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Priests are seen in the background as security personnel stand guard in front of St Anthony's shrine on April 29, 2019, days after a string of suicide bomb attacks across the island on Easter Sunday killed hundreds. (Reuters/Danish Siddiqui)

Social media still blocked in Sri Lanka following terror attack

By Aliya Iftikhar/CPJ Asia Program Research Associate on April 29, 2019 6:35 PM ET

Several social media sites remained blocked in Sri Lanka today, according to NetBlocks, an independent, international civil society group that monitors internet censorship. Sri Lankan authorities blocked the sites, along with several messaging apps, throughout the country on April 21, following a terrorist attack that left more than 253 people dead, according to international news reports.

"NetBlocks network data confirms that the Sri Lanka social media and messaging app restrictions are continuing into their eighth day," Alp Toker, the executive director of NetBlocks, told CPJ by email. The organization, which documents similar social media shutdowns around the world, "has noted a particular impact to journalists and media workers who rely on the internet and on safe and secure communications platforms to do their job," he said.

The social media ban was announced by the defense ministry and a government news portal on grounds that "false news reports were spreading through social media." The aim was "to prevent speculative and mischievous attempts to spread rumors," The Associated Press cited a Sri Lankan official as saying. The announcements said it would remain in place "until investigations were concluded."

While the government news portal named "social media sites including Facebook and Instagram," Netblocks reported on the first day of the restriction that the block also extended to YouTube, messaging apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Viber, and at least one website for a virtual private network (VPN) provider. VPNs provide more secure connections that mask the user's location, helping them bypass local censorship. Additional websites to download VPN tools were blocked by April 26, while Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media sites remained accessible, according to NetBlocks.

Several Sri Lankan journalists told CPJ they had difficulty accessing the blocked platforms, particularly Facebook and WhatsApp. Many were still able to actively circumvent the ban using VPNs, they said. Facebook is one of the most popular social media platforms in Sri Lanka and a leading source of news, used extensively in Sinhala and Tamil alongside English; WhatsApp is also widely used. Some of CPJ's WhatsApp messages to journalists went through in the past week. Others didn't, though calls and regular text messages did.

Many observers say inaccurate information shared on social media after last week's attacks risks inflaming tensions in the country, according to journalists who spoke to CPJ and news reports. Sri Lanka has a long history of sectarian tensions among its Sinhala majority and Hindu, Muslim, and Christian minorities. After a period of relative stability following the end of a protracted civil war in 2009, President Maithripala Sirisena provoked a political crisis in the fall when he tried and failed to dismiss Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. Political infighting may have caused officials to overlook security threats, according to The New York Times.

That instability has contributed to what Sanjana Hattotuwa, a senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a non-partisan civil society group based in Colombo, described to CPJ as "an information vacuum."

"There were rumors about all manner of things, some not even related to the bombings, but were trying to exploit what was a rich terrain for misinformation," Hattotuwa told CPJ by phone. One rumor, which has been debunked, said that poison had been mixed with the water supply.

Himal Kotelawala, the deputy editor at Republic Next, a digital outlet, told CPJ in an email regarding the social media block, "I personally think it's necessary, having witnessed firsthand the kind of misinformation propagated on platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp."

"The gravity of the situation is such that people are understanding of the ban, but the question is, how long will it go on?" Sinha Ratnatunga, editor of The Sunday Times, told CPJ.

But Kumar Lopez, the director of the independent Sri Lanka Press Institute for media development and training, said the ban was a "two-edged sword;" control over misinformation could also prevent people from getting the right information.

During the March 2018 Digana riots in Kandy, in central Sri Lanka, dozens of Muslim shops, homes, and mosques were torched and at least two people died shortly after a Facebook group titled the Buddhist Information Center inaccurately presented video footage of local Muslims as proof they were plotting to sterilize members of the majority Sinhalese community by stealth, according to The New York Times. The government banned social media for 72 hours. That ban, which came after much of the violence had already happened, was not effective in limiting access to social media, thanks to VPNs, according to Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, a researcher at the Colombo-based LIRNEAsia think tank writing in an analysis published on Medium; but it did end up restricting some "random websites," including Wijeratne's own.

The media landscape in Sri Lanka is concentrated in a handful of traditional media houses, some with business and political affiliations. At times, these broadcasters and publishers could also be accused of peddling misinformation, as well as politicians, Hattotuwa pointed out. Websites like Groundviews, an independent media outlet affiliated with CPA, offers context and political analysis, he told CPJ. These digital platforms "are constrained and contained by the block in ways that the producers of misinformation are not," said Hattotuwa, who is also a former editor of Groundviews.

"There is an invariable, inescapable consequence of the block, which is to restrict consumers and readers and intended audiences within the country," Hattotuwa said. "In the immediate aftermath, the government, out of an abundance of caution, looks justified, ... [but] social media can't just be excluded through blocks...That very simplistic approach is not going to work."

The official censorship orders did not offer a legal basis for the blocks, which were issued before emergency regulations were introduced on April 22, according to local and international news reports. Those regulations separately place restrictions on publishing matters considered "prejudicial to the interest of national security or the preservation of public order," according to the CPA. Emergency regulations were extended for 30 days on April 24, according to local news reports.

The president and defense ministries are not authorized to block social media under Sri Lankan law, according to a March 2018 analysis by Gehan Gunatillake , a legal expert cited in Wijeratne's Medium piece. Hattotuwa said there was no legal basis or judicial oversight for the block. In July 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council unequivocally condemned state measures to disrupt "access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law."

Amalini De Sayrah, the co-editor of Groundviews, was concerned about the precedent set by the ban and the emergency regulations. Emergency regulations have been used against journalists in the past, especially Tamil journalists, according to De Sayrah and CPJ reporting.

"It sets the precedent that in a crisis situation you can do this," she said. "If they start here, how far can it go?


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