.
(Click to view each image in high resolution)
The Commission did not presume to rule on the veracity of the articles provided.
The articles themselves deal largely with the topic of corruption. The first is
around a Russian warship deal, allegedly between Kili Maharaja of Capital
Maharaja Organisation Ltd. and President Sirisena’s son-in-law. While there were
several reports of a Gepard 3.9 class warshipdeal to Sri Lanka, between the
Government and the Russian state-owned enterprise for defence exports,
Rosboronoexport last year, it was not possible to determine whether this was the
specific case being cited, since the publishing date on the articles provided has
been redacted. Groundviews was unable to find any verified reports in the public
domain around the involvement of the President’s son-in-law in the deal, let
alone of Maharaja himself.
The next article provided was pertaining to the bribery scandal involving Snowy
Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC) and President Sirisena. As reputed
foreign media reported, an investigation revealed that Sirisena had allegedly
requested a “donation” from SMEC while he was Minister of Irrigation. At the
time, Sirisena said he had no knowledge of such kickbacks and ordered a probe.
There has been no news of the results of that probe, to date. The Lanka E News
story focused on the World Bank ban of SMEC. However, the article also makes
reference to President Sirisena’s nomination for a Nobel Prize, a rumour that was
never verified. It also implies that in banning SMEC, the World Bank acknowledges
that Sirisena did accept bribes, which is a stretch.
Another article refers to an agreement with Dialog Axiata for their underwater
sea cable. Lanka E News alleges that the President has delayed this agreement on
the advice of Kili Maharaja, who does not want what it terms the “broadband
backbone” the cable provides to be shared with others. As such, it claims the
Malaysian Prime Minister himself reprimanded Sirisena for the delay. These
claims were put forward without any supporting evidence to back them.
However, another ruling from the RTI Commission revealed that a spectrum
telecommunications frequency had been allocated to Mobitel (headed by
President Sirisena’s brother, Kumarasinghe Sirisena) bypassing the competitive
bidding process. This surfaced in response to a request submitted by Dialog
Axiata, which was initially denied by the TRC on the grounds that revealing the
information would be prejudicial to commercial interests.
Curiously, a political column written by Wimal Dheerasekara has also been
included in this list. The column lambasts Sirisena for delaying the constitutional
reform process, claiming that he delayed the SLFP’s proposals on the constitution.
The column is fairly merciless and often stoops to personal attacks and insults.
The final article included was around the resignation of Navy Commander Travis
Sinniah, claiming the reason for his short tenure was because he was inquiring
into allegations made against former Navy Commander Admiral Karannagoda and
his use of white vans.
The articles themselves appear to take liberty with facts, putting forward claims
without any evidence to back them. The question to be asked is whether this
misreporting and perhaps even deliberate misinformation is grounds to block the
site itself. In addition, why was information around the blocking of Lanka E News
considered a threat to national security, as the TRC argued?
The Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility called on
the Government to avoid blocking or censoring sites without reasonable grounds,
and to promote and protect free speech on the Internet. Sri Lanka does include
freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental right in its Constitution, but
the issue on whether the Internet differs from other forms of media has not been
addressed adequately in court. While there is no composite law on freedom of
expression on the Internet, several pieces of legislation, such as the Computer
Crime Act, the Sri Lanka Telecommunications Act, the Information and
Communication Technology Act, and the Electronic Transactions Act do relate to
various “piecemeal” aspects of Internet use. Globally, the former Special
Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion
and Expression Frank La Rue hasexpressed concern around the use of blocking
and filtering as a method of censorship or regulation. He added that the right to
freedom of expression must be a norm on the Internet, and any limitations, an
exception to the norm.
In the past, there have been attempts to infringe on free expression online – from
the Department of Government Information repeatedly asking websites to
register in 2011 and 2016, to the Ministry of Media and Information admitting
that they had blocked 6 websites on grounds of ‘character assassination’ and
‘violation of privacy’.
In this sense, the news that the Office of the President continues to order the
blocking of websites in response to criticism when other methods of legal
recourse are available should be met with concern.
A further point of concern is the date on the order issued by the President’s Office
– November 2017.
Four months before, on July 4 to be precise, Austin Fernando
was appointed Secretary to the President.
On July 19, he was also appointed Chairman of the TRC. This has in fact been
standard practice for years, and has been flagged as a point of concern in Sri
Lanka’s Freedom of the Net report in 2017.
“President Sirisena has…largely chosen political appointees to run the TRC, with
mixed success. Like his predecessor, he appointed his Permanent Secretary, P. B.
Abeykoon, as Chairman. The position is reserved for the Secretary to the Minister
of Telecommunications under the law, and President Sirisena held the portfolio
for a time,” the report notes. It also flags a “disconcerting pattern of TRC
compliance with orders from government officials.”
At the time Lanka E News was blocked, Austin Fernando was both Secretary to
the President and Chairman of the TRC. Although the letter was addressed to
Director General Jayathilake, this does raise questions about the extent to which
an industry regulator can maintain its independence, if headed by political
appointees.
When contacted, Chairman TRC Austin Fernando said that he had no knowledge
of the letter and said the Media Division was separate to the Presidential
Secretariat. He directed Groundviews to the Presidential Media Division. Attempts
to contact Dharmasri Ekanayake who wrote the letter on Lanka E News have been
unsuccessful.
While Lanka E News’ articles are certainly controversial and perhaps even false, in
the end blocking the site only brought it more visibility and possibly more traffic –
something which ironically would have not occurred, had the President simply
dismissed the claims made as those of a mere gossip site or tabloid. The move led
to civil society criticism, and heightened reportage around the block itself. During
violence meted out against the Muslim community in March, the Government
once again blocked social media in an attempt to curb the violence. This method
proved ineffective. The enduring fascination of government blocking and banning
websites and social media proves time and again the power of the Streisand
Effect.
When running for President in 2015, a key chapter in Sirisena’s own manifesto
was dedicated to freedom of the press. As Groundviews noted in 2015,
the manifesto committed to lifting the block on websites run from abroad. This is
a direct quote from that manifesto,
“Matters worth attention and that should reach the attention of society are
hidden away, and trivial matters without substance are highlighted in the media.”
A worthy goal and one worth promoting. Yet, instead of working towards this,
President Sirisena has himself resorted to the same tactics he condemned in his
predecessor. It appears to be the case, and not for the first time with Sri Lankan
politics, that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Editor’s Note: Also read “Blocked: RTI requests reveal process behind blocking of
websites in Sri Lanka”
Posted by Thavam