The island nation of Sri Lanka is still recovering from a severe economic crisis and political upheaval. However, a new public debate has embroiled the country about the issue of free expression, the limits of humour, and the laws that govern discourse on religion.
On May 27, 2023, Sri Lankan stand-up comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya was arrested at the Bandaranaike International Airport under the ICPPR Act while trying to leave the country. According to reports, she was arrested based on allegations that she had made derogatory remarks about Lord Buddha and Buddhist Girl's Schools during her performance in a comedy show titled ‘Modabhimanaya’, which took place at a college auditorium in Colombo in April.
Over the past few weeks, the YouTube video containing the show went viral and triggered a wave of outrage among some viewers. Hate speech, harsh criticism of Edirisooriya online, and death and rape threats followed. Later, Edirisooriya released a public video offering her sincerest apologies for her previous remarks.
Nevertheless, formal complaints were lodged against her with the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) by the Commissioner of Buddhist Affairs and some conservative Buddhist monks, and the video was removed from social media platforms. On May 28, 2023, she was remanded until June 7, and CID launched an investigation aimed at identifying witnesses who were present during the specific show in question and recording their statements.
Subsequently, on Wednesday, May 31, 2023, Bruno Divakara, the creator of the YouTube channel ‘SL-VLOG’ who was suspected of being involved with the Colombo Comedy Central YouTube channel, was also arrested by the Computer Crimes Investigation Division for his alleged role in broadcasting Edirisooriya's video. Divakara was charged with organizing gatherings, as well as aiding and abetting Nathasha Edirisooriya's performance. Similar to Edirisooriya, he was remanded until June 7.
Twitter user Chameera Dedduwage from Colombo tweeted:
Owner of #slvlogs arrested by the CID, following over 08 hours of questioning over remarks made by Nathasha Edirisooriya: Police Media Spokesperson #lka. We're properly on our way to becoming an #Iran. @UNHumanRights @HRCSriLanka you seeing this? pic.twitter.com/PqKyuu5oFP
— Chameera Dedduwage (@cjdrox) May 31, 2023
On May 29, 2023, Buddhist Ven. Saddharathana Thero was arrested for making hateful comments targeting Nathasha Edirisooriya and Pastor Jerome Fernando, who is also under CID investigation for allegedly making comments disrespectful to religions. Sri Lanka's religious affairs Minister Vidura Wickramanayaka mentioned that the existing laws are insufficient to address such instances of hate speech and that Sri Lanka is planning a new law to stop the increasing instances of blasphemy and online hatred.
Sri Lankans at home and abroad condemned the arrests as attempts to curb free speech.
Historian Shamara Wettimuny commented:
Deeply disappointing that Buddhism, which has had ‘2500 years of unbroken history’ associated with the island of Lanka, withstood centuries of colonialism, can be so threatened by a joke. #NathashaEdirisooriya
— Shamara Wettimuny (@shamara4w) May 28, 2023
Human rights activist Ruki Fernando tweeted:
Standup comedian & human rights defender #NathashaEdirisooriya’s comments on Suddhodhana has not advocated or propagated religious hatred (art 3.1 of ICCPR Act) & doesn’t have elements that constitute incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence (art 3.2 of ICCPR Act). pic.twitter.com/QWJVzBehsQ
— Ruki Fernando (@rukitweets) May 28, 2023
The rights-based organisation the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) said in a statement:
#lka comedian Natasha Edirisooriya was arrested under the #ICCPR Act for allegedly violating the country’s freedom of speech laws. The #CPA has expressed concern, arguing that the arrest is part of a broader pattern of #harassment and #intimidation of dissenting voices. pic.twitter.com/iTUd03EG2E
— CPA Sri Lanka (@CPASL) May 31, 2023
Poet Imaad Majeed tweeted:
Natasha Edirisooriya was making social commentary on the way parents unreasonably compare their children to those of others. All she has “incited” is laughter over something many of us have experienced. Her arrest is embematic of how the state harms its own people.
— இமாத் மஜீத் | @firstname.lastname@example.org (@imaadmajeed) May 29, 2023
Dinushika Dissanayake tweeted:
The recent arrest of a stand up comedian in Sri Lanka for sharing opinions on a religious belief had me thinking deeply about freedom of opinion. Sri lanka is on a slippery slope. https://t.co/JpBpB1uvdI
— Dr. Dinushika Dissanayake (@dinushikad1) May 28, 2023
Jurist, author and editor Sanjaya Wilson Jayasekera made this appeal:
Release Stand-Up comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya Now!
Defend Freedom of art and expression!
Defeat retrogressive religious extremism!
Her impugened satiric performance has nothing incriminating under any law. #FreeNathasha #ReleaseNathasha #lka pic.twitter.com/6CbnpHq5RY
— Sanjaya Wilson Jayasekera (@sanjayawilson) May 28, 2023
Using the ICCPR Act to stifle freedom of speech
Nathasha Edirisooriya and Bruno Divakara both were arrested under the provisions of the controversial International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act. They are not the first persons to be arrested under the act.
Musician Rehab Mahamoor tweeted:
Art 18 of the ICCPR upholds the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion but protections against incitement of religious hatred have been misused on a number of occasions in Sri Lanka, including the arrest of Natasha Edirisooriya. https://t.co/3WK4dx0zMC
— Rehab Mahamoor (@MahamoorR) May 28, 2023
In a statement, Amnesty International expressed concern that the ICCPR Act has been repetitively used to restrict freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. Civicus Monitor, a research tool tracking the state of civil society and civic freedoms across 196 countries, has documented several instances of the ICCPR Act being misused in Sri Lanka, particularly to target minority communities.
An editorial at the Daily FT titled ‘No right to laugh’ states:
The application of hate speech laws has been selective in Sri Lanka showing a clear pattern of the law being used to intimidate minority communities while the majority Sinhala Buddhists, their clergy and political leaders incite violence and spread hate speech with impunity.