May 3 marks World Press Freedom Day. In Sri Lanka, the day dawned as the country continued to grapple with an economic crisis caused by years of mismanagement and bad policies, and escalating debt payments. This has already started to have an impact on media houses.
At least one publisher – Upali Newspapers Ltd – has been forced to suspend Saturday print editions of English newspaper The Islander and Sinhalese Divaina, due to a shortage of newsprint. Others may need to follow suit. The COO of Liberty Publishers said the cost of newsprint has already doubled from around $600-700 per metric ton in 2021 to $1,200 per metric ton in March 2022. Although Liberty does not has not yet reduced the frequency of its three editions — the Morning daily in English, the Aruna in the Sinhalese language and the Thamilan in the Tamil language — it is a question of rationalizing.
Besides rising costs, journalists covering the economic crisis and the growing public protests surrounding it must prepare for the possibility of violence. On May 6, journalists were impacted by tear gas fired during a demonstration in front of the Sri Lankan Parliament. Three days later, on May 9, supporters of Sri Lanka’s Podujana Peramuna party attacked peaceful protesters at Galle Face Green, with police first standing by and eventually using tear gas and water cannons.
On the same day, journalists were also caught in tension outside the temple trees, the official residence of the Prime Minister. On March 31, at least nine journalists were injured and six detained under Article 120 of the Penal Code while covering a protest outside President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence in Mirihana. A was reportedly denied medical assistance at the police station, while cameras were also reportedly damaged.
Daily Mirror photographer Waruna Wanniarachchi, who was in Mirihana that day, said officers from the Sri Lanka Special Task Force hit him on the head with a baton when they came out of the house of the president after a bus was set on fire. The next day, he was visited by agents from the Criminal Investigations Department who asked him to hand over his camera memory card to help them identify the protesters. Wanniarachchi instead asked them to make a formal request at his place of work, as he had already delivered his equipment to his office. Another journalist, Tharindu Jayawardhana, founder of the Sinhala-language news site MediaLK, said he received verbal threats from staff of the president’s media division stationed outside Rajapaksa’s house, demanding that he stop do reports. jayawardhana later filed a complaint at the Mirihana police station. The police chief ordered an investigation into at least one private television station, NewsFirst, on April 1, in a bid to attribute the unrest to the station’s coverage.
Many journalists in Sri Lanka learn security practices on the job, as there is often a lack of resources for security training programs. Instead, experienced reporters pass on advice. According to the founder of the Colombo Gazette news site, Easwaran Rutnam, equipment such as gas masks and helmets for journalists who find themselves in explosive situations are in short supply.
The normalization of social media blocks
Security threats aside, journalists in Sri Lanka must also adapt quickly to modes of communication that are cut off or unable to report from the field.
Just after midnight on April 3, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission ordered mobile service providers to block several social media platforms – including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, YouTube, TikTok, Telegram and Instagram – ahead of planned major protests against the economic crisis. The lockdown, which lasted 15 hours, followed a curfew and a state of emergency imposed over the weekend.
Social media is an essential tool for spreading information and news in Sri Lanka. Citizens took to social media to share their views on the economic crisis, using the hashtags #EconomicCrisisLK and #GoHomeRajapaksas. They also shared donation campaign details and security practices at demonstrations. Journalists, too, rely on social media to share their stories and identify story ideas. Rutnam said visits to its website, Colombo Gazette, were affected by the blockage. News sites like Colombo Gazette rely heavily on social media for traffic to their site, and with fewer audience visits during the block, their revenue has been impacted, he explained.
Government blockages on social media platforms during volatile situations have occurred since at least 2018, when several platforms including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp were blocked during riots in Kandy district targeting the minority Muslim community. .
As a result, most journalists have become adept at using circumvention tools like VPNs – a move endorsed by former Minister of State for Digital Technology Namal Rajapaksa, the son of the former President and current Prime Minister. Mahinda Rajapaksa. He described the social media ban as “totally useless” due to the widespread use of VPNs.
Journalists’ social media posts also lead to punitive actions; at least one journalist with state-owned Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation was suspended from her job for social media posts on her own profile that criticized the president.
Prolonged power cuts
Since about February 21, Sri Lanka has been experiencing power cuts due to dwindling fuel supplies. This makes it difficult for journalists to carry out their work, especially with often spotty connectivity on their mobile phones. (In a notice posted on its website, mobile service provider Dialog confirmed that there could be connectivity interruptions during long power outages due to strains in backup power systems.)
Yet Sri Lankan journalists continue to file reports. And increasingly, protesters are also telling their own stories. Documentation of state repression attempts via social media has contributed the most to the longevity of protests linked to the economic crisis. The result so far has been an explosion of memes, protest art, discussion and critical coverage of the crisis – despite emergency regulations adopted by the president on May 6 that make it a criminal offense to share false information or information leading to public unrest or violence (a thinly veiled attempt to stifle criticism of the president).
On May 9, Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as Prime Minister over the protests, after vehicles and homes of Sri Lankan Podjana Peramuna (SLPP) or Sri Lankan Popular Front ministers were set on fire by protesters in anger in retaliation for the attacks carried out by the SLPP in May. 9. With deeply unpopular Ranil Wickremesinghe sworn in four days later amid curfew, protests are set to continue.