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The Increasing Incidents of Container Ship Fires and Environmental Destruction

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by Dr Manique Cooray

Fires at sea continue to pose a significant risk to container shipping and often give rise to long-winded and complex claims between all affected parties. Space does not permit even a cursory examination of the large body of relevant international legal provisions available. Moreover, the rise of containerisation has exacerbated the problem of fire on board ships as we have seen with the MV Hansa Brandenburg, the Jolly Rubino, the Maersk Londrina and recently in February 2017, in the MV APL Austria case where a Liberian flagged container ship caught fire off the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

In the backdrop of the ongoing environmental catastrophe in one of Sri Lanka’s worst ever marine disasters, it is imperative to address two issues that seem to be of central importance pertaining to the cargo ship carrying tonnes of chemicals which now lie in the seabed off the west coast of the Island. The Singapore registered MV X-Press Pearl, Super Eco 2700-class container ship was built by Zhoushan Changhong International Shipyard Co. Ltd at Zhoushan, China, for Singapore based X-Press Feeders and its sister ship X-Press Mekong. The 37,000 dead weight tonne (DWT) container vessel could carry 2,743 twenty-foot equivalent units. The ship was delivered on February 10, 2021. It had a 25-member crew including Filipinos, Chinese, Indian and Russian nationals. It was carrying 1,486 containers, among them 81 carrying dangerous goods, which included 25 tonnes of nitric acid, along with other chemicals, cosmetics and low-density polyethylene (LDPE) pellets. Reports indicate the vessel was deployed in the Straits of Malacca to Middle East (SMX) service of X-Press Feeders, from Port Klang (Malaysia) via Singapore and Jebel Ali (UAE) to Hamad Port (Qatar). The return journey to Malaysia was to be via Hazira (India) and Colombo (Sri Lanka). It was reported that the ship’s crew had noticed the leakage of nitric acid from one of the containers when the vessel set sail to the Port of Colombo.

It is common knowledge that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, no vessel can enter a country’s “territorial water” extending up to 12 miles from the nearest land without approval from the coastal state. Nevertheless, bearing in mind that Sri Lanka is a signatory to the Basel Convention, it is not the aim here to address basic questions on how, why and who authorized a vessel with a container leaking nitric acid to enter the territorial waters of the country carrying hazardous material. This entry into Sri Lankan waters could have been under “Port of Refuge”, a situation wherein a ship deviates to a port due to an emergency which renders the ship unsafe to continue on her voyage.

The ill-fated ship erupted in a fire while anchored about 9.5 nautical miles northwest of Colombo. The Sri Lankan navy believes the fire was caused by a chemical reaction from the leaking cargo loaded from the port of Hazira in India. As flaming containers laden with chemicals fell from the ship’s deck, seawater may have entered the hull that submerged the MV X-Press Pearl’s quarterdeck a day after firefighters extinguished the fire. With such a dramatic turn of events of an overseas registered ship, carrying crewmen of various nationalities and cargo belonging presumably to various parties, and with a vessel located within the territorial waters of Sri Lanka, presents itself a plethora of issues in conflict of laws determining principles of choice of law with recognition and enforcement of foreign judgments.

While the local authorities are moving to sue the owners of the vessel to claim damages from the insurer, the suitability of existing Penal Provisions and the Marine Pollution Prevention Act No 35 of 2008 of Sri Lanka raises the question of its adequacy as the principle legislation of the forum state to hear a case of such magnitude of which the main issue is to claim compensation. Insurers of cargo vessels generally require the owners and operators to adhere to internationally recognized guidance concerned with maximizing the overall safety of the vessel, the crew and the cargo. One part of the guidance is the International Maritime Organizations Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG Code), an internationally accepted guideline for the transportation or shipment of dangerous goods or materials by a vessel on water.

