Perhaps it is only a politician of Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe’s or his close comrade Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ‘pedigree’ who has the chutzpah (read, audacity) to talk about Sri Lanka’s ‘pappadum’ political culture, hot on the heels of the Government passing one of the country’s most atrocious laws, the Online Safety Bill.
Tasteful ‘pappadums’ and tasteless politicians?
To clarify the matter to those less acquainted with flavourful local idioms, President Ranil Wickremesinghe was addressing officers of the Customs Department in marking International Customs Day this week when he tossed in that remark. Sri Lanka’s political landscape, he said, often resembles the fleeting nature of a ‘pappadum, put in the pan, enjoyed when it blooms and is soon forgotten until the next day when another one is consumed.’
Per se that observation might not have provoked any adverse reaction except an aside that it is not only the country’s political culture but also, her politicians that are empty and hollow inside. That is precisely the reason why greedy and corrupt political leadership during past decades led to Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy, catapulted her people into penury and led to thousands fleeing her shores, let us not forget.
And in actual fact, I may be doing the famous ‘pappadum’ an injustice when likening this to our infamous politicians from the top down. Certainly the ‘pappadum’ is a transient thing. But at least for some miniscule seconds, it is infinitely enjoyable in tantalizing the taste buds. That is something that can never be said about the motley lot of our past and current politicians. But I digress.
Bad Bills are also like ‘pappadum’
The President’s characterization was that public reactions against intensely unpopular Bills presented by the Government were as fleeting and as unsubstantial as ‘pappadum.’ Moreover, the examples that he chose to illustrate this point were remarkably problematic. The Online Safety Bill, he said, led to public outcry that this will be the end of freedom of expression. ‘But now that it is law, these protests have all been forgotten’ he added.
Similarly, he referred to the looming Anti-Terrorism Bill as overcoming similar odds, going on to jest that people will say that ‘this will be the end of rights, we will all be put into jail but soon, that will also be forgotten.’ This was succeeded by an odd reference that he made to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Bill sparking ‘fears about the demise of free education.’ One is hard pressed to make the link between the TRC Bill and ‘free education’ as the President propounded.
Leaving that puzzling point aside however, the cynical context in which the remarks were made invokes profound distaste, to put the matter politely. Opposition to the Online Safety and Anti-Terrorism drafts, for example, had not been evidenced by troublemakers motivated by hidden agendas, agitating on political platforms.
Rather, the voices urging caution spanned the gamut of Sri Lanka’s professional and oversight bodies whose task is to advise the Government when law making infringes constitutional liberties.
Comprehensive overhaul of the Online Safety Bill
Such bodies included the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and other industry bodies. Their concerns were based on solid and substantial grounds including the sweeping nature of offences in the Bill. Global tech giants meanwhile forming the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) forcefully made the point that while fair regulation will increase online safety, the Bill does exactly the opposite.
Repeatedly writing to the Public Security Minister, the AIC warned that the Bill’s clauses define ‘prohibited statements’ too broadly, potentially criminalizes legitimate online discourse and raises fears about ‘censorship and suppression of dissent.’
The Minister’s mirthful response on the floor of the House was that these concerns will be met by future amendments to the Bill. So how has Sri Lanka’s law- making degenerated to this sorry state?
Present a bad Bill to the public, go before the Supreme Court and grovel pleading that amendments will be made, pass the Bill in indecent haste saying that all errors will be corrected by ‘future amendments’ on the specious ground that revisions before the House will fundamentally alter the character of the Bill? In fact, the Supreme Court’s Determination on the Online Safety Bill, makes the flawed nature of its clauses quite clear.
Deviating from the purposes of the Bill
Though conservative in many respects given the gravity of the issues in question, the Bench could not help but advert to terms such as ‘break the public peace’ (vide Clause 20) as being ‘intrinsically fluid and devoid of specific parameters’ (see Special Determination, 66/2023). Such terms, the Court warned, ‘becomes amorphous, open to varied interpretations contingent upon individual or situational perspectives.’
Examining Clause 21, it was pointed out that, ‘the introduction of a specific Clause that criminalizes the communication of false statements with intent to cause mutiny and offences against the State is overly expansive and not strictly aligned with the intended scope of the proposed law.’ It was added that, ‘by focusing on broader national security concerns and public order, the Clause deviates from the principal objective of protecting Internet users and the public from online harm and providing for their safety.’
So is the President dismissing all these concerns as empty and shallow, one must ask in all seriousness? Or will he, like a loyal political lieutenant of his United National Party astoundingly claim that ‘well, we will take in those amendments that we want and not take in the rest? That was a response to the worthy being questioned about whether the Supreme Court’s revisions have been properly incorporated in the Bill given loud protests by the Opposition to the contrary.
Job of the Government is not done
And we return to the aside that, it is our politicians along with the toxic lying and cheating culture that they have fashioned that is like ‘pappadum’ albeit lacking its deliciousness, not peoples’ protests as the President must be forthrightly reminded. But several key questions arise thereto, not the least of which is that the President would be better advised to direct that his Ministers send Bills proposed by them to the Attorney General to test their constitutionality before they are gazetted.
The Online Safety Bill was one glaring example where this review had not taken place with the result that the Bill was chock full of errors. The state law office had to bend over backwards in the Court, listing out the many amendments that the Government promised to make. This has become a troubling pattern with Bills put forward by this Government. And following from this, who gives the certificate of conformity to a Bill to attest that the document contains the amendments prescribed by the Court?
This is the only constitutional basis on which a draft law can avoid being passed by a special majority as required under Article 84 (2) of the Constitution. Applying that question to the Bill in hand, what remedy is there if the Attorney General and the Speaker both default on their responsibilities in that regard and the Online Safety Bill is certified by the Speaker?
The crumbling of the political ‘pappadum’
Will the Court then take the view that it is ‘functus officio’ (divested of jurisdiction) in line with similar precedent where the Sri Lankan legislature had intentionally disregarded judicial rulings, leaving the Court helpless? If so, are citizens supposed to turn to the Gods above for justice?
Let us see how the Government’s ‘pappadum’ will politically crumble in the coming months.