Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

Partly Free
49
100
A Obstacles to Access 10 25
B Limits on Content 22 35
C Violations of User Rights 17 40
Last Year's Score & Status
53 100 Partly Free

Overview

An uptick in arrests for critical speech such as satire, heavy-handed emergency provisions, and increased intimidation against journalists all contributed to the decline of internet freedom in Sri Lanka. The government responded to the Easter attacks with social media blocks, efforts to enhance surveillance, and restrictive emergency regulations that greatly curbed free expression and press freedom online. The blocking of social media and communication platforms three times within the span of a month suggests that it has been normalized as a policy tool. The downward trajectory of internet freedom is expected to continue, evidenced by recently proposed amendments criminalizing false information and suggestions of increased government surveillance.

Sri Lanka has experienced improvements in political rights and civil liberties since the 2015 election of President Maithripala Sirisena. However, the government has been slow to implement transitional justice mechanisms needed to address the aftermath of a 26-year civil war between government forces and Tamil rebels, which ended in 2009. Sirisena’s reputation as a democratic reformer was further tarnished by a constitutional crisis in 2018, in which he attempted to unilaterally replace the prime minister, dissolve Parliament, and hold snap elections. The moves were blocked by the parliamentary majority and the courts.

Key Developments

June 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019

  • Following the Easter Sunday attacks in April 2019, the government declared a state of emergency and passed emergency regulations that significantly restrict freedom of expression and press freedom online (see C1). 

  • Authorities blocked some social media and communication platforms on three occasions during the coverage period, including a nationwide block that lasted nine days following the April attacks (see A3 and B1).

  • Arrests in retaliation for online activities increased during the coverage period; an award-winning poet was charged for a controversial short story while users criticizing the police on social media were arrested (see C3).

  • Journalists were increasingly harassed, and in one case attacked, in retaliation for their reporting (see C7).

  • The government signaled its intention to ramp up surveillance by announcing a new monitoring system, requesting approval to buy advanced surveillance technology from an Israeli company, and requesting surveillance technology from Chinese president Xi Jinping (see C5).

A Obstacles to Access

Internet penetration in Sri Lanka has increased in recent years, but a digital divide between urban and rural areas persists. Regulatory reform is needed to ensure independence and transparency in the telecommunications sector, as the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) continues to be led by political appointees. The government blocked social media platforms three separate times during the coverage period.

A1 0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 46

Although internet access has increased in recent years, the speed and quality of service is inconsistent. There was a steady rise in the number of mobile broadband subscriptions during the coverage period, which reached 5.6 million by September 2018, according to the TRCSL.1 The number of fixed broadband subscriptions increased to nearly 1.5 million by September 2018.

The government has committed to substantial investments in digital infrastructure projects.2 Providing free internet access was a key campaign promise of President Sirisena, and the government pledged to provide Wi-Fi access to over 2,000 public locations by the end of 2016.3 By the end of 2018, there were 1,176 hotspots around the country, according to the Public Wi-Fi Initiative, a project implemented by the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA).4 However, experts have voiced concerns about the speed and quality of service at some hotspots.5

Private companies are also working to expand service. In 2018, the internet service provider (ISP) Dialog had over 2,500 pay-to-use Wi-Fi hotspots around the country,6 and spent a reported 30.6 billion Sri Lanka rupees ($170 million) on broadband infrastructure.7 In February 2019, the majority state-owned Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) signed a deal with the international Wi-Fi provider Fontech, which was expected to complete more than 200,000 Wi-Fi hotspots by the end of the year.8 In July 2018, Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure Minister Harin Fernando announced that a working group would be formed to discuss the implementation of Google’s delayed Project Loon, which is meant to achieve island-wide internet coverage, but there were no updates on the project’s status by the end of the coverage period.9

