The government of Sri Lanka briefly blocked social media as protests erupted across the nation due to shortages of fuel and food.
All major social media websites were blocked by the government early on April 3 following a nationwide curfew announced on April 2 and a state of emergency declared on April 1. Affected websites included Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and messaging apps such as WhatsApp.
Jayantha de Silva, chairman of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, told Reuters that the temporary block was implemented due to “special instructions” given by the defense ministry. It was imposed “in the interests” of the country for people to “maintain calm,” he said.
The government lifted the blockade after approximately 16 hours, allowing citizens to resume connecting through social media. The move came under heavy criticism.
“I will never condone the blocking of social media,” Namal Rajapaksa, the minister for youth and sports and the nephew of the country’s president, said in an April 3 tweet. “The availability of VPN, just like I’m using now, makes such bans completely useless. I urge the authorities to think more progressively and reconsider this decision.”
Sri Lanka has a history of imposing nationwide social media restrictions during times of civil unrest, such as in April 2019 after a series of bombings that targeted churches and hotels.
The list of restricted platforms during the recent ban “appears largely consistent” with the list used during previous censorships, internet watchdog Netblocks said in an April 2 post. The organization tracked a “significant decline in connectivity levels” on local internet provider Dialog on March 29, which coincided with the onset of protests.
Sri Lanka is in the midst of an economic crisis, triggered in part because of a lack of foreign currency, which has led to difficulty in importing items such as food and petroleum.
One reason for a dip in foreign currency reserves is the decline in the tourism industry, which accounts for roughly 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s GDP. Tourism was already declining after the 2019 bomb blasts in Colombo; the lockdowns related to the spread of COVID-19 made it worse. Disruption of exports to other nations and a fall in foreign direct investment added to the problem.
Citizens have become impatient and increasingly reactive as they face shortages of food and medicines, as well as long power cuts lasting half a day or more.
On March 31, protesters gathered outside President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s home in Colombo. Police began beating people and firing tear gas, and protestors responded by pelting them with stones, injuring two dozen policemen.
On April 1, the government arrested 53 demonstrators and detained five news photographers who were allegedly tortured at the police station, according to BBC. The president then announced a state of emergency on April 1.
The government imposed a 36-hour curfew at dusk on April 2, which was followed a day later by the social media ban and its subsequent restoration.
Opposition leaders led a march to Colombo on April 3, in defiance of the curfew order. Lawmakers marching toward Colombo’s main square were blocked by military troops and police officers that set up barricades along the way.
“This is unconstitutional,” opposition leader Sajith Premadasa told troops who prevented the lawmakers from walking to the square, according to an Associated Press report. “You are violating the law. Please think of the people who are suffering. Why are you protecting a government like this?”
“How long can they rule under emergency? The first instance when the curfew is lifted, people are going to be back on the streets,” Nalin Bandara, another lawmaker, told AP.