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Sharing ‘fake news’ on social media: Government warns of re-enacting criminal defamation 

  • Arrestees confessed to acting on instructions: Keheliya 

  • Speaks of technologies to monitor social media 

  • BASL concerned over Police misuse of circular, cognisable offence 

  • Web journos highlight N-E suppression, coverup of Government’s sins 

  • FMM seeks clarity on ‘fake news’ definition 

By Yoshita Perera

 

By sharing fake news on social media networks, some people are pushing the country towards re-enacting the criminal defamation law which was repealed in 2002, the Cabinet Spokesman and Mass Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said. 

He said this on Friday (11) while responding to The Sunday Morning’s query on the conflict which would arise with the exercise of the freedom of expression when arrests are made for the purported cognisable offence of sharing fake news on social media. 

“Some people who have been taken in for interrogation by the Police for sharing misleading news on social media networks have already confessed that they have been instructed by a particular person, a political group, or a non-governmental organisation (NGO) to share such posts when they never had any verification of the facts.” 

Minister Rambukwella said the investigations into those matters are still continuing and that there are a few apparatuses to monitor social media platforms further. 

Responding to a query on how the Government is defining “fake news”, Rambukwella said: “If a person is sharing news that is completely wrong and in a biased manner which would deliberately mislead the public, those news items can be tracked as fake news.” 

He further added that if any person is writing something based on reliable facts, they do not have to be concerned about the freedom of expression. 

Meanwhile, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) noted that it is highly concerned over the provisions about the laws mentioned in the relevant circular, as they could be misused by police officers in order to stifle the freedom of speech and expression which is a fundamental right protected in the Constitution. 

Issuing a statement in this regard, the BASL also raised concerns over the decision to arrest without warrants, stating that when arresting or charging a person, there is a professional assessment to be made and there is an alleged offence that is being committed. 

Sharing views with The Sunday Morning on recent fake news related arrests, the Professional Web Journalists Association Chairman Freddy Gamage stressed that the Association had received reports on a large number of people in several areas in the Northern and Eastern Provinces who have been arrested for posting on social media. 

“We can see that within this censorship, the Government is trying to suppress social media that is a social platform for criticism. We firmly believe that news items would be given to the public based on reliable sources. However, through this restriction, the Government is trying to put the law forward and control the rising surge of social media against the offences committed by the Government,” he said. 

Sharing her views on the Government’s move to criminalise fake news, the Free Media Movement Convenor Seetha Ranjani said that the problem lies in how to define fake news and on what basis something would be considered fake news.