Revisiting the Colombo Media Declaration: Rough transcript of presentation

Rough transcript of presentation made at the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) on the occasion of revisiting the 1998 Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility.

Good afternoon.

In a very brief presentation I wish to lay out some issues that I think are pertinent if we are going to revisit the 1998 Colombo Declaration.  By integrating some of that which Prof. Samarajeewa also spoke about I think our two presentations complement each other quite nicely, and with that foundation in mind I just want to leave some thoughts with you that the drafters of the new revised declaration can perhaps keep in mind when they are making the final document.  But of course we need to ground this in the current context and citizen journalism and new media are terms that might be applicable in other countries, but in Sri Lanka they have specific meaning and indeed because of the particular context we are living in, a specific importance.

I won’t go into too much details because this is not the time and I assume that this audience more than others is acutely aware of those challenges and needs no introduction certainly from me.  But I do wish to just very briefly highlight some of the problems and issues that are pertinent to new media and ICP information communications technology. Earlier this year you had the incredible declaration from the Inspector General of Police that the use of mobile phones by victims of rape can actually help identify the victim and bring the rapist to justice.  The idea being that the victim can record the act of rape and then use that as evidence in a court of law.  We have a regime that believes that to protect children from pornography the best way to about doing that is to create paid account which are then only accessed by parents so that you then protect the children from pornography on the web. We have a regime that believes that sharing mobile phones is illegal and also give rise to terrorist activities.  We have as Rohan said a lot of CDMA phones which are technically mobile phones parading as fixed phones.  But earlier this year the regime also said that you cannot shift the locations of these phones.  So you can only have what is essentially a mobile phone in the premises for which it was registered to.  You had a regime that said that the environment and global warming can actually be addressed by taxing mobile phone usage.  So the more you actually use the phone the more you were taxed and this was to protect the environment.

I have just come back from India in the morning and I was very surprised to see that NOKIA in India is introducing a range of mobile phones which will never ever be brought to Sri Lanka because they have GPS.  In Delhi now for example you can buy a NOKIA model  which has built in maps and you can actually navigate roads in that city quite easily.  It is a service that is encouraged by the Federal Government.  Unfortunately the Ministry of Defence in Sri Lanka things that all GPS devices also give rise to terrorist activities and indeed helps suicide bombers. Our Executive does not understand, very possibly does not use and has arguably extremely little experience with new media.   I am just going to leave you with that thought because that I think is a real challenge that we need to think about when we are talking about the promotion and development of new media in the country.  I want to leave you with 4 key points.
There is an increase in awareness and need for citizens who report to be protected for what they say what they like what they do.

There is also the need for mainstream media ethics to recognize what is called user generated content UGC which is blog, SMS, mobile videos, a whole range of content that is being produced by citizens, to treat them as sources in the same manner as mainstream media would treat other sources.  We need to be acutely aware that unlike in  1998 the new gate keepers, the new censors are internet service providers, businesses – businesses have now have the potential to censor information in as much as in the same way as in 1998.

New media today is not going to be new media for ever and will possibly be incorporated into what I understand and conceived to be media, so the distinctions of new and old will disappear.  I also believe and quite strongly that there will always be a role for journalism and journalists and I make the distinction between those who would say blog casually on a particular issue that moves them as opposed to those who treat that as a profession and approach it as such.  What I suggest however is that citizens are increasingly taking upon themselves to bear witness to events and processes around them.  They are not waiting for journalists to report on them. Very often and this is the case certainly internationally  as well, they are the first eyes on a particular incident or scene or process and they will capture these events, processes and incidents on the ground using the mobile phone, which is actually now a mini computer. Many mobile phones such as Blackberry’s and the high end Nokia N series have a computing power equivalent to the first computer that I started use in the mid 1990’s.  So you are going to have citizens who are going to use these devices to capture processes and incidents without waiting for mainstream media at all.  And what is important here to recognize is if you thought about mainstream media as a channel through which these incidents and processes were communicated to the body politic and society, you are now going to have citizens talking among themselves with the content that they created.  So it is going to be a citizen to citizen discussion increasingly in parallel to that which the media will report on.

But because of this particularly in a country like Sri Lanka wher the Government and other armed actors don’t want you to bear witness to certain incidents and processes such as human rights violations, those who do and report on it will be increasingly at risk in a number of ways.

Earlier this year you had the first English newspaper actually encourage citizens to capture events on the ground and send it to them for subsequent publication.  This was the Daily Mirror, for those of you who are outside the country, an English Daily.  They ran up a scheme or a project called “Informant” where they ran a full page ad asking citizens to use their mobile phones to capture events. The first time it happened.

What I don’t see and would like to see in the revised declaration is the understanding that citizen journalism and citizen journalism also needs to get the same kind of protection that professional journalists get.  This is an important point because as I said you are going to move forward into a future where they are going to be the eyes on the ground much more than journalists.

We also need legal protection. As Editor of Groundviews, a citizen journalism initiative, I wrote to the Editor of the Island in 2007 over the publication of an article that appeared on the site without attribution and with significant edits. I took this up with the Editor and got the article published again in full, with attribution. This is the only case that I know of really where a blogger has taken a complaint to the PCC, written to the Editor, and subsequently got the full article published.

I strongly believe that the PCC needs to wake up, because the PCC does not understand new media.  I have repeatedly  along with other bloggers written to the PCC asking for a progressive, constructive dialogue, to move forward  on getting bloggers and mainstream media and editors and journalists together to talk about this issue.  The PCC did not respond.  This is very unfortunate because I think there is a huge space, an opportunity for collaboration and talking about these issues which I think affect both bloggers and the mainstream media community.

I want to focus on ISPs. What we have today is, almost all our ISPs, Internet Service Providers, the ones who provide internet communications to all of you who are in Sri Lanka.  They do not question the Rajapaksa administration and certainly do not question the Ministry of Defence and I use the word supinely subservient because that is what they are. What I want to leave you with is this.   It is quite simple that freedom of expression on and new media on the web and the internet is as important as Freedom of expression in print and electronic media.  ISPs need to be accountable and open about what they do and how they do it to their customers and indeed citizens of Sri Lanka.  They must catalogue requests made by the government and the MOD to curtail communication, to monitor communications, to restrict communications.  You cannot say that there is no paper trail.  You need a well defined legal process for the government to ask ISP s to do things in such a manner and I don’t know I mean perhaps possible you need agencies and think tanks to take up public interest litigations and may be the creation of an independent watchdog.

The last point that I want to leave you with is which is fighting against the rise of a nanny state.  Now the government wants us to protect our children – I am a parent as well. I certainly agree with the fact that we need to protect our children from pornography, but it does not really tell us how it is going to do this.  It is an incredible technical challenge to do this. It could also be pornography today but the same technology can  be used to create what is called the Great Firewall of China.

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