Sri Lanka turning key free speech legislation inside out to serve majority 

Sunera Bandara examines Sri Lanka's manipulation of free speech laws to curb dissent and target minorities, revealing a concerning shift where legal protections are twisted to serve state and majoritarian interests.

This story written by Sunera Bandara, freelance journalist is produced in the framework of our GTTO project in Sri Lanka.

The law protecting freedom of speech in Sri Lanka is being abused, according to groups that warn minorities are being targeted. 

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act No.56 of 2007 (The ICCPR Act) is a form of human rights legislation in Sri Lanka based on the historic human rights legislation the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (The ICCPR).  

However, there is a problem with this legislation. The issue is not the law itself, but the abuse of the law and its chilling arbitrary implementation for things that would be deemed a normal expression of freedom of speech in any given democratic society. 

Protecting minorities from hateful and abusive language 

After the Second World War, member states of the United Nations made commitments to prohibit hate speech that incited violence against people based on their identity. This was the basis for the ICCPR, implemented to protect minorities from hateful and abusive language, as well as attacks and active discrimination. The ICCPR Act is an offshoot of this and intended to give effect to the ICCPR legislation by and large. 

However, it has primarily been used against those expressing their dissent against Sinhala Buddhism, the majority religion of Sri Lanka.  It must be noted that freedom of expression explicitly allows for such criticism.   

The UN has stated that Article 20 of the ICCPR should be read in conjunction with Article 19, which speaks about freedom of expression: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”  

This would mean, as per the ICCPR General Comment No.11 as quoted by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) “it is observed that the prohibition required by Article 20 is compatible with the Freedom of Expression guaranteed under Article 19”.  

This is in contradiction to Sri Lanka’s reality. Those who express themselves are often not found on the side of the ICCPR Act, but against it.  

The misuse of the ICCPR act 

The Sri Lankan state apparatus does not always allow for such effective implementation – often gatekeeping the law as a tool to suppress any artistic, academic, or even arbitrary criticism of the state’s religion. To show how truly absurd it gets – M.R Mazahima, a Muslim woman, was arrested in 2019 under the act for wearing clothes that apparently depicted the Dharmachakra, a Buddhist symbol considered sacred. She was later released when it was found out that the symbol in question was simply a ship’s wheel. 

The Sri Lankan government’s human rights record has been criticised and it has been highlighted that minorities have often been targeted. Instead of upholding the obligations ensured by the Covenant, it is claimed bad faith, cynical, and slapdash application of what should be human rights law is used to further entrench state interests. Organisations such as Amnesty International have complained about the misuse of the act, highlighting cases including that of Shaktika Sathkumara.. 

Section 3(1) which gives effect to Section 20 of the ICCPR states “No person shall propagate war or advocate national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”. This would normally be in cases of hate crimes and incitement to discrimination aimed at targeted groups, which is assessed through the Rabat Plan of Action, a six-part threshold test on what constitutes incitement. The Sri Lankan government often defines incitement as an affront to Sinhala Buddhism which would normally entail blasphemy, though the ICCPR is not an anti-blasphemy framework. 

Free thinking and the freedom to criticise 

Take the case of Shaktika Sathkumara, an award-winning novelist of Sri Lankan origin, arrested under an arbitrary claim made via the ICCPR act that his short story ‘Ardha’ depicting sexual abuse by Buddhist clergy was offensive to Buddhism. His story had appeared on Facebook, and a group of Buddhist monks apparently insulted by the story complained to the police. He was arrested in 2019 under section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act for apparently propagating hatred and incitement of racial or religious violence. Amnesty International called Shaktika a ‘prisoner of conscience’.  

Sri Lankan news stories headlined the controversial implementation of the ICCPR Act against Natasha Edirisooriya, a Sri Lankan comedienne, who was arrested for a joke she had apparently made about the Buddha. Aside from her arrest, she received death threats, rape threats, and other forms of online abuse in reaction to the joke. None of these threats were said to be investigated.  

A tool to protect the state’s interests 

The ICCPR act of Sri Lanka has been used as a tool of the state to protect Sinhala Buddhism and thus the state’s interests – since Sri Lanka is formed constitutionally around the Sinhala Buddhist religion as its majoritarian focus.  

Ahmed Shaheed, a former UN Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Religion or Belief, stated in 2020 that Sri Lanka’s ICCPR Act had become “a repressive tool curtailing freedom of thought or opinion, conscience and religion or belief”.

The ICCPR Act has been not only misused through the arbitrary arrests of several people. It has literally sledgehammered the prospect of a true and succinct human rights dialogue in the country envisioning a democratic appeal to rights such as freedom of expression.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Media Diversity Institute. Any question or comment should be addressed to