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The Sri Lankan government is once again in the eye of the storm for the arrest of comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya over a joke about Buddhism using the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act, the very mechanism established to protect freedom of expression and information under the UN umbrella. A person who shared her content, social media activist Bruno Divakara, was also arrested. Both have been remanded until June 21.

Violations of the right to freedom of expression have primarily stemmed from the enforcement of two laws, the ICCPR Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which have been used together to victimise individuals, especially those belonging to minority communities. Several writers and artists have been targeted for allegedly insulting Buddhist sensitivities and were arrested or called in for questioning in relation to their work.

Many Tamil youth from the Northern, Eastern and Central Provinces have been arrested and detained on allegations of attempting to resurrect the LTTE under the ICCPR Act and the PTA for long periods of time for Facebook posts containing photographs and poems that memorialised their relatives who had died during the war. From 2018 to 2021, up to 60 Tamil youth were arrested, predominantly on charges under the ICCPR Act and held in custody for over a year and later released on bail. The police misused provisions of the ICCPR Act to obtain prohibition orders from Magistrate Courts to prevent Tamils in the North and East from memorialising and commemorating those who died in the civil war.

Muslims too have been targeted and arrested under the ICCPR Act for social media posts.

With regard to freedom of expression, the Committee on the Civil and Political Rights, which monitors the state parties’ compliance with their legal obligations under the ICCPR, highlighted numerous violations, including harassment, intimidation, surveillance, disappearances and killings of journalists and human rights activists with impunity; the misuse of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act to stifle freedom of expression; and the blocking of public access to social media platforms in the recent past.

In its Freedom in the World Report, Freedom House gives Sri Lanka a rating of 54 out of 100 and categorises it as partly free. The country was given a two of out of four rating for the question of whether people were free to practice and express their religious faith or non-belief in public and private. The same rating was given to assess whether there was a free and independent media.

The arrest of Nathasha Edirisooriya has drawn a flood of international and national criticism. Amnesty International pointed out that in the case of Ms. Edirisooriya, for speech to be illegal on the grounds of being hate speech it requires “a clear showing of intent to incite others to discriminate, be hostile towards or commit violence against the group in question.” Amnesty International noted that “When the expression fails to meet the test, even if it is shocking, offensive or disturbing, it should be protected by the state.”

The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) said the arrest of Natasha Edirisooriya was the latest move to stifle freedom of speech in the guise of protecting religious harmony. CPA noted that this is not the only arrest under the ICCPR Act in recent times where persons have reportedly been arrested for content that pose a threat to religious and national harmony, and national security. “Media reports are also circulating suggesting that those who attended the event where Ms. Edirisooriya performed are to be questioned, compounding concerns for the shrinking space for freedom of expression and having a chilling impact on dissent in Sri Lanka,” CPA said.

“Section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act makes it an offence for a person to propagate war or to advocate national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. Arrests made under the pretext of curbing speech that threatens ethnic and religious harmony, under this provision without any serious consideration of whether such speech amounts to incitement, discrimination, hostility or violence is violative of the fundamental right to freedom of speech guaranteed by Article 14 of the Constitution and Article 19 of the ICCPR itself,” it pointed out.

While human rights organisations and activists have condemned the government’s clampdown on freedom of expression in the guise of protecting religion, the public’s opinions on freedom of expression, religious freedom, tolerance of others and political participation can be gauged by the Sri Lanka Barometer (SLB), a national public perception survey on reconciliation conducted in 2021 by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in South Africa, the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), and the Strengthening Social Cohesion and Peace in Sri Lanka (SCOPE) programme. SCOPE is funded by the EU and the German government and implemented by GIZ.

Groundviews asked lead researcher of the SLB project, Natasha Palansuriya, about the some of the findings of the survey.

The survey showed that people perceived they had moderate freedom of association and expression. What factors have influenced this?

