People in Sri Lanka are experiencing a second day without access to some of the most popular social media sites within the country, after the government shut down the services in the wake of a terror attack that killed nearly 300 people and injured hundreds on Easter Sunday.
Facebook and its properties — Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger — were blocked. Access to Snapchat was turned off, as was Viper, a popular chat application.
The government said it blocked access to the sites because false news reports were spreading through social media.
A lack of trust
Sri Lanka’s shutdown of social media is a “wake-up call,” said Ivan Sigal, executive director of Global Voices, a digital advocacy and journalism organization.
The shutdown reflects governments’ worldwide growing mistrust of Facebook, Google and other digital platforms during periods of crisis, he said.
“What’s different to me is this sense that enough is enough’ with the internet companies. The narrative up to three years ago was that technology companies can help us in times of crisis,” he said. “There really is a shift in the public conversation of what we expect from technology companies — from a sense that they are positive forces to ones that are more complicated and possibly negative.”
Shutdowns are becoming more common after politically sensitive events such as elections, said Peter Micek with Access Now, a digital rights group.
What appears to be changing is that “authorities are putting tragedies such as a terrorist attack or a disaster in the same bucket as politically sensitive events,” Micek said. “I don’t know how governments can communicate with their constituencies with these media bans in place. They only increase the risks to health and safety.”
Social media-fueled unrest
Sri Lankans have experienced social media shutdowns in the past. In March 2018, Sri Lanka turned off access for more than eight days after anti-Muslim riots that left three people dead.
The restrictions then were at first accepted by many, said Alp Toker, executive director of Netblocks, a digital rights group based in London that monitors government shutdowns. There was a sense that social media was fueling the flames. But citizens quickly clamored for access to be restored, he said.
“People realized they are attached to the platforms,” Toker said.
A Facebook spokesperson said that the company is “working to support first responders and law enforcement, as well as to identify and remove content which violates our standards. We are aware of the government’s statement regarding the temporary blocking of social media platforms.”
After the terror attacks in Sri Lanka, Facebook turned on its Safety Check service, which asks people in the affected area to report they are safe. It is unclear if anyone in the country is able to access the site. (VOA)
Sri Lanka’s president on Saturday outlawed two Islamist groups suspected to be behind recent suicide bombings on churches and hotels, while the wife and child of the suspected ringleader were wounded during a military raid in safe house, his family and police said.
The National Towheed Jamaat (NTJ) and Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim were banned under his emergency powers, President Maithripala Sirisena said in a statement, nearly a week after the Easter Sunday attacks that killed more than 250 people.
Authorities could not act earlier to ban the two little-known groups because the law required them to show firm evidence against them, officials said.
Police believe the suspected mastermind of the bombings, Mohamed Hashim Mohamed Zahran, led either the NTJ or a splinter group. Less is known about Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim, whose members are also believed to have played a role in the bombings. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Soldiers spread out
Nearly 10,000 soldiers have been deployed across the island to carry out searches and boost security since the bombings in three churches and four hotels, most of which were in Colombo. Security forces have detained 100 people, including foreigners from Syria and Egypt, police said.
A gunbattle erupted on Friday evening during a raid on a safe house in Sainthamaruthu in Ampara district on the island’s east coast, killing at least 15 people, including three people with suicide vests and six children, a military spokesmkan said. The wounded included the wife and a daughter of Zahran, his family said.
“Yes, the wife and daughter were injured in the attack,” said Mohamed Hashim Mathaniya, sister of Zahran. “I was asked to come to identify them but I am not sure I can go,” she told Reuters from the town of Kattankudy in the east, where Zahran was originally based.
Zahran’s driver was detained in a separate raid, according to a police statement. Bomb-making materials, dozens of gelignite sticks and thousands of ball bearings were found in a search of a separate house in the same area, along with Islamic State banners and uniforms, the military said.
Zahran appeared in a video released by Islamic State days after the bombing, the only one showing his face while seven others were covered. In the video the men stand under a black Islamic State flag and declare their loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Authorities have said there could be more attacks against religious centers.
Last Sunday’s bombings shattered the relative calm that the Buddhist-majority country has seen since a 26-year civil war with mostly Hindu ethnic Tamil separatists ended a decade ago. Sirisena and the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have faced strong criticism after it emerged that India had repeatedly given warnings of the possibility of attacks.
Both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have said intelligence was not shared with them, exposing rifts at the top of the government and raising questions about its ability to deal with the security crisis. The national police chief had refused to accept Sirisena’s request to step down, two sources told Reuters on Saturday, a further embarrassment for the president.
The U.S. State Department said terrorist groups were continuing to plot attacks and cautioned its citizens against traveling to Sri Lanka. The department also ordered the departure of all school-age family members of U.S. government employees.
India and Britain have also warned their nationals to avoid traveling to Sri Lanka. The security forces’ response has included raids on mosques and homes of people in the town of Negombo, where scores died in the bombing of a church.
Police said on Friday that they were trying to track down 140 people they thought had links to Islamic State. The president said some of the country’s youth had been involved with the group since 2013 and that there were drug-trafficking links.
Warning of retaliation
Muslims were urged to pray at home on Friday after the State Intelligence Services warned of possible car bomb attacks, amid fears of retaliatory violence. Many have fled their homes amid bomb scares, lockdowns and security sweeps.
The archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, told reporters he had seen an internal security document warning of further attacks on churches and said there would be no Catholic Masses celebrated anywhere on the island this Sunday.