The Sri Lankan government’s ban on social media in the country lasted nearly 15 hours before being restored on Sunday morning (April 3rd), according to a report by NetBlocks. The ban was announced on April 2, 2022, ahead of a protest against the government for its handling of the economic crisis plaguing the island nation, as per a report in The Hindu.
Major platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Viber, Telegram, and Facebook Messenger were down after Sunday midnight when the ban came into effect. The ban was imposed by all Sri Lankan telcos such as Dialog, Sri Lanka Telecom, Mobitel, and Hutch. Sri Lanka’s Telecommunications Regulatory Commission attributed the decision to a request from the Ministry of Defence.
⚠️ Confirmed: Real-time network data show Sri Lanka has imposed a nationwide social media blackout, restricting access to platforms including Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Instagram as emergency is declared amid widespread protests.
— NetBlocks (@netblocks) April 2, 2022
The ban was reversed following widespread criticism, The Hindu reported. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka said it was a “vital aspect” of the freedom of expression of people, and “as important as traditional media”, the report said. NetBlocks said that one could easily circumvent the ban with the help of VPN services.
There is a growing tendency among governments to impose bans on social media in the face of protests. Now, other countries looking to quell public protests may take the same approach as Sri Lanka.
Why did the government impose a ban?
The government declared a nationwide emergency and imposed a 36-hour curfew ahead of a planned rally against the government’s inept response to the “worst economic crisis”, Livemint explained. The social media ban was a part of this strategy to prevent people from gathering in Colombo to protest the government’s failure to address the situation.
The crisis has led to a shortage of essentials like food, fuel, and medicine, further aggravating the suffering of citizens. Moreover, they have to reckon with hours-long power cuts in the face of fuel shortages, Livemint said. The anti-government hashtags “#GoHomeRajapaksas” and “#GotaGoHome” have been trending locally for days on Twitter and Facebook, AFP reported.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has defended his government’s efforts and reportedly refused to take accountability for the crisis.
‼️SOCIAL MEDIA BLOCKED IN SRI LANKA 🇱🇰
It appears social media networks have been barred in Sri Lanka.
— Dasuni Athauda (@AthaudaDasuni) April 2, 2022
The ban was decried even by members of the ruling government. Cabinet Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa, wrote in a tweet that he does not condone blocking social media.
“The availability of VPN, just like I’m using now, makes such bans completely useless. I urge the authorities to think more progressively and reconsider this decision,” said Rajapaksa, who is also the State Minister of Digital Technology.
Sri Lanka’s reliance on social media bans
This is not the first time that Sri Lanka imposed a ban on social media within its territory. It has resorted to this measure time and again to curb misinformation:
March 2019: The Sri Lankan government ordered internet and mobile service providers to temporarily block Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Viber following a wave of attacks on Muslims by the majority Buddhist Sinhala community. The decision was taken to stop the spread of hate speech which could trigger more violence against the community. The restrictions were a part of nationwide emergency measures implemented following a breakout of violence in Kandy, where angry mobs made up of the majority Sinhalese ethnic group attacked Muslim mosques and communities, killing “at least one person”— a 27-year-old imam. The government did temporarily block access to Facebook as a last resort.
April 2019: Sri Lanka blocked multiple social media networks, including Facebook and WhatsApp, following terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday, to halt the spread of misinformation. The Sri Lankan government said the decision was taken as “false news reports were spreading through social media”; it said the blockage will be effective until investigations into the attack are concluded. A presidential adviser to Sri Lanka added that the decision was unilateral; the block came out of fear that misinformation about the attacks and hate speech could spread, provoking more violence, as per The New York Times. The ban was lifted in 10 days.
May 2019: The Sri Lankan government temporarily banned access to social media services to control the spread of misinformation following ethnic tensions in Negombo, one of the cities targeted in the Easter Sunday bombings. However, the ban was lifted within a few hours: “The temporary ban on social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook has already been lifted,” Nalaka Kaluwewa, Director General of the Government Information Department, said. The social media ban lasted a little over 10 hours.
In the same month, Sri Lanka temporarily banned some social media and messaging services reportedly after mosques and Muslim-owned businesses were attacked in wake of the Easter Sunday bombings by Islamist militants, as per Reuters. The violence was reportedly triggered due to a Facebook post by a Muslim resident whose online comment “1 day u will cry” was interpreted as a threat of violence. The man was beaten by residents of the mainly Christian town of Chilaw; a curfew was imposed in the town through the night. “Social media blocked again as a temporary measure to maintain peace in the country,” Nalaka Kaluwewa, the director-general of the Department of Government Information, said.
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