RSF’s 2010 media report on Sri Lanka ignores new and web media


Constituting what in popular blogging parlance is a ‘massive fail’, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) does not even in passing acknowledge the pivotal role of web and new media in Sri Lanka’s media landscape over 2010. In Less anti-media violence in 2010 but more obstruction and self-censorship, the only hint of web media is in the mention of censorship of SMS news alerts, which of course is not new with Dialog. But to be fair by Dialog Axiata, JNW aside, what are the other news websites forced into self-censorship in order for their content to be carried via SMS alerts? More specificity would have helped, for I am not aware if censorship extended to the likes of Ada Derana and Daily Mirror for example, both of which have SMS news alerts services across mobile providers, including Dialog Axiata.

As I noted in an email I sent out in response to this ill-researched report, “RSF’s media analysis for Sri Lanka has ZERO mention of web media’s role, which over 2010, both as a corrective to bias of MSM as well as complementing it, defined the independent and investigative journalism agenda.” I expanded on this in an email sent to RSF’S South Asia desk, noting that,

Groundviews and Vikalpa alone are two leading and well-known examples (e.g. Top 20 posts on Sri Lanka over 2010), but the blogosphere in general (incl. Sinhala language blogs) has provided commentary and debate quantitatively and qualitatively different to, and more robust than that of mainstream media on issues ranging from Tissainayagam’s detention and court proceedings (before his release) to the timbre of government, democracy and elections. You correctly speak of self-censorship in mainstream media, but this is not the case with new and web media. I strongly encourage you to look at this aspect more robustly, as International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has done with its South Asia media report.”

In response, RSF said that web and new media’s impact and role will be taken into consideration in a report about “Enemies of Internet” due in March 2011. Though appreciative of the engagement, this was however beside the point I was making. As I replied back and said,

“I just wanted to point out a danger of shafting new and web media to a specific report looking at Enemies of the Internet, earlier copies of which I’ve read and appreciated by the way.

Sri Lanka’s media landscape today is such that web and new media is inextricably entwined with mainstream media. On the one hand, mainstream media has embraced – with varying degrees of success – web media, with for example Sunday newspapers now doing daily reports online. On the other hand, you simply cannot talk about media freedom without taking both MSM and web media into consideration – in other words, the assumption that drives your response, that web media’s assessment can wait for a specific report on it, is ill-advised, because of the central role it already plays in shaping the news agenda. To those more familiar with Sri Lanka’s media… some of the most revealing, innovative, investigative pieces this year came first online and only the were picked up by mainstream media, if at all. As Editor of Groundviews, for example, I can say with some authority that the best media coverage of one of the most heinous constitutional amendments was on the site – no other English media had even access to the material we got and published, and for the Sinhala language media, it was tellingly a non-issue. If it wasn’t for web media, there would have been no discussion at all on this vital issue – and one needs to acknowledge this.

I’m glad you will look at new and web media in your upcoming report, but my point is that this does not take away from the fact that this assessment of Sri Lanka’s media over 2010 is inaccurate through the omission of vital analysis.

Emphasis not in original.

I don’t know how RSF goes about assessing any country’s media landscape, but the researcher(s) responsible for this report on Sri Lanka are outrageously deficient in knowledge and awareness of new and web media’s pivotal role over 2010 in partisan politics, elections, socio-political debate and discussions on vital issues, and also to bear witness.

From the Facebook pages of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka leading up to the Presidential election in January to the Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and websites of every single major political party and leading candidates for the Parliamentary election in April, even mainstream party politics embraced social and new media. Where is the acknowledgement of this, including the group discussions and content published therein, by RSF? Tens of thousands engaged with this media, and the conversation within the walled gardens of Facebook are well worth studying, as I tell my students at the Sri Lanka College of Journalism. Where is the reference to Vikalpa’s YouTube videos in Sinhala, that have been over 2010 and the years before, been viewed tens of thousands of times? How does one juxtapose this with written Sinhala content on Vikalpa’s website, as well as those like Boondi, that are amongst the most political savvy in the blogosphere today? Who is discussing the content on this sites, how, and in what other media? Ravaya, a leading alternative Sinhala newspaper, has on occasion picked up content from these sites to republish in print. Ditto with Daily Mirror and content on Groundviews, as well as the Sunday Leader and content from the English blogosphere in general.

RSF’s come out with some useful reports on media freedom in Sri Lanka. This however, is emphatically not one of them.

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