During the reporting period, service providers moved towards offering 5G service. In December 2018, the mobile service provider Dialog Axiata announced that it had delivered a pilot 5G transmission.10 In October 2018, Dialog also launched a 5G innovation center in collaboration with the Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson.11 Also in October, the mobile service provider Mobitel demonstrated its new 5G capabilities at a national convention using commercially available devices and network equipment.12 Hutch signed a $115 million agreement with the Board of Investment of Sri Lanka in February 2019 to launch 4G service nationwide, making it the country’s third 4G provider, after Dialog Axiata and Mobitel.13

A2 0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 13

Internet connectivity remains affordable for individual subscribers, although a geographic digital divide persists. Sri Lanka’s prices for broadband are among the lowest in the world. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Sri Lanka is ranked 21 out of 181 countries for affordability of mobile broadband, although its taxes for such services are the third highest in the region.1

The highest percentage of households access the internet in the Western Province, the most populated of the country’s nine provinces,2 due to the more developed infrastructure in Colombo and other urbanized areas. Colombo remains the best-connected district, with the highest proportion of people accessing the internet.3

The civil war, which ended in 2009, delayed infrastructure development in the Northern and Eastern provinces. However, the telecommunications infrastructure has improved in recent years, which has led to steady growth in internet usage. For example, in 2018, 38 percent of households in the city of Vavuniya in the Northern Province had internet access, the second highest rate in the country, behind Colombo. The rate of access improved in Jaffna as well, with 34 percent of households actively using the internet in 2018, compared to 26 percent in 2017.4

According to census data, digital literacy rates—which measure users’ comfort with smartphones, computers, laptops, or tablets—stood at 40 percent in 2018.5 Compared to urban areas, rural and up-country Tamil communities have significantly lower digital literacy rates.6

Schools with digital facilities often lack corresponding literacy programs. For a number of years, the ICTA has promoted digital literacy in rural areas by establishing community-based e-libraries and e-learning centers,7 though some local journalists have criticized aspects of the initiative.8 In 2017, the Ministry of Education inaugurated the country’s first “cloud smart classroom,” a pilot project for digital interactive learning.9 Those who participated in the cloud smart classroom reported higher attendance rates and performance.10 Following the success of the project, the Sri Jayawardanapura Kotte School was selected in 2019 to be the first “smart grade” using tablet computers.11

A3 0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 26

Authorities continued to block social media platforms during the coverage period, especially surrounding major political events (see B1). In the wake of a series of suicide attacks at churches and hotels on Easter Sunday in April 2019, the government blocked Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and Viber for nine days.1 During this time, at least one popular virtual private network (VPN) was also reportedly blocked.2 In the next month, certain service providers blocked social media platforms two more times, including on May 5 for around 10 hours following a disagreement that escalated to a brawl in Negombo, and on May 13 for four days after attacks on mosques and Muslim-owned businesses.3

The government previously restricted connectivity in the Kandy district following communal violence in March 2018. In response to the violence, the Ministry of Defense ordered a nationwide block of Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Viber.4

Sri Lanka has access to multiple international cables, but most of the landing stations for these cables are controlled by the majority state-owned SLT.5 In 2017, SLT completed6 a landing station for the South East Asia–Middle East–Western Europe 5 (SEA-ME-WE-5) cable in the south, which provides roughly 24 Tbps between the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.7 SLT formed a consortium with 15 international telecommunications companies to build the cable in 2014.8

A4 0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 36

Sri Lanka’s retail tariffs are among the lowest in the world, though the diversity of service providers is limited due to the dominance of some companies, particularly the majority government-owned provider SLT.

Following the merger of Hutch and Etisalat in April 2018,1 there are five ISPs in Sri Lanka, according to the TRC.2 SLT remains a key player in the ICT market, and the firm imposes price barriers by forcing competing service providers to lease connectivity from SLT, which charges high rates.3

Four4 key service providers dominate the mobile market. Dialog Axiata is the largest, with nearly 14 million subscribers in 2018,5 followed by Mobitel, a subsidiary of SLT,6 with over 9 million subscribers by the end of 2018.7 Hutch had the third largest number of subscribers, with a 20 percent market share after the 2018 merger.8 Airtel Lanka has also expanded its network by 20 percent.9

