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Politics and free speech

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President Maithripala Sirisena, during a speech on Thursday, had warned that he would limit social media if its impact is not controlled and blamed the medium for a variety of ills, including influencing the judiciary and mudslinging campaigns against himself. While few would argue that social media does not have its share of problems, moderate stakeholders would be wary of what policing would entail and what impact it would have on legitimate free speech. 

There are reasons for this trepidation as the Government could do much to hurt Sri Lanka’s democracy by posing limits that, on the surface, target hate speech but could effectively also control free speech. It would be easy for the Government to target legitimate free speech, including political criticism, by policing social media. Sri Lanka already has legislation which covers hate speech, which has not been implemented in an adequate and timely manner in the past. The advent of extremist groups in Sri Lanka is not a new phenomenon. It has been around for years, and a sizeable amount of hate speech actually takes place offline in public spaces. 

This is all the more challenging because some purveyors of hate speech are also prominent community members, such as Buddhist monks, and the Government has avoided taking the issue head on. In fact, the tiptoeing around this issue continues to sap the Government of credibility. Even if stronger legislation is passed, moderate and progressive members of society would be concerned about whether the law would be consistently and universally implemented. 

Fresh legislation to curb hate speech on social media cannot exist without a strong monitoring system, which will likely have to be powered by State departments and law enforcement. The danger here is that in such an event, unless an independent body is established, legitimate free speech would also be flagged along with hate speech. This is infringing on the legitimate rights of citizens, and their right to censure the Government that they voted into power.

Satire is a critical part of free speech and has a global history that runs back centuries of playing an important role in political commentary, at times able to tap into public sentiment and echo it better than mainstream media. It is for precisely this reason that satire, and even comedy, should be allowed to be a strong component of political freedom. In the modern context, these can be expressed through videos or memes and that cannot be stopped by a democratic Government. A democracy without free speech automatically becomes a deeply flawed one and unworthy of the public which voted this Government into power in 2015. 

Cracking down on hate speech is an important part of the ‘Yahapalanaya’ mandate, and there are many ways that this can be accomplished without harming free speech. However, a clear policy has to be made and Government bodies, including the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) and other stakeholders, have to understand that their responsibility is twofold: to stamp out hate speech, but maintain free speech. If Sri Lanka truly wants to become a mature democracy, then it has to stop seeing dissent as disloyalty.

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