Civic and citizen media: Strategies, ideas, opportunities and challenges

The Ashoka Foundation now features a Skype interview I did around a month or so ago with the inspiring Evagelia Emily Tavoulareas on how civic and citizen media can help bear witness to the erosion of democratic governance and violence. I talk about Sri Lanka, but the ideas and issues in our conversation can resonate in similar contexts of systemic violence, during and post-war.

The original post appears here and runs for around 24 minutes. For a complete transcript of the interview, down by my friend Jeevani Fernando, please click here.

Evagelia asks some excellent questions, pegged to just how far civic media is able to help strengthen democracy and justice post-war, just what impact we’ve had, why there is an enduring need for civic media initiatives given role and reach of mainstream journalism and the continuing dangers of producing and disseminating critical content online.

I flag the absence of media literacy in Sri Lanka as a major stumbling block for democracy taking root after war, with consumers of media unable and often unwilling to critically question and engage with even the media they like, much less engage with media they disagree with in order to gain a fuller appreciation of issues. Though this essential passivity and resignation almost in the consumption of news and information could in time be addressed by a more pro-active and reactive generation of content by citizens in online domains and fora, the challenge of strengthening media literacy in this context becomes even more pertinent.

In the interview I flag the danger of propaganda going online, long before the likes of Milinda Moragoda, supported by the father and son duo Rohan Samarajiva and Indrajit (Indi) Samarajiva, created a new media campaign for a Mayoral candidate that is about as sophisticated propaganda, disinformation and misinformation dissemination has got in Sri Lanka to date. The campaign’s (mis)use of new media I’ve outlined in Milinda Moragoda: The gap between promise and reality, but more importantly, Hacking mayoral campaign promises deals with how new media engagement can actually hold those like Moragoda and his advisors more accountable and open to public scrutiny, even when they choose to censor inconvenient content and airbrush their online personna.

Content aside, we also talk about the technologies undergirding civic and citizen media – from blogs to mobile phones in particular – the growth of local language (Sinhala and Tamil) content, how expensive software licensing models (e.g. Microsoft Windows and Office) actually encourage piracy and demonstrate the need to shift to open source platforms and tools, how civic journalism – from the hyper-local to the national – can complement mainstream media and what the future holds for citizen journalism.

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