In 2016, SLT announced that it would provide a global connectivity backhauling facility via Sri Lanka, thereby allowing the company to cross-connect to other cable systems and increase capacity.10 In August 2018, the government removed telecommunications floor rates for call charges, in hopes of increasing competition among service providers.11

The competitive nature of the market has led to some legal battles. In August 2018, for example, the Commercial High Court rejected Dialog’s petition against SLT, which accused the latter company of violating intellectual property rights.12

A5 0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 04

The national regulatory bodies overseeing service providers lack independence, and frequently do not act in a fair manner. The TRC continued to be led by political appointees during the coverage period.

The TRC was established under the Sri Lanka Telecommunications (Amendment) Act, No. 27 of 1996. As the national regulatory agency for telecommunications, the TRC’s mandate is to ensure the provision of effective telecommunications, protect the interests of the public, and maintain effective competition between service providers.

In March 2019, the president issued a special gazette bringing the TRC under the control of the Ministry of Defense,1 which raised additional concerns about the TRC’s independence. The move also stoked fears about potential surveillance through the TRC, as the ministry has previously expressed interest in developing a surveillance and tracking system in 2013.2

The TRC’s lack of transparency in recommending whether a telecommunications provider should receive a license, poor regulatory practices, and instances of preferential treatment have been noted in the past.3 Analysts have asserted that spectrum allocation and refarming (the more efficient reallocation of spectrum) have been administered in an ad hoc manner, but over the years, procedural transparency has improved.4 However, regulatory reforms to improve the TRC’s performance and increase its independence are necessary.

During former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime, many of the TRC’s interventions to restrict online content and pronouncements on strengthening regulations on the internet were partisan and extralegal.5 In 2017, the Colombo High Court found former TRC chairperson Anusha Palpita and former secretary to Rajapaksa Lalitha Weeratunga guilty of misappropriating TRC funds for Rajapaksa’s presidential campaign. They were sentenced to three years in prison and fined, but were released on bail pending their appeal of the verdict.6 A court date for the appeal had not yet been set by the end of the coverage period.

President Sirisena has largely chosen political allies to head the TRC. Like his predecessor, he appointed his permanent secretary, P. B. Abeykoon, as chairperson.7 Sirisena also appointed then president’s counsel M. M. Zuhair as the director general,8 but Zuhair and the board of directors were dismissed in 2015 for violating TRC financial regulations.9 Zuhair was replaced by Sunil S. Sirisena, a more experienced senior civil servant.10 In 2016, however, President Sirisena appointed then president’s counsel Hemantha Warnakulasuriya, a lawyer and former ambassador, as a TRC member.11 His qualification for the position was unclear. The current director general is P.R.S.P. Jayatilake, whose brother is a member of Parliament in the ruling party and a Sirisena loyalist who wrote a book about the president’s rise to power.12

B Limits on Content

The government blocked social media and communication platforms three times in the space of a month during the coverage period, following the suicide bomb attacks on Easter Sunday, purportedly to stop the spread of disinformation and misinformation. Manipulated content did spread during a constitutional crisis that began in October 2018, and in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks.

B1 0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 36

The government blocked social media and communication platforms three times in April and May 2019, in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks (see A3). Authorities claimed the restrictions were necessary to stop the spread of disinformation and hateful content, as well as limit sectarian violence during the politically tense weeks and months following the attacks.1 The restrictions, however, prevented access to independent news sources and limited users’ ability to contact those in areas affected by the crisis.2 The government previously implemented a nationwide block of Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Viber that lasted for over a week in March 2018, in response to violence in Kandy.

A few webpages were found to be blocked in 2017, including Lankaenews, which prompted a number of civil society groups to file a right to information (RTI) request to reveal the website blocking process (see B3).3 In its response, the TRC revealed that 13 websites had been blocked between 2015 and 2017, including political news sites and pornography sites. Lankaenews was reportedly blocked for publishing stories critical of the president.4 As of May 2019, the site was inaccessible on both SLT and Dialog broadband connections. Two other websites on the list, Lanka News Web Today and Vigasa Puwath, were unblocked as of June 2019.

