Online Safety Bill hacked: Opposition says Committee Stage amendments contravene SC recommendations

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Amendments being introduced one after another by House Leader Susil Premajayantha

Amid acrimonious scenes, Parliament passed the Online Safety Bill after a two-day debate on Wednesday evening.

Opposition MPs accused the government of rushing through amendments at the Committee Stage in violation of the Supreme Court’s (SC) determination on the bill.

The second reading of the bill had been passed earlier that evening by a majority of 46 votes, with 108 MPs voting in favour and 62 against. As House Leader Susil Premajayantha was introducing the amendments to the bill during the committee stage, opposition MPs protested that certain amendments were not in compliance with the SC’s determination.

Sri Lanka Freedom Party parliamentarian Dayasiri Jayasekara objected to a new clause, which he said enabled the President to suspend any member of the Online Safety Commission (OSC) established under the Bill before the beginning of a hearing or during a hearing. He noted that the SC had repeatedly stressed the need for the OSC to be an independent body and alleged that the new clause contravened this recommendation. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran agreed.

Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) dissident parliamentarian Charitha Herath, who now represents the Freedom People’s Congress, pointed out to the Speaker that under Standing Order 63 of Parliament, no amendment inconsistent with any determination made by the SC could be introduced.

Mr. Sumanthiran added that the SC had also stressed in its determination that there must be certain exemptions from the applicability of the Act. Although this required the drafting of a new clause on exemptions, the government had not done so.

The TNA MP said he had identified 13 items in the draft bill that did not comply with the SC’s determination. “This is a very serious issue because if you pass this law without complying with that (SC determination), the law won’t be law,” he warned.

The opposition’s allegations were strongly refuted by House Leader Premajayantha. He accused them of working on a plan to delay the passage of the bill. “These amendments are being submitted with the agreement and approval of the Attorney General and the Legal Draftsman. They are in line with the SC’s determination. Therefore, we must continue with this process,” he insisted.

Given the government’s refusal to reconsider the amendments, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana stressed that there was nothing he could do but proceed, prompting angry reactions from opposition MPs.

The government also did not agree to several amendments proposed on behalf of the opposition by SLPP dissident Chandima Weerakkody. He called for a division when the government refused to accept an amendment he proposed to Clause 36 of the draft bill. The amendment was defeated with 51 votes cast in favour and 92 against.

Before the debate began on Tuesday, opposition MPs argued that the debate could not proceed as the two-page document that the Sectoral Oversight Committee (SOC) on Media, Youth, Heritage and New Citizen had submitted could not be accepted as a report. They also pointed out that Standing Orders prohibited any further proceedings on the draft until the relevant committee submitted its report on the bill or until the expiration of the period allowed by Parliament.

Eventually, a vote was taken on whether to debate the bill, and the motion was approved by 83 votes to 50.

Presenting the bill, Public Security Minister Tiran Alles said it was especially focused on preventing the abuse of women and children online. More than 8,000 complaints about crimes committed online were reported last year. These include 669 complaints of sexual harassment and 506 complaints related to the publication of nude images. More than 100,000 nude images of victims were circulated on social media last year, according to the relevant agencies, he disclosed. He also noted that some MPs, their wives, and even their children had been maligned on social media with baseless allegations. Even some opposition MPs had complained of such abuse, he claimed, adding that certain laws were necessary to prevent such instances.

The minister also noted that while discussions were held with civil society representatives, the Asia Internet Coalition, and the UN Resident Representative regarding the bill, only certain suggestions agreed upon by all were incorporated as amendments to the bill. The AG had opined that it was not possible to incorporate all the proposals as amendments to the present draft as it would contravene the Constitution. Once the bill had been passed, he said all remaining suggestions would be presented to the Cabinet for approval.

The Supreme Court had determined that 34 of the 57 clauses needed a special parliamentary majority. Even taking it up for debate in this situation is wrong, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa told the House. He added that the SOC that was supposed to have analysed the draft bill in detail had failed to do its job.

