Image credit: INSSSL
by Natasha Fernando 9 November 2018
In the month of March 2018, Sri Lanka declared a state of emergency following riots and communal violence in the Central Province. An incident in Ampara, of North Eastern Province followed a claim by an individual to have come across ‘infertility pills’ in a plate of food at a Muslim eatery. This sparked tensions among Sinhalese and Muslims. The riots at Digana commenced following a road accident and the death of a Sinhalese lorry driver who had a violent drift with some Muslims. Although arrests were made to reprimand the perpetrators violence ensued calling for curfew and a state of emergency. Homes and businesses of Muslims were vandalized by mobs (predominantly Sinhalese) who were dubbed by mainstream media as ‘Sinhala extremists’.
The events were serious enough for Prime Minister to call for an independent investigation and for a social media blockage. The incident garnered heavy attention from foreign media. If we were to ask ourselves what caused the riots in Digana even months after it happened; many fingers would point to fake news proliferation on social media that incited violence, opportunistic politics, radicalization or violent extremism. These are the buzz words that go around in forums, discussions, expert commentaries etc. While all these ‘buzz words’ could be inextricably linked together; it is time that our subjective convictions of the event and state responses be analyzed against the local and international rhetoric on ‘social media regulation’
Internationally, there is a consensus among statists to regulate fake news and social media due to their detrimental effects including: libel against individuals, pornography, incitement to violence, harmful speech etc. The German ‘Facebook law’ and Malaysia’s Fake News Act are among examples. Liberals argue that these laws, although prima facie is designed to protect citizens, can lead to negative consequences on ‘freedom of speech’. To a functioning and vibrant democracy ‘freedom of speech’ is considered a vital component. However in a hierarchy of rights ‘freedom of speech’ is considered a qualified right arguably justifying government intervention in the event of abuse. Discerning an objective categorization of what type of speech is harmful or which news is “fake”, is a strenuous task. Human rights activists argue that regulatory laws on media has to be viewed with caution, as they can be used to discourage and deter criticism against governments.
Sri Lanka’s Digana incident is used as a textbook example for online radicalization justifying the global narrative of social media regulation. This and domestic pressures to regulate social media has become a mainstream ‘political’ issue in Sri Lanka. Liberals further argue that radicalization and riots could be organized with or without social media. If a regulatory law is put in place, this could lead to adverse and intractable impacts in the case of a future regime change. The Malaysian Fake News Act is an example: President Mahathir Mohammed in his election pledges vowed to remove the law but the first enforcement took place after he took office. The arrest of the Danish national on grounds of promoting fake news against the Malaysian police, is suggestive of how the law can be imposed in arbitrary cases to crush down criticism against a government.
Considering the global trends, Sri Lanka as a country must devise strategies to allow criticism against the government; which is the only way to respond to the constituencies to preserve democracy. In the case of harmful speech, expert consultation on which specified instances for the state to intervene has to be made clear. Or better yet, for social media to regulate itself; while governments may pressurize such platforms towards self-regulation. Any form of online media is not required for mobs/rebels or any dissident group to mobilize themselves. Previous ethnic and communal violence during the 1980s occurred without the involvement of social media. Hence, a more wise strategy is to allow freedom of expression instead of withdrawing the platform on which they are made. A resilient solution on the other hand is to improve state intelligence services to prevent violence as that of Digana.