Inconsistent information paves way for fake news: Lawyer Suren Fernando

When Government Officials continue to share inconsistent information with the public regarding a situation, this creates confusion and in turn, paves the way for the spread of fake news, Attorney-at-Law Suren Fernando told The Morning today (10).

Addressing the recent statements made by the Police which requested the public to refrain from sharing fake news on social media, adding that those who do so can be arrested without a warrant, Fernando stated that the term “fake news” needs to be defined very clearly.

“The Constitution of this country, which is the highest law of the land, recognises freedom of speech. Any exception to this needs to take place through due processes and must be defined very clearly,” he stated.

Explaining further, Fernando said that in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), hate speech that incites violence and discrimination in very limited instances is a criminal act.

However, he noted that political expression which does not lead to violence and discrimination is not criminalised.

“If someone attempts to very broadly interpret any law beyond its purpose, merely for the purpose of cracking down on dissent, in my view, that would be unconstitutional and a violation of the Fundamental Rights to the Freedom of Speech,” he argued.

Citing the famous Janaghosha case, Fernando highlighted that the Courts of the country have delved into this issue in the past as well.

“In this particular example, the Court explained that speech or dissent against the government is recognised by the constitution and therefore, it must be permitted,” Fernando stated.

Adding to this, Fernando highlighted that with regard to the Janaghosha case, the court observed that if dissent is cut down, it will lead to violence.

“When different views in society are not tolerated or when people cannot express their views and opinions in a peaceful manner, and if a democratic conversation cannot take place in society, the court warned that it would lead to these expressions emerging in more violent forms,” he said.

Fernando also addressed the fact that what falls under the definition of “fake news” is also not defined.

“What is fake news? It might even be opinion. You cannot criminalise someone having an opinion, although you can sue them for defamation,” he clarified.

When asked why he believes the government seeks to proceed in this manner, he stated that it could be due to the fact that the government may be losing its grip on certain issues.

“As a citizen, my perception is that the government is in the middle of lots of inefficient management surrounding the issues that are happening and this is a measure to have an effect on dissent,” he said.

In conclusion, Fernando said that the government must be careful to make sure that only the type of expression which may lead to criminal activities such as hate speech, which is an incitement to violence, which is prohibited by law must be dealt with.