The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has written to Acting Inspector General of Police (IGP) C.D. Wickramaratne over a spate of recent arrests by the Police on the basis of statements made over social media, especially in the context of the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the country.
The HRCSL has observed an increasing number of such arrests since the issuing of a letter dated 1 April, 2020 by the Media Division of the Police Department to heads of media institutions warning of strict legal action against those who publish false and malicious statements over the internet against public authorities who are engaged in containing the spread of the virus.
The letter conveys the message that criticism of officials will not be tolerated, HRCSL Chairperson, Professor Deepika Udagama said.
She said it is the duty of the Commission to point out that any action taken to limit freedom of expression and other such rights in a democracy, even during a period of emergency, must be within the framework of the law.
“In this instance the applicable law is the Constitution and also Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations. Those laws require that limitations on rights should comply with the tests of legality, proportionality (limitation must be proportionate to the threat) and non-discrimination,” she said in the letter.
HRCSL recognizes the need to lawfully curb misinformation that can cause panic and pose a serious threat to public order and public health when the entire country is facing an unprecedented public health crisis.
However, HRCSL says such arrests must be legally valid, must not be arbitrary and disproportionate and must not be carried out in a discriminatory manner.
“We observe that the B reports pertaining to above arrests cite several statutes as forming the legal basis of such arrests. They include the Penal Code ( s.120), Computer Crimes Act, No. 24 of 2007 (s.6), Police Ordinance (s.98), Quarantine Ordinance, No. (ss. 4 & 5) and the Disaster Management Act , No. 13 of 2005(s. 24),” the latter said.
HRCSL also pointed out that the legal basis of the use of the provisions of the Quarantine Ordinance and the Disaster Management Act is questionable for certain reasons.
“S.4 of the Quarantine Ordinance can be invoked only when a regulation made under the Ordinance has been violated. It is not clear how the alleged statements for which various persons have been arrested violate any of the existing regulations made under the Ordinance or how they obstruct the discharging of duties of officers authorized under the Ordinance. Similarly, it is questionable whether s.24 of the Disaster Management Act can be invoked in the absence of a proclamation declaring a state of disaster in the country which is approved by Parliament as required by s.11 of the Act,” the letter states.
HRCSL says if misinformation which has a negative impact on public order and public health is to be curbed, there must be a sound legal basis for action taken by law enforcement authorities. (Colombo Gazette)