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Censoring dissent in Sri Lanka 

  • Arrests, intimidation, and a social media ban

By Harindrini Corea

A mother stands at a peaceful protest with her baby. The struggle for basic necessities is the story of citizens in Sri Lanka today under the regime of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Shortages of essential items, including fuel and other goods, and rolling blackouts for up to 13 hours a day have brought people out onto the streets in peaceful protest over the last month. Anger and frustration has intensified as the people demand an end to a regime that is determined to suppress its own people. 

Following a protest outside the President’s residence last Thursday (31 March), a brief curfew was imposed and several protesters were arrested, tortured, and detained on the basis that violence had erupted during the protest. This violence was used by the regime to label all dissenters as “extremists” or “political terrorists”. However, there are allegations that the instigation of violence was not carried out by the citizens themselves but rather by individuals affiliated with the regime with the intention of sabotaging the protests.

At a time when Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis in decades and people are pleading for solutions, President Rajapaksa and his regime, have created a narrative misrepresenting citizens exercising their constitutionally guaranteed right to the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as “violent extremists” who must be repressed through the force of the military and law enforcement and the tool of censorship. This article briefly looks at the recent arbitrary and unjust use of censorship by this regime to suppress criticism against it. 

The Constitution entitles citizens to the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; the freedom of speech and expression including publication; and the freedom of peaceful assembly. The expression of dissent online and offline is protected through the right to freedom of speech and expression. However, notable incidents pertaining to the suppression of dissent were observed in the abduction of a social media activist and the ban on social media platforms.

Social media activist Thisara Anuruddha Bandara, a leading voice of the peaceful protests against the Government, was abducted last Saturday (2), by a group who had claimed to be from the Police. Following a complaint filed by the Sri Lanka Association of Young Journalists with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) and inquiries made from the Police by several lawyers and activists, the Police informed the HRCSL that the social media activist was in police custody. He was finally produced before the Magistrate’s Court of Colombo at 1 a.m. on Sunday (3), and received bail. The activist had created a Facebook group in which thousands of citizens, making up a people’s movement of protest, planned to engage in protests against the regime on Sunday. Their main demand was that President Rajapaksa’s regime be brought to an end – #GohomeGota. With Bandara’s arrest, the group he had begun on Facebook also appeared to have been archived and is currently not in use. In 2021, people were arrested for social media posts criticising the President and the response of the Government to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, this was an acceleration of the intimidation and criminalisation of dissent, a situation in which it was not originally an arrest but an abduction that was reported.     

In parallel with the abduction of the social media activist, a state of emergency and islandwide curfew was imposed, preventing citizens from being able to step out in a protest movement that was planned across the entire country for Sunday, and subsequent restrictions on access to social media were imposed by the State. These attempts at censorship and suppression were all targeting the intensifying cries of thousands of people across Sri Lanka that President Rajapaksa’s regime be brought to an end.  

The restrictions on access to social media platforms infringe on the fundamental rights of the people and hinder internet-related freedoms. It is notable that the use of censorship by the regime, particularly with regard to the online space, has been met with significant opposition and criticism. Following a statement by the HRCSL that a ban on social media is a violation of human rights and the call of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka for the ban to be withdrawn, it is reported that the ban was lifted hours after it was originally imposed. Furthermore, hundreds of Attorneys-at-Law (AALs) present at police stations and court houses were instrumental in ensuring that protesters, journalists, bystanders and the social media activist leading one of the people’s movements who were arrested, did not go missing, received the necessary medical treatment, and were brought before a magistrate without unnecessary delay.

Attempts by the Government to use censorship in online spaces continues to be thwarted. Citizens are continuing to protest online and offline and also use social media platforms through live feeds; they continue to gather and share information, connect with like-minded people, and oppose the regime and those affiliated with it.

Simultaneously, by Gazette Number 2274/10, President Rajapaksa has revoked the state of emergency following the possibility that it would not be ratified in the Parliament with the ruling coalition losing its majority in the Parliament. Nevertheless, the situation remains volatile with the military and the Police facing off with people in protests on the ground and increased surveillance online. What is imperative is that the struggle of the Sri Lankan citizen is not distorted or used as an excuse by a failing regime to censor, use violence against, or control a country that is fighting for an end to its authoritarian rule.       

(The writer is an Attorney-at-Law)

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.