Netizen Report: Sri Lanka Blocks Social Media Amid Sectarian Violence

Members of the Purawasi Balaya group hold a rally calling for calm following violence in central Sri Lanka, in Colombo on March 8, 2018.A daytime curfew was relaxed on March 8 in the troubled Sri Lankan district of Kandy where three people were killed in anti-Muslim riots, but schools remained closed as beefed-up security forces patrolled the streets. More than 200 homes, businesses and vehicles were set ablaze during three days of violence sparked by the death of a man from the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority at the hands of a Muslim mob last week. / AFP PHOTO / ISHARA S. KODIKARA
Members of the Purawasi Balaya group hold a rally calling for calm following violence in central Sri Lanka, in Colombo on Thursday.
ISHARA S. KODIKARA/Getty Images

The Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in internet rights around the world. It originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Afef Abrougui, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Rohith Jyothish, Rezwan Islam, Oiwan Lam, Karolle Rabarison, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

Sri Lanka’s Telecommunications Regulatory Commission ordered telecom operators to block Facebook, Viber, and WhatsApp on Wednesday, in reaction to sectarian violence.

In recent months, tensions have risen between the majority Buddhists and Muslims, who represent just 10 percent of the population. Last Sunday, a Buddhist man died after a violent encounter with a group of Muslim men over a traffic dispute in the central region of Kandy. The following day, residents reported that a mob of at least 200 people set fire to a local mosque and the homes of at least 15 Muslims. According to a provincial council member, dozens more homes and businesses have been vandalized.

On Wednesday, authorities imposed a 10-day state of emergency for the first time since 2011, when Sri Lanka was still freshly emerging from its civil war.

Regulators say the block will last for three days. An official who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity said that police had identified “anti-Muslim messages being shared on social networks, including a video posted by a hardline Buddhist monk urging violence against Muslims.”

Reacting to the measures in an analysis for Groundviews, an independent citizen media outlet based in the capital Colombo, journalist and social commentator Nalaka Gunawardene argued that this strategy was futile and carried consequences for the entire population, leaving families unable to contact one another in a time of uncertainty and rising street violence. He wrote: “[T]his is more a case of public order than a matter of national security. Faced with a major breakdown in law and order, the government should have policed the streets properly, before trying to police the Internet.”

Saudi Reform Activist Sentenced to Six Years in Prison
Saudi human rights and political reform activist Essa al-Nukhaifi was sentenced to six years in prison, primarily over tweets that criticized the Saudi military intervention in Yemen. After he is released from prison, Al-Nukhaifi will face an additional six-year ban on social media use and a six-year travel ban.

In a recent letter written from his cell in Mecca General Penitentiary, where he has been detained for more than a year, al-Nukhaifi addressed Saudi Prince Bin Salman:

I have been delighted to hear your speeches and media interviews in which you call for freedom of expression and respect for human rights, which is what we are calling for and share your wish to achieve. … I am writing to you about them from a place of detention, where I being detained because of calling for these things.

Al-Nukhaifi called for broad reforms to the kingdom’s justice system, rule of law, and mechanisms for political participation.

Nigerian Media Workers Charged with Cybercrime
On March 1, a federal court in Abuja, Nigeria, arraigned journalist brothers Timothy and Daniel Elombah of the independent Elombah News website on cybercrime and terrorism charges. The site covers Boko Haram and allegations of corruption in the upper tiers of government.

Chinese User Accuses Apple Tech Support Agent of Stealing Data, Passwords
China Digital Times published allegations by a Weibo user who says their data was stolen by an Apple technical support employee. The report surfaced just days after Apple handed operations of its mainland China servers over to the Chinese government–owned company Guizhou-Cloud Big Data.

According to the allegations, the employee accessed and tampered with multiple private online accounts belonging to the user. Apple subsequently claimed to have fired the employee but could not offer further details on the safety of the user’s data or iCloud account, for confidentiality reasons. China Digital Times was not able to independently verify the allegations.

On Weibo, the user wrote: “They fired the employee so quickly, but still don’t even know how many people’s personal information and data was stolen and leaked. Apple users should all be wary!”

New Research
Unshackling Expression: A Study on Laws Criminalising Expression Online in Asia”—Annenberg School for Communications, University of Pennsylvania

Public Scrutiny of Automated Decisions: Early Lessons and Emerging Methods”—Omidyar Network and Upturn