Freedom of expression and fundamental rights

Freedom of Expression and “800”

Nayanathara Jayathilaka

‘800’ is probably a groundbreaking movie in Tamil cinema, the cinema and cricket fans of the world are eagerly awaiting its release.  The movie is the story of Sri Lanka’s brilliant spinner MuttiahMuralitharan.

Two years ago, the news was out that popular actor Vijey Sethupathi would act the role of Muralitharan. However, a movie poster carrying his image was released on October 13, 2020, and the controversy started with it. The protest campaign started on Twitter with the hashtag#ShameOnVijeySethupathi and fast spread to other social media. The campaign shows the power of hate speech, and it affected the movie industry and this particular movie also.

The hashtag was initially used to protest Vijey Sethupathi acting the role of MuttiahMuralitharan. Gradually, the campaign spread to topics such as politics, racism and post-war violence. Many of the tweets and other social media posts included hate speech.

The major reason for the VijeySethupathi’s fans to protest him was his attire containing the flag of Sri Lanka. However, the campaign moved beyond the film, and the above shown two tweets indicate that the communications moved to totally unrelated issues. Another characteristic of this campaign is that most of the persons who engaged in it were the residents of Tamil Nadu. The Sri Lankans remained mostly silent about this issue.

The above tweet shows how the movie poster was deformed to protest. Various persons who engaged in the social media campaign demanded Vijey Sethupathi to withdraw from the character. Eventually, MuttiahMuralitharan wrote a letter to Sethupathi asking him to quit the character because it might affect his career in future. The hate campaign went to such extremes that certain persons threatened to rape Sethupathi’s daughter.

We usually ignore the hate campaigns and fake news that is spread via social media. There is no system for evaluating the damage caused by such hate speech and fake news.

Many photos are shared online via numerous platforms like Facebook pages, and some of them are doctored targeting sexually abusing or insulting persons. The victims suffer immensely because of these contents. Social media platforms have numerous ways of reporting abuse, but the perpetrators shift their fake identities and continue through other profiles making it rather tricky to curb the hate campaigns. The main reason for the inability to curb this menace is the social media users considering them normal and merely ignoring them.

After the Easter Sunday attack last year, a gush of hate speech and fake news invaded social media. We can explore many similar situations concerning the COVID-19 crisis as well. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right of humans. But if someone or some groups use it in this way knowingly or unknowingly to harm people, that highlights the need for further strengthening the laws. Strict laws will save movies like 800 from such destiny.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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