The Sri Lankan government recently announced that all websites would be required to register with the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media before March 31 of this year. This was a troubling and illegal move that some commentators said would result in heighted self-censorship and other negative developments. Now, the Sri Lankan government seems to have changed its mind.
What's really going on here? Should the government be applauded for changing course? Might the reality be more complicated?
Sanjana Hattotuwa, senior researcher at the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives believes there are still reasons to be concerned about the government's plans. "The reversal in policy, as reported in the media, raises more questions around what the government has in mind regarding the laws it seeks to introduce (through parliament) to control the media via more stringent registration, including for websites," he says. "From the acting minister's tweets -- which in a day completely contradicted the edict as published in the newspapers -- to the belief there was in fact a legal basis for registration, from the bizarre disconnect between making websites that didn't register unlawful, to the ministry's assertion that the move was in fact to recognise web journalists, these are clear examples of how fragile the freedom of expression really is in Sri Lanka."
Hattotuwa also believes that the government's change of heart "came because of strong public outcry and pushback -- especially over social media."
"They [the government] will not bring legislation that soon," says Kusal Perera, a journalist based in Colombo. Perera notes that the government has been actively trying to weaken a Right to Information act before it's presented in parliament on March 8. That legislation "may have media controls too," he says.