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Hate speech, divisive language on the rise on Sri Lanka’s campaign trail: CMEV

POLLING IN THE NEW NORMAL – Officials work at a mock polling station testing the polling procedure under the Health Department guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID 19/CMEV handout

ECONOMYNEXT – Despite a relatively low incidence at the start, hate speech and divisive language can already be heard on the campaign trail and will likely intensify closer to Sri Lanka’s upcoming parliamentary polls, the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) said.

In a report issued today, the CMEV said that hate speech and divisive language is most prevalent at the ground level, with racist, sexist remarks made at small scale election rallies and canvassing campaigns as well as on social media platforms.

Among the notable incidents of hate speech recorded by CMEV for its report is a remark by Ape Jana Bala Pakshaya candidate Athuraliye Rathana Thero on July 8 warning Muslims that if they make any more trouble Buddhists will have to take up “non-violent arms” against them.

On July 20, according to CMEV, a number of Buddhist monks, including some Ape Jana Bala Pakshaya candidates, said that if Tamils demanded devolution then “a river of blood will flow in the North and East” in reaction to the release of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) manifesto.

ITAK supporters meanwhile, have criticised Thamil Makkal Viduthai Pulikal (TMVP) Batticaloa candidate M Mangala Shanker. Most of the posts fabricated per previous work, tarnishing her image on the basis of working for NGOs and being a woman, CMEV said in its report.

“Widely circulated comments posted on a Facebook group about ITAK Batticaloa candidate Shanakiyan Rajaputhiran insulting him and saying his mother was a Sinhala servant for M L A M Hizbullah and Tamils should not vote for him because of this.”

On July 10, Kurunegala former MP and SLPP candidate Johnston Fernando speaking to Muslim voters made a veiled threat that he counts all ballot boxes in the district after voting so there should be as many votes from Muslims for the SLPP as applause for him at event. This was in the context him further saying that “If we attack we will attack without fear. And if you come into conflict with us we won’t let it go,” which implies a threat of violence, CMEV said.

CMEV observed that at the start of the campaign period, hate speech was at relatively low levels compared to previous elections. The election violence monitor believes this is partly because national political leaders were not making any hate speech or divisive remarks and there were no significant ethnic issues being debated during the campaign. The COVID-19 pandemic situation, which has already delayed the election and has imposed restrictions on parties and candidates for campaigning, also prevented political discourse from being infused with hate speech to a very high level, the report said.

Despite this, however, hate speech and divisive language is likely to spike towards the end of the campaign. CMEV noted thats such language has been increasing as the campaign heads to its final stretch. “This is because of the perception that the race is tightening, and also as competition between candidates within particular electoral districts becomes more intense,” CMEV said.

Hate speech and divisive language on public social media platforms is also lower than during last year’s presidential election. According to CMEV, this may be as a result of social media platforms more proactively removing hate speech and misinformation that is reported and monitored by them.

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“Since the last election, a number of social media platforms including Facebook have made certain changes to their policies and procedures on hate speech. A number of the large Facebook groups that were spreading hate speech content also no longer seem to be operative,” the report said, noting however that its assessment does not apply to content shared on gossip sites or privately online (for instance, posts sent on WhatsApp and Viber).

Research by CMEV has shown that hate speech and divisive language is most prevalent at the ground level, which is less likely to get reported.

“Most instances of hate speech can be observed at door-to-door canvassing and small pocket meetings partly because there is less scrutiny at that level. The campaigning restrictions due to COVID-19 which have greatly reduced large public rallies, printed materials and posters has also intensified ground-level campaigning targeted at small numbers of voters, which provides a certain insulation to any hate speech that is being expressed,” the report said.

The targets of such language are deterred from reporting incidents, CMEV said, especially where it concerns intra-party conflicts because such targets would be more fearful of recrimination from the party establishment. Hate speech at the ground level also mirrors what happens at the national level.

“When high level and well-known politicians and public figures use hate speech or divisive language, and it is consequently covered extensively on the media, this leads to an uptick in hate speech on online platforms (usually people sharing and endorsing such comments, and defending them against detractors) and on the ground level (as it can be seen as giving ‘permission’ for such rhetoric to be used locally). The uptick in hate speech and divisive language suggested above will particularly be driven if and when such high-level figures make divisive remarks in the campaign’s final stretches.”

Hate speech and divisive language is expressed by certain political parties’ candidates more than others, the election violence monitor said.

“Ape Jana Bala Pakshaya (OPPP) candidates and certain SLPP candidates openly campaign on ideas that the Sinhalese people are threatened by rising numbers of Muslims; that they need to be “controlled”; and that Tamils are attempting to divide the country. Some OPPP candidates are openly campaigning saying they are looking for “Sinhala votes only”. Akhila Ilankai Tamil Mahasabha (AITM) and Thamil Makkal Viduthai Pulikal (TMVP) contesting in Digamadulla and Batticaloa districts express anti-Muslim sentiment that Muslim voters have ‘stolen’ Tamil land to win votes from Tamil voters,” it added.

According to CMEV, hate speech and divisive language between minority communities is common in areas with existing conflicts between various communities regarding land, resource distribution or government services, electoral contests play out as zero-sum games for claiming (or reclaiming) land, resources and services, and hate speech and divisive language is inevitably deployed in such contexts.

“This can especially be observed in particular areas in the Batticaloa, Digamadulla, Vanni and Puttalam districts between Tamil and Muslim communities. Certain Sinhala politicians also use such conflicts to further pit minority communities against each other,” it said.

Competition for preferential votes drives hate speech against female candidates, CMEV said.

“Numerous female candidates across the country are facing intense scrutiny from within and outside their parties. The work backgrounds and past associations of such candidates are leveraged in misogynist ways to denigrate them, insinuate that they have bad character and suggest that they are unsuitable for office. Party leaders and establishment figures rarely condemn or reproach such allegations, which leads to them continuing unabated,” it added. (Colombo/Jul28/2020)

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