“I believe this bill was drafted specifically because this is an election year when both the presidential and parliamentary elections are to be held,” Mr. Premadasa said. He alleged the bill was aimed at suppressing the people’s freedom of speech, freedom of expression and democratic rights.

While acknowledging a sense of fear and suspicion in society over the nature of the bill, Defence State Minister Premitha Bandara Tennakoon claimed this was because many either did not understand the bill or had misunderstood its contents. “Our main aim is to protect the country’s citizens,” he insisted.

He noted that the Constitution did not provide absolute freedom, as witnessed by Article 15, which imposed certain restrictions on fundamental rights considering religious and communal issues. He cited instances in the recent past where social media had been used to spread baseless claims aimed at creating unrest.

Mr. Tennakoon also called on MPs to be mindful of what they say in Parliament, noting that many tended to misuse the immunity accorded to them when making speeches in the House to baselessly attack others. “We have an obligation to be responsible for what we say here,” he said, adding that MPs too must reach an agreement on this issue.

A job well done: MPs heap farewell praise on Serjeant-at-Arms

Serjeant-at-Arms Narendra Fernando

After the passage of the Online Safety Bill, MPs from both sides came together on Wednesday evening to pay tribute to Serjeant-at-Arms Narendra Fernando, who will be retiring on January 30 after more than 42 years of Parliamentary service.

Presenting the motion of appreciation, House Leader Susil Premajayantha commended Mr. Fernando’s more than four decades of dedicated service to the country’s legislature.

Mr. Premajayantha noted that, as Serjeant-at-Arms, Mr. Fernando had done his utmost to ensure that Parliamentary sessions could be conducted even in the most difficult circumstances. Even when the electricity supply to Parliament was cut off due to floods, Mr. Fernando assisted in ensuring that Parliament sessions could be conducted by candlelight, said Mr. Premajayantha.

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena praised the efforts Mr. Fernando took as Serjeant-at-Arms to safeguard the Parliament complex and Parliamentarians in challenging times. He recalled how Mr. Fernando coordinated expertly with security agencies to ensure the safety of MPs and the Parliament complex during the Aragalaya period, when Parliament was under threat of being stormed and burnt down.

Deputy Speaker Ajith Rajapakse said Mr. Fernando had faced more challenges during the more than five years he served as Serjeant-at-Arms than any other official who held the post before him. There were many occasions where he had to go beyond the call of duty to protect Parliament, and the example he set should serve his junior officers in good stead, Mr. Rajapakse said.

Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena praised Mr. Fernando for leading by example during the challenges Parliament encountered over the years. He recalled Mr. Fernando’s efforts to protect Parliament when it was flooded and the work he did to securely conduct Parliament sittings during the COVID pandemic.

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa described Mr. Fernando as highly skilled in many fields. He recalled that Mr. Fernando was serving as the Speaker’s personal assistant at the time Parliament faced a bomb attack in 1987 and the steps he took to prevent damage to valuable books and documents when the Parliament complex was threatened by floods in 1992 and 2010.

Mr. Premadasa also recalled how the Serjeant-at-Arms worked successfully to overcome challenges during the 52-day Constitutional Crisis in 2018.

Many other party leaders and MPs from both sides of the aisle spoke in appreciation of Mr. Fernando’s services and joined the entire House in wishing him well on his retirement.

An old boy of Isipathana College, Colombo, Narendra Mihindukumara Fernando has a degree in Human Resources Management from India. He followed in the footsteps of his father, who was an Assistant Hansard Editor in Parliament. Mr. Fernando joined Parliament service as a clerk in 1981 and served for 20 years in various capacities in many offices coming under Parliament’s Administration Department. He was appointed Assistant Serjeant-at-Arms in 2000 and Deputy Serjeant-at-Arms in 2002. He was appointed as Parliament’s sixth Serjeant-at-Arms on September 1, 2018.