B2 0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 34

Digital platforms, publishers, and content hosts do not report many government requests to remove content. Between January and December 2018, Facebook removed nine posts, which the Presidential Secretariat and the national centre for cybersecurity claimed were stoking violence, but did not violate Facebook’s community standards.1

Rights activists have expressed concerns about Facebook’s content moderation practices. For example, civil society organizations (CSOs) criticized a January 2019 meeting between senior Facebook employees and government officials, which included President Sirisena, former president and current member of Parliament Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.2 The meeting was ostensibly about fake news, although activists were concerned that the participants focused on content moderation and censorship.

Facebook’s content removal policies also generated controversy in the aftermath of communal violence in March 2018. Facebook has been criticized for failing to remove hateful content in the Sinhala language, which analysts argue has encouraged violence against Muslims.3 In June 2018, Facebook representatives met with local civil society activists and made commitments to improve their language capabilities to better moderate content.4

B3 0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 24

There is a lack of transparency around restrictions of online content, but a 2017 RTI request finally revealed some of the government’s blocking procedures. Following the Easter Sunday attacks, the government claimed it would introduce new social media regulations, but no concrete legislation had been proposed by July 2019.1

The blocking of Lankaenews prompted three civil society organizations to file an RTI request about the government’s blocking procedures in 2017 (see B1).2 The government’s response revealed that blocking orders can originate from the Ministry of Mass Media and the Presidential Secretariat for a number of reasons, including “publishing false information” and “damaging the president’s reputation.”3 Orders are then sent to the TRC, which instructs ISPs to block the content. The TRC denied part of the RTI request on national security grounds, and an appeal of the case was heard before the RTI Commission in the spring of 2018.4

There is no record of ISPs challenging the TRC’s blocking orders at the commission itself or through the courts. It is not clear if the TRC can impose financial or legal penalties on telecommunications companies that do not comply with blocking orders since the conditions of such orders are unknown to the public. Under the Telecommunications Act, ISPs are licensed by the Ministry of Telecommunications, but the TRC can make recommendations on whether or not a license should be granted. The ministry can impose conditions on a license, requiring the provider to address any matter considered “requisite or expedient to achieving” TRC objectives.5

There is no independent body regulating content, which leaves limited avenues for appeal (see A5). Content providers have filed fundamental rights applications with the Supreme Court to challenge blocking orders,6 but under former president Rajapaksa, the lack of public trust in the politicized judiciary and fear of retaliatory measures presented significant obstacles for would-be petitioners.7

In July 2018, Facebook unveiled a new misinformation policy for several countries, including Sri Lanka, which aims to proactively remove misleading content that could result in real-world harm.8 However, civil society groups have concerns about the policy, noting that it places too much pressure on local organizations and not enough responsibility with the platform.9

B4 0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 24

Self-censorship by journalists online appears to be decreasing, in part due to the government’s stated commitment to press freedom. Under President Sirisena, both traditional and online media outlets have expressed a diversity of political viewpoints, including criticism of the government. However, self-censorship is still prevalent during crises and in regard to coverage of certain key political figures. Journalists have noted that they are more likely to self-censor when covering the president and the first family, sometimes avoiding direct criticism of Sirisena.1 Increased arrests for online activity over the coverage period could contribute to self-censorship (see C3).

B5 0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 34

Although the government does not overtly control online sources of information, the spread of disinformation and misinformation by ordinary users and government officials alike has been a growing concern in recent years.

