In times of religious intolerance and communal riots: | Sunday Observer

In times of religious intolerance and communal riots:

The temporary ban imposed by the Sri Lankan Government on selected social media networks last week has evoked mixed reactions in a section of the social media community. While a majority of users commended the move given that it had effectively mitigated the chaotic communal riots from spreading to areas outside the Kandy region, a few others however, dubbed it as an ill-advised decision that stifled free speech.

“I never thought I would say this, but I’m actually okay with that. It’s 2018 and the digital world is no longer so separate from the ‘real’. If there’s a State of Emergency on the streets it should be the same on the digital platforms where people are inciting and organizing violence,” said popular Sri Lankan blogger, Indi Samarajiva.

Pointing out that Facebook, the most popular of the social networks, has to bear responsibility for neglect because the platform helps mobs organize, incite and spread hatred, he highlighted that the core of the problem lies in the fact that contents in Sinhala is not moderated by Facebook at all.

“They won’t hire Sinhala moderators, even though they make more money here than any Sri Lankan publisher. Facebook Inc is a big part of the problem today and they won’t or can’t do anything about it. I’m fine with those platforms being temporarily blocked until things stop burning and people are safe,” Samarajiva noted.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) in a letter addressed to President Maithripala Sirisena on Wednesday (7) stated that they had identified continuous hate speech against religious leaders sprouted in social media circles over the past few years as one of the prime causes for mob-related violence, including the 2014 incident in Aluthgama.

“There is no doubt that such expressions of hate and violence targeting a specific community amount to crimes under the ICCPR Act, No 56 of 2007 and the Penal Code of Sri Lanka. It is necessary that the perpetrators of such acts are apprehended and dealt with according to law. Laws existing on the statute books without implementation have a corrosive impact on the Rule of Law. As such, it is essential that these laws are implemented in the best interests of the country,” the HRCSL stated in a letter addressed to the President on May 31, 2017.

On Wednesday (7), the intelligence agency of the Sri Lankan government, the State Intelligence Service, requested the Defence Ministry to consider a blockade on social media to control hate speech and rumors being spread out. Thereafter, the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Presidents Counsel Kapila Waidyaratne recommended the Director General of Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) to consider a blockade.

Acting on the directive, the TRCSL ordered telecommunication operators to temporarily block Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp and Viber in order to quell violence spreading throughout the country. In addition, internet access in the Kandy district was also restrained until further notice.

“The blockade on social media is still on. If the decision is to be reversed the same due process has to be followed. The Director General of TRCSL cannot take the decision but it should come through a recommendation from the Defence Secretary. I still don’t know whether that has happened,” TRCSL Chairman, Austin Fernando told the Sunday Observer yesterday (10).

Issuing a statement, Minister of Telecommunications, Digital Infrastructure and Foreign Employment, Harin Fernando said, the Government was compelled to take ‘extraordinary but temporary measures’ to contain the increasing spread of hate speech and violence through social media websites and phone messaging applications.

“The last few days have seen technology created to bring people together, being used to pull people apart. Social media websites such as Facebook, Whatsapp and Viber - which were created to bring us closer to our friends and family and make communication free and convenient, have been used to destroy families, lives and private property,” the Minister said.

During the time of the panic that began on Sunday (7), it was observed that a section of Sri Lanka’s social media users remained hyper active posting hate messages in texts, audio clips and videos against members of other religious communities in selected Facebook groups. Many believed that this spread of misinformation had largely led to the instigation of violence.

“Rumour mongers had a field day sharing each other’s opinions in the guise of credible news and information. Some comments were crude, scary and provoked the public to commit violence. While some Facebook groups were promoting hatred publicly, there were several screenshot evidences of Whatsapp groups even discussing with members to plan to commit violence,” a social media user who wished to remain anonymous said.

Amidst the confusion, a popular website on March 7 posted video evidence of Amith Weerasinghe, leader of the Mahason Balakaya in conversation with a group of individuals and weighing on the pros and cons of carrying out an attack on the day. On Thursday, police spokesman, Ruwan Gunasekera announced that the Head of Mahason Balakaya, who operates a popular Facebook group, has been arrested while 10 others had been detained for spreading incendiary messages on social media.

“As internet society we value the freedom of expression through digital media. It is our duty to inform the public and our members to use internet and resources (social media) responsibly without harming the unity of our people and maintain peace and stability at this hour,” Sagarika Wickramasekera from the Internet Society Sri Lanka Chapter said.

On the other hand, communication activist Nalaka Gunawardena, in his recent column on the subject stated that blocking public communications networks is “ill-advised at any time, and especially bad during a crisis, when people are frantically seeking situation updates 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 – will now use proxy servers to get around. It is the average web user who is deprived of news, views and updates. Such information vacuums can allow rumours to spread fast and wide.

“But such finer points seem to be lost on the Lankan authorities, who did not have a contingency plan for crisis information management. That is despite some of us emphatically advocating developing one after experiencing chaos during monsoonal disasters in 2016 and 2017,” he pointed out.