Even a cargo that might be quite innocuous in small quantities can display dangerous properties when transported in large quantities, especially if those large quantities of material are exposed to environmental conditions such as moisture or heat, during or prior to loading, or during a voyage. Under the Hague-Visby Rules, the liability regime for the carriage of most cargo, neither the carrier nor the shipowner is responsible for loss or damage arising or resulting from fire unless caused by the actual fault or privity of the shipowner or carrier. To successfully recover for damage to cargo from the shipowner or to defend a claim for general average, the cargo owner must show a lack of due diligence of the shipowner to make the ship seaworthy and safe to receive, carry and discharge the cargo. From a procedural perspective, “(i) the cargo owner must prove their loss; (ii) the carrier or shipowner must prove the cause of loss (i.e., that the fire caused the loss); (iii) the carrier or shipowner must prove due diligence to make the ship seaworthy prior to and at the commencement of the voyage; and (iv) the cargo owner must prove fault of the carrier or shipowner or knowledge of fault or another for whom the carrier or shipowner is responsible.”

The shipowner is not liable for an act or omission by the crew. If the negligence of the crew caused the fire, this is a complete defence for the shipowner unless the cargo owner can show that there was some lack of due diligence by the shipowner, which made the ship unseaworthy. In the case of fires at sea, this would include the shipowner failing to exercise due diligence insofar as the crew fighting the fire is concerned, a lack of adequate firefighting systems, lack of training, or lack of procedural guidance from owner or carriers to the crew. Cargo owners are also likely to be successful in claiming against a shipowner where it is shown that the shipowner or carrier failed to correctly stow dangerous or hazardous cargo (provided that such cargo was correctly declared) in accordance with IMDG guidelines. In the event a shipowner can rely on a “fire defence”, the cargo owner (or their insurers) may be left with a recovery action against the shipper of the miss declared cargo. However, this often involves expensive litigation in a foreign jurisdiction where the “guilty” shipper may be a brass plate company without any assets to satisfy millions of dollars worth of damages to the ship and her cargo and let alone the environmental aftermath. This means that the insurer may be liable, and the affected party could claim compensation from the shipowner.

From the brief facts at hand, it appears to be a total loss for the shipowner even if the vessel stays afloat with what appears to be, if not all, of the cargo, damaged. Although there is much uncertainty over the size of the loss, it is safe to assume that insurers will face cargo and liability claims and the value of the hull and machinery. The value of these claims have not yet been made known. It is highly possible for the fire and explosion losses to be covered under cargo insurance policies among various companies which are party to it. The London Steam Ship Owners Mutual Insurance Association Ltd and its subsidiary, the London P&I Insurance Company (Europe) Ltd, in a press statement on May 26, 2021, stated that as the “liability insurer, it would cover crew injuries and any environmental impact.” A study of previous cases of similar nature indicates that a vessel sinking in deep water perhaps is a better outcome for the insurer than saving it and bringing it back to port with the heavy cleanup costs incurred. Perhaps in this current scenario, the P&I insurer could end up covering the cargo and salvage costs.

The environmental impact of the fire could have a significant bearing on the size of the P&I claim leading to potentially hundreds of millions, as previous cases have shown us. It is well to keep in mind that while the owners of the ship are maybe accountable for bringing the ship to the territorial waters, the local authorities themselves may have a share in their contribution by their bad choice of actions. It is highly questionable whether adequate compensation could be secured given the larger environmental impact (an impact which may be seen beyond the limitation period for such claims to be brought) under the existing lacuna in the local law. Hence, the importance of the forum state to take on such a mammoth legal action against the parties possibly raises the issues of whether recourse should be made to an international maritime arbitration tribunal permitting contractual arrangements.