Following the bombings on Easter Sunday, false or manipulated information was quickly shared online.1 For example, rumors spread that the water supply in Hunupitiya was poisoned and a fake Facebook page masquerading as the police spread rumors that users could be arrested if they used VPNs.2

Authorities also spread misleading information during the coverage period, including in the aftermath of the Easter attacks3 and throughout the political crisis in October and November 2018. A member of the opposition Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP) party reportedly posted photos to an official Facebook page purporting to show preparations for the Easter Sunday attacks; some of the photos were actually taken in Iraq in 2016.4 During the constitutional crisis in November 2018, a member of the Presidential Secretariat shared a fraudulent letter that appeared to be from the speaker of Parliament to Supreme Court Chief Justice Nalin Perera, which questioned whether the president was fit for office.5

Platforms such as Facebook have amplified and spread inflammatory speech. During the previous coverage period, a rumor spread across Facebook that 23,000 sterilization pills were seized from a Muslim pharmacist in a small village. Facebook posts in 2018 implored followers to “reap without leaving an iota behind” and “kill all Muslims, don’t even save an infant.”6 Following communal riots in Ampara and Digana, Facebook’s slow response to inflammatory speech online became an international concern; the platform has since introduced a new misinformation policy (see B3).

B6 0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 23

Some government regulations threaten the economic viability of online publishers and start-up platforms.1 The government has maintained onerous news site registration requirements introduced by the previous administration. During Rajapaksa’s presidency, the Ministry of Mass Media directed all news sites to register for a fee of 25,000 rupees ($190), with an annual renewal fee of 10,000 rupees ($75).

B7 0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 34

Diverse content is generally available online. Social media and communication platforms and blogs are popular and widely available, diversifying the media landscape and spurring local debate. Diverse sources of information online in English, Sinhala, and Tamil are available, including on socioeconomic and political issues, despite a history of censorship. Sites such as Vikalpa and Groundviews feature citizen-generated content that would otherwise be overlooked by mainstream media.1 Groundviews also operates Maatram, a website publishing citizen journalism aimed at Tamil readers across Sri Lanka and the diaspora.2

Other curated websites contribute to this diversity. ReadMe offers news on technology and the start-up Roar reports on political, social, and economic issues.3 Manthri.lk is a nonprofit platform that monitors elected officials’ participation and attendance, the diversity of issues they discuss, and their contributions to legislative functions.4 Additionally, the new online news magazine Counterpoint, which launched in February 2018, focuses on long-form journalism and investigative and political content.5

The Sinhala newspaper and website Anidda, which launched in April 2018,6 was one of the few outlets to criticize the ruling party during the constitutional crisis.7 There have been a number of new initiatives from civil society, such as the website for the Divide, which examines the gaps in Sinhala- and Tamil-language newspapers in their reporting on gender, minority groups, and transitional justice and political reconciliation.8 The Media Ownership Monitor, an initiative of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), tracks the ownership structure of mainstream media outlets in Sri Lanka.9

B8 0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 46

The web has provided an avenue for robust digital activism and engagement on political issues in Sri Lanka, although most campaigns register uneven progress in achieving their goals. Many are hitched to discrete events, crises, or stalled political processes, and campaigners are generally unable to gather the momentum needed to drive meaningful change and long-term citizen participation. The blocks on social media platforms during the coverage period impacted citizens’ ability to access news and information, albeit temporarily. However, a number of social media campaigns were launched during the reporting period.

During and after the political crisis that began in October 2018, users shared their anger with President Sirisena through a number of hashtags online, including #couplk, #politicalcrisislk, and #constitutionalcrisislka.1 Many Sri Lankans also protested in Colombo, sharing photos, videos, and campaign posters across social media.2 Following the Easter Sunday attacks, users disseminated developments online through hashtags such as #EasterSundayAttacksLK.

Activists and civil society used the hashtag #DisappearedSL to draw attention to and track the protests by families of those who disappeared across the north and east during the civil war.3 The hashtag #1000wagehike was used to highlight the wage negotiations for estate workers and the continued marginalization of the community, particularly the Malaiyagha Tamils.4

C Violations of User Rights

Following the Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks, the government imposed new emergency regulations on publications that significantly restricted press freedom and free expression, including online. During the coverage period, more people were arrested for online political content, while hostility toward online journalists and ordinary users alike increased.

