Tighter laws sought to curb online harassment of women politicians

Prof. Rathnajeevan Hoole-Manjula Gajanayake-Mangaleshwari Shankar

Former member of the Election Commission of Sri Lanka Professor Rathnajeevan Hoole said that alleging female candidates of sexual misconduct on social media was a terrible thing and that no woman would come forward and contest an election if tighter laws are not introduced to prevent maligning on social media.

Prof. Hoole recounted that during the 2020 Parliamentary election, female candidates in the Eastern Province as well as to TNA National List candidate Ambika Sathkunanathan were accused of sexual misconduct on social media. The former member of the EC pointed out that while the allegations may be difficult to disprove, they were difficult to prove as well because the allegations make dark hints without being direct.

He added that individuals cannot fight such unruly postings on their own because it needs deep pockets and suggested that the parties they represent should come forward and make these transgressions costly by prosecuting the villains and reiterated that if not no woman would come forward as a candidate.

Ambika Satkunanathan an accomplished woman came forward to contest on the TNA National List said that when unsavoury stories were created about her but she stood firm. Prof. Hoole said that it is sad that even though she was listed first on the National List, she was not chosen because of other pressing needs for the party to address and added that such matters should have been decided before the polls without giving hope to people like Ambika and then dashing that hope.

National Coordinator of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) Manjula Gajanayake confirmed that the CMEV were aware of 11 notable incidents of hate speech and divisive language being used during the 2020 Parliamentary Election campaign. The aggrieved in two of the 11 incidents were female candidates.

According to Gajanayake, on June 22, 2020, the CMEV had been informed that a number of posts were shared online by Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) supporters criticizing Thamil Makkal Viduthai Pulikal (TMVP) Batticaloa candidate M. Mangala Shanker.

Most of the posts were fabricated tarnishing her image on the basis of working for NGOs and being a woman.

On July 7, 2020 the CMEV had received information that the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Mayor for Dambulla had allegedly made a number of false allegations against United National Party (UNP) Councillor Nilakshi Jayawardena at two separate press conferences.

Gajanayake alleged that in most cases the allegations were generated from within the victims’ own party due to the rat race for preferential votes. He added that in this modern era the outcome of an election was decided on what is being said on online platforms rather than the conventional methods of canvassing.

“News Editors of mainstream electronic media outlets should be more sensitive to what they broadcast as it is from theses broadcasts that social media take their leads to come up with insulting posts” he added.

Gajanayake was of the view that the Election Commission, the Computer Emergency Readiness Team, the Police and Election Monitors should meet immediately and jointly come up with a plan to overcome the issue at future elections.

When interviewed, Mangaleshwari Shankar who possibly led the popularity ratings among the females in the Batticaloa district of the Eastern Province who were nominated to contested the 2020 Parliamentary Election said with a shudder that as a woman it is not easy to survive in the present political scenario and if she had known an inkling of what she would have to endure she wouldn’t have contested.

“It was terrible” she said and added that even months after the election was over she was being harassed on social media.

A lawyer by profession Mangalaeshwari better known as Mangala Shankar is a human rights activist, a former Legal Manager at Transparency International Sri Lanka. She also worked for the Centre for Human Rights Development (CHRD) and at present is a visiting lecturer at the Open University of Sri Lanka. She also worked extensively with women’s organisations in the district and took a lead to seek redress whenever they faced an issue.

It was this background that prompted Mangala to take up politics and be a role model to the women in Batticaloa. She made her intention known to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) but she was overlooked but a few days before nominations closed she was invited by all the main parties contesting the election including the TNA to contest. Having being turned down by the TNA once she opted to accept the invitation of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) even though it was not the most popular party.

It was after that, that she was singled out to be humiliated, ridiculed and tarnished on social media, web pages and misquoted on mainstream media. The perpetrators may have been from other parties and even her own as Mangala’s popularity among women in the district as a human rights activist and the call by women’s organisations in the Batticaloa District where almost 53% of the population are females, to vote for women made her a top contender for a seat in Parliament.

“In early July a fake Facebook page in my name was created by someone and initially it duplicated the posts on my actual Facebook page but later on posts appeared slandering other candidates. “Everyone thought it was me and I complained to the Police, the Elections Commission, the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) and subsequently to Face book”, she said. The page was removed by Facebook in the first week of September but the damage was done. She also said that there were hundreds of other

social media accounts that posted insulting, humiliating and abusive posts in Tamil.

In Batticaloa, Mangala was not the only female candidate to be harassed. Senior Lecturer at the Eastern University Dr. Chandra Mahendran said that she was deterred from contesting from the very start.

She had to overcome many obstacles even before she was able to sign the nomination papers. She added that she was compelled to use up a considerable amount of her savings on her campaign.

An official who held a top post at the Election Commission of Sri Lanka (ECSL) said that when a candidate complains of being harassed on social media, the ECSL would request the social media platform to remove the post and suspend the account of the perpetrator and simultaneously refer the complaint to the police division established at the ECSL for further investigation and action.

 

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