The tangled world of websites


The CID raid on the offices of the two UNP related websites, the Lanka Mirror and Lanka X News, and the arrest and subsequent release of their staff members continued to make waves last week. It was clear that this was no raid on a fly-by-night website. Mangala Samaraweera and Daya Gamage were present in courts on Friday to support the main suspect, Ruwan Ferdinandez when the case against the two websites was taken up; and the UNP has come out guns blazing in defence of their websites. Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe himself issued a special statement about it saying that the CID had filed action in courts under article 118 of the Penal Code but that this clause in the Penal Code had been repealed by the Penal Code (Amendment) Act No 12 of 2002. RW should know all about it because it was repealed when he was in power. Had this Article in the Penal Code still been in force, Ferdinandez would have been in big trouble. Article 118 before it was repealed went as follows.

"Whoever by means of any contumacious, insulting or disparaging words whether spoken or intended to be read or by signs or visible representations shall attempt to bring the State into contempt, shall be punishable with simple imprisonment for a period which may extend to two years, and shall also be liable to a fine."

Ferdinandez, a Mangala Samaraweera protégé, says that for some time, there had been attacks on him by a certain privately owned group of newspapers but that his name was not specifically mentioned in those articles and he had no way of taking action against them. He had sought legal advice but had been told that no action can be taken. Ranil Wickremesinghe had also told him that no action can be taken and advised him to return fire but that he had not done that either.  When the CID raided his house in his absence, they had not even wanted him to report to the CID HQ. Instead, they had taken some CDs and other material. There had been two charges against him in the magistrate’s court - one being bringing the head of state into disrepute and the second being the use of a website for sedition. When he turned up in courts last Friday, they had wanted to record a statement from him.  He has been instructed to appear in courts on July 16.The B report listed his name as a suspect in the case. Ferdinandez admits that both websites belong to the UNP media division. He says that Mangala Samaraweera is the CEO of Lanka X News and the domain name belongs to him and that Sudath Chandrasekera, Ranil’s long time private secretary, is also in the management team of Lanka X News. Ferdinandez himself is the Director Editorial. He says that while Lanka Mirror concentrated on attracting youth, and had a focus on fashion and popular culture, Lanka X News was more political and combative and the purpose of that website was to expose corruption and take on the government. He says that they should be able to take on the government as it is their democratic right.


It’s not Gota or Mahinda

says Ruwan

 Taking a fly-by-night website called Lanka Leaks as an example, he says that Lanka X News never practiced that kind of journalism where they publish material even about people’s illnesses and about horoscopes. He says that such people do not really engage in politics; they have entrusted everything to the stars and are passively waiting for things to happen.  Ferdinandez says that because of the attacks directed on him by a certain group of newspapers, he had been worried that he would be a victim of a white van abduction.  He says, "In this incident (The Lanka Mirror & Lanka X News raids) I don’t think the president or Gota is involved."  None of the journalists had been harassed in any way by the CID according to Ferdinandez. When asked where he thinks the problem originated, if both Mahinda and Gota are not involved, Ferdinandez mentions the name of an opposition parliamentarian who owns a newspaper group. He says that his problem is with this parliamentarian and the editor of his Sinhala newspaper, and he says that if they have allegations against him, they should prove them. He said again that he can’t say that the president is not involved but that the way things were going, he thinks the problem originates from a different source.

Ferdinandez says that every website in the country does not belong to him. He knows the editor of lankaenews, Sandaruwan, whom he used to meet often when he was in Sri Lanka. He knows Chandima of NewsWeb as well, but he does not know who owns Lanka Leaks. For its part, Lanka Leaks in referring to the raid on Lanka X News and Lanka Mirror websites says that Ruwan Ferdinandez and Mangala Samaraweera are both in league with Basil Rajapaksa and P.B.Jayasundara and they challenge anybody to show anything negative said in either Lanka X News and Lanka Mirror about either Basil or PB. (Thus we are to believe that the two websites which were raided by the CID last week are in league with Basil Rajapaksa.)  The Lanka Leaks website also has a report which says that a certain parliamentarian who is a newspaper owner and the editor of his Sinhala newspaper are behind the raids on Lanka X News and Lanka Mirror offices. Lanka Leaks also says that this duo had managed to persuade Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to agree to the raid ‘after immense effort’.

Upali Wijewardene

Last week, the present columnist got a call from Dr Kumar Rupesinghe wanting to know anything further I may know about a story going around Colombo to say that Upali Wijewardene is still alive and that he had been in prison in Mexico all these years for drug related offences and that he will soon be coming back to Sri Lanka after he is released. Dr Rupesinghe thought that since I work for the Upali Group, that I might know more about this. He probably may have thought I was a member of the welcoming committee for the returning founder of this newspaper. This was a story published by this Lanka Leaks website! For scurrilous content, Lanka Leaks has no parallel and even the most scurrilous publications of the past fade into insignificance beside Lanka Leaks. Besides, even those who visit that website and post comments also appear to be of a certain frame of mind. This is perhaps a subculture like perhaps the heavy metal or biker culture in the West.  Both the publishers and patrons of the website appear to be  pushing the frontiers of publishing and reading.