The second issue to be addressed is whether a special legal regime in the nature of strict liability is needed to cover the irreparable damage caused to the Sri Lankan Sea, marine lives, including the coral reefs and the fisheries industry. There is now an additional danger that fuel tanks of the stricken vessel containing thousands of tons of thick bunker oil could break up under the pressure of the seawater and discharge its deadly cargo into the ocean. The Wildlife Conservation Department of Sri Lanka states that apart from the fish species, the harm done to seagrasses and nesting habitats, sea mammals, and reptiles will also be substantial and that their “initial observations reveal the spill-over effect will last for more than 100 years.” The illustration of the Exxon Valdez’s incident in 1989 and the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 indicates that the oil spill is a severe threat to the maritime environment. A review of this incident may be a good reference to seek a fair understanding of the circumstances and for proper estimation and preparation in encountering massive oil spills.

The harm caused by many environmental incidents are not only contained within the borders of the states, but pollution originating from one state may cause harm to another state. And pollution which damages the Oceans does not belong to one state alone. This type of harm raises a number of acute legal conundrums. Establishing causal connections between effects such as damage to marine life or extinction of species and a particular source of pollution, which could be targeted by a system of liability and compensation rules, may be extremely difficult. In the absence of intergovernmental compensation regimes or where individual states seek compensation for cross border pollution, claims must be made in domestic courts. In such situations, the importance of conflict of laws rules about jurisdiction, choice of law, and recognition of judgments matters. One could plausibly conclude that X-Press Pearl too may find its unfortunate place in legal history for the colossal task it has presented of assessing harm to the environment caused in a line of container ship losses in the maritime insurance industry.

 

(The writer is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Multimedia University. Malaysia and was the Dean of the Faculty of Law from 2014-2016 and 2018-2021.)



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Implementing 13A: Some thoughts

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The 13A requires the Government to establish a National Land Commission, which would be responsible for the formulation of a national policy, concerning the use of State land. This Commission will include representatives of all Provincial Councils. The Commission will have a Technical Secretariat, representing all the relevant disciplines required to evaluate the physical as well as the socio-economic factors that are relevant to natural resources management. National policy, on land, use will be based on technical aspects, but not political or communal aspects.

by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne, President’s Counsel

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution (13A), which introduced devolution of power to the periphery, is again in the news, this time on the need to fully implement it. President Ranil Wickremesinghe first raised the issue in Parliament, asking the various parties whether they are for 13 Plus, meaning improving on 13A. SJB’s Lakshman Kiriella, an avowed supporter of devolution, while saying that his party is for it, asked the President whether Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP, which provides the President with the Parliamentary majority he needs for his legislative agenda, was supportive. Pressed by the President and Kiriella for a response, Rajapaksa, who had promised India to improve on 13A, rose reluctantly and said ‘13 Plus’.

President Wickremesinghe’s attempt to get a consensus on a constitutional settlement of the national question did not get off the ground. The SLPP is unlikely to abandon its Sinhala-nationalist platform. Opposition parties were sceptical. Realising the impossibility of a far-reaching amendment, the President has changed his strategy to one of fully implementing 13A, without changes, or with minor changes, that could muster SLPP support.

Several Opposition parties, that attended the previous meetings of the All-Party Conference (APC), stayed away from the meeting, held on January 27. While the SJB said that the APC was a mere ‘talk show,’ its ally among the Hill Country Tamils, the TPA, said that the President had not considered the issues facing them. The SJB’s Muslim allies did participate. MP Harini Amarasuriya clarified that while the NPP supported the 13A, in principle, it did not consider the President’s statement, on fully implementing the13A, credible.

The main areas in which the 13A has not been implemented are law and order (Police powers) and land. To add to this, successive governments have, over the last 35 years, taken back several subjects, and functions, that legitimately belong to the Provincial Councils (PCs) – agrarian services being one of them. The high point of central intrusion was the Divineguma Act of 2013, under which several functions of PCs, related to rural development, were taken over, using the two-thirds majority that the Government possessed.

Constitutional and legislative changes

The President spoke of the need to establish the National Land Commission, a requirement of the 13A, but which successive governments had not done. He also said that a decision on whether to continue with Provincial Police Commissions, or to bring the Provincial Police, under the National Police Commission, had to be taken. The latter would be a centralising feature—a 13 Minus—that will be to the disappointment of pro-devolution forces.

