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Unraveling the impact of hatred and hate speech

Hatred is a potent emotion that fuels various forms of violence in our society. This sentiment has perpetuated violence against humanity from ancient times to the present day. Currently, distrust among people worldwide is escalating, with conflicts often rooted in nationality and religion. It is evident that social media and other communication platforms are increasingly utilized to propagate extremist ideologies. Consequently, animosity is fostered among different groups, exacerbating conflicts between them. These practices contribute to tensions among various groups in our society. Moreover, they are frequently employed to vilify certain individuals as anti-humanitarian, thereby instilling fear in others. It is evident that hate speech lies at the core of these issues.

Hate speech encompasses any communication that expresses hatred or incites violence against a person or group, targeting individuals based on factors such as their religion, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, external appearance, or any other defining characteristic. If someone’s comments lead to physical or mental harm inflicted upon another person, it can indeed be classified as hate speech. This harm can encompass not only physical injuries but also psychological distress, trauma, or any other form of suffering inflicted as a result of hateful rhetoric or actions.

If one’s statements discriminate against others based on racial or religious diversity that constitutes hate speech. Similarly, if someone’s words or statements promote terrorism or violent extremism, they can also be considered hate speech.

Hate speech originates from negative preconceptions (false beliefs that have been accepted as truth for some time), prejudiced sentiments, and the ensuing intolerance. It serves as a means to shape people’s behavior and beliefs, resulting in hardships for communities worldwide. Moreover, hate speech has been associated with the proliferation of violent extremism, exacerbating the issue further. Hate speech can also escalate from online insults to physical and psychological abuse, and even to incidents of suicide and self-harm. Throughout history, hate speech has demonstrated itself as a menace to democratic values, the safeguarding of human rights, social cohesion, and global peace. It is clear that the foundational principles upholding humanity are steadily eroding.

The delicate balance between hate speech and freedom of expression deserves careful consideration. Every individual, irrespective of their status, should indeed have the right to express their beliefs and opinions. Simultaneously, every individual also has the right to be shielded from hate speech, without regard to any personal attribute. It’s evident that freedom of expression comes hand in hand with social responsibility, and therefore, this freedom may necessitate certain limitations.

One of the most egregious instances of the consequences of hate speech in Sri Lanka occurred during the anti-Muslim attack in Kandy in 2018. This violence primarily targeted the Muslim community in the country, exacerbated by the significant influence of social media platforms such as Facebook. In February 2018, a disturbing incident unfolded in the Theldeniya area, where a group of Muslim youths was apprehended on suspicion of assaulting and fatally injuring an individual who later succumbed to his injuries at the Kandy Teaching Hospital. This tragic event marked the inception of a wave of hate speech targeting Muslims. The ensuing violence, fueled by incendiary rhetoric like “Kill all Muslims,” resulted in extensive damage to Muslim-owned property. Furthermore, following the Easter bomb attack in 2019 and amidst the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous instances of hate speech targeting Muslims surfaced. Notably, Dr. Shafi Shihabdeen, a surgeon at Kurunegala Teaching Hospital, emerged as one of the most adversely affected individuals in Sri Lanka due to the proliferation of hate speech.

Are there legal measures in Sri Lanka to address individuals who propagate hateful statements, contributing to societal conflict and violence? The answer is ‘yes.’ Below is a summary of the relevant legal provisions. Section 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act No. 56 of 2007 (ICCPR Act) is regarded as a crucial legal tool for addressing hate speech. It’s noteworthy that Sri Lanka has formulated Article 3 of its Act closely resembling Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Accordingly, Section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act delineates hate speech as a criminal offense: “No person shall incite national, racial, or religious hatred to promote war or to incite hostility or acts of violence.”

Besides, individuals committing crimes outlined in subsection (1) of Section 3(2) are defined as follows:

(a) Attempts to perpetrate,

(b) Providing assistance to execute,

(c) Making threats to do so.

Although the police possess the authority to apprehend those engaged in hate speech-related crimes without a warrant, they lack the jurisdiction to grant bail (bail may only be authorized by a High Court under exceptional circumstances).

Under Section 3 of the Act, the penalties that can be imposed on individuals who commit such crimes are as follows: The High Court is empowered to sentence a convicted individual to imprisonment with hard labor for a term not exceeding 10 years.

How can an individual truly distinguish themselves from others in society? What actions can one take to stand out in this regard? Hate speech has inflicted significant harm on countless lives. However, if the majority of society comes together, it becomes feasible to eradicate this issue. The imperative to foster tolerance and mutual respect must persist, highlighting the crucial significance of interfaith and intercultural dialogue.

To foster a peaceful world, enhancing our comprehension of others’ histories, traditions, and spiritual values is essential. The entire society must unite against hate speech. Parents and teachers bear the responsibility of educating younger generations on respectfully expressing their beliefs and personal opinions. Furthermore, media organizations should operate in a manner that advocates for peace and harmony in their reporting.

It is imperative for governments to enact relevant legislation to prohibit hate speech and address hate crimes, especially those occurring on the Internet. On an individual level, it’s crucial to recognize that everyone bears the responsibility to report instances of hate speech when encountered. Additionally, offering support to those affected by hate speech is essential. It’s noteworthy that social media platforms can serve as a medium for disseminating hate speech, underscoring the need for vigilance in addressing this issue. However, social media can also serve as a platform to combat hate speech.


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