Encouraging trend in Lanka-Facebook talks on filtering offensive content

Encouraging trend in Lanka-Facebook talks on filtering offensive content

Colombo, March 12 (newsin.asia): The ban on Facebook in Sri Lanka will be lifted after the conclusion of on-going talks between the government and Facebook, Secretary to the President and Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Commission (TRC), Austin Fernando, said on Monday. Talks are proceeding well and government might have an announcement to make in the next couple of days ,he added.

“There has got to be some change with the passage of time,” Fernando said.

The ban imposed on March 7 hurt Facebook’s business and they appear to be coming round to the government’s point of view that Facebook too have a duty to perform besides making money, he said.

“People  are blaming us for the ban, but forget that there are others involved,” Fernando said referring to Facebook.

He  reiterated his stand that stern measures like the imposition of a State of Emergency and the ban on social media were the main reasons for the improvement in the security situation in the country

Meanwhile, government agencies and departments are discussing among themselves the issue of lifting the ban on social media, Fernando said.

Mixed Public Reaction

Writing in the State-owned Sunday Observer,  Azhar Razak, reported that the 72 hour ban imposed by the government on selected social media networks had evoked mixed reactions.

While a majority of users commended the move, given that it has effectively mitigated the chaotic communal situation, and prevented it from spreading to areas outside the Kandy region, a few  dubbed it as an ill-advised decision that stifles free speech.

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

Pointing out that Facebook, the most popular of the social networks, has to bear responsibility for neglect of the medium’s potential for misuse, he said that the core of the problem lies in the fact that contents in Sinhala are 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 asserted.

“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,” said Sagarika Wickramasekera from the Internet Society Sri Lanka Chapter.

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) in a letter addressed to President Maithripala Sirisena on March 7, had stated that they had identified hate speech on social media as being one of the prime causes of mob violence, including the 2014 mayhem in Aluthgama.

Amith Weerasinghe of Mahason Balakaya and Ven.Ampitiye Sumarathna of Batticaloa.Photo Twitter by Munza Mushtaq

“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.

“Rumor 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 plans to commit violence,” a social media user who wished to remain anonymous said.

Amidst the confusion, a popular website posted a video evidence of Amith Weerasinghe, leader of the Mahason Balakaya in conversation with a group of individuals, weighing on the pros and cons of carrying out an attack on March 7.

The next day police spokesman, Ruwan Gunasekera, announced that the Head of Mahason Balakaya, who operates a popular Facebook group, had been arrested while 10 others had been detained for spreading incendiary messages on social media.

On March 7, the State Intelligence Service, requested the Defense Ministry to consider a blockade of social media to control hate speech and rumors being spread. Thereafter, the Secretary to the Ministry of Defense asked 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. Internet access in Kandy district was also restrained until further notice.

If the decision is to be reversed the same process has to be followed.


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.

(The featured image at the top is that of Austin Fernando, Secretary to the President and Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena)