Hate speech

The Virus That Institutionalised Discrimination- Part 2

Neville Uditha Weerasinghe

The incidents that took place in the town of Beruwala in the Kalutara district of the Western Province, which is considered to be a Muslim-dominated area, made it very clear that the community was being heavily discriminated in light of the COVID-19 situation. A statement made by a Health Official towards two Muslim patients who had COVID-19 accusing them of depriving “Sri Lankans from enjoying the Sinhala and Tamil New Year” was later telecast on Derana in a segment titled “The People of Beruwela”.

Fake news stating that the Muslim communities were breaking police curfew to perform their religious rites spread across mainstream and social media. The arrests of several Muslims on charges of participating in religious activities in Horopathana,also gave ample opportunity to Sinhala Buddhist extremists to spread accusations against the Muslims (IMADR).

On March 27, 2020, the Sri Lanka Muslim Council (SLMC) sent a letter to ‘Ada Derana News’ protesting against ‘Ada Derana’ publishing false news reports that a prayer was held at the Jamiul Alfar Jumma Masjid Mosque in Colombo on Friday, March 20, 2020. The Hiru News Channel used footage of a Muslim prayer session in 2019 and telecasted in March 2020, spreading false news and accusing Muslims of performing a major religious session during the COVID-19 situation (FACT Crescendo, 2020 March). Although two individuals were arrested for sharing this video in social media, it is still not clear if any action was taken against the News Channel for telecasting the fake news in the first place. Meanwhile, Buddhist groups were able to hold collective Pirith recitals in various parts of Sri Lanka without any opposition (Ground views 03, 2020).

On April 12, 2020, a group of organizations, including the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka and the Colombo District Federation of Mosques, lodged a complaint with the IGP regarding the rapid circulation of hate speech and audio content targeting Muslims on social media. The complainants stated that one such audio clip was that of the Chairperson of the Government Medical Officers’ Association. 

The government’s decision on March 31, 2020 to cremate the victims who died of COVID-19 a mandatory act is not seen as a public health measure, but as an expression of the institutionalization of discrimination against minority Muslims. 

In a joint letter dated April 8, 2020, a group of UN special envoys drew the government’s attention condemning the discrimination of ethnic or religious groups during the spread of COVID-19. The government was also asked to provide information on measures to combat the rise of hate speech against Muslims and other minorities (LKA 2/2020).

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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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