Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp Banned Again in Sri Lanka After Violence Against Muslims

It’s part of a worrisome trend of governments blocking citizens' internet access

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13 May 2019, 9:58pm

This article originally appeared on VICE US

The Sri Lankan government has once again temporarily banned social media networks, this time after attacks apparently sparked by a Facebook post. It’s the third time authorities have blocked social media in the country since the suicide bombings that killed hundreds on Easter Sunday, and it’s part of a worrisome trend of governments blocking citizens' internet access.

Sri Lanka mobile carrier Dialog Axiata tweeted Monday that, per the government’s regulatory commission, “Facebook, WhatsApp, Viber, IMO, Snapchat, Instagram & YouTube would be restricted with immediate effect until further notice.”

Nalaka Kaluwewa, director general of the Sri Lanka’s Department of Government Information, told CNN the networks and messaging apps had been blocked to prevent "social unrest via hate messages and false information."

The ban came Monday after attacks at mosques and Muslim-owned businesses in the Christian-majority town of Chilaw on Sunday. Reuters reported that the clashes — in which a man was beaten and rocks were thrown at mosques and Muslim-owned stores — began with a disagreement on Facebook. The country has ramped up security and imposed a curfew in some areas amid fears of more attacks against its Muslim-minority population after the April 21 bombings by Islamic extremists, which left about 250 dead.

The controversial step to block social media has been deemed necessary by some observers but has also sparked censorship fears.

“The idea that we should trust the Sri Lankan government — let alone any government — in wholesale blocking of social media sites is terrifying,” wrote Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, when the country banned social media after the Easter attacks.

And while social media certainly aids in spreading disinformation — extremists in Sri Lanka have used Facebook to stoke anti-Muslim fears — it’s also often an essential tool for people to share true information with one another. Internet freedom advocacy group Net Blocks on Monday criticized Sri Lanka and others for blocking parts of the internet.

“[Kazakhstan] and [Venezuela] switched off parts of the net this week, and social media is currently blocked in [Sri Lanka],” the group tweeted. “Disabling telecoms infrastructure at the first sign of trouble can have unexpected consequences.”

Governments across the globe have increasingly worked to exercise control over the giant tech platforms. Kazakhstan blocked many social media platforms and news sites amid protests last week, while Venezuela has restricted access to platforms amid the country’s ongoing crisis.

Meanwhile, Singapore last week passed legislation against “fake news” that has been criticized as a tool to curtail freedom of speech. The laws allow the government to levy steep fines and prison sentences against platforms if they do not correct or remove information the government decides is false.

“Singapore’s leaders have crafted a law that will have a chilling [effect] on internet freedom throughout south-east Asia, and likely start a new set of information wars as they try to impose their narrow version of ‘truth’ on the wider world,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told the Guardian about the law passed last Wednesday.

Singapore was ranked No. 151 of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders. Sri Lanka was ranked No. 126.

Cover: A Sri Lankan government soldier secures the premises of a Catholic church as devotees leave after Sunday Mass at a church in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, May 12, 2019. The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has held the first regular Sunday Mass since the Easter suicide bombings of churches and hotels killed more than 250 people. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)