At the time of the 13A, there was no National Police Commission. Appointments, transfers, etc., of Police personnel, were handled by the Public Service Commission, with the Cabinet of Ministers having the power to overturn decisions of the PSC. To set up the National Police Commission and Provincial Police Commissions, provided for by the 13A, the Police Commission Act No. 1 of 1990 was passed but has not been brought into force by successive Presidents. Under the 13A, a Provincial Police Commission would consist of the Deputy Inspector General of Police, a person nominated by the Public Service Commission, in consultation with the President, and a nominee of the Chief Minister. Since the 13A, a National Police Commission was set up by the 17th and 19th Amendments, and the President now appoints its members on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council. The writer submits that these changes must be reflected in the Provincial Police Commissions, as well. The sub-committee on Law and Order, of the Constitutional Assembly of the previous Parliament, recommended that the Chairman, and the members of the Provincial Police Commissions, should be recommended by the Constitutional Council, having considered nominations, jointly provided by the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the respective Provincial Council. The writer submits that a better option would be for a Provincial Police Commission to be appointed by the Governor, on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council, which should be required to call for nominations from the general public and also consult the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the Province concerned. Any such change would require a constitutional amendment.

The 13A requires the Government to establish a National Land Commission, which would be responsible for the formulation of a national policy, concerning the use of State land. This Commission will include representatives of all Provincial Councils. The Commission will have a Technical Secretariat, representing all the relevant disciplines required to evaluate the physical as well as the socio-economic factors that are relevant to natural resources management. National policy, on land, use will be based on technical aspects, but not political or communal aspects. The Commission will lay down general norms, regarding the use of land, having regard to soil, climate, rainfall, soil erosion, forest cover, environmental factors, economic viability, etc. In the exercise of the powers devolved on them, Provincial Councils shall have due regard to national policy, formulated by the National Land Commission. The Constitution does not set out the composition, etc., of the National Land Commission. The establishment of the Commission would have to be ordinary legislation.

Broad consensus needed

President Wickremesinghe, with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Premier Dinesh Gunawardena, sitting beside him, told the APC that the Cabinet of Ministers had approved the full implementation of the 13A. If as President Wickremesinghe confidently says, he has the support of the Cabinet of Ministers and, thus, of the SLPP, the full implementation of 13A would be certainly possible. But it is important that the President reaches out to the Opposition parties, as well. The SJB is for devolution as a solution to the national issue. Sajith Premadasa’s Presidential election manifesto pledged maximum devolution, within an undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka. Premadasa won areas dominated by Tamils, Muslims and Hill Country Tamils, with percentages second only to those secured by President Kumaratunga, in 1994. SJB’s Muslim and Hill Country allies support devolution, but the President needs to talk to parties representing those communities, about issues pertaining to them, too.

The new ‘Helicopter’ alliance seems unable to take a unified stand on the 13A. Dullas and Dilan Perera were at the forefront of CBK’s campaign for devolution, and Professor G.L. Pieris was the architect of her devolution proposals. Tissa Vitarana did an admirable job of getting a consensus on the national issue, through the APRC process. The Left parties in the Utttara Sabhagaya are strong supporters of devolution, while their nationalist allies are against it. Former President Sirisena spoke in support of implementing the 13A at the APC. The JVP/NPP is unlikely to oppose moves to implement the 13A.

It must not be assumed that the President’s declared intention to implement the 13A could be put into practice easily. Sinhala nationalists, in the Uttara Sabhagaya, have already declared war against fully implementing the 13A, and not all SLPP elements would be enthusiastic about supporting the proposed changes. They are sure to be joined by Sinhala extremists outside Parliament. Anti-13A forces would attempt to use discontent among the masses suffering due to the economic mess the country is in. In these circumstances, the Government needs to convince the people, and the Opposition, of the genuineness of the exercise and the chances of its success. Lest the extremists raise the ‘separatist’ bogey, President Wickremesinghe and the Government must meet such arguments, taking the bull by its horns, and also explain to the people that power-sharing, through devolution, is a must, not only to solve the ethnic issue but also for the development of the periphery. Given its composition, the present Government cannot do so on its own. It must reach out and build a broad consensus on the issue.

