Government withdraws amendment to Penal Code

In a joint statement issued yesterday civil society expressed deep concerns about two Bills tabled in Parliament last Friday ostensibly to criminalize hate speech and the instigation of communal violence and disharmony. Apart from the Parliamentarians who raised concerns over the Penal Code, local civil society were also not happy. The joint statement notes that the offence as provided in the Bill is overbroad and general, and is not a permissible restriction in relation to freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution and by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Furthermore, the proposed amendment, if enacted, could lead to a culture of self-censorship and perpetuate a chilling effect on free speech.The joint statement by the civil society organisations note that Section 2(1) (h) of the PTA was previously used to convict journalist J. S. Tissainayagam for his journalistic writing on alleged war crimes committed by government forces. (Colombo Gazette) The Government has decided to withdraw the proposed amendment to the Penal Code following opposition raised by some Parliamentarians.Leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella told Parliament today that as a result of the concerns raised the Government will not take the Bill for discussion next month. One such Bill tabled is an amendment to the Penal Code which creates the new offence of “causing of or instigating acts of violence, hostility…” which is punishable by imprisonment of up to two years. The other Bill is an amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedure which provides for the conditions necessary for the initiation of prosecutions for the new offence.The new offence under the Penal Code is particularly problematic as it is a near verbatim reproduction of the language in Section 2(1) (h) of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

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