Cabinet this week approved making amendments to the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code to take legal action against fake news and hate speech, including statements that impact national security and incite violence between communities, with punishments of a fine up to Rs. 1 million and jail term of up to five years.
Legal experts have already pointed out there is sufficient capacity within the existing laws to hold perpetrators of hate speech responsible, but the bigger concern is why this is not being done consistently, and whether introducing new regulations could undermine existing freedoms of information and expression.
As pointed out by numerous parties in response to the Government’s attempts to introduce new hate speech legislation in 2015, Sri Lanka’s legal framework already contains a number of provisions addressing hate speech. However, the dearth of prosecutions or convictions under this framework, despite the recurrence of these incidences, is cause for concern. Inaction by successive Governments has also contributed to increasing fears among minorities, and strengthened a sense of impunity among perpetrators. The events of the past few years have made it apparent that neither the incidence of hate speech, nor the severity of its consequences, are likely to diminish without serious and tangible action being taken.
In light of this, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in one of its reports had pointed out there is a need to evaluate the existing Sri Lankan legal framework, which provides for the prosecution of hate speech to determine whether the lack of action on the issue is a product of legal gaps; practical issues of a lack of capacity or resources; or other, more complex reasons stemming from the current political context and dynamics.
Fake news and hate speech are global phenomena. There is simply no panacea, no easy fix or solution in the short term that will effectively curtail the emergence of hate speech. This is additionally problematic in a country where politicians are ill-versed in technology, and appear helpless in the face of well-organised online hate campaigns. Even when offenders are arrested, such as Mahason Balakaya leader Amith Weerasinghe, they are quickly released on bail denting public faith in the judicial process. There is little understanding as to why such hate speech spreaders are not held accountable.
The CPA recommends that if the trend around hate speech online is to be truly stemmed, media literacy programs aimed at students, teachers, parents, lecturers, government officials, civil society, media consumers and citizens, in Sinhala and Tamil, over mobile-friendly, freely accessible and engaging ways is required over the long-term. Though there is no easy or prescribed solution, progressive thinking, proactive content production, strategic interventions and careful monitoring can identity and neutralise the wider harm online hate speech can, if unchecked and allowed to grow, sustain and strengthen.
Civility, tolerance and respect for diversity are as hard to find online as they are in Sri Lanka’s mainstream party political framework, even post-war. The space for free debate, exchange of ideas, and critical reflection, cannot be lost to hatemongers. There are many voices online fighting to defend and keep the middle ground. The challenge is to strengthen their voices and widen their efforts, so that they are an effective counter to the fake news and hate speech. Ultimately, there is no technical solution to what is a socio-political problem.