r Ministry of Defence - Sri Lanka

Fact versus Fiction - looking through a threat lens

May 06, 2022

By Rukshana Rizwie

We live in a world of emerging new terrain where violent conflict, information technology and global media intersect and where the old distinction between battle front and home front, between soldier and civilian, between war and entertainment and between public and private are being redrawn.

“We have witnessed how the threat posed by the LTTE’s ruthless terrorism has morphed from its physical state to online machination. Unless and until threats such as these are addressed on cyberspace through an appropriate and timely manner, we risk it resulting in physical manifestation,” said Attorney-at-law Shamir Zavahir, the head of Reforms and coordinating secretary at the Minister’s Bureau of the Ministry of Justice.

Shamir was addressing a virtual gathering of members from the tri-forces, media, legal fraternity, policy makers, researchers and academia during a webinar hosted by the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), the premier think tank on national security established under the Ministry of Defence. Under the theme of ‘Threat lens” last week’s session focused on the need for media discipline in Sri Lanka and implications of online falsehood and manipulations.

He cautioned the audience from using the term ‘fake news’ in the broad sense, where all such misinformation and disinformation is classified as being the same when the danger lurks in the inherent differences between each. “Many of these terms are used interchangeably, when the differences lie in the intent to cause harm.”

He noted that in the recent past, disinformation campaigns in Sri Lanka have been misrepresentation of actual events or incidents which makes it harder for the ordinary digital consumer to differentiate. Such deep fakes he said garners traction and momentum since the sources of these information are shrouded in secrecy and online smoke screens such as troll factories.

Sri Lanka has seen an exponential increase in social media users. According to Dataportal, one of the most comprehensive lists of open data portals in the world, there are 8.20 million social media users in Sri Lanka as of January 2022 accounting for nearly 40 percent of the country’s total population.

“In the past, we came across narratives that was put out by private or state institutions who had direct control over the media. Social media has made it possible for an individual to publish directly onto a global domain with no cost to a huge audience within a short span of time. This is where the security threat lies.” He said. “The threat exists on online forums sans moderators, radicalization, unfiltered and unchecked ideologies, mass surveillance et.al.”

Hate speech vs free speech

The expression ‘hate speech’ encompasses a daunting range of utterances and yet has no agreed definition in international law. International law protects freedom of expression, under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), but the right is subject to limitations. In practice this means that where measures less onerous than restricting freedom of expression exist, they should be used. Furthermore, any statement must be examined to determine if there is an overriding public interest in its expression.

Citizens he said have the right to say of which such right is guaranteed by the constitution. However, such freedom of expression versus the incitement to hatred is differentiated by parameters such as the likelihood of harm, extent of dissemination, content of speech, intent to incite an audience against a certain group, status of the speaker as well as the social and political context. He noted that the world’s largest democracies take fundamentally different approaches. Some have legislated laws that clamp down on social media use or exercise control. Yet questions remain on who the gatekeep or decider of such information will be. Similarly, there is room for subjectivity even if a law is created with protective intent.

Shamir called for a two-pronged approach because the issues cannot be merely resolved through legislation. He urged for awareness on digital rights, data protection, online disinformation, and mainstreaming digital rights at national levels. Looking through a ‘threat lens’ he said that there is a need for a strong command narrative which anchors a shared story for both internal and external audience based on fact and not conjecture.

The event was chaired by Major General K.R.P Rowel (Retd) RWP, VSV, USP ndc psc, USACGSC, who is also the Director General for the Center for Defence Research and Development.

Speaking at the forum, he said that national security of the country emanates from instruments of national power, diplomacy, military, economy, information, and intelligence. Elaborating further he said that information remains an important instrument of national power and a strategic resource critical to national security. Referring to media discipline, he said there is a need to capacitate journalists to move from hearsay and innuendo to peace journalism, and fact-checking adding that even if the state brings about various rules and regulations, it will not be futile if individuals do not comply.

The moderator of the event was Rear Admiral Dimuthu Gunawardane RWP**, RSP, VSV, USP, nswc, psc, hdmc Director (Communications and Publications) of INSS. The moderator initiated the discussion by providing an overview on the importance of media discipline and implications on national security. He reiterated the need for this this timely discussion.


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