New media in cycles of violence: Using technology for new voices

Yesterday, I launched two groundbreaking citizen journalism initiatives in Sri Lanka – Groundviews and VOR Radio. VOR Radio’s been around for a couple of months, slowly gathering content, while Groundviews is only just getting off the ground. Over the next year, I’ll have a core group of around 15 – 20 activists, civil society leaders, young bloggers, journalists, writers, artistes and thinkers – male & female, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim, in Sinhala, Tamil and English – contributing their thoughts online.

I don’t know where this will go and how successful it will be, though the emails of support yesterday were indicative of some extremely vocal enthusiasm, across Sri Lanka and globally, at the launch of these two websites.

Why now? At a time when the government has just announced new anti-terrorism legislation which is in effect going to clamp down on progressive voices that seek to engage and transform violence, as well as media, and also at a time when a culture of impunity surrounds the erosion of human rights in Sri Lanka, launching websites purporting to strengthen progressive voices in support of peace and reconciliation can be taken seriously as a sign of dementia.

And yet, the potential technology offers at a time when mainstream media and real world activism is thwarted is significant. Citizen journalism itself is a powerful force. Coincidentally, Groundviews and VOR Radio launched on the same day at Reuters and Yahoo’s new citizen journalism collaboration, a variation of what was begun by CNN a while ago. Called You Witness news, the portal allows anyone to submit photos and multimedia content.

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With the ubiquity of mobile devices that are multimedia capable, 2006 was the year in which major news services such as Reuters, Yahoo and CNN woke up to the possibilities of using citizens as reporters, given that increasingly, those first on the scene are witness or victims of the event that is newsworthy – such as the London bombings.

The possibilities opened up the introduction of new media and citizen journalism to a country in turmoil such as Sri Lanka are potentially significant, but vitiated somewhat by the inability, to date, to establish a standard way in which to input written content in Sinhala and Tamil into website. This is why Groundviews for instance, has a page devoted to the issue of installing vernacular fonts on PC’s – a convoluted process that will prevent many from entering content in the vernacular.

Given this limitation however, and the knowledge that efforts are underway to fix this issue, it’s important that the awareness of new media and citizen journalism is spread amongst both journalists as well as civil society. Journalists need to wake up to the potential of new media and stop seeing it as a threat. Citizens and civil society in particular need to wake up to the potential of new forms of communications that are facilitated by new technologies that allow them to feature, safeguard and strengthen democracy, human rights and peace. Collectively, progressive journalists and civil society can work together in new ways to establish alternatives to propaganda spewed out by parties to a conflict.

This is not to claim that new media and citizen journalism in particular are a panacea to the curtailment of media freedoms and the erosion of human rights. New technologies and ICT4Peace are a set of tools shaped by and shaping the context in which they are used. This complex dialectic is what interests me the most – and the subversive element of introducing new ways to communicate and share information in a country that is otherwise closing down all avenues for conscientious dissent, the presentation of alternatives to its own thinking, and the expression of views that it deems incompatible with national security or the interest of the State.

Clearly, we all have a responsibility to defeat terrorism – and VOR Radio and Groundviews offer the space to debate these ideas with a global and local audience, which is more than what any other mainstream newspaper or commercial radio can offer.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I hope you’ll join me in exploring the potential new media can have in transforming violence and conflict in Sri Lanka, and indeed, elsewhere in the world.

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