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Aiyo, Sirisena

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Former president Sirisena has declared that he is poor and therefore has to go begging to pay compensation awarded by the Supreme Court to the victims of the Easter Sunday massacre! He was unwilling to stand in the dock when he appeared as an accused in a subsequent case and had to be ordered to do so by the Magistrate.

Just imagine an ex-president going around begging from the populace that was made destitute by the actions of the government he headed and the government that followed, which he was part of! To make matters even worse he gives totally ludicrous and unbelievable explanations. Let me add a few of my thoughts to many opinions expressed so far, including those in the editorial “Sirisena’s plea” (The Island, 24 January) wherein the editor quite rightly names those responsible for making this totally undeserved person the President, and suggests that they should help him pay, if at all.

The two important issues that need consideration are whether Sirisena is guilty of neglecting his duties as president in not defending the country from terrorism and who is responsible for paying the compensation awarded by the Supreme court.

I pose the first question because in numerous press conferences, Sirisena has stated that the Supreme Court awarded compensation because he was indirectly responsible for the actions of security chiefs he appointed, implying that there is no direct responsibility! One wonders whether Sirisena is unable to understand the judgement, which categorically states that there were lapses such as the malfunctioning security council for which he was directly responsible. In fact, what surprised me was the reflected annoyance or frustrations of the honourable justices by their use of terms like “what takes the cake” in referring to some of these terrible lapses! Though Sirisena does not come from an academic background, having been a cabinet minister and the general secretary of a major political party for years, surely, he should be able to grasp the contents of a judgement.

Obviously, Sirisena cannot challenge the judgement as it was delivered by the highest court in the land and he cannot criticise the judgement as it would amount to contempt of court. Therefore, it is pretty obvious that he is using a diversionary tactic hoping to fool us. Perhaps, he is unaware of the famous adage: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Sirisena seems to have developed total amnesia about the commission he appointed to inquire into the Easter Sunday massacre! From parts of the report released, it was pretty obvious that the blame lay, in addition to the security establishment, on him as well as the prime minister of the day, who as the present president must be having bad dreams of the day when he no longer has presidential immunity!

In fact, one of the reasons for the downfall of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was his reluctance to take action on that report. Perhaps, he did so at the behest of his younger brother who was obsessed with the two thirds majority.

Sirisena seems to disregard facts and is on a shameless mission to deceive the public again by stating that he has no means to pay compensation. He claims that his only income is from a mango plantation and that he does not own even a motorcycle. But have we ever seen him riding a bicycle or travelling by bus?

Although he has not provided any proof, Sirisena claims that he was in a hospital in Singapore for an urgent medical condition at the time of the attack. Why did he go to Singapore instead of seeking treatment at home? Afterall, he was the Minister of Health before contesting the presidency! How did the urgency resolve for him to return the following day? How did this poor mango grower have the money to go to Singapore for treatment? Did the public coffers cough up the money for allegedly a shopping trip he did for his son’s wedding?

In spite of the Presidential Commission he himself appointed finding him guilty and the highest court of the land directing him to pay compensation to victims, Sirisena has failed the nation by refusing to show any remorse or take his share of responsibility. Instead, he is attempting to make a political drama out of it. What about his brother Dudley, who roared like a lion threatening to teach a lesson to anybody who tried to punish his elder brother in any way? Why is he hiding like a lizard not offering to foot the bill? Has Sirisena no shame in allowing one of his supporters to beg under the Bo tree in Pettah? A decent politician would have opted to go to jail rather than beg but decency is, perhaps, something totally alien to Sirisena!

