Where are we heading with proposed laws to curb social media? Admittedly social media is not perfect. Then governments, whatever their ideological proclivity, are not perfect either, to judge by the plethora of broken promises that lie scattered along the road to power and privilege. Social media did not just sprout up from nowhere. If [...]


Cleansing social media or thought control


Where are we heading with proposed laws to curb social media? Admittedly social media is not perfect. Then governments, whatever their ideological proclivity, are not perfect either, to judge by the plethora of broken promises that lie scattered along the road to power and privilege.

Social media did not just sprout up from nowhere. If the advance of technology, especially the spread of computer use and access to users almost anywhere in the world and the ability to convey news and information in real time, hastened the expansion of social media, the indiscretions and malfeasance of governments, politicians and their cronies made social media even more important in exposing corruption and perfidy.

Rulers and politicians cannot absolve themselves of responsibility for providing social media with the oxygen for their sustenance. One should not forget that politicians make use of social media too to further their own agendas and to vilify political opponents and business competitors.

A classic case of the misuse of modern communication technology is former President Donald Trump’s dawn follies with his tweets that often carried fake news as media analysts have frequently exposed.

One cannot deny the fact that the social media platforms, as they are called, with billions of users could be, and indeed are, both good and bad. It depends on the use to which they are put.

Earlier this month, Labour Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva made an impassioned call in parliament for a ban on social media or a tough regulatory system to keep it in check. What prompted Minister de Silva’s appeal for action against these media platforms and websites was the recent exposure of the sexual abuse of an underaged girl.

Last week the Colombo Magistrate ordered the telecommunications authorities to crack down on four websites allegedly connected with this sex-for-sale promotion.

Minister de Silva’s call for coming down hard on such abuse of technological resources is justified.  It is this kind of abuse that brings journalism itself a bad name because such commercial exploitation of the means of communication is mistakenly or deliberately linked with journalism and media at large, particularly by those who find media freedom an obstacle to their free-wheeling politics.

It gives critics in search of opportunities to castigate the media generally for honest assessments of the performance of successive governments on the ground to tarnish all media with the same brush for the indiscretions of a few who are not media professionals like those supposedly involved in the lamentable episode referred to by Minister de Silva.

One can hardly compare avocado with durian. There lies the rub! Minister de Silva’s condemnation of those who used their websites and internet for commercial exploitation of an unfortunate girl is surely justified as any reasonable and morally upright person would agree.

But on reading news reports of Nimal Siripala de Silva’s remarks in parliament one wonders whether he has not strayed far afield instead of calling for a ban or curb on websites that have committed the moral and ethical offences that have outraged the minister.

Just as politicians and others fearful of media exposure of their peccadillos and even very much worse such as corruption and abuse of state assets would seize any opportunity to castigate the media and even accuse them of “fake news”, it would be unfair to damn all social media as abusing their freedom.

The minister’s lose use language might give the reader or listener the impression that he was advocating a total ban on social media or a regulatory system that would literally strangle functioning social media, even those that perform a valuable service to society as many surely are.

This view is enhanced by a comment that followed the call for a ban or control of these websites or communication systems. He claimed that “in China there is no social media.” So is Minister de Silva expecting Sri Lanka to do what China does or does not?

Are we becoming so slavish that China is now the template for policy decisions of this government, that when President Xi takes two steps forward we should goose step behind him?

So enamoured are we of the Chinese Communist Party that runs the country with rigorous control of society and its people that Sri Lanka’s Central Bank minted gold coins in celebration of the party’s centenary last month.

As those who know the history of the Chinese Communist Party and its role in the killings of its own people in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 and the heavy hand that has begun to strangle Hong Kong’s largely free society, would hardly want Sri Lanka to be modelled in the same way.

If the Sri Lankan political system was turned into a mirror image of what happens in China then perhaps Nimal Siripala de Silva might find himself without a portfolio to have as an addendum on his business card.

The real problem is that the vocabulary used in the drafting of legislation to ban or control media is often so vague and ambiguous that it could be used to clamp down on genuine reporting and comment and in harassing journalists for performing their professional responsibilities transgressing constitutional freedoms.

Whether the ambiguous phraseology is deliberate or a consequence of bad drafting will be debated till the cows come home. It could well be a ruse at curbing media in general and at thought control.

The minister said there is no social media in China. That is what governments and their supporters call “fake news”. Perhaps the minister is unaware that only the other a Market Tracker Apple Annie reported that today the world’s top social media platform is Tiktok owned by the China-based company ByteDance, surpassing Facebook and all others.

Moreover, China is the world’s biggest social media market. China does have domestic social media such as Weibo, Renren and Youku highly popular among China’s youth.

If plans are afoot to make announcing or propagating what is “fake news” an offence probably with jail sentences for those convicted would the police act against government ministers and MPs responsible for spreading this virus?

Now that fact checking is becoming increasingly established it is more difficult for politicians to get away with falsities. For several weeks the Daily Mirror had carried fact checks on certain statements/remarks made by politicians. There were statements made by two ministers that were declared false. After that extended display of ministerial falsities one has been now deleted and one is still there.

So if there is a law in months or years ahead, will it be equally applied to all including ministers and officials including those who concoct statistics not merely the media and its practitioners?

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard before working for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was
Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London).


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