By Frank Miles
Published April 21, 2019
Sri Lankan authorities have blocked most social media services in the country following attacks that killed more than 200 people on Easter, according to officials and a group that monitors Internet censorship.
Sri Lankan officials said Sunday they were blocking social media temporarily to curtail the spread of false information and ease tensions until their investigation is concluded.
More than 200 people were killed and hundreds more wounded in eight bomb blasts that rocked churches and luxury hotels in or near Sri Lanka’s capital on Easter Sunday — the deadliest violence the South Asian island country has seen since a bloody civil war ended a decade ago.
Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardena described the bombings as a terrorist attack by religious extremists, and police said 13 suspects were arrested, though there was no immediate claim of responsibility. Wijewardena said most of the blasts were believed to have been suicide attacks.
“People were being dragged out,” said Bhanuka Harischandra, of Colombo, a 24-year-old founder of a tech marketing company who was going to the city’s Shangri-La Hotel for a meeting when it was bombed. “People didn’t know what was going on. It was panic mode.”
He added, “There was blood everywhere.”
The NetBlocks observatory said it detected an intentional nationwide blackout of popular services including Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp and Instagram.
The group said the country also was blocking messaging apps.
Facebook said in a statement that people rely on its services to communicate with loved ones and it was committing to maintaining service in the country.
Harischandra, who witnessed the attack at the Shangri-La Hotel, said there was “a lot of tension” after the bombings, but added: “We’ve been through these kinds of situations before.”
He said Sri Lankans are “an amazing bunch” and noted that his social media feed was flooded with photos of people standing in long lines to give blood.
NetBlocks director Alp Toker said such post-attack shutdowns are often ineffective and can end up creating an information vacuum that's easily exploited.
“Having experienced the open and welcoming Sri Lanka during my last week traveling through the country, I had a sense that the country was turning the corner, and in particular those in the tourism industry were hopeful for the future,” said Peter Kelson, a technology manager from Sydney.
“Apart from the tragedy of the immediate victims of the bombings, I worry that these terrible events will set the country back significantly,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.