Sri Lanka social media shutdown raises fears on free expression

“Nationwide Internet restrictions accelerate the spread of disinformation during a crisis because sources of authentic information are left offline,” NetBlocks said in a tweet. (Shutterstock)
Updated 23 April 2019
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Sri Lanka social media shutdown raises fears on free expression

  • By blocking Facebook, Sri Lanka also shut down the leading social network’s “safety check” feature that enables users to communicate with friends and family after a disaster
  • According to NetBlocks, a digital rights and cybersecurity group, the shutdown in Sri Lanka may prove counterproductive by taking down sources of authentic information

WASHINGTON: Sri Lanka’s decision to block social media following deadly suicide attacks highlights a growing distrust of online platforms, but critics said the move is likely to restrict the flow of important news and information as well as abusive content.
The move comes amid growing frustration by governments around the world with Internet platforms over the propagation of misinformation and incitements of violence.
According to the digital rights group NetBlocks, Sri Lanka blocked Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, Viber, WhatsApp and YouTube following the Easter bombings targeting churches and hotels.
Sri Lanka’s move was the second time it has blocked social networks, following similar actions after an outbreak of violence in 2018.
The decision highlights the troubled reputation of mostly American-owned social media companies, which several years ago had been seen as a force for freedom of information.
“Governments around the world, including those who exploit social media and state media... have come to realize the risks associated with platforms such as WhatsApp,” Jennifer Grygiel, a professor of communication at Syracuse University, said in an email.
“They are quick to take action now in the wake of terrorism to prevent rumors and social unrest, but the ease at which they are able to shut down platforms also unveils how much power and control governments have over these companies and the need to protect the free press.”
According to NetBlocks, a digital rights and cybersecurity group, the shutdown in Sri Lanka may prove counterproductive by taking down sources of authentic information.
“Nationwide Internet restrictions accelerate the spread of disinformation during a crisis because sources of authentic information are left offline,” NetBlocks said in a tweet.
“This allows third parties to exploit the situation for political gain and profit.”
Sri Lankan authorities’ pledge to maintain the shutdown until its investigation is complete is troublesome, said Amy Lehr, director of the human rights initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
“We all have some sympathy when there is a terrorist attack, but what if it were a democracy protest in Iran?” Lehr asked.
“Who decides what is an emergency?“

By blocking Facebook, Sri Lanka also shut down the leading social network’s “safety check” feature that enables users to communicate with friends and family after a disaster.
“These attacks are horrific. And people need social media platforms to obtain accurate information & to contact loved ones,” tweeted Allie Funk, a researcher with the human rights group Freedom House.
“The government’s decision to restrict these apps is a dangerous one.”
Emma Llanso of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a digital rights group, said there are no easy solutions to misinformation on social media.
“Blocking websites can fuel disinformation by leaving journalists and other credible sources of information with fewer avenues to reach people and to debunk falsehoods,” she said. “We need more nuanced solutions.”
Prior research has indicated that Internet and social media blackouts may lead to more, not less, violence.
Stanford University researcher Jan Rydzak said in a February 2019 paper based on findings from India that “shutdowns are found to be much more strongly associated with increases in violent collective action than with non-violent mobilization.”
Efforts to regulate social media have picked up since the mosque shootings last month in New Zealand livestreamed on Facebook and reposted on other apps. Facebook and others struggled to remove various versions of the video.
The missteps of social media, however, have put governments on alert and sparked efforts to control information flows.

Misinformation is often seen during moments of crisis, including during last week’s fire at the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris.
The ban in Sri Lanka “is the inevitable but unfortunate consequence of the platforms’ inability to stop the online amplification of conspiracy and outrage,” said Karen Kornbluh, a former White House policy director who now heads the Digital Innovation Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund.
“This shows the false premise of the platforms’ mantra that any change in their practices will squash free speech... if they continue to turbo-charge disinformation this will lead to less online free speech.”
Lehr said one of the challenges for social platforms using algorithmic feeds is how to prevent false and abusive content from going viral.
“It’s not always a matter of blocking hate speech but also de-amplifying it,” she said.
“I’d like to see us get to a place where a shutdown isn’t necessary, but the social media platforms need to rebuild public trust.”


Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

Updated 21 May 2019
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Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

  • A recent televised news debate highlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan
  • Journalists alike worry a potential peace deal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a golden age of press freedom

KABUL: Beneath the gaze of the TV cameras a woman begins speaking, at first softly but with growing passion as she faces the "Butcher of Kabul" across a crowded auditorium and asks if he wants to apologise for alleged war crimes.
Without missing a beat, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the ruthless former warlord blamed for rocket attacks which reduced much of the Afghan capital to rubble in the 1990s, declined to do so.
The dramatic moment during a recent televised news debate highlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan, where -- for now -- traumatised civilians can stand and at least try to hold powerful men to account, live on camera.
"Years ago, these kind of questions could get you killed, but now people can challenge the most dangerous people in mainstream and social media," Mustafa Rahimi, a university student, said after watching the debate.
But today, even as hundreds of media outlets proliferate across Afghanistan, consumers and journalists alike worry a potential peace deal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a golden age of press freedom.
"We are concerned about a total or a partial ban on media," Sediqullah Khaliq, the director of Hewad TV and radio in Kandahar -- the birthplace of Taliban -- told AFP.
"There is fear that we may go back to a media blackout or having a state-controlled press."
While in power, the Taliban raged against traditional forms of mass communication and entertainment, banning television, movies and allowing only Islamist programming or propaganda to be broadcast on the only radio station, Voice of Sharia.
Anyone caught watching TV faced punishment and risked having their television set smashed and then displayed from a lamppost.
Almost all electronic products were outlawed as un-Islamic. For a while, trees in Kabul fluttered with the magnetic ribbon tape from destroyed cassettes.
Photographs of living things were illegal, and ownership of a video player could lead to a public lashing.
Afghanistan is the world's deadliest place for journalists, who face many risks covering the conflict and who have sometimes been targeted for doing their job.
Nine journalists, including AFP Kabul's chief photographer Shah Marai, were killed in an Islamic State attack in April 2018.
Media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that 2018 was the deadliest year on record for journalists in Afghanistan, with at least 15 media workers killed while working.
Despite the risks, hundreds of media organisations have blossomed since 2001, and today there are more than 100 television channels, 284 radio stations and just over 400 newspapers and magazines, according to a government report.
With one of the world's lowest literacy rates, television and radio play a huge role in Afghan culture, and Afghans have grown accustomed to outlets holding their politicians to account.
Warlords, politicians, Taliban sympathisers and government officials are openly challenged in televised debates, radio programmes and on social media.
"We now play live music, women call in and share their problems on the radio. But even if the Taliban allow radios, I don't think they would like our programmes," said Mera Hamdam, a presenter at Zama private radio in Kandahar.
"There is huge concern that we will lose all our achievements," he said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said if they return to power, the insurgents would follow an Islamic interpretation of freedom of expression.
"We won't allow propaganda, insults and humiliation to people in society and religious values. We will allow those who work for the betterment of the society," he told AFP.
A sixth round of talks between the US and the Taliban wrapped up last week in Doha, with apparently little progress being made on several key issues.
The two foes have for months been trying to hammer out a deal that could see foreign forces leave Afghanistan in return for a ceasefire, talks between Kabul and the Taliban, and a guarantee the country will not be used as a safe haven for terror groups.
But observers worry that in a rush to quit Afghanistan after nearly 18 gruelling years of war, America might not push for safeguards of protections many Afghans now take for granted, including media freedoms and improved rights for women and other marginalised people.
"Freedom of expression as a protective value should be incorporated into any document resulting from peace talks," NAI, a leading media support agency, said in a statement.
Rahimi, the university student, said he worried about Afghanistan going back to "the dark era".