The survey was conducted in 2021 so we were still amidst the pandemic, and the restrictions placed on movement and large gatherings may be one reason for Sri Lankans to perceive a moderate level of freedom of association and expression. Related to this is that the restrictions placed on burials for example affected some religious communities more than others; this could also contribute to the moderate scores given by Sri Lankans when asked about freedom of association and expression.

How does the perception of freedom of expression differ in the North and East from the South?

There is very little variation in mean scores between provinces. The Northern Province has the lowest score at 6.1 points, but the Southern Province follows closely at 6.2 on a scale from 1 (no freedom of expression) to 10 (high freedom of expression). So the perceptions about freedom of expression are pretty similar across provinces. However, it seems noteworthy that scores dropped slightly in many provinces from 2020 to 2021 with the biggest decrease happening in the Uva (from 6.9 to 6.3) and Northern (6.7 to 6.1) provinces. It will be interesting to see how these scores develop in the 2023 SLB survey.

Was there variation according to ethnic groups?

Again the scores are pretty similar across ethnic groups too. In 2021, the scores were 6.4 for Sinhalese and 6.3 for Tamils and Muslims. Again, the scores dropped very slightly from 6.5 for Sinhalese and Tamils but remained the same for Muslims, so it will be interesting to see how developments from 2022 and 2023 affect the findings of the 2023 SLB survey.

Did the survey show that Sri Lankans identified more with their religious groups as opposed to being Sri Lankans first?

Actually, the opposite is true. The 2021 survey has shown that 20.6% of Sri Lankans identify as Sri Lankan first while only 7.6% identify with their religious group first. Identifying as Sri Lankan first is the second most recorded response. Only slightly more people in the country said that they identify with their own ethnic group first – 23.6%. Interestingly though, compared to the SLB findings from 2020, the proportion of people who identify with their religious group and ethnic group first dropped slightly (from 8% and 24.7% respectively), while the proportion of people who identify as Sri Lankan first increased significantly (from 14.6% in 2020 to 20.6% in 2021) .

Do people believe that they are discriminated against because of their religions?

When the SLB asked people about the main basis of discrimination in Sri Lanka in 2021, only 7.2% of the population mentioned religion. Again, there was a drop in the proportion of people thinking this in 2021 compared to 2020, where 10.4% of people mentioned religion as the main basis of discrimination. Most people identify economic status as the main basis for discrimination – 34.2% in 2021 and 28.1% in 2020.

Do they generally respect other religions?

The SLB asked people if they believe Sri Lankans have respect for others based on their mother tongue, their religious beliefs and their cultural practices to arrive at a composite indicator that measures respect for others. This indicator showed that respect for others based on their language, religion and cultural practices is perceived to be moderately high in Sri Lanka with a value of 6.8 on a scale from 1 (no respect for others) and 10 (high respect for others).

About 50 percent of people were motivated to become more politically active. Was there any indication this would translate into action against government repression?

Asking people whether the crisis motivated them to become more politically active seemed relevant for the SLB looking at the developments of 2022 and the fact that scores for active citizenship in the SLB surveys 2020 and 2021 had been very low (national mean score of 2.2 in 2020 and 1.9 in 2021 on a scale from 1 to 10). While the SLB data cannot answer the question of what political action would translate into, we have to keep in mind that political action can mean various things to people, from contacting a minister to contacting the media, to participating in legal and peaceful protests among other factors.

The survey recommends civic education as a way to create better participation in the democratic process. Are there other ways people thought they could fight for their rights?

This is not something we can directly answer from the SLB survey. Personally, as a researcher and a Sri Lankan, I think education is key because knowing our rights is the first step towards ensuring that they are respected, enforced and protected. The 2020 and 2021 SLB survey showed us that civic action was actually pretty low in Sri Lanka, which  could indicate that in general, many Sri Lankans stay quite passive in terms of their political engagement. Personally, I do think that this could have contributed to the crisis we are facing today. And the moment we had in 2022 when people were pouring out to the streets asking their elected officials to take action and accountability was unprecedented. And this sort of alertness and urgency should be consistent when collectively demanding our rights.