Singaporean-style law proposed to rein in social media, govt.’s failure to avert calamity censured

In the wake of April 21 bombings


By Shamindra Ferdinando

Chairman of Sri Lanka Press Council (SLPC) Attorney-at-law Koggala Wellala Bandula says those who perpetrated the Easter Sunday carnage certainly took into consideration political instability.

Bandula asserts that countries in political turmoil become targets of terrorists and other detrimental international elements. Bandula said so in his opening remarks at a workshop organized by SLPC for Matale District journalists representing print, electronic and web-based media, at Spring View Hotel, Matale.

Emphasizing the pivotal importance of what he called a stable administration; Bandula regretted the failure on the part of those in authority to recognize the threat posed by the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) affiliated to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The panel of speakers comprised Dr. Tudor Weerasinghe, Senior Lecturer, Sripalee Campus, University of Colombo, S.D.S.P. Sandanayake, Superintendent of Police, Matale and Shamindra Ferdinando, News Editor, The Island.

Press Commissioner Niroshana Thambawita arranged the workshop in the wake of the Easter Sunday carnage with the focus on reportage of the worst ever single terrorist attack directed against civilians and the responsibility on the part of the media in covering such a calamity.

Having dealt with the origins of the Muslim extremism beginning 1996, Bandula emphasized April 21 bombings couldn’t be considered an isolated campaign.

SLPC Chairman requested those present to freely discuss the issue at hand as there was no purpose in deliberately glossing over the Easter Sunday bombings.

Nearly 260 perished in six coordinated suicide attacks. In addition to them, three police officers died during a raid on a luxurious Dematagoda house of wealthy spice trader Moahammad Yusuf Ibrahim. Ibrahim’s two sons — identified as Ilham Ahmed Ibrahim and Imsath Ahmed Ibrahim detonated their explosives at the Colombo Shangri-La and the Cinnamon Grand hotels on April 21.

Bandula said that the April 21 attacks had been transformed in to a political problem.

Having described the problem essentially as a situation to be dealt after a disaster, lawmakers used the Easter Sunday massacre as a weapon. The attorney-at-law called all stakeholders to properly interpret the situation, while advising the print and electronic media to be cautious in respect of the reportage. Bandula said that the media should see the bigger picture without being immersed in the number of dead, wounded and damages to the property.

Referring to long standing issues involving Sinhala and Muslin communities, Bandula queried as to who paved the way for ISIS to exploit the situation here.

SLPC Chief also dealt with the impact of the social media on the post-Easter attacks situation and the clever use/ exploitation of the social media by those who perpetrated the atrocity.

Recollecting a meeting he had with Mark Elliot Zuckerberg, Facebook Chairman and its chief executive officer, some time ago, Bandula explained that under the circumstances those who had been affected by Facebook could seek redress.

Bandula acknowledged the futility in trying to block social media due to the availability of other means to access various sites. Bandula said that he did so during recent restrictions imposed on social media.

Having discussed the urgent need to counter fake news and the use of social media for destructive purposes, Bandula revealed that among various counter measures proposed was the introduction of a tough law on the lines of controversial The Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill adopted by Singapore recently. Bandula pointed out that the Singaporean law envisaged ten year jail term and Singapore Dollars 735,080 in fines for not obeying an order. Bandula said that the proposal was yet to be taken up for discussion.

The law would provide the government power to demand corrections, order the removal of content, or block websites deemed to be propagating falsehoods contrary to the public interest.

Bandula said that the government couldn’t ignore the need for regulatory mechanisms.

Alleging ‘hate speech’ posed a serious threat, Bandula emphasized the requirement for tangible measures to address the issue. Accusing politicians of using and abusing media, Bandula urged print and electronic journalists to be watchful.

The SLPC Chairman said that for want of efficient mechanism, those in authority missed the overseas extremist build-up in the run-up to the April 21 bombings. The attorney-at-law explained how a group of persons protested in Geneva accusing the majority community of harassing Muslims. Civil society activist Sunanda Deshapriya, too, conducted a similar project, in Geneva simultaneously, Bandula said, highlighting the failure to look into such protests.

The workshop was told how the NTJ affiliated to ISIS intensified its project in late Nov 2018 with the killing of two policemen at Vavunativu, Batticaloa amidst political turmoil caused by constitutional coup perpetrated by President Sirisena and Joint Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The workshop also dealt with how destructive elements exploited the uncertainly in parliament due to the government not having a simple majority. Apparent reluctance on the part of the government to inquire into serious allegations directed against All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader and Commerce and Industry Minister Rishad Bathiudeen was also discussed against continuing efforts to neutralize threat posed by a No Confidence Motion (NCM) handed in over to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. The JO’s NCM targeted whereas a subsequent NCM handed over by the JVP against the government over its overall responsibility, was meant to sabotage the JO effort, the workshop was told.

The responsibility on the part of media to examine political developments and security challenges, especially in the wake of fresh terrorist threat was also stressed.

At the onset of the workshop, the gathering was told how the Matale District, too, could have been devastated if those responsible for premeditated violence directed at Muslims in the North Western Province and Minuwangoda included the Central Province district in their ‘area of operations.’

The workshop also dealt with how proposed Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to probe Minister Bathiudeen alleged involvement with the perpetrators of April 21 bombings could be a move to delay the proper investigations. The participants were reminded the circumstances leading to disgraced Central Bank Governor Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran leaving the country as those in authority pulled in different directions, having had deliberately delayed investigations. The two treasury bonds scams perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016 were portrayed as the cause of President Sirisena’s rift with the UNP leading to Premier Wickremesinghe’s sacking in late Oct 2018.

Naming of Matale District politician Nandimithra Ekanayake as an example to highlight how regardless of the powers that be, politicians, ex-politicians and their lot benefited. Abusing of the duty free permit scheme made available to lawmakers, too, was discussed.

Dr. Tudor Weerasinghe discussed ways and means by what he called the Global Super State constantly undermined ‘Nation States.’ The academic explained how external powers brazenly used their agents here, both in and out of parliament to cause turmoil. Dr. Weerasinghe alleged an influential section of the current dispensation openly colluded with foreign powers, facilitated their operations and helped create conflicts.

Dr. Weerasinghe underscored the growing intensity of battles between capitalist political parties in spite of now nonexistent ideological differences. Left parties, too, had abandoned their ideologies and all basically followed neo liberal policies, Dr. Weerasinghe said. The academic said that there were vast differences between President JR Jayewardene’s era and that of UNP leader and Premier Wickremesinghe.

Dr. Weerasinghe faulted the majority of lawmakers, university community as well as the media for being ignorant of the threat posed by various destabilizing factors. An influential section of the media here actively supported operations against the state, Dr. Weerasinghe alleged.

The ongoing controversy over moves to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with Counter Terrorism Act (CTA) reflected the warped thinking of the top government leadership, Dr. Weerasinghe said. The academic urged the media to be mindful of the rapid political, economic and security developments taking place with those wielding power giving into Western powers hell bent on undermining China.

India is now part of the US-led coalition.

Dr. Weerasinghe feared that Western powers wanted to break-up China the way once powerful USSR collapsed following the invasion of Afghanistan.

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