C1 0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 16

Although internet access is not guaranteed as a fundamental right in Sri Lanka’s legislation, Article 14 (1)(a) of the constitution protects freedom of expression, subject to restrictions related to the protection of national security, public order, racial and religious harmony, and morality. There are no specific constitutional provisions guaranteeing freedom of expression online. During the coverage period, the government moved to restrict free expression and press freedom with the implementation of emergency regulations and the approval of new amendments targeting false information online (see C2).

Following the Easter Sunday attacks in April 2019, the government declared a state of emergency and passed the emergency regulations.1 The regulations created a new competent authority who is appointed by the president.2 This authority can limit the publication of certain materials (including online), such as content deemed threatening to national security, or that could disrupt public order or the provision of essential services. The authority can require that certain types of content be reviewed before being published. The regulations also prohibit the spread of false statements that could cause public disorder or alarm. Under the regulations, people can appeal decisions from the competent authority to new advisory committees. The state of emergency was lifted in August 2019, after the coverage period.3

Since the passage of the Right to Information Act in 2017,4 citizens have submitted thousands of RTI applications on issues ranging from legislation on the rights of persons with disabilities to the blocking of websites (see B3).5

A culture of impunity, circumvention of the judicial process through arbitrary action, and a lack of adequate protection for individuals and their privacy compounded the poor enforcement of freedom of expression guarantees under former president Rajapaksa’s government. These issues have persisted under the current government.6

C2 0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 14

Several vaguely defined, overly broad laws can be abused to prosecute users and restrict online expression. The 2019 emergency regulations also provide for prison terms and fines for some forms of online speech by authors, editors, and publishers (see C1).1

In June 2019, just after the coverage period, the cabinet approved vague amendments to the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code that prohibit the spread of “false news” impacting “communal harmony” or “state security.” These terms are left undefined in the amendments, leaving them open to abuse.2 If the amendments are approved by Parliament, those found in violation of the law face up to five years in prison and/or a fine of 1 million rupees ($5,600).

Publishing official secrets, information about Parliament that may undermine its work, or “malicious” content that incites violence or disharmony could result in criminal charges.3 Then government information director general Sudarshana Gunawardana stated in March 2018 that incitement to violence, including on social media, is contrary to Article 28 of the constitution and Section 100 of the Penal Code, as well as Section 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Sri Lanka is a party.4

The government continued to debate a draft counterterrorism law that would replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) of 1979.5 During the coverage period, some civil society groups raised objections to the current draft, highlighting its broad definition of terrorism, a provision for a database that would store records of arrests and detentions, and language that could be used to suppress protests.6 Other groups acknowledged that the draft was an improvement over the PTA. The government has promised to replace the PTA, which was used by Rajapaksa’s government to prosecute critics like web journalist J.S. Tissainayagam, who was imprisoned in 2009 for causing racial hatred and raising money for terrorism.7 A previous draft counterterrorism framework leaked in 2016 also caused concern.8 Legal scholars said that it would criminalize “words spoken or intended to be read” that threaten the “unity, territorial integrity, security or sovereignty of Sri Lanka,” potentially making criticism of state policies a punishable offense.9

Authorities have increasingly manipulated the ICCPR Act 2007, which enshrines the ICCPR in domestic law, to criminalize online speech (see C3).10 Section 3(1), for example, prohibits national, racial, and religious hatred if it incites discrimination, hostility, and violence. Those charged under the act can only be granted bail by a high court.

C3 0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 36

During the coverage period, a growing number of people were prosecuted in retaliation for their online activities, including criticism of the government. This development concerned rights activists, who had initially praised President Sirisena for reducing the number of arrests of online activists and journalists in the aftermath of former president Rajapaksa’s more repressive regime.

