Sri Lanka: National Press Council Calls Lesbianism "An Act of Sadism"

On June 2, the Press Council of Sri Lanka dismissed a complaint by the Executive Director of Companions on a Journey, an organization supporting the rights and dignity of lesbian and gay people in Sri Lanka, over the publication of an article which had vilified lesbians, urged restrictions on freedoms of expression and assembly, and called on police to unleash convicted rapists at a proposed national lesbian conference. In its decision, the Press Council explicitly endorsed the view that convicted rapists might "give zest and relish to misguided wretches to understand the reality of natural sexual pleasure." The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, in solidarity with Companions on a Journey and in cooperation with the Asian Human Rights Commission, calls for letters of protest against a decision by which a government body proclaimed lesbianism "an act of gross indecency," "unnatural," and "an act of sadism and salacious."

POINTS TO BE MADE IN LETTERS

Letters of protest should make the following points:

  • International human rights standards place obligations on governments not only to respect human rights (i.e., not to violate them directly), but also to protect them (i.e., to prevent others from violating rights) as well as to fulfill them (to take appropriate measures to ensure them). The Sri Lanka Press Council, a governmental body, has given its imprimatur to violence, and its stamp of approval to permanent second-class citizenship for gays as well as lesbians. It has endorsed denying to those "whose conduct is against the accepted social norms" the basic rights to life and security of person. In so doing, it has failed to work toward creating an environment in which respect for the fundamental dignity and worth of all people is promoted.
  • Sri Lanka, in maintaining Section 365a of the Penal Code, which criminalizes same-sex sexual activity, contravenes international human rights standards. In 1994, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, under the Optional Protocol of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, to which Sri Lanka is a signatory) had occasion to consider sections 122 and 123 of the Tasmanian Criminal Code, provisions similar to Section 365a of the Sri Lanka Penal Code. The Committee found that the provision violated articles 2 and 17 of the ICCPR which, respectively, prohibit discrimination and protect privacy. It also rejected Tasmania's claim that "moral issues are exclusively a domestic concern" and interpreted "sex" in the non-discrimination clause of the ICCPR as including "sexual orientation". The Press Council's pronouncement of lesbianism as "an act of sadism and salacious" is explicitly grounded in Section 365a. The persistence of that law constitutes a violation of international human rights standards.

ADDRESSES

Please send letters to:

The Chairman
Sri Lankan Press Council
No. 346 Nawala Rd.
Rajagiriga
SRI LANKA
FAX: +94 1 876 511 or +94 1 876 512
SALUTATION: Dear Sir/Madam
Her Excellency President Chandrika B. Kumaratunga
Presidential Residence
Colombo 3
SRI LANKA
FAX: +94 1 333 703
SALUTATION: Your Excellency
Minister of Post Telecommunications and Media
7th, 17th,18th, Level
West Tower,
World Trade center,
Echelon Square
Colombo 01
SRI LANKA
FAX: +94 1 440 488
PHONE: +94 1 329567
SALUTATION: Honorable Minister

Please send copies of letters to:

Companions on a Journey
e-mail: coj@sri.lanka.net or ilgaasia@sri.lanka.net
and to: IGLHRC
FAX: +1 415 255 8662
e-mail: daniel@iglhrc.org

BACKGROUND

On August 24, 1999, Sherman de Rose, the Executive Director of Companions on a Journey, filed a letter of complaint to the Sri Lanka Press Council. The Council, established by the Press Council Act of 1973, is one of numerous official bodies regulating the press in Sri Lanka. De Rose's complaint concerned a letter to the editor which had been published in the newspaper "The Island" on August 20, 1999, under the headline "Lesbian Conference in Colombo?" Claiming that the letter, by one P. Alles, advocated the criminal offense of rape and that the publication of such an incitement represented a breach of media ethics, the complaint urged the Council to take legal action against Upali Newspapers Ltd., the publishers of "The Island".

The published material in question had expressed outrage over a planned national lesbian conference. The author wrote: "Lesbianism in my opinion is a despicable, irreligious, and profane crime against nature and all things undefileds [sic] and hence, perpetrators of this cursed cult do not deserve to be tolerated in decent society. They are social outcasts and should be treated as such." The author not only appeals to leaders of religious denominations in Sri Lanka to form a united front to prevent this "macabre meeting" from taking place, but also calls on police to "chip in with some very effective assistance." The letter concludes: "If by some chance those lesbians manage to get the necessary approval to hold their convocation, I request the police authorities to round up a sizeable collection of convicted rapists and let them loose among the jubilant but jaded jezebels when their assembly is in full swing, so that those wanton and misguided wretches may get a taste of the zest and relish of the real thing."

