Twitter is rarely short of drama. Except that last week, Sri Lanka’s Twitter bubble saw some of it originate from an unlikely source — the official handle of the Chinese Embassy here.
It all began with a letter dated April 8, from the Embassy, addressed to the chairman of the privately-run Wijeya Newspapers group. In the letter, which was also released to the media, mission spokesperson Luo Chong took a strong objection to three pieces on COVID-19 published in two of the group’s publications — Daily Mirror and Sunday Times.
One of the articles was an interview, headlined “Sri Lanka must ensure China is held accountable”, with an American Lawyer who has filed a lawsuit against Chinese authorities, whom he blames for the global pandemic. The second, titled “China accused of negligence”, was an interview with the head of a local consumer rights organisation. The third, the Embassy’s letter said, was a column that referred to COVID-19 as “Wuhan COVID”.
The Chinese mission accused the articles of lacking “basic facts, knowledge and compassion”, and said they were “full of” prejudice, racism and hate speech. The six-page letter urged media in general and the 40-year-old Wijeya Newspapers in particular to play a “more responsible and constructive role in this war”.
Both the content and tone of the letter drew quick reactions on social media. “So Chinese diplomats now advise #lka media how to run newspapers? Spox of China Emb in Cmb writes open letter to Chair of Wijeya Newspapers about “3 irresponsible articles” in @Dailymirror_SL & @TimesOnlineLK . What do Chinese babus know of #PressFreedom?” tweeted Nalaka Gunawardene, a writer and media analyst. In a thread on April 9, Mr. Gunawardene said though he had critiqued the newspapers for their “lapses and biases”, he stood by their right to carry op-eds with critical viewpoints.
In its reply to the Embassy, the Daily Mirror stood its ground and “reiterated” that it provides a forum for diverse viewpoints and that the articles referenced by the mission were carried as per the journalistic tradition of respecting expression of different opinions.
Meanwhile, many others also challenged the Chinese Embassy on its position. “So, you can present your position. But other people can also present a different position — unlike in China,” tweeted @indica, a blogger.
While Twitter users taking on official tweets is not uncommon, official handles responding to those tweets is. Surprisingly, the mission decided to respond to several critics individually. “Does #PressFreedom allow any baseless hatred speech be published and the media has no responsibility for its publication? No #PressFreedom for China and China can’t present its position? Discussion about the pandemic should focus on #COVID19 itself, isn’t it?” @ChinaEmbSL said in a response.
Even as the spat between a resident foreign mission and citizens of the host country raised eyebrows, in an intriguing move, Twitter suspended the Chinese Embassy handle on April 13. Evidently, the Chinese mission’s views didn’t go well with Sri Lankans. But it wasn’t clear why Twitter chose to suspend the mission’s handle — it was arguably combative, not abusive. According to Twitter’s suspension policy, the decision to suspend Twitter accounts are commonly driven by three reasons — spam or fake; accounts at security risk or hacked handles, and those with “abusive” tweets.
The following day, the Embassy tweeted that Twitter had suspended its account without any specific reason. “The Embassy made solemn representation twice, requesting to clarify and correct. This morning, Twitter replied for a ‘systematic mistake’, apologised and unsuspended our account,” the handle said, adding freedom of speech must be honoured without “double standards”.
Sri Lanka responded to the development from the highest levels. “We welcome the reinstating of the Official Twitter Account of the Chinese Embassy in Colombo @ChinaEmbSL,” Foreign Relations Minister Dinesh Gunawardene tweeted.
After a week of twists and turns, the Embassy’s Twitter handle is now back to sharing official updates regularly. On Friday, it tweeted on Wuhan’s revised number of COVID-19 cases and fatalities, and about Chinese aid to help Sri Lanka contain the coronavirus.
The handle may be back in business, but it hasn’t been able to escape difficult questions from Sri Lankans. “So now Twitter has unbanned you. Can you now unban Twitter in China?” @indica asked in a tweet.