A number of people were detained for criticizing the police on social media during the coverage period. In February 2019, a man was charged with humiliating the police after allegedly posting Facebook comments on a fraudulent account that criticized the police.1 In January 2019, two men were charged with damaging public property and humiliating the police for posting a video on Facebook of themselves pretending to bribe a cardboard cutout of a traffic police officer.2 They were later released on bail.3

In April 2019, the award-winning author and poet Shakthika Sathkumara was arrested and charged under the ICCPR Act and Penal Code for a short story he shared on Facebook that reportedly suggested same-sex sexual activity and child abuse within the Buddhist clergy.4 The complaint was filed by Buddhist monks. As of July 2019, Sathkumara remained in detention, which drew widespread condemnation from free speech advocates.

In wake of the violence in Digana in March 2018, the TRC reported that the Ministry of Defense was monitoring social media for content that could incite unrest.5 Around 10 people were subsequently arrested for spreading provocative and hateful messages on social media.6 In the same month, a few students were arrested for instigating hate and “disharmony” on social media.7 Reports did not clarify the content of their social media posts.

C4 0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 24

Users can freely use encryption tools, while there are some limits to anonymous digital communication. Real-name registration is required for mobile phone users under a 2008 Ministry of Defense program to curb “negative incidents.” It was bolstered in 2010 after service providers failed to ensure that subscribers registered.1 Access to public Wi-Fi hotpots requires a citizen’s national identity card number,2 which could be used to track online activity.

News sites are required to register under a procedure that lacks a legal foundation, according to critics (see B6). The registration form issued by the Ministry of Mass Media requires users to enter their personal details along with the name of the server, internet protocol (IP) address, and location from which content is uploaded.3 The form does not refer to a law or indicate the penalty for noncompliance. Civil society groups fear the requirement could be used to hold registered site owners responsible for content posted by users or to prevent government critics from writing anonymously.4

C5 0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 26

State surveillance of online activities undermines users’ right to privacy. The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2017–2021 contains the objective of ensuring the constitutional recognition of the right to privacy, but in practice, this right is frequently not respected. 1

Following the Easter Sunday attacks, the government indicated its intention to ramp up monitoring and surveillance. In May 2019, the prime minister announced a plan to implement a Centralized and Integrated Population Information System (CIPIS) to track individuals engaged in terrorism, money laundering, and transaction and financial crimes.2 It was unclear what privacy considerations, if any, had been incorporated into the plan.

During a visit to China in May, President Sirisena asked Chinese president Xi Jinping to share surveillance technology with China, citing the challenges of surveilling encrypted platforms. President Xi reportedly agreed to meet Sirisena’s request.3

In April, Colombo’s largest airport announced that it would begin using a facial recognition system that was donated by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.4

The introduction of the electronic identity card (e-NIC) project has also raised surveillance concerns. The project includes a central database storing wide-ranging information and biometrics with “family tree” data.5 Activists warn that this data could be used to target political opponents and is vulnerable to hacking.6 However, there was little opposition to the project when it was first introduced, presumably because the government justified it as a needed improvement to the state’s service delivery.

Extrajudicial surveillance of personal communications is prohibited under the Telecommunications Act No. 27 of 1996. However, communications can be intercepted on the order of a minister or a court, or in connection with the investigation of a crime.

State agencies reportedly possess some technologies that could facilitate surveillance. In March 2019, President Sirisena requested approval for the government to purchase $38.9 million worth of surveillance technology from an unnamed Israeli company. Bypassing the normal procedures for purchasing such technology, Sirisena claimed the request, which was purportedly to tackle drug trafficking, was urgent and must be kept secret.7

In March 2018, President Sirisena said the government was working to “implement necessary monitoring and surveillance methods to ensure public safety,” which caused alarm about threats to privacy and freedom of expression.8

In 2015, leaked documents indicated that the Milan-based firm HackingTeam was approached by several state security agencies seeking to acquire the company’s digital surveillance technologies.9 The leaks revealed that in 2014 the Ministry of Defense was planning to develop an electronic surveillance and tracking system with the help of a local university.10 While no purchases of the company’s equipment were confirmed in the leaked documents, they included a 2013 email exchange between a HackingTeam employee and an individual claiming to represent Sri Lankan intelligence agencies, which described confidential acquisitions of “interception technologies” he had brokered in the past.11 Digital activists in Sri Lanka believe that the Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei, which collaborated with Rajapaksa’s government in the development and maintenance of Sri Lanka’s ICT infrastructure, may have inserted backdoor espionage and surveillance capabilities into the technology.12