Sirisena, who really should set an example to others who were ordered to pay compensation, does not seem even to follow their behaviour of silent acceptance. He should remember that we have not forgotten what was stated by the ex-IGP that Sirisena offered him a diplomatic posting provided he accepted responsibility. He must be regretting the refusal! Those who should go round begging are government servants who have no means to pay compensation, not the mango grower whose brother is one of the richest “Hal Mudalalis”!

Mr Sirisena! You have no sense of shame and you have done everything possible to deflect blame. What I fail to comprehend is why the SLFP does not get rid of you. Perhaps, it has a death-wish and so do the ex-Pohottuwa chaps who decided ‘helicopter’! It clearly shows that ours is the land of politicians with no sense of shame!

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Harassment of women in politics on the rise

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by Rathindra Kuruwita

Election monitors and activists express concern that digital harassment of female politicians will increase when the local council elections campaign gets into full swing in the coming weeks.According to the preliminary results of a survey conducted by the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), more than 70 percent of female local councillors and grassroots political activists have faced digital harassment.

CaFFE Executive Director Manas Makeen said the majority of those who were subjected to digital harassment (around 80 percent) had not lodged complaints with the law enforcement authorities or with the political party leadership because they felt it was an exercise in futility.

“Even if these women politicians go to the police or their party leadership, there is no solution. They have to find solutions themselves. The introduction of the quota for women candidates at the local council level has upset some politicians and they have resorted to the digital sphere to undermine their female opponents,” he said.

Makeen said the survey had also revealed that about 55 percent of women politicians and activists had faced physical harassment during their political careers. However, digital harassment was the most common form of harassment now. He said almost 90 percent of those who were harassed online believed politicians in the same party were behind the attack.

Nilka Perera (not her real name) is a member of a local council in Puttalam.

The 33-year-old politician said the harassment had begun with the announcement of the 25-percent-female-candidate quota ahead of the last local council elections, in 2018.

“Some religious leaders gave sermons on why people should not vote for women and their video clips are all over social media,” she said, noting that such misconceptions were not limited to one religion or community. “People were initially sceptical about women in politics and male politicians were quick to latch on to it. While there is misogyny in society, most attacks on female politicians are organised campaigns,” she said.

SJB MP Rohini Kavirathne said the Women Parliamentarian’s Caucus was well aware of systematic digital harassment of female politicians. She said that all female politicians including her had been victims of online harassment and that the Caucus had been active in assisting women in need.

“We have always been willing to help women, on an individual basis. We have also contributed and worked with election monitors, the Elections Department, and other relevant parties to empower women and stop the harassment. While the harassment continues, I am glad to see that women are becoming stronger and are proactively countering propaganda against them,” she said.

The CaFFE survey also found that although the majority of participants received some kind of training from a government or a civil society organisation in countering digital harassment, most of the female politicians over the age of 55 were unable to answer what they would do if they faced digital harassment.

The People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi said he, too, had noted a spike in digital harassment of female politicians during the campaign for the 2018 local council elections after the 25 percent female candidate quota was given legal effect. At least 25 percent of the names on the nomination lists, submitted by parties or independent groups should be female candidates.

“Targeted harassment of female politicians, especially those who engage in grassroots-level politics, continues to be a serious problem,” he said, expressing fears that the problem would only aggravate with the election season approaching without any proactive countermeasures from political parties.

There was also a lot of character assassination through social media, and such campaigns were ongoing, Hettiarachchi said.

Pointing out that Sri Lanka did not have a mechanism to take swift action against election malpractice, he said this was a major lacuna that should be addressed, especially given the harassment female candidates faced in the digital sphere.

“Our law enforcement mechanisms are slow. During an election period, immediate action should be taken against election law violators,” he said. “What’s the point in taking action against a campaign of digital harassment a few months after the elections are over?”

Police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa said the Sri Lanka Police Computer Crime Investigation Division had been established to help victims of computer crimes including digital harassment.

“I don’t have numbers on the top of my head, but I don’t think we get a lot of complaints from grassroots-level female politicians about digital harassment,” the Senior Superintendent of Police said.

