The people of Sri Lanka are facing an attack by President Rajapaksa’s administration on their freedom of expression amid a state of emergency, curfews, and worsening economic crises. On Sunday, 3 April, correlating with widespread public demonstrations against the president’s declaration of a state of emergency, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission on the orders of the Ministry of Defence shut down social media services, including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp in Sri Lanka. The ban on social media services was lifted after 15 hours, but this is not enough — the government must commit to open, accessible internet for all.
“There is no justification for blocking access to social media in Sri Lanka,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Pacific Policy Director and Senior International Counsel at Access Now. “It is not enough to merely lift the ban after depriving people of an avenue to exercise their right to free speech during a critical period. President Rajapaksa’s administration and the independent telecom regulator must provide strong reassurance to the people, and commit to refraining from taking any action to hinder people’s right to access the internet. You cannot silence a nation simply because you don’t like their criticism.”
The Sri Lankan government blocked access to social media during unrest, and directly following protests against food and fuel shortages. This blatant attempt to stifle free speech and political dissent, and prevent the free flow of information online, violates people’s human rights. This is not the first time authorities have denied people access to social media platforms in Sri Lanka, with authorities hitting the kill switch — and the telecom regulator complied — in 2019 amidst the chaos and confusion of deadly coordinated attacks on hotels and churches.
“Social media platforms are vital for the exchange of critical information, and for people to exercise their freedom of expression, freedom of association, and right to peaceful assembly, particularly in crisis-hit Sri Lanka,” said Namrata Maheshwari, Asia Pacific Policy Counsel at Access Now. “Connectivity is crucial for people in Sri Lanka as they navigate the economic crisis, and must not be hampered in any manner.”
Access Now calls upon Sri Lankan authorities to refrain from taking any future actions that would interfere with internet access, and for the telecommunications regulator to stop accepting unlawful, disproportionate orders that hamper connectivity.