Is Sri Lanka using the Easter attacks to limit digital freedom?

Sri Lanka has drafted a new cybersecurity bill but experts warn country could be using political turmoil to pass laws.

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The coordinated Easter bombings that ripped through Sri Lankan churches and luxury hotels were carried out by suicide bombers which killed and injured hundreds of people [Chamila Karunarathne/AP]

COLOMBO — Hours after the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, rumours started to circulate online that Colombo’s water supply was poisoned and that there was a truck full of explosives driving down the capital’s traffic-lined Galle Road.

This caused panic. But Yudhanjana Wijeratne, a data scientist for public policy at Colombo-based think-tank LIRNEasia, got to work debunking.

Along with a few friends, Wijeratne began fact-checking rumours submitted to them by verifying the information with calls to police, journalists or people they knew living in the areas where the stories originated.

“We got drawn into what I would describe as low-level information warfare,” he said.

In the weeks after the attacks, carried out by a small group of fighters pledging allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), there were Facebook posts calling on Buddhists to boycott Muslim shops and restaurants, even going so far as threatening to kill them.

These social media posts in the online world led to violence against Sri Lanka’s Muslim community. Facebook’s response was that several of these posts didn’t violate its community standards.

Sri Lanka’s social media watchdog group Groundviews cited six million people using social media – out of a population of 21 million. The National Information and Cybersecurity Strategy stated there are 4.2 million Facebook accounts in Sri Lanka.

The social media giant has promised to hire more Sinhala and Tamil language content reviewers as most of the hate speech on the platform is posted in local languages.

Since April 21, the government has blocked social media applications three times. This has forced many Sri Lankans to download Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to access their accounts.

“The ban prevented people from accessing information about what was happening. It may have simply exacerbated panic. The hateful actors continued to spread hate,” said Raisa Wickrematunge, a social media researcher at Groundviews.

The Sri Lankan government revived the idea for a new anti-hate speech bill late last year. It has now drafted a new cybersecurity bill to combat online threats to citizens and the nation’s critical infrastructure.

Technology experts believe the definition of what constitutes hate speech and critical infrastructure is too broad and that existing laws to deal with these issues are not being implemented properly by authorities.

According to the Center for Policy Alternatives, no Sri Lankan has been prosecuted for perpetrating hate speech or hate crimes under the country’s laws.

The ICCPR Act, adopted in 2007, states: “No person shall…advocate national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence.”

Legal experts say this offence is not the only speech-related law in Sri Lanka’s penal code.

“The ICCPR is a mechanism to protect human rights, our civil and political rights. But in Sri Lanka it’s a different picture,” said Viranjana Herath, president of the Free Media Movement.

This law has been used to arrest 10 Sri Lankans for various offences – three of which were charged because of Facebook posts – with one Muslim woman arrested for wearing a shirt with a ship’s helm thought to resemble a Buddhist dharma wheel, stated Herath.

A Sri Lankan writer is now in jail for allegedly violating this same law. He published a short story to Facebook that dealt with themes of child abuse in the Buddhist clergy.

Herath believes that the law is being used to stifle fundamental freedoms in Sri Lanka.

Hate speech and misinformation

The phenomenon of hate speech and misinformation is not new to a country that ended its three-decade-long civil war in 2009. Both the government and the Tamil Tigers disseminated lies and propaganda to win the hearts and minds of Sri Lankans.

Political and religious leaders in Sri Lanka who have instigated communal violence using the mainstream media are increasingly turning to social media platforms like Facebook, Whatsapp and Viber – the three most popular messaging applications.

A Muslim doctor in Kurunegala – 90km northeast of Colombo – was arrested and accused of sterilising Buddhist women. The Criminal Investigation Department told the local court last week that it had no evidence to submit, nor did it believe this doctor was linked to any terrorist groups.

Wijeratne said these allegations were made on social media and have popped up several times in the last five years. This is an example of how hate speech and misinformation spread online can lead to actual harm.

Sri Lanka has been under a state of emergency for two months. The threat of violence against the Muslim community continues but no charges have been laid.

“This particular government has spread misinformation, fake news and hate speech to the fullest. They’ve had almost four years to bring in these laws, why now?” asked Eranda Ginige, founder of Social Enterprise Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s government appears to be using the political turmoil to pass laws that they have been unable to since beginning its reform agenda in 2015.

President Maithripala Sirisena is not only refusing to participate in a parliamentary committee investigating security lapses that led to the Easter Sunday bombings, but he also wants to reverse the 2015 amendments to the constitution that curbed the powers of the executive.

This move has led to calls for him not to run in the 2019 presidential election scheduled for December.

“They don’t have a legitimate right to bring any laws at this stage,” Ginige added. “The right thing for the government to do is resign.”

Governmental watchdog groups such as Groundviews and the Centre for Policy Alternatives decry the fact that there has been limited engagement and public consultation on either the anti-hate speech or cybersecurity draft bills.

Wijeratne has developed a smartphone application, Watchdog, in the wake of the attacks to help his team track all the rumours and misinformation being spread online.

“Right now I’m sitting on three million words of hate speech created on Facebook,” Wijeratne said. “We can study or analyse it. We can use it to teach Facebook content moderators. They can use it for their machine learning tools to actually make a difference.”

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A Muslim woman reacts next to a burnt motorbike and her house after a mob attack in Kottampitiya, Sri Lanka May 14, 2019. [Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

Wijeratne is no longer alone. There is also Hate Speech Monitor, Sri Lanka Unites and the AFP Sri Lanka Fact Checking service. Hundreds of volunteers are working day and night to identify hate speech and verify rumours originating online.

If the draft cybersecurity bill becomes law, it will give sweeping powers to two new monitoring bodies, the Cyber Security Agency of Sri Lanka and the National Cyber Security Operations Centre.

But an existing body, the Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team, has been providing protection to critical infrastructure against hackers and malware.

It has requested more powers to deal with cyber threats in advance.

“The Cybersecurity bill was published online in English because some of these words don’t exist in our language. Lots of laws go through in this country without consultation,” said Rohan Samarajiva, a consultant to the Ministry of Digital Infrastructure and Information Technology.

Groundviews’ Wickrematunge has documented a shift in tactics by groups spreading hate online in Sri Lanka. She said they are growing in sophistication since the bans and Facebook’s new local language moderators.

“They know how to get around community guidelines to make sure their content won’t get taken down,” she added.

Sri Lanka’s cybersecurity has been put at risk every time the government blocks social media, stated Wijeratne. It justifies the temporary bans as a measure to stop hate from spreading from online into the community. But this action may do more to hurt the economy than get Sri Lankans to put down their smartphones.

“The data basically says the block was ineffective. In fact, it was counterproductive at every front,” said Wijeratne.

“All of this thinking is predicated on the idea that the government holds the legal monopoly on wireless. They can inflict this on a geographical area. But computer networks don’t function like that.”

Published @AlJazeera

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Adam Bemma is a journalist and media development advisor.

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