A group of citizens from diverse ethnicities and professions has proposed a ‘Harmony Act’ to prevent issues and promote harmony in Sri Lanka largely because it lacks awareness about hate speech
- The paper will be released to the public in Sinhalese, Tamil and English within the month
- Sivagananathan further stressed that people were becoming increasingly desensitized
- It allows the Home Affairs Minister to issue a restraining order against anyone who breaches the MRHA
A ‘White Paper’ on national harmony, which envisions a Sri Lanka without discrimination and conflict, was presented to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya on July 8 by a group of citizens from diverse ethnicities and professions. Entitled ‘The Harmony Act for Religious, Racial, Ethnic and Civil Harmony in Sri Lanka’, the document identifies racial, religious and ethnic tensions, and proposes a ‘Harmony Act’ to prevent issues and promote harmony for the betterment of the country. The paper will be released to the public in Sinhalese, Tamil and English within the month.
The Harmony Act’s Creation
Priya Sivagananathan, who helped draft the paper, observed a rise in racial tensions following the Easter Sunday bombings. She elaborated on how the proposed Harmony Act (HA) would help address this phenomenon, especially since there was no legislation on harmony in Sri Lanka. “Racial disharmony was brewing, and now as a result of the Easter bombings it has erupted,” she said. “I feel that there is no legislation that currently specifically deals with this subject of harmony. What this Act intends to do is to have a Harmony Council to serve as an independent body which would attend to any complaints of disharmony in the country. This council will make recommendations to the Prime Minister (PM) and he will issue restraining orders against these people,” she added.
According to Sivagananathan the restraining orders would prevent an individual from making speeches or publications designed to incite hatred, fear and distrust between ethnicities, races etc. She further stressed that people were becoming increasingly desensitized. “It’s becoming normal to spread hatred. People are beginning to believe what is said”.
While Singapore’s MRHA only applies to religious matters, the proposed HA would cover religious, racial, ethnic and civil disputes. The group is open to further amendments to the White Paper to prevent discrimination against any group in the final Act
The paper is modelled on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act of Singapore (MRHA) implemented by Singapore in 1992. The MRHA prevents individuals and religious leaders from spreading hatred or supporting a political cause, carrying out subversive actions or spreading discontent against the Government under the guise of religious activity. It allows the Home Affairs Minister to issue a restraining order against anyone who breaches the MRHA, and prevents them from preaching. In 2018, Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong said the MRHA had made an important contribution to religious harmony.
The MRHA and the Sedition Act (SA), which criminalizes the spreading of hostility between races and classes, have been used numerous times to maintain peace and prevent the distribution of contentious material or preachings. For example, in 2009, a Christian couple was imprisoned for eight weeks for distributing tracts containing inflammatory and offensive remarks against Muslims and Islam.
However, critics of the MRHA and the SA claim that Singaporeans have become overly sensitive and quick to anger. They cite cases such as the arrest of vlogger Amos Yee, who criticised Christianity and Singapore’s first PM, Lee Kuan Yew, and the death threats that a British expatriate received when he mocked local public transport commuters in 2014. Critics claim that the Acts lead to less tolerance and acceptance of different opinions, as well as an overreaction to online comments.
Regarding whether the HA could lead to similar issues in Sri Lanka, Sivagananathan said that freedom of speech was important and the law should not be misused. “We need to strike a balance between controlling speech and freedom of speech. But in today’s context, what we strongly felt was that we cannot tolerate intolerance. As with any law you need to ensure that it is not going to be abused. We don’t want to curtail people’s right to express their opinion. Just don’t express it in a hateful way that is likely to cause violence,” she said. Another member of the council, Aman Ashraff added that though this was not a perfect solution, it was a step in the right direction. “There is never going to be an ideal solution that is acceptable to people from all sections of society. What we can endeavour is to use this as a starting point,” he said, adding that the group had hoped the paper would evolve. Attorney-at-Law Milani Salpitikorala, who presented the paper to the Speaker, added: “There is a lot more work to be done that we will have to come up with as we go along”.
