Canadians struggle to connect with loved ones in Sri Lanka amid social media ban

Lalitha, center, weeps over the coffin with the remains of 12-year old niece, Sneha Savindi, who was a victim of Easter Sunday bombing at St. Sebastian Church, after it returned home in Negombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, April 22, 2019. Easter Sunday bombings of churches, luxury hotels and other sites was Sri Lanka's deadliest violence since a devastating civil war in the South Asian island nation ended a decade ago. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

A social media ban in Sri Lanka is making it challenging for Canadians to contact loved ones there, following a series of horrific Easter Sunday bombings that has left nearly 300 people dead.

So far, no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, which mostly targeted churches and luxury hotels around the country’s capital of Columbo, along with one church on the northeast coast. However, officials believe local militant group National Thowfeek Jamaath, along with an international network, carried out the bombings.

Crackdown on fake news

A Toronto-based Sri Lankan journalist says the block on outlets like Facebook, Skype and WhatsApp is a necessary move to help stop the spread of fake news.

“In the past, social networks weren’t able to take down hate materials and misinformation on time,” Mahesh Abeyewardene, a journalist with Toronto’s The Sri Lanka Reporter, told Yahoo Canada. “So I think the social media ban is justified. You wouldn’t want to see any other reprisals or attracting people to do vigilantism or take matters into their own hands.”

In February and March 2018, the Sri Lankan government issued a similar ban on social media after a series of riots targeting Muslims.

Abeyewardene says despite the social media ban, there’s already been misinformation spread. BBC’s Columbo-based reporter Azzam Ameen took to Twitter on Monday to clarify that posts claiming to be from him were fake.

In terms of connecting with loved ones in Sri Lanka, Abeyewardene says landlines are still working and phones with foreign numbers are still able to be reached through apps like WhatsApp.

Amra Ghouse, chair of Toronto-based non-profit Sri Lankans Without Borders, says it’s been difficult connecting with loved ones in Sri Lanka online. She says the government has even cracked down on virtual private network, which allows users to send messages through private networks. However a curfew currently in place across Sri Lanka has made it easier to reach people on landlines.

She says that right now, people are bracing for more violence, as reports of violent incidents and explosives found throughout the country continue.

“We fear this will lead to something else and we keep speaking to family members, telling them even after the curfew is lifted, don’t go out during the day since the situation is so volatile,” she says. “We don’t know what level the planning (of the attacks) have been. It’s a helpless situation for us on this end. We live so far.”

Travel Advisory

Canada issued a travel advisory on Monday, urging those travelling to Sri Lanka to exercise a high degree of caution as a result of the security situation. However, Abeyewardene says he chose to travel to the country at the height of Sri Lanka’s civil war, and suspects the advisory won’t deter others.

“Sri Lankans who want to go and have family connections or community connections, they’ll still keep going,” he says. “Some travel agents have seen immediate booking declined because of the scale of the attacks. But people will want to resume going back. People don’t want to be held back by terrorists who committed this crime.”

Canadians looking for ways to help

So far, there hasn’t been any official appeal for physical or financial assistance from Canadians for victims of Sunday’s attacks in Sri Lanka. Abeyewardene hasn’t received any advisories from the high commission in Ottawa or the consulate in Toronto. However, he says to expect vigils and memorial services to take place at a number of churches and other places of worship. If Canadians want to help, he says they can start by spreading a message of harmony.

“Spread the message of religious harmony and peace at this time,” he says. “That’s the best we can do from this far away.”

Ghouse has seen a few Go Fund Me campaigns online since Sunday’s attacks, but suggest not to send money just yet.

“We’re not sure if this will go to someone’s pocket,” she says. “For the moment the government is trying to find out who’s behind this, investigations are ongoing, and they’re saying not to send money.”

For now, Ghouse says it’s simply a waiting game.

“I’ve spoken to some friends in the military and they’re saying to just give it a couple of days to see what happens,” she says. “Even if we did contribute monetarily, nothing can be done for a couple of days. It’s just a matter of waiting.”