Defaming and character assassination using the anonymity of the web is not a problem just in Sri Lanka but in every country in the world, and this has been widely discussed even in the developed West. The anonymity of the web where the true identity of a writer can be disguised ensures that comments posted on the internet are much less restrained than say ideas that may be expressed through a letter to the editor of a newspaper. There is the additional problem that a website targeting one country can be operated from another country and in such cases, the websites will have no reason to be restrained at all. We see this from websites like Lankaenews and Lanka Leaks. Those defamed have no recourse to justice when both the website and the website operator are overseas.

There was a recent case in Canada where a Canadian living in Canada had posted comments defamatory of the Canadian police on a US website. The Canadian police could not shut down the US website. All they could do was to make a request to the US website to delete the offending comments. But what they did was to arrest the man in Canada who had posted those comments. Speaking about this arrest, a Canadian police spokesman said "People have a right to state their opinions about police, but there are limits to what they can say. You can’t hide in cyberspace and make comments or allegations when they cross that line where they are starting to interfere with criminal investigations. He had to be held accountable..." (Canadian criminal libel laws carry a maximum jail sentence of 10 years.) So it’s not just Sri Lanka that is having problems with websites based overseas. A 2002 Australian High Court ruling stipulated that if material published on a website operated from overseas is downloaded or viewed in Australia, that any defamatory remarks in the said material will come under Australian law and can be tried in an Australian court which has the jurisdiction to try the case. What this means is that even though the uploading of the material may be done in one country, the viewing or downloading of that material in another country immediately gives the courts in the latter country jurisdiction to try the case under their own laws.

Enforcement of such cross border court decisions however is a different matter. Even the developed Western countries have not solved that one yet. In the case quoted above, the Canadian police were lucky because the culprit was within their reach. If he had been in the USA, he may have been tried in absentia and declared a wanted felon. From British times till about ten years ago, Sri Lanka also had criminal defamation laws based on sections 479 and 480 of the Penal Code which were as follows.

"479. Whoever by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs or by visible representations makes or publishes any imputation concerning any person, intending to harm or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm the reputation of such person is said except in the cases hereinafter excepted, to defame that person."

"480. Whoever defames another shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine or with both."

The provision related to defamation in the penal code had explanatory notes which shed light on the interpretation of these two sections. For example, the notes said that no statement will be deemed to harm a person’s reputation unless that imputation directly or indirectly in the estimation of others lowers the moral or intellectual character of that person. Indirect statements could also amount to defamation as for example when A says, "Z is an honest man, he never stole B’s watch." intending to cause it to be believed that Z did steal B’s watch.  The penal code had certain exceptions to sections 479 and 480. The first exception was that it is not defamation to say anything which is true concerning any person if it be for the public good that that the revelation is being made. It was also not defamation to express in good faith an opinion regarding the conduct of a public officer in the discharge of his public functions.  It was also not defamation to express in good faith any opinion about the merits of any case civil or criminal which has been decided by a court.

Section 479 and 480 of the penal code, together with sections 14 and 15 of the Press Council Act No: 5 of 1973, formed the much maligned criminal defamation law that was repealed by the UNF government in 2002. These laws had been in the statute books for decades until Chandrika Kumaratunga came into power and started misusing these laws to persecute newspaper editors who refused to bow down before her. That was one lady who had the knack to destroy everything she touched – the legal defences that had been available for victims of defamation were done away with in the reaction that Chandrika’s abuse of the law generated. Many generations of journalists had operated freely for decades even with Sections 479 and 480 in the penal code until Chandrika started misusing the law for her purposes.

Be that as it may, given the present situation with websites running loose, the present writer’s question is, why not reintroduce the old sections 479 and 480 of the penal code by a special Act of Parliament in a way that they apply only to websites operated from overseas? The argument put forward by Sirasa TV last week should be taken very seriously by everyone. Some special privileges should be available to formal media organisations, with an address, a visible management structure, and with well known journalists who operate out in the open.  All media outlets and even websites operated from Sri Lanka, which have an address, a management structure and a staff should not be brought within this proposed special criminal defamation law, but the full force of special legislation should be brought against fly-by-night websites operating from overseas. The enforcement of decisions handed down by local courts may never be enforced because the culprits are overseas, but a court decision will provide some relief to the defamed person in this country. And hopefully the prospect of a stiff prison sentence which will prevent him from returning to Sri Lanka in perpetuity may perhaps act as a deterrent to these unrestrained individuals. If such sentences are handed down, even if there is a change of government, a new president will be wary about starting his presidency by pardoning well known mudslingers. So this perhaps is food for thought – a special law for websites located and operated from outside Sri Lanka.

