At least two videos posted on social media purport to show the humiliation or abuse of Sri Lankan ministers as the country experiences widespread protests during its worst ever economic crisis. While attacks on ministers’ personal property did occur and one MP even died during the protests, both of these videos have been taken out of their original context.
Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948, with months of shortages of essential goods, long daily power cuts and record levels of inflation, as well as petrol shortages. Authorities declared a state of emergency on May 6, and soldiers are patrolling the streets. At least nine people died in clashes last week and more than 350 people were arrested in often violent protests.
Then-prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, brother of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, resigned on May 9 after anti-government protests turned violent, and a new prime minister was appointed three days later. On the sidelines of these political changes, videos emerged on social networks, mainly in English and Hindi, purporting to show protesters attacking Sri Lankan ministers, whom they blamed for the country’s situation.
Ministers stripped and humiliated? No, prisoners involved in fights
In the first viral video, appearing on Twitter, men who are shirtless kneel in front of a crowd of people taking photos of them. The caption claimed they are “ministers of Sri Lanka”.
We ran a reverse image search on the video with the tool InVid WeVerify (click here to find out how) and were able to find several articles that included the video, and even a Tweet that explained that the people in the video are prisoners from the Watareka prison in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. The video was filmed on the sidelines of an anti-government protest on May 9.
The website IndiaToday also investigated the video and quoted a Sri Lankan journalist who translated what the prisoners were saying: “We are prisoners from Watareka camp. We were allowed to work on construction sites and on our way back to the prison. A jailer took us to a protest site.”
Some protesters suspected these prisoners of being recruited by politicians to attack people at the protest in Colombo on May 9.
According to the BBC’s Sinhalese language website, Sri Lanka’s prisons department denied on May 10 that prisoners were taken to the protest to attack protesters. In a statement, the department said that at least 180 prisoners were being transported from three construction sites to the prison when the buses carrying them were attacked by protesters. According to the same statement, protesters removed them from the bus and assaulted them on the suspicion of being pro-government.
None of them is presented in these articles as a minister or ex-minister who has resigned.
The minister of information beaten up? No, just a local councillor
A second video shows a man in his underwear, said to be Sri Lanka’s information minister, visibly groggy after being beaten up by protesters.
Again, using InVid WeVerify, we found the clip in a May 9 video posted on the Twitter page of the Sri Lanka Daily Mirror.
The man in the video is actually Mahinda Kahandagama, the president of the Colombo Municipal Councillors and Employees Union. This local representative organised a rally in support of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa before he resigned. He was confronted by opposition protesters who attacked him and stripped him of his clothes. This man was not, and never has been, Sri Lanka’s information minister.
Mahinda Kahandagama is on a list of 17 politicians banned from travelling as part of investigations into attacks on peaceful protesters. He is suspected of hiring bystanders to attack them.
The current minister of information and media is Nalaka Godahewa, as stated on the Sri Lankan ministry’s website. He confirmed to AFP that he is not the man in the video, although his house was attacked by protesters while he was out on May 12.
Minister killed by mob, and attacks on homes and property of Sri Lankan ministers
While these videos do not show attacks on ministers in Sri Lanka, a ruling party MP was killed by a crowd of protesters on May 9. Amarakeerthi Athukorala was lynched by the crowd after his bodyguard shot a protester to death with a gun.
Protesters also attacked property belonging to members of the government, or supposedly belonging to them. For example, a car allegedly belonging to a minister was thrown into the water in Colombo on May 11.
The uprising in Sri Lanka. The former minister’s car was thrown into the water by protesters in Colombo. Residences, property and vehicles of members of the ruling party are being attacked all over the island. pic.twitter.com/ijgmnlewUO
— 0V3RG4M3 (@AxlGuidato) May 11, 2022
Protesters also targeted ministers’ homes, such as that of former transport minister Johnson Fernando, and the resident of resigned prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.