COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s parliament on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved an internet regulation bill that was highly criticized as a move to stifle speech in an election year while the Indian Ocean island nation copes with an economic crisis that required an international bailout.
The Online Safety bill would allow the government to set up a commission with a wide range of powers, which includes ordering people and internet service providers to remove online posts deemed “prohibited statements.” It can also legally pursue people who publish such posts.
The government led by President Ranil Wickremesinghe submitted the bill for debate on Tuesday, after which it was passed in the 225-member house, where the ruling coalition enjoys majority. Only 62 lawmakers voted against the bill.
Opposition lawmakers criticized the bill for creating “a very oppressive environment.” Media, internet and civil rights groups had asked the government to withdraw the bill, saying it would undermine freedoms.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said the bill would create a repressive law with broad and vague “speech-related offenses punishable by lengthy prison terms.”
The Asia Internet Coalition, which has Apple, Amazon, Google and Yahoo as members, said the bill “would undermine potential growth and foreign direct investment into Sri Lanka’s digital economy.”
The secretary of the Sri Lanka Professional Web Journalists Association, Kalum Shivantha, said the bill would severely impact how they do their job. “Online journalists might resort to self-censorship and even our news websites might get shut down,” he said.
However, Public Security Minister Tiran Alles, who introduced the bill in Parliament, said it would address problems related to online fraud, abuse and false statements that threaten national security and stability. He said more than 8,000 complaints were filed last year related to online crimes, including sexual abuse, financial scams, cyber harassment, and data theft.
Alles added that the bill was not drafted to harass media or political opponents.
Sri Lanka is still reeling from its worst economic crisis, which hit the island nation two years ago. The country declared bankruptcy in 2022 with more than $83 billion in debt, more than half of it to foreign creditors.
The crisis caused severe shortages of food, fuel and other necessities. Strident public protests led to the ouster of then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The IMF agreed last year to a $2.9 billion bailout package for the hard-hit country.
After Rajapaksa fled, then-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed as president by parliament. The shortages of necessities have largely decreased over the past year, but public dissatisfaction has spiked after the government imposing new high taxes on professionals and businesses and raised energy bills.
Rights groups say Wickremesinghe has moved to stifle dissent, by cracking down on anti-government protests and arresting protestors and activists.
Sri Lanka’s presidential election is set to be held later this year.
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