For those who have lived long enough to remember events of nearly fifty years ago April 1974 was when the government of then Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike sealed Independent Newspapers Limited, popularly known as the ‘Davasa’ group. It was around the same time that a young man, then in his mid-twenties, was appointed as the United National Party (UNP)’s organiser for the Biyagama electorate by his uncle. That young man was Ranil Wickremesinghe and his uncle was J.R. Jayewardene.


Sirima Bandaranaike’s government, already unpopular because the country was in the throes of an economic squeeze, wanted to silence the ‘Davasa’ group which was becoming increasing critical of the government. Hence the decision seal its newspapers. It was a strategy that backfired spectacularly.


Jayewardene cashed in on the decision to seal the newspapers. He and his able lieutenant Ranasinghe Premadasa staged a series of ‘sathygraha’s or peaceful protests against the decision. They burnt newspapers published by the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, better known as the Lake House group and asked the public to boycott their publications.


The rest, as they say, is history. A few years later in July 1977, Jayewardene led the UNP to a landslide victory with a five-sixth majority in Parliament, a record that has not been matched since in Sri Lanka. Entering Parliament by virtue of this was Ranil Wickremesinghe.


Fast forward to today and history appears to be repeating itself in a rather ironic way. Wickremesinghe is the unelected President of the country, chosen by Parliament when Gotabaya Rajapaksa abdicated his presidential throne. His government is proposing an Online Safety Bill that aims to silence critics of the government by criminalising statements made on social media platforms that are deemed offensive.


Wickremesinghe takes pride in what he perceives as his roots in the media. While it is a fact that his father Esmond once managed Lake House and was even awarded the ‘Golden Pen’ award for Press freedom, the junior Wickremesinghe’s credentials in the media are more suspect.


To give credit where it is due, Wickremesinghe was an ardent advocate for press freedom in the long years he spent in the opposition, most of it as Leader of the Opposition. He was also instrumental in scrapping the laws of criminal defamation that existed in Sri Lanka.


Nevertheless, now in power, he sings a different tune. He also either fails to recognise- or perhaps doesn’t want to acknowledge- that the media of today is not what it was nearly fifty years ago when Sirima Bandaranaike silenced the ‘Davasa’ group with the stroke of a pen.


Today’s media is one relentless news cycle which never rests. Communication is instant thanks to the interne. The exponential growth of social media means that every citizen with a smart phone is a potential journalist. Trying to regulate this is to try and achieve the impossible.


How Wickremesinghe plans to do so is comical indeed. He is the appointing authority for a Commission which will regulate social media. This commission will determine which statements are false, offensive or cause distress. In light of recent events where comedians and social commentators were detained on the pretext of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights for expressing their opinion, there is considerable concern about how this Commission will act on its mandate.


There is every chance that Wickremesinghe will appoint his lackeys to this Commission who could then go about stifling any opinion that would be critical of him. This would come in the form of exposing critics to harassment and intimidation by subjecting them to arrests, detention and court proceedings. This is not a flight of fancy because this has already occurred under Wickremesinghe’s dispensation to many a social media activist.


Even Wickremesinghe must know that he cannot possibly charge, arrest, detain or imprison hundreds of citizens commenting on social media. It would never be practical to implement this Bill for everyone who violates its clauses because there will be so many of them. So, the strategy will be to identify a few, isolate them by selecting them for punitive action hoping that this will act as a deterrent to others who would slowly fall silent, being fearful of the consequences.


What Wickremesinghe and his advisors don’t appear to have worked out is how to silence those who operate their social media activities from overseas who will be well out of reach of the long arm of the Sri Lankan law. In this day and age of advanced technology, it doesn’t take a genius in information technology to work out how to Sri Lankans can provide content that would be published from overseas. If this proposed Online safety Bill sees the light of day in its present form, this is sure to occur. The government would be left with a lot of egg on its collective face, not to mention the flood of adverse publicity it would generate for Wickremesinghe and his cronies.


On the other hand Wickremesinghe, the keen student of history that he claims to be, doesn’t seem to have learnt the most important lesson from Ms. Bandaranaike’s decision to seal the ‘Davasa’ group in 1974: that stifling dissent only encourages it to grow in a rather malignant manner, just as it did in 1977 for J.R. Jayewardene. Only that, nearly fifty years later, such dissent will be that much harder to contain because of the proliferation of social media.


It is a fact that the ‘aragalaya’ that led to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster was fuelled to a large extent by social media. Messages for the July 09 putsch that called on the masses to descend on Colombo and gather at Galle Face were channelled to a large extent through social media platforms. It is a repetition of this that Wickremesinghe fears.


Perhaps it is a fear born out of Wickremesinghe’s own vulnerability, realising that he is unelected and hasn’t performed as the President in a manner that is expected from him. Yet, to go all out to ban social media to ensure his survival in office suggests that he fears for his political future- and fear makes leaders undertake desperate measures. That is what this Bill certainly is. By doing so, Wickremesinghe may well be signing off on his own political destruction just as Sirima Bandaranaike did in 1974.