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Article 14(l)(a) of Sri Lanka’s Constitution protects freedom of expression, including publication, subject to certain limitations. Sri Lanka has general provisions in its Penal Code that deal with certain forms of false “statements” and “rumors.” Also, the Computer Crime Act, No. 24 of 2007, details certain computer crimes including use of a computerized device that results in danger to the national security, economy, and public order. On April 1, 2020, Sri Lanka’s Acting Inspector General of Police announced that he would arrest those who disseminate false or disparaging statements about government officials combating the spread of Covid-19. There were news reports of arrests throughout the months of March and April for allegedly spreading fake news and disinformation on the Covid-19 pandemic.
I. Freedom of Expression, Censorship, and Fake News
Article 14(l)(a) of Sri Lanka’s Constitution stipulates that “[e]very citizen is entitled to . . . the freedom of speech and expression including publication” subject to certain limitations imposed by Article 15(2) “as may be prescribed by law in the interests of racial and religious harmony or in relation to parliamentary privilege, contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”
Sri Lanka has general provisions in its Penal Code that deal with certain forms of false “statements” and “rumors,” including the following:
- 465. Whoever knowingly causes to be transmitted by telegraph or tenders to any public officer employed in the Posts or Telecommunications Department for transmission any false message with intent to defraud, injure, or annoy any person, or to spread any false rumor, which may be detrimental to the Government or the interests of the public shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.
- 485. Whoever circulates or publishes any statement, rumor, or report which he knows to be false, with intent to cause any officer, soldier, sailor, or airman in the Army, Navy, or Air Force of the Republic to mutiny, or with intent to cause fear or alarm to the public, and thereby to induce any person to commit an offence against the Republic or against the public tranquility, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.
In early June 2019, the Sri Lankan Cabinet approved amendments to the country’s Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code, which are intended to take action against people spreading fake news on social media, “including statements that impact national security and incite violence between communities.” Under the proposed amendments, “those caught spreading fake news and hate speech on social media could face a five-year jail term and a fine of up to Sri Lankan Rs 10 lakh (about 4 lakh Indian rupees [about US$5,500]).”
The Computer Crime Act, No. 24 of 2007, contains certain computer crimes, including section 6(1) offenses committed against national security, economy, and public order:
6. (1) Any person who intentionally causes a computer to perform any function, knowing or having reason to believe that such function will result in danger or imminent danger to—
(a) national security,
(b) the national economy, or
(c) public order,
shall be guilty of an offence and shall on conviction be punishable with imprisonment of either description for a term not exceeding five years.
Government blocking, filtering, and removal of online content is regulated by the Sri Lanka Telecommunications Act. The main regulatory authority is the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka, which was established under the 1996 Amendment to the Act.
II. Government’s Response to Covid-19 and Fake News
In an April 1, 2020, announcement, Sri Lanka’s Acting Inspector General of Police, Chandana D. Wickramaratne, stated that he would “arrest those who disseminate false or disparaging statements about government officials combating the spread of the Covid-19 virus.” Human Rights Watch reported:
According to the order, issued on April 1, officials “are doing their utmost with much dedication to stop the spread of COVID 19,” but “those officials’ duties are being criticized, minor issues are being pointed out,” and messages are being posted that “scold” officials, thus “severely hindering” their duties.
Wickramaratne “threatened to arrest anyone who allegedly criticizes or highlights ’minor shortcomings‘ of officials involved in the coronavirus response or who shares ’fake‘ or ’malicious‘ messages.”
On April 2, 2020, the police announced the “arrest of several persons for allegedly spreading disinformation on the Covid-19 virus. Among them was a university student who allegedly spread a rumour that a special quarantine centre had been built for VIPs.” It was reported that “five persons were arrested on charges of posting false and misleading content about COVID-19 on social media.” There were news reports of arrests throughout March and April including that a “43 year-old man was arrested in Polgahawela “on charges of creating panic among the public by claiming that there were patients infected with COVID-19 admitted to the Polgahawela Hospital.” In another incident, a woman was arrested under section 6 of the Computer Crimes Act for “allegedly spreading a false rumour that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had contracted the virus.“
On April 25, 2020, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka “wrote a letter to the police informing them that any arrest for the mere criticism of public officials or policies would be unconstitutional.”
On June 3, 2020, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet “expressed alarm at the clampdown on freedom of expression in parts of the Asia-Pacific during the COVID-19 crisis,” including Sri Lanka, “saying any actions taken to stop the spread of false information must be proportionate.”
Prepared by Tariq Ahmad
Foreign Law Specialist
 Id. art. 15(2).
 Id. § 6(1).
 Meenakshi Ganguly, Sri Lanka Uses Pandemic to Curtail Free Expression: Police Ordered to Arrest Critics in Military-Led COVID-19 Response, Hum. Rts. Watch (Apr. 3, 2020), https://perma.cc/TG6Y-MPXK.
 Gehan Gunatilleke, supra note 10.
 Gehan Gunatilleke, supra note 10.
 UN High Comm’r for Hum. Rts., supra note 12.
Last Updated: 12/30/2020