Pathetic threats

Last week the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) head Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri complained about threats he has received. The last threatening call he had received had been on the 3rd July from a man claiming to be a university student. That was the second time that this individual had called him and threatened him.  Devasiri however says that this individual has to be at least 30 years old judging by his voice.  He also says that two individuals had come to his neighbourhood on foot and made inquiries from neighbours about him and his daughter claiming to be from the defence ministry. After he made this public, he had received a call from Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who had told him that such publicity was not good for the reputation of the defence ministry.  To this Devasiri had said that he was only repeating to the police and the press what those two men had told his neighbours from whom they had made inquiries about him. They had told neighbours that Devasiri had applied to go overseas and that they were checking his details.

They had been hanging around from 4.00pm and said that they would be back at 7.00pm and they had indeed come back at that time. Then they had wanted to climb over the wall into Devasiri’s garden from the neighbour’s property to see what the number of Devasiri’s car is. The story that they had then told the neighbours was that Devasiri’s daughter had applied for a job to the defence ministry and that they were checking their details on that account.   But his daughter is only 17 years old and has not yet sat for her A/Ls. One of the neighbours who had felt suspicious had in fact asked the two men for their ID cards. One of them had then opened his purse and shown them an ID which they had not been able to see clearly. The neighbours has asked them to take the ID out and give it to them so that they could examine it. But then the two men had gone away.  Devasiri says that the defence secretary had said that if two individuals had come to look for information about him, he should have handed them over to the police. To this Devasiri had replied that he is not physically strong enough to be able to take two men and hand them over to the police and neither could he ask his neighbours to hand over those who come looking for him to the police. Devasiri had also told the defence secretary that he knows that if the defence ministry wanted to find out details about him and his daughter, they don’t have to scale the wall of his house to find out such details and that the problem here was that those who had come to his house had identified themselves as being from the defence ministry. Devasiri had told the defence secretary that the fact that he had said that the two men claimed to be from the defence ministry, does not mean that he (Devasiri) was asserting that the two men were in fact from the defence ministry. 

The next day, says Devasiri, according to a friend who had come to his house and was leaving, there had been a SUV type vehicle parked near the turnoff to his house. The friend had taken down the number of the vehicle and called him and told him about it.  Devasiri had in fact checked the telephone numbers that he had received the threatening calls from, and found that they had been taken from a Tritel call box near the Belek kade junction in Ratmalana. In the good old days, threats by the government had more zing to it – bullets fired at newspaper editor’s houses, artistes having their heads shaved by goons and so on.  Now you don’t know who was more scared - the supposed stalkers or the intended victim!

Be that as it may, one of the demands put forward by FUTA is really bizarre - that the amount of money being allocated to education be increased to 6% of the GDP.  Devasiri says unrepentantly that trade unions do engage in politics. Asked whether FUTA has ever made demands like this ever in its history, he admits that this is indeed the first time and claims that this is in the public interest. To the question whether this was not the task of those elected by the people to govern the country, he admits that this can be defined as a case of University teachers going beyond their mandated task but that Lalith Weeratunga had also seen their point. Asked whether FUTA is going to stick to this demand that  6% of the GDP be allocated for education and continue with the strike even if their salary demands are granted, Devasiri agreed that if the other demands are granted, they cannot say that they will not work until 6% of the GDP is allocated for education.


Turkey taken by storm

 Last week, the defeated UNP candidates of the Sabaragamuwa, North Central and Eastern Province were brought to Sirikotha where they were met by RW, Tissa Attanayake and Daya Gamage. Ranil Wickremesinghe  said that they will be getting nominations to contest again and he proceeded to tell them how they should conduct their campaign. He told them to go down to the grassroots level, to go to the villages and talk to the people and explain matters to them and about the present crisis faced by the government. He told them not to stay in their homes and expect to win elections and if they lose, not to blame this person or that person for their defeat.

The UNP Govi Sanvidhanaya was inaugurated formally last Thursday under the leadership of Anuradhapura district parliamentarian P.Harrison  in preparation for the NCP elections. This was followed by a UNP working committee meeting where it was decided that the UNP would go it alone at this election, under the elephant symbol.

Bharathi Wijeratne, who took up duties in Turkey several weeks ago, was back in Sri Lanka after taking Ankara by storm. Her posting as the first Sri Lankan ambassador to Turkey has so far been reported on by no less than 75 Turkish newspapers – probably an all time record in the annals of Sri Lankan diplomacy. Sri Lanka after all is a tiny country and for a large player like Turkey to give such prominence to her posting is probably unprecedented.  The reasons for Bharathi’s popularity in Turkey largely stems from the fact that she represents the only country in recent times to defeat terrorism and this has been a recurring theme in the newspaper articles about her appointment to Turkey. The biggest Turkish English Language newspaper, Today’s Zaman, in fact had a full page devoted to Sri Lanka with a huge pictures of the lion flag and of Bharathi. The article was in fact a continuation of a smaller article which appeared right on the front page of the newspaper. Here too the main focus was on the fact that Sri Lanka had defeated terrorism.

Turkey has suffered for many decades due to Kurdish terrorism and Sri Lanka is an inspiration to them.  This combined with the fact that both Bharathi and her father Lofty Wijeratne represented Turkey in Sri Lanka as Consuls-General for nearly four decades  also no doubt has contributed to the warmth with which has been received in that country.

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