Ball in Dhanapala’s court

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Pic courtesy AFP

By Arthur Wamanan

Media representatives and rights groups will come together tomorrow (May 5) to sign a public petition to legalize the Right to Information Bill. With World Press Freedom Day commemorated yesterday (May 03), media representatives and rights groups are once again abuzz calling for assurance of freedom of speech and ensure security to media personnel.

The media in Sri Lanka has faced its problems over the years and still continue to do so. The blocking of news website Colombo Telegraph in Sri Lanka has once again raised concerns over freedom of speech and right to information.
The site has been inaccessible through almost all major internet service providers including Dialog, Mobitel and Etisalat. However, the issue here is not with the service providers.

 The blocking of the website  created fresh debates on the public realm, not on the act of blocking the site, but on the position of one man, namely, Dr. Jayantha Dhanapala.
Arguments and counter arguments were raised online due to the position of Dr. Jayantha Dhanapala, who while campaigning for freedom of speech and democratic values, was also on the Director Board of Dialog Axiata PLC, which had blocked Colombo Telegraph.

Dr. Dhanapala is a member of the Board of Sponsors of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and a governing board member of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
He was Sri Lanka’s official candidate for the post of Secretary-General of the United Nations, before withdrawing from the race on September 29, 2006. Dhanapala’s position in Dialog has raised calls for him to step down, due to its conflicting nature.

Local civil society groups, while defending Dhanapala, have admitted that a conflicting image had been created on public platforms.
Director, Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA), Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu speaking to The Nation admitted that there had been a conflict created in the public domain on Dhanapala’s position in Dialog, and the campaigns he had carried out pertaining to democratic values.

“There is clearly a conflict created in the public realm. If I were him, I would choose between the two paths,” he said.
Several other prominent personalities including Radhika Coomaraswamy also had come to the defense of Dhanapala stating that it was unfair to call him to step down. “I have known Dhanapala for many years. I have always known him as a man of great integrity and independence. I would therefore give him the benefit of the doubt and would not want to make any judgment until I know all the facts and have heard his version of this whole dilemma,” she was quoted in Colombo Telegraph.

Speaking on the issue, former head of Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), J.C. Weliamuna came down hard on the prevalent restrictions on new media. He held the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) responsible for the blockage and alleged that the Government was influencing telecommunication service providers through illegal means. “The Colombo Telegraph was blocked without any laws being followed,” he said.
Both Saravanamuttu and Weliamuna defended Dhanapala’s position citing the Company Law of the country.

Commenting on Dhanapala’s position, Weliamuna stated that that the Company Law of Sri Lanka prevented Directors of a company to discuss their issues in public. “However, knowing the person, I’m sure that he would have taken necessary steps to deal with issue internally. But, I’m not in a position to state what measures he would have taken,” Weliamuna said.

Friday Forum

Prominent civil society group, Friday Forum, of which Dhanapala is a key member, also defended him stating that he would take appropriate action regarding the issue. Expressing his views to The Nation, Friday Forum Secretary Chandra Jayaratne said that the organization was confident that Dhanapala would deal with the issue in a manner that would resolve the matter in the best interest of all stake holders. “The people will know very soon who is right and who is wrong,” he said.

Meanwhile, media organizations while condemning the blockage of the site have said the decision to step down from the Director’s Board was up to Dhanapala. Speaking to The
Nation, President, Sri Lanka Journalists’ Trade Union, Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema stated that the decision whether to step down or remain in the Board has to be taken by Dhanapala.
She however said that Sri Lanka today needed a Right to Information (R2I) legislation.”Sri Lanka is the only country in South Asia that doesn’t have a R2I legislation,” she said.
Weliamuna speaking on the importance of R2I stated that new media played an important role in getting information across to the masses. “Therefore, such actions to block websites and information are a blow. New media has come to play an important part in providing information to people today,” he added.

Silence

Dhanapala has so far maintained silence regarding his position and calls to step down. The Nation emailed Dhanapala to get his side of the story, but he hadn’t responded when this edition went to press.


Websites blocked in Sri Lanka

Around 1500 websites have been blocked in Sri Lanka and most of them are pornographic sites. TRCSL Director General Anusha Palpita stated that as far as Sri Lanka was concerned, websites pertaining to pornography and media were the main categories that are being monitored most.

Speaking to The Nation, Palpita said websites were blocked based on several aspects. “We receive complaints from the public. Plus we do our own monitoring of websites and take steps to block them if and when we feel that the content is not conducive for the masses,” he said.

He further stated that the blockage was only temporary and those who wished to continue with the sites could do so after assuring that they would not contain contents unsuitable for the masses. “Most of these complaints are made to Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team (Coordination Centre (Sri Lanka CERT|CC). We also take action based on those complaints,” he added.

Speaking further, he pointed out that all media related websites needed to be registered with the Ministry of Mass Media and Information. “If they are registered, then there would be no need for the sites to be blocked since they have been approved by the Ministry,” he added.

(Published in The Nation on May 4, 2014)

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