Humor and Human Rights: An Update on Nathasha Edirisooriya’s Case

Dr Alberto Godioli (University of Groningen), 26 October 2023

Photo by 맥심 on Unsplash

On 27 May 2023, Sri Lankan comedian and human rights activist Nathasha Edirisooriya was arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department of Sri Lanka (CID) under section 3 of the ICCPR Act of 2007, which prohibits incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. As discussed in a previous ForHum post, her arrest was clearly in violation of international free speech standards, as the contested expression (two jokes about the comedian’s own Buddhist upbringing) could not by any means be construed as incitement to hatred. After 39 days of detention, Ms Edirisooriya was eventually granted bail on July 5th. However, her case is not closed yet – the next hearing is scheduled on November 15th, with no clear indication of what the final outcome will be. 

In a Joint Communication to the Government of Sri Lanka dated June 26th, the UN Human Rights Office’s (OHCHR) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention – together with the Special Rapporteurs on cultural rights, freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of religion or belief – expressed its concern over Ms Edirisooriya’s arrest and linked it to a broader pattern of “misapplication” of the ICCPR Act on the part of Sri Lankan authorities, entailing “misuse of the abovementioned law to punish individuals in connection with opinions and behaviours deemed offensive to religious feelings.” In this respect, the OHCHR referred inter alia to the Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No 34 (paragraph 48), stating that “prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the [ICCPR], except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20, paragraph 2, of the Covenant” (i.e. in the presence of actual incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence). The same point was made by the High Court of Colombo in its bail order, stressing that the application of the ICCPR Act in Ms Edirisooriya’s case was “seriously problematic” given the patently harmless nature of her jokes.

Unfortunately, hate speech or incitement provisions are often misused to arbitrarily restrict expression that is deemed religiously offensive, thus effectively reinstating blasphemy prohibitions that are deeply incompatible with human rights law. The targets of these misuses of the law are often artists who choose humor and satire as the main vehicles for their expression – as was recently the case, for example, with cartoonists Gábor Pápai in Hungary or Osama Hajjaj in Jordan (on this subject, see also this forthcoming report produced by Cartoonists Rights and Cartooning for Peace). As discussed in our comparative analysis of humor-related case law from across the globe, courts worldwide have repeatedly stressed the vital importance of humorous and satirical expression for democratic life, also due to humor’s key role in promoting public debates on topics of general interest – this is certainly the case with Ms Edirisooriya too, as her comedy often focuses on societal issues related to sexism and misogyny, moral and religious hypocrisy, family life and mental health. Crucially, the importance of protecting humor and satire also applies to content that might “offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population” (Handyside v. United Kingdom, No. 5493/72, 7 December 1976, 49), as confirmed among others by recent ECtHR decisions such as Rabczewska v. Poland (No. 8257/13, 15 September 2022), Gachechiladze v. Georgia (No. 2591/19, 22 July 2021) and Sekmadienis v. Lithuania (No. 69317/14, 30 January 2018).

We hope that these fundamental human rights principles will be duly acknowledged and respected in the forthcoming round of proceedings concerning Ms Edirisooriya. As we wait for the next developments, it is crucial for the international community to continue monitoring the case.