On the evening of Sunday, April 3, 2022, global Internet monitor NetBlocks reported that access to major social media platforms (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, WhatsApp, Viber etc.) in Sri Lanka were being restored. Services were restricted at around the end of April 2 local time. This comes after the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency on April 1, giving sweeping power to security forces. There are growing protests in the country demanding his resignation over the ongoing economic crisis. A thirty-six hour-long curfew was also imposed from 6 p.m. on April 2 until 6 a.m. on April 4 to suppress the protests.
Sri Lanka is facing its worst financial crisis since independence in 1948, amid depleting foreign currency reserves. Rolling blackouts, shortages of fuel, gas and medicine, and higher prices of food items have sparked widespread protests. According to the president, the state of emergency was required to protect public order and ensure essential supplies and services.
Protests against the Rajapaksa government and the powerful Rajapaksa family intensified on March 31, 2022, Thursday leading into the early hours of April 1. Citizen journalism platform Groundviews journaled a timeline of the situation since March 31.
Blogger and activist Amalini De Sayrah tweeted:
Military tanks rolling into the streets of the capital in the dark, access to information restricted overnight, people risking arrest if they were to speak out, vulnerable groups rendered even more vulnerable.
You elect a war criminal, you get a ‘war’. #lka #SriLanka
— Amalini (@Amaliniii) April 3, 2022
No prior notice
People started to notice the social media block on Saturday night. Activist and academician Sanjana Hattotuwa tweeted:
Early reports from multiple locations indicate #Facebook is now being disrupted in #SriLanka. Access to Meta's products/platforms may worsen at pace. Possibly first of other leading social media platforms to which access from within country will be blocked by Govt.
— Dr. Sanjana Hattotuwa (@sanjanah) April 2, 2022
Netblocks confirmed the block on Twitter:
⚠️ Confirmed: Real-time network data show Sri Lanka has imposed a nationwide social media blackout, restricting access to platforms including Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Instagram as emergency is declared amid widespread protests.
📰 Report: https://t.co/XGvXEFIqom pic.twitter.com/KEpzYfGKjV
— NetBlocks (@netblocks) April 2, 2022
Some, like data scientist, author and fact-checker Yudhanjaya Wijeratne had plenty of advice about which VPN to use to bypass the block:
Looks like they blocked @twitter, @facebook and @whatsapp.#GoHomeRajapaksas
Alright, let me drop some advice for people trying to get online
1) Don't download random VPN apps. Most of them steal data. If you want the good stuff, download TOR (https://t.co/dDsgY9nUcF). pic.twitter.com/AZ3EzS1zif
— Yudhanjaya Wijeratne 🎭 (@yudhanjaya) April 2, 2022
Political Cartoons of Sri Lanka tweeted:
“Nothing to worry! You are safe now!!”
Cartoon by @dharshanaKa #Repost#lka #SriLanka #EconomicCrisisLK #SriLankaEconomicCrisis #SriLankaCrisis #SocialMediaBanLK #GoHomeRajapaksas pic.twitter.com/gc8lkbuLxy
— Political Cartoons of Sri Lanka (@cartoonlka) April 2, 2022
Researcher and open source evangelist Pradeeban Kathiravelu tweeted:
[Sri Lanka] In a drastic move, to combat dissent, the Rajapaksa regime blocks social media access. Locals are fearing an outright Internet censorship too. @ripencc
People have the right to information. The regime has threatened strict measures against independent protesters.
— Pradeeban (@pradeeban) April 2, 2022
Contrary to the constitution
According to the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC), the ban was implemented on a request made by the Ministry of Defence.
Lawyer Gehan Gunatilleke questioned:
How can a total ban on social media in response to people protesting peacefully against the government be reasonable or proportionate?
— Gehan Gunatilleke (@GehanDG) April 3, 2022
Gunatilekke highlights in this thread that the Sri Lankan constitution governs the limits of the freedom of expression and not the Sri Lanka Telecommunications Act.
Lawyer N. K. Ashokbharan also asserted:
This not only violates Art 14(1)(a) – Freedom of expression; but for many Art 14(1)(g) – Freedom of occupation, and trade who depend on Social Media for a living.
Defence Ministry & TRCSL has no authority to restrict Fundamental Rights according to their whims and fancies. https://t.co/iOfWHxeBNh
— 𝗡.𝗞.𝗔𝘀𝗵𝗼𝗸𝗯𝗵𝗮𝗿𝗮𝗻 (@nkashokbharan) April 3, 2022
Meanwhile, Namal Rajapaksa, the Sri Lanka Cabinet Minister of Youth and Sports and the son of current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, tweeted:
I will never condone the blocking of social media. 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. #SocialMediaBanLK #SriLanka #lka
— Namal Rajapaksa (@RajapaksaNamal) April 3, 2022
However, academician Ishara Paranawithana quips at Rajapaksa, reminding about his added portfolio — State Minister of Digital Technology and Entrepreneur Development:
When the minister himself doesn't know who the responsible authorities are! 😂😂😂 pic.twitter.com/QaJAQqYeTB
— Ishara Paranawithana (@isharackp) April 3, 2022
Citizen journalism platform Vikalpa highlights protesting voices:
”Stop violating freedom of expression!!!” #srilanka #lka #SocialMediaBanLK #KeepitOn #EngageSMinSL @ActNOW_SL
— Vikalpa (@vikalpavoices) April 3, 2022
Protests amidst curfew
On Sunday, April 3, protesters were seen defying curfew in Kandy and Colombo to turn out in numbers demanding the president's resignation. The police used tear gas on the protesters in many places.
Despite the social media ban, many journalists like Kavinthan Shanmugarajah continued to share the news on the ground on Twitter:
Almost 24 hours into the curfew and Pocket protests have already erupted in several parts of the country, despite a Public Emergency being declared and Severe Warnings been made. Images from Kohuwela showing people with their children, coming to the street. #SriLanka pic.twitter.com/ynRHb483oE
— Kavinthan (@Kavinthans) April 3, 2022
Images showing the location where a 53 year old man who has reportedly came to meet President at his house in Mirihana to demand uninterrupted electricity died by electrocuting himself by climbing on a high tension electricity line near the house. #SriLanka pic.twitter.com/WjRok0cVKA
— Kavinthan (@Kavinthans) April 3, 2022
After a meeting on Sunday, April 3, 2022 night, all 26 ministers of the Sri Lankan cabinet resigned. However, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa still hold power. The government is set to appoint a new cabinet on Monday.