In a statement, the IMA acknowledged that network congestion caused by exceptional demands on telcos’ infrastructure in locations with the highest concentration of protestors contributed to these interruptions.
“We believe Sri Lankan telcos might have better planned for uninterrupted communications and data throughput had they anticipated an increase in infrastructure demand based on widely disseminated information and media coverage of the protests in the weeks preceding July 9,” the report stated.
Additionally, the organization stated that it was more concerned about the reported plan to send a letter to telcos restricting their services to phone calls solely and eliminating all data.
“IMA believes that a context allowing for network disruptions due to high saturation, resulting in cascading effects including the disruption of data communications, was deliberately created to undermine the right to freedom of expression, as well as the rights to assembly and association,” the statement continued.
Internet Media Action (IMA) is adamant that peaceful protest is a fundamental right and an important component of a democratic society. As tens of thousands of residents from across the island converged on Colombo’s Galle Face on 9 July 2022 to demand the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, many encountered substantial disruptions to online and Internet services. Consequently, people who participated in the protest movement in Colombo had trouble communicating, including utilizing social media to share live recordings and post photos, videos, and updates.
IMA is aware that network congestion caused by exceptional demands on telcos’ infrastructure in locations with the highest protestor density contributed to these outages. We believe Sri Lankan telcos could have better planned for uninterrupted communications and data throughput had they anticipated an increase in infrastructure demand based on widely disseminated information and media coverage of the protests in the weeks preceding 9 July.
We are more concerned about an apparent attempt to send a letter to telecoms requesting that they restrict their services to voice calls exclusively and eliminate all data. Since March 2022, we are aware of occasions in which signal jammers were employed to disrupt communications during large-scale protests. IMA believes that a context allowing for network disruptions due to high saturation, resulting in cascading effects including the disruption of data communications, was deliberately created to undermine the right to freedom of expression, right to assembly and association, right to information, and the right to political and public participation, which are constitutionally guaranteed and of vital importance to bear witness to, learn about, and participate in socio-political processes.
In addition to unlawful, unofficial edicts and directions to telecoms, the Sri Lankan government and Rajapaksa administration have a lengthy record of officially interrupting the internet, the web, and social media, as recently as a few months ago. In a setting in which the military opened fire with live ammunition on unarmed protestors, disruptions in communications and restrictions on the freedom of expression impede the development and sharing of life-saving information. Not only is mobilization impacted, but also acts of journalism by protestors, mainstream media coverage, and urgent updates that provide advice on regions to avoid or where immediate medical care is required.
We reaffirm that unrestricted access to the internet, web and social media is important to Sri Lanka’s offline social, political, economic, and cultural life and development. Digital rights are being recognized internationally as human rights. As stated in the report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Irene Khan’s report to the General Assembly on 20 April 2022, “Any restriction of freedom of expression should adhere strictly to the requirements of legality, necessity, proportionality, and legitimate aim set forth in article 19 (3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and take into account the public interest.” IMA requests that relevant authorities and the government ensure the preservation, promotion, and protection of speech and dissent as fundamental rights. The laws of the land must be obeyed and enforced without infringing the rights of the people, especially at this historic time when citizens are organizing to fulfill Sri Lanka’s democratic potential to its fullest extent.