Experts have voiced concern about Sri Lanka lacking such an Act, especially considering widespread hate speech following the Easter Sunday bombings. Additionally, they have said that had Sri Lanka enacted a similar Act to Singapore’s, it would not have been possible for NTJ ringleader Mohamed Zahran Hashmi to preach hate speech and radicalisation. Ashraff agreed with this, adding that while racial disharmony would have been understandable during the Civil War, it was unacceptable during a time of peace. “You could argue that when the war was continuing it was fair for individuals to harbour this sort of resentment. But in an era where the war has ended the same degree of misgivings, mistrust and vast amount of misinformation being spread, leads to unsurmountable degrees of hate. We feel that the Government of Sri Lanka should take the lead in implementing the HA,” he said, emphasising that its swift implementation could prevent the growth of hatred and radicalism.
While Singapore’s MRHA only applies to religious matters, the proposed HA would cover religious, racial, ethnic and civil disputes. The group is open to further amendments to the White Paper to prevent discrimination against any group in the final Act. “We believe unlawful persecution, irrespective of whether it’s on the grounds of religious belief, sexual preference, is wrong,” emphasised Ashraff. Sivagananathan added that a lack of awareness about hate speech was prevalent, and they hoped that the proposed HA would change that.
To ensure a lack of bias in the Council itself, the group who drafted the White Paper recommended that the Council should have members of various ethnicities and areas of expertise
The tactics of Sri Lankan authorities’ to combat hate crime have been controversial. For example, CCTV footage revealed that during the 2018 anti-Muslim riots, police personnel were involved in aiding the rioters. Critics cited incidents such as this when doubting the effectiveness and potential for lack of bias of such an Act. However, Ashraff rebuffed these claims and emphasised that the unbiased Harmony Council would make all key decisions, “The Harmony Council will make recommendations to the PM. It is not as though the PM can arbitrarily take a decision,” he said.
He further said that the Council would have the power to act independently in association with departments such as the Attorney General’s office, should the PM refuse to take a decision. “We felt that we had to be mindful of the future. One can’t predict who will sit in these positions of power. Would they be idealistic leaders or would they be a complete disappointment?” he asked.
To ensure a lack of bias in the Council itself, the group who drafted the White Paper recommended that the Council should have members of various ethnicities and areas of expertise. “We were very particular as to who would sit on this Council,” Sivagananathan noted. “We hope that these individuals would be as independent and unbiased and non-political as possible.” The members would be appointed by the Constitutional Council.
The group was adamant that no individual be exempt from this law, with Ashraff adding: “If you are a Sri Lankan, you come under the protection of the Constitution.” Individuals in positions of power would not have any “immunity”, according to Sivagananathan and Salpitikorala
Ashraff explained how the group intended the HA be enforced in coordination with other Government agencies. “The Council is not going to be a monitoring body that is going to oversee the general society. You have the police for that,” he said. He explained that any person would be able to file a report at a police station and if that person felt that no action was being taken, he or she could submit a report directly to the Council. The Council and the police would then work jointly to ensure that adequate action be taken. “Everything has been made to follow a procedure and adhere to the Constitution and the law.” He stressed that at no stage of the process would an individual have “arbitrary” power.
Salpitikorala made it clear that an offense under the HA was a restraining order. “There is no arrest here,” she stressed. The Act is very similar to Singapore’s MRHA in this respect. However, more serious offences in Singapore such as violence-inciting hate speech would lead to an individual being prosecuted under the SA. Very serious offences in Sri Lanka that incite discrimination or violence can be prosecuted under the ICCPR Act, however. The group has no plans to suggest the implementation of a SA of Sri Lanka, but feel that legislation to regulate the media is essential. “What we have suggested here is in adherence to the Penal Code. We have not made any specific suggestions. We want existing laws to give strength to this,” Ashraff said. “But we have also made it very clear that this needs to be accompanied by a media ethics and regulatory law.” Ashraff stressed that such a law would be necessary to combat hateful speech and the manipulation of speech.