Sri Lanka passes controversial Online Safety Bill News
© WikiMedia (Kolitha de Silva)
Sri Lanka passes controversial Online Safety Bill

The Sri Lankan Parliament passed a controversial bill Wednesday, which has been condemned by opposition politicians and several human rights groups for curtailing free speech in the country. The Online Safety Bill aims to tackle cybercrimes such as child abuse, data theft and online fraud. However, human rights organizations warned that the bill poses a threat to free speech in the country.

The Online Safety Bill was introduced on Tuesday by President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government with the stated aim of tackling cybercrimes. The bill’s provisions are set to apply to any Sri Lankan citizens, whether it occurred “while being present in Sri Lanka or outside of Sri Lanka.”

Despite fierce resistance, the bill passed through Parliament with a vote of 108 in favor to 62 opposed.

Opposition politicians heavily criticized the bill during its passage. MP for Colombo Harsha de Silva said on X (formerly Twitter) that Wickremesinghe’s government was “on a mission [t]o dismantle democracy in #SriLanka.” He continued, “It’s not just [human rights] but people’s economic rights are being crushed by horrendous new laws proposed. Withdraw #OnlineSafetyBill.”

The bill has also been criticized by multiple human rights organizations. In a January 19 letter to Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Public Security, over 50 organizations urged the government to withdraw the bill and “conduct meaningful consultations with all stakeholders, including local groups.” The organizations cited specific concern with several provisions, which they claim pose a threat to free speech and human rights.

Specifically, the organizations mentioned the bill’s intention to establish an Online Safety Commission, which would be closely entwined with the executive. The organizations claimed that this commission could potentially lead to problems with impartiality and abuse of power. The organizations also expressed concern that none of the expert recommendations had been heeded, particularly around the protection of women and children.

Wickremesinghe’s government came to power in July 2022 after a corruption scandal and protests rocked the country. Since then, however, Wickremesinghe’s gvoernment has also faced accusations of corruption and a lack of judicial independence