Anurangi Singh and Maneshka Borham
Just hours after the arrest of United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian Ranjan Ramanayake last week by the Colombo South Crimes Division of the Police, social media platforms were flooded with recordings of private conversations which had allegedly taken place between the MP and a number of prominent and popular persons in the country.
The incident which has now earned the moniker ‘Ranjangate’ had the Police denying that they had released the contents of CDs taken to custody by them during the arrest of Ramanayake which purportedly contained these conversations that had been secretly recorded by the MP. Nevertheless, these sound clips were also widely featured on popular media outlets and continue to make rounds on social media platforms.
While some conversations included sensitive information others appeared to be purely personal in nature. However, the MP’s decision to record these conversations without the knowledge of the other party to the conversation has proved controversial. The alleged recorded conversations and their release publicly have not only revealed sensitive information but laid bare the private lives of public figures in the country. As a result subsequent to the incident, legal luminaries and activists have once again raised their concerns calling for a Right to Privacy Act to be implemented in the country.
According to Nalaka Gunawardene, an analyst of digital media, while the political fallout from Ramanayake’s records will be significant and its full extent remains to be seen it clearly highlights larger concerns that must be addressed. “It appears that Ranjan recorded private phone conversations without the informed consent of those involved. If that is indeed the case, it is unethical,” he said noting that in practice it is also unlawful in some countries but not yet in Sri Lanka which lacks privacy protection laws. This leaves those aggrieved unable to take legal action against the errant MP.
Attorney at Law Thishya Weragoda said, in Sri Lanka Privacy is governed by Roman-Dutch Law (RDL) and not by Statute. “So, a person has a right to his body and his sphere. There are aspects that are regulated, and certain aspects that are less spoken about. For example, telephone conversations or slandering” he said. According to Weragoda a person has a right to his body, sphere and what he says or does. “If you are having a conversation with me and if it’s intended to be a conversation with me nobody else can be privy to that conversation,” he added.
As for voice recordings, Weragoda says it is at a different level as it’s a technical advancement. “It’s from a different era. So we need to have statutory law which is not provided for. So one needs to study what is privileged under Roman-Dutch law and apply it here” he said.
According to Gunawardene the technology for capturing, storing and sharing photos, audio and video has become commonplace and easy to use. “It opens up the potential for both benefits and misuses. Investigative journalists and whistleblowers working in the public interest can secure incriminating evidence with digital tools” he said.
“But even in such pursuits, does the end justify the means? Who decides where public interest ends and the right to privacy begins? Just as important, do our law enforcement agencies have skills to authenticate leaked recordings, as it matters in view of the next digital wave almost upon us which is ‘deepfakes’ — where audio or video can be fabricated to fool most people” he added.
Also commenting on this, Press Complaints Commission President Sukumar Rockwood told the Sunday Observer that under normal journalistic norms if a journalist asks a person a question and he is being recorded then the person recording should rightfully ask the other person if it is alright to record that person.
“To record someone without their consent is not professional,” he said adding that the person who is being recorded has the option of opting out of saying something that he doesn’t want on record.
“The editor’s Code talks about privacy that applies to print media and lays down how recordings should be handled,” he said.
However, despite being years behind, in late 2019, a draft of a Data Protection Act was formulated. At the time it was pointed out how international incidents such as Cambridge Analytica and the Aadhar card fraud made data protection vital. The proposed law even suggested the establishment of a data protection authority. However, it has made little headway since.
According to Gunawardene, Ranjan’s recording is not the first time in Sri Lanka that private phone conversations have been secretly captured and later releas
ed online – nor would it be the last. “For now, until lawmakers provide us with some degree of privacy protection, our politicians, public officials, and celebrities will all need to be more cautious and discreet” he said.
Gunawardene also noted that even the finest laws cannot ensure total protection of privacy or confidentiality in today’s networked society.
“As I pointed out in December 2010 in the wake of WikiLeaks ‘Cablegate’ controversy (when over 250,000) confidential US diplomatic cables were leaked, we are living in a world where few if any, secrets can be guarded for long,” he said.