South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a regional network of human rights defenders, are deeply concerned about the Online Safety Bill (OSB) which was passed by the Parliament of Sri Lanka on 24 January 2024 with a majority vote with amendments. Previously, SAHR urged the government to withdraw the same Bill indicating that it will severely compromise the rights and freedoms of the people of the country as enshrined in the constitution.

Numerous parties within the country and at international and regional level demanded the withdrawal of the OSB emphasising its inevitable impact towards the severe suppression of freedom of expression and dissent. Some of the concerned parties proposed committee stage amendments. After the OSB was tabled in Parliament, 51 petitions were filed in the Supreme Court challenging its constitutionality. The Supreme Court communicated the decision of the three member bench stating that pursuant to Article 84(2) of the Constitution the mentioned amendments must be made prior to it being passed in the parliament.

SAHR believes that no significant amendment has been made to the OSB that was passed in the parliament. It has learnt that the several Members of Parliament were against some of the amendments stating that they were unconstitutional. Consequently, even though the government claims that the Bill primarily protects women and children online, it is dubious when there are only two provisions in the Bill specifically dedicated for this purpose; and the duplication of offences and the Bill taken in its entirety, suggests otherwise.  SAHR is further concerned that the OSB has the full potential of being deliberately misused against legitimate dissent at this year’s elections by the ‘online safety commission’ appointed by the Executive.

Across South Asia, there are legislations such as the Digital Security Act of 2018 and the Information and Communications Technology Act (Amended in 2009 and 2013) in Bangladesh as well as colonial era laws such as Section 124 A (Sedition) of Indian Penal Code and Pakistan Penal Code and the Official Secrets Act of 1923 of Pakistan and Bangladesh which have been used and proven to effectively stifle freedom of expression and suppress dissent. SAHR is concerned that the OSB too will be used in such a manner to suppress freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. 

Therefore, SAHR strongly calls upon the Government of Sri Lanka to repeal the OSB which was recently passed. At a time where people are suffering for their basic needs to enjoy a dignified standard of living due to the critical economic crisis the country is facing, the Government of Sri Lanka should not introduce such draconian laws that could be used to further curtail the rights and freedoms of the people of Sri Lanka.  The Government of Sri Lanka must adhere to its obligations as a state party to the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Freedom of Expression guaranteed by the Constitution of Sri Lanka. 

On behalf of the members of South Asians for Human Rights

Dr. Roshmi Goswami

Dr. P. Saravanamuttu
Bureau Member