Sri Lankan government urged to lift block on social media

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankan activists and journalists are demanding the government end a weeklong shutdown of several social media sites now that anti-Muslim violence in the island's central hills has eased.

The government imposed a state of emergency last week and blocked Facebook, WhatsApp and other sites to stop rumors from spreading after Buddhist mobs swept through towns and villages, burning Muslim homes and businesses. Thousands of troops were deployed and the area has been peaceful, with no attacks reported since Thursday.

Freddie Gamage of the Professional Web Journalists' Association said the government could have used existing laws to prevent spreading of hate speech and punished those instigating violence, instead of blocking social media. He called the shutdown a move toward a censorship of the media.

Lawyer and activist Praboda Rathnayaka said those spreading hate speech could be arrested under existing law and that blocking social media posed a grave threat to the peoples' right to freedom of expression.

The government late Tuesday said it was restoring access to Viber because Sri Lankan migrant workers, businesspeople and tourists arriving in the country had encountered difficulties without the messaging and calling app.

Telecommunication minister Harin Fernando has said officials were discussing the situation with representatives of Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp.

On Wednesday, a team from Facebook will arrive in Sri Lanka for further discussions with top Sri Lankan officials including Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The government has raised its concerns involving national security and ethnic reconciliation in Facebook posts and Facebook has given a satisfactory response.

Fernando believes the blocking could be lifted by Friday after the discussions.

Sri Lanka has long had a bitter ethnic divide between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils that led to a civil war killing tens of thousands of people. Since the war ended in 2009, the country's religious divide has grown, with Buddhist nationalist groups accusing minority Muslims of stealing from Buddhist temples or desecrating them, or forcing people to convert to Islam.

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