Netizen Report: Sri Lanka Blocks Social Media Amid Sectarian Violence

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Jami Ul Alfar Jummah mosque in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo by Aksam Zarook via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

Sri Lanka’s Telecommunications Regulatory Commission ordered telecom operators to block Facebook, Viber and WhatsApp on March 7, in reaction to sectarian violence.

In recent months, tensions have risen between Buddhists, who make up the majority of the population, and Muslims, who represent just ten 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 since.

On March 7, authorities imposed a ten-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:

…this 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

A federal court in Abuja arraigned journalist brothers Timothy and Daniel Elombah of the independent Elombah news website on cybercrime and terrorism charges on March 1. 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!”

Has Iran been throttling Telegram?

At the height of this winter’s protest movement in Iran, there was a temporary ban on the Telegram messaging app from December 30, 2017 to January 13, 2018. New technical evidence from the University of Tehran and the Open Observatory of Network Interference suggests that authorities were continuing to limit the application’s use after the ban was lifted.

Blocked Twitter users take Trump to court

A group of US citizens who have been blocked by US President Donald Trump on Twitter have filed a lawsuit accusing the president of violating free speech in a public forum. Represented by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, the claimants argue that by blocking hundreds of citizens from publicly responding to his tweets, Trump is effectively restricting their first amendment rights. The case will confront thorny issues surrounding the treatment of online speech by public officials, and the adjudication of free speech on privately-owned internet platforms.

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