Civil society concerned over Bill on hate speech

rally against hateLocal civil society, have in a joint statement, expressed deep concerns about two Bills tabled in Parliament on Friday ostensibly to criminalize hate speech and the instigation of communal violence and disharmony.

One such Bill tabled is an amendment to the Penal Code which creates the new offence of “causing of or instigating acts of violence, hostility…” which is punishable by imprisonment of up to two years. The other Bill is an amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedure which provides for the conditions necessary for the initiation of prosecutions for the new offence.

The new offence under the Penal Code is particularly problematic as it is a near verbatim reproduction of the language in Section 2(1) (h) of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

The joint statement notes that the offence as provided in the Bill is overbroad and general, and is not a permissible restriction in relation to freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution and by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Furthermore, the proposed amendment, if enacted, could lead to a culture of self-censorship and perpetuate a chilling effect on free speech.

The joint statement by the civil society organisations note that Section 2(1) (h) of the PTA was previously used to convict journalist J. S. Tissainayagam for his journalistic writing on alleged war crimes committed by government forces.

“This overbroad restriction on the freedom of expression is in no way defensible in a democratic society. Furthermore there is a very real possibility, as demonstrated by past experience, that this legislation could be used by governments to target political opponents and those critical of government policy. We the undersigned question the need for new legislation criminalizing hate speech as there are several legal provisions that already do so. The provisions contained in the ICCPR Act 56 of 2007 already criminalize advocating national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. The Penal Code provides for the offences of uttering words with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings (Section 291A), deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class, by insulting its religion or religious beliefs (Section 291B). Furthermore the Penal Code provides for several other offences to protect places of religious worship and religious assembly. These offences themselves already constitute a serious curtailment of the freedom of expression.
Given the multiplicity of laws in Sri Lanka dealing with what could broadly be termed hate speech, our view is that attacks targeting particular religious groups were not the result of a lack of legislation to prosecute perpetrators, but of the selective implementation of existing laws and the lack of political will to implement those laws against the purveyors of violent hate. In these circumstances, we urge the government to fulfil its obligations to its citizens and its international obligations by withdrawing the bills forthwith and commit anew to fostering a political culture conducive to the exercise of citizens’ free speech rights,” the joint statement added.

Among those who have signed the joint statement are the Association of War Affected Women (AWAW), the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), Families of the Disappeared (FoD), INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre, Law and Society Trust (LST), National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO), National Peace Council (NPC), Right to Life (R2L) Human Rights Centre, Rights Now Collective for Democracy and Women’s Action Network (WAN).

The joint statement has also been signed by 93 activists and individuals. (Colombo Gazette)