FRESH legislation proposed on hate speech has had the unexpected result of dragging two completely different factions to unite against a common piece of regulation.
The main Opposition Tamil National Alliance, human rights activists and media personalities have strongly opposed proposed amendments to the Penal Code draft legislation that was tabled in Parliament by Justice Minister Wijayadasa Rajapaksha last Friday and called on the Government to withdraw the bill immediately. This is on the grounds the new legislation includes a provision of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) that was used to jail journalist J. S. Tissainayagam and arrest politician Azath Salley.
An unexpected ally is the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) that has opposed the legislation on the grounds it rolls back freedom of speech given under the 10th Amendment to the Constitution. Those in the opposite camp have repeatedly insisted Sri Lanka has adequate laws to punish hate speech but it is not done so because of alleged political patronage enjoyed by the BBS under the previous government. However, if fresh legislation is implemented it would not apply retrospectively giving a lifeline to extremist organisations.
One aspect that needs to be considered is hate speech disseminated online, which was widespread in Sri Lanka recently and can have deep social consequences. One can argue that the role of social networking sites in such incidents is minimal, and that communal conflicts are usually ignited by rumours or small altercations that spill over into deadly riots. However, in a region where illiteracy is still widespread and internet usage is small but rapidly increasing, there is a growing need for education about how images and data can be manipulated to incite hatred, and a need to build public knowledge in understanding the malicious intent behind these actions.
Such a process of knowledge building, in conjunction with the spread of information technology in South Asia, can go a long way to manage sensitivity to inflammatory material and increase adherence to peaceful means of showing disapproval, not only to communal propaganda but also to political and social commentaries.
In addition to instigating violence, inflammatory material on social media can have a more subtle and arguably more sinister impact in South Asian countries by influencing the perceptions that youth in the region hold towards certain religious communities.
According to a study by the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives on anti-Muslim Facebook pages in Sri Lanka, “… the exponential increase of social media users in the country, the complex dynamics of the growth and spread of hate, hurt and harm in online fora contributes to both a deep and early radicalisation of opinion particularly amongst a younger demographic that at its most benign, is fertile ground for subsequent exploitation by extremist actors …”
The study mentions that these pages on Facebook often bypass automated and human-controlled hate speech monitoring systems due to their content being in Sinhalese, and draw the attention of mostly 18 to 24-year-olds, as evidenced by the demographic data of account holders who ‘like’ or ‘share’ the contents of these pages. These findings are relevant beyond Sri Lanka alone and can be related to many other Facebook pages that incite hatred and division between communities in South Asian countries.
A policy response to incidents where Facebook is used to instigate violence may require interventions both in terms of education about technological manipulation and ‘offline’ initiatives aimed at addressing misperceptions about minority communities. These ‘offline’ initiatives can include interfaith dialogue, workshops on conflict prevention and reconciliation that specifically target the youth, and the promotion of anti-communal messages by public figures who have a strong influence on the younger generation of South Asia. Sri Lanka has to move to measures beyond the law if it is genuine about fostering tolerance.