He said this was probably because the women politicians feared they would antagonise their party leaders if they complained to the police.

“However, since you brought this issue up, the police must work closely with other stakeholders as the elections approach,” he said.

The urban-rural divide

When the then government introduced a quota for women in late 2017, weeks before the nominations for local council elections were called, most political parties had not been ready, said Kalana Weerasinghe, Chief Operating Officer at the Federation of Sri Lankan Local Government Authorities (FSLGA). He said several political parties nominated friends and family members to fill the 25 percent female-candidate quota.

“Women were often made candidates in wards that male party leaders thought they would lose. However, now we have more than 2,000 female local councillors out of some 8,000, and they can be divided into three categories.

“First, there are seasoned female politicians who have been in politics for decades and some of them are even more popular than their parties’ electoral organisers. They could easily win parliamentary elections, too, if they were given an opportunity. Then there are friends and family members of political party officials, and they have no interest in politics although they are now elected people’s representatives. The third group comprises newcomers who are passionate about what they are doing.

“So, when it comes to digital harassment, the first group is capable of handling any personal attacks. The second group probably will drop out but those in the third group have learnt to adapt and fight back though they were at first depressed by digital media harassment,” Weerasinghe said.

He said the fightback was especially visible in the urban areas where women politicians were more educated and apt in digital technologies than their rural counterparts. These women realise the power of digital media, and how it can benefit their careers. “Being in politics also makes them tougher,” he said.

With the mainstream media giving little or no space for women local council politicians, social media was the main tool they could use to build up a larger support base and tell the voters about what they did and what they believed in, Weerasinghe said.

“A person who is facing harassment can lock his or her profile pic, but a politician can’t do so. No country has been able to reduce online harassment to zero. So, it is also about empowering women and building support structures. We have to make female politicians resilient and there is a lot that the government, political parties and civil society groups can do,” he said.

Role of civil society and govt.

While some female politicians in urban areas are coming to terms with the digital landscape, there are other women and activists who are not yet tech savvy to promote themselves or deal with increasing levels of online harassment.

Makeen said that although most women politicians were on Facebook, quite a few did not know how to use the platform to promote their political careers. If they faced online harassment, they would lock their profiles or stop using social media, he said.

“Early this year, we did a study on online harassment faced by women politicians. We found that they knew about the platforms and online harassment, but they did not know how to use social media to boost their career or how to proactively deal with cyberbullies,” he said.

Makeen said they had also held a series of consultations with national-level female politicians and found out they had also been victims of concerted digital harassment.

“A young former MP once told us that at the beginning of her career, she had been devastated by cyberbullying. This is the case of someone coming from a political family and had gone through trauma. She said it was so bad that she had even contemplated quitting politics. With the backing of her family, she had learnt to ignore the bullies and connect with those who supported her although she is one of the most memed female politicians today,” he said.

Women fighting back

Manjula Gajanayake, Executive Director of the Institute of Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies (IRES), said several young and educated female politicians including those at the grassroots level had learnt how to navigate the digital sphere.

While digital harassment continued to be a serious problem, there were signs of female local councillors building the necessary support structures to overcome it, he said.

“Initially, a lot of local women councillors were devastated by digital media harassment. I was told that some families were on the verge of breaking up. However, in the past few years, we have seen a counterattack. Female local councillors who are serious about their work have behaved with great integrity and now they are getting social recognition. Their family members, who were initially hesitant or upset about them being in politics, have now warmed up,” he said.

Describing the trend as a positive change, Gajanayake called on the government and political parties to step up efforts to end digital harassment of women candidates.

He said that often targeted digital harassment was carried out by political actors and sometimes by those in the same party.

“If the political parties are stricter and take complaints by their women candidates more seriously, we would see a sharp drop in instances of targeted digital harassment,” he said.

* This story is produced under the ANFREL Asian Media Fellowship on Election Reporting.

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