C6 0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 36

There are some legal requirements for telecommunications companies to aid the government in monitoring users, and companies have reportedly provided data to authorities. In June 2019, the government released its draft data protection act.1 Some have suggested that components of the bill are modeled on the EU General Data Protection Regulation.2

In 2013, Dialog CEO Hans Wijesuriya denied the existence of a comprehensive surveillance apparatus in Sri Lanka but agreed that telecommunications companies “have to be compliant with requests from the government.”3 In 2016 however, SLT engineers apparently defied orders from their superiors to install equipment purchased for surveillance.4 The nature and number of government requests for data is unknown, since there is no legal provision that requires officials to notify the targets. Some companies disclose information; Facebook’s government requests report showed that from July to December 2018, the government made five requests for user data, three of which related to the “legal process,” while the other two were “emergency requests.” Facebook provided at least some data for two of the requests.5

In January 2018, SLT opened a Tier 3 National Data Center,6 which hosts local data and serves as a cloud computing service, although the country does not mandate data localization.7

C7 0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 35

More cases of intimidation against both journalists and ordinary users were reported during the coverage period.

In May 2019, Kanapathipillai Kumanan, a freelance correspondent with the Tamil Guardian news site and the Virakesari newspaper, was assaulted by a police officer in Mullaitivu as he reported about Buddhist monks who were preventing Hindu Tamil people from worshipping at a local temple.1 The officer reportedly threatened the journalist with further violence. In June and July 2018, two local reporters, who worked with the New York Times on a story that scrutinized the former Rajapaksa government’s dealings with Chinese companies to build the Hambantota port, were attacked on social media and maligned by some of Rajapaksa’s allies in Parliament at a press conference.2

Families of journalists have also been targeted for online harassment. In June 2018, Sandya Eknaligoda, wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, filed a complaint with the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) about a slew of social media posts that spread hateful content about herself and her family. The online harassment began after the Buddhist monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, who leads the hardline Bodu Bala Sena group, which is known for its provocative and hateful speech against religious minorities, threatened Eknaligoda in a courtroom in 2016.3

Women have been subjected to misogynistic and intrusive posts on social media, especially on Facebook. For example, intimate images have been shared in Facebook groups without the subjects’ consent, often with abusive or derogatory captions.4 Female activists and politicians have also endured threats and intimidation online that have impacted their work.5

A February 2018 report from the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice included interviews with 27 individuals in the north who detailed ongoing surveillance, harassment, and intimidation by an array of state security agencies, including through phone calls and text messages.6 The report noted that among those targeted were human rights activists, survivors of the civil war, and ordinary citizens.

C8 0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 23

Although government and business websites are vulnerable to hacking and other cyberattacks, the problem is not widespread in Sri Lanka. Cyberattacks occasionally targeted government critics, such as the TamilNet news site, under former president Rajapaksa.1 No such incidents have been reported under President Sirisena. In May 2019, the government released the draft Cyber Security Act, which would establish the Cyber Security Agency and implement the National Cyber Security Strategy of Sri Lanka, among other provisions. 2

Hackers frequently attack government and business websites, and one technology company placed Sri Lanka among the top 10 countries in the Asia-Pacific region facing increased threats to cybersecurity.3 In May 2019, several local websites, such as that of the Kuwaiti embassy in Colombo, were defaced by unknown hackers.4

In January 2019, users were left vulnerable to the Rumba ransomware attack through pirated Windows software and other free tools and updates.5 Users remained at risk of malware and spyware attacks during the coverage period.6

Country Facts

  • Freedom in the World Status

    Partly Free
  • Networks Restricted

    No
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    No
  • Users Arrested

    Yes

Previous Reports