Sri Lanka’s first ever social media blocking lasted from 7 to 15 March 2018. During that time, Facebook and Instagram were completely blocked while chat apps WhatsApp and Viber were restricted (no images, audio or video, but text allowed).
On 7 March 2018, the country’s telecom regulator, Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRCSL), ordered all telecom operators to impose this blocking across the country for three days, Reuters reported. This was “to prevent the spread of communal violence”, the news agency quoted an unnamed government official as saying. In the end, the blocking lasted 8 days.
For a short while during this period, Internet access was stopped entirely to Kandy district “after discovering rioters were using online messaging services like WhatsApp to coordinate attacks on Muslim properties”.
Both actions are unprecedented. In the 23 years Sri Lanka has had commercial Internet services, it has never imposed complete network shutdowns (although during the last phase of the civil war between 2005 and 2009, the government periodically shut down telephone services in the Northern and Eastern Provinces). Nor has any social media or messaging platforms been blocked before.
I protested this course of action from the very outset. Restricting public communications networks is ill-advised at any time — and especially bad during an emergency when people are frantically seeking reliable situation updates and/or sharing information about the safety of loved ones.
Blocking selected websites or platforms is a self-defeating exercise in any case, since those who are more digitally savvy – many hate peddlers among them –can and will use proxy servers to get around. It is the average web user who will be deprived of news, views and updates.
While the blocking was on, I gave many media interviews to local and international media. I urged the government “to Police the streets, not the web!”.
At the same time, I acknowledged and explained how a few political and religious extremist groups have systematically ‘weaponised’ social media in Sri Lanka during recent years. These groups have been peddling racially charged hate speech online and offline. A law to deal with hate speech has been in the country’s law books for over a decade. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act No 56 of 2007 prohibits the advocacy of ‘religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence’. This law, fully compliant with international human rights standards, has not been enforced.
On 14 March 2018, I took part in the ‘Aluth Parlimenthuwa’ TV talk show of TV Derana on this topic, where I articulated the above and related views. The other panelists were Deputy Minister Karu Paranawithana, presidential advisor Shiral Lakthilaka, Bar Association of Sri Lanka chairman U R de Silva, and media commentator Mohan Samaranayake.