Sri Lankan government urged to lift block on social media

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — After a weeklong shutdown of popular social media networks, journalists and rights activists are demanding the Sri Lankan government lift the censorship now that anti-Muslim violence has eased.

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 sites such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

He told reporters the government action is unacceptable and 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 the government's move to block social media has posed a grave threat to the peoples' right to freedom of expression.

The government imposed a state of emergency last week and shut down popular social media networks to block the spread of rumors leading to tensions and attacks.

Meanwhile, the government announced that restrictions on access to Viber will be lifted at midnight Tuesday due to difficulties encountered without it by Sri Lankan migrant workers, businesspeople and tourists arriving in the country.

Telecommunication minister Harin Fernando has said officials are discussing with the situation with Facebook representatives.

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.

The shutdown came after religious violence flared anew in the central hills in Sri Lanka with Buddhist mobs sweeping through towns and villages, burning Muslim homes and businesses and leaving victims barricaded inside mosques. The government deployed thousands of troops to restore peace and protect the minority Muslims and their property.

The area is currently peaceful and no attacks have been reported since Thursday.

Sri Lanka has long faced a bitter ethnic divide between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils. The conflict fueled a decades-long civil war as Tamil militants tried to carve out their own homeland. The war ended in 2009.

Since then the religious divide has grown, with the rise of Buddhist nationalist groups who accuse minority Muslims of stealing from Buddhist temples or desecrating them, or forcing people to convert to Islam.