In its judgment released on June 2, 2000, the Press Council ruled that the content of the letter was proper and unobjectionable and that its publication did not constitute a breach of Section 9 of the Press Council Act as well as the national Code of Ethics for Journalists, which states: "A journalist shall not present any matter in a manner designed to promote sadism, violence, or salacity."

Invoking Section 365A of the Penal Code, criminalizing homosexual activity, the ruling stated: "Homosexualism is an offence in our law. Lesbianism is at least an act of gross indecency and unnatural. . . One of the readers of 'The Island' namely, P. Alles states in his article to the editor that he feels it appropriate that [sic] for the police to get the convicted rapist to give zest and relish to misguided wretches to understand the reality of natural sexual pleasure than the unnatural sexual activities. Probably the writer and publisher may have considered that lesbianism is much more vulnerable and improper than publishing an article condemning the proposed lesbians' conference." The ruling appears to endorse the idea that "misguided and erratic women should be corrected and allowed to understand the true sense and reality of life." Although the writer was apparently "emotionally involved in the criticism and used a harsh language," the ruling held, "it does not mean the writer or publisher were influenced by any malice or grudge towards any particular individual except for their hate and unpleasantness about the spreading social menace in our society."

The Press Council furthermore denied the right of Mr. de Rose, himself an organizer of the lesbian conference, to present a complaint: "Any complainant, who seeks legal remedies from any court or quasi-judicial body, must come before it in clean hands. Just because the complaint encourage and promote abnormal or immoral acts in society, he cannot argue that the media has no right to criticize such activities." The Council also added that because the complainant was a male, he "cannot be subject to any such rape as referred to in the article and, therefore, he cannot be a victim of such violence."

The ruling concluded that the article's publication did not violate the Code of Ethics for Journalists because "Lesbianism itself is an act of sadism and salacious. Publication of any opinion against such activities is not tantamount to promoting sadism or salacity, but any publication, which supports such conduct is an obvious promotion of all such violence, sadism, and salacity. Therefore, the complainant is the one who is eager to promote sadism and salicity, not the respondents. " The Press Council not only dismissed the complaint, but fined Sherman de Rose 2,100 rupees (approximately 40 USD).

The question of civil or criminal penalties for hate speech--as well as the definition of the point at which the advocacy of violence can properly be criminalized as incitement--is a complex one. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission does not endorse censorship. As the international advocacy organization Article 19 has observed (most recently in its 1998 report "Fifty Years On: Censorship, conflict and media reform in Sri Lanka") state attitudes toward the media in Sri Lanka have historically been severely repressive, and the need for reforming stringent media controls has been a powerful political issue. IGLHRC supports the principles of the "Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility," a document endorsed by journalists and others at an April 1998 conference organized by (among others) the Sri Lanka Working Journalists' Association, the Free Media Movement, the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka and the Newspaper Association of Sri Lanka. That document outlines elements of a state policy which would respect all person's rights to freedom of expression. At the same time, the Declaration calls on the media to "refrain from sexism and racism in the reporting of news as well as in comment"; to "strive to represent social reality in all its diversity, complexity and plurality, and . . . strive to be sensitive to the aspirations of women, minorities and disadvantaged groups"; and to exercise "due care and sensitivity" with "material which depicts or relates to" brutality or violence. The treatment of lesbians' rights and communities in "The Island" falls far short of all these standards.

Still more serious, however, are the actions of the Sri Lanka Press Council, a government body which has now officially identified lesbianism with "sadism" and endorsed a call for forcible and brutal action to help "misguided wretches to understand the reality of natural sexual pleasure." The Council's decision illustrates, reinforces, and indeed deepens the stigma to which lesbian as well as gay identity is subjected by Sri Lanka's so-called "sodomy law." It expresses in vivid and virulent terms the legal shadow under which gays and lesbians lie in Sri Lanka, affirming that few rights remain to anyone (in the decision's words) "whose conduct is against the accepted social norms."

IGLHRC is gravely concerned that the attention brought about by this case has, in fact, incited harassment, intimidation, and threats toward members of the lesbian and gay community in Colombo. In the wake of both the publication of the original editorial and the recent ruling, Companions on a Journey--and Mr. de Rose in particular--has reported multiple incidents of threatening phone calls as well as direct verbal abuse by visitors to its office. At various points Companions on a Journey has found itself forced to curtail its staff and activities until the threat of violence subsides.