Civic and citizen media’s true potential: Telling your story, how you want to

My friend Jeevani Fernando, in an incredibly kind gesture, has transcribed my interview with Ashoka Foundation recently on civic and citizen media, accessible here. Direct link to original post here.


Citizen Media Experts Interviews: Sanjana Hattotuwa

‘Citizen Media is Vital for the Global Population to Move Forward in the 21st Century’

The Ashoka Changemakers Citizen Media Competition (sponsored by Google) has attracted the attention and support of leaders in the citizen media space. One of the competition judges, Sanjana Hattotuwa, has dedicated himself to the complex (and often risky) field of citizen media in war-torn Sri Lanka. Now the founding editor of Groundviews, an award-winning web based citizen journalism platform, Sanjana (SH) took a moment to speak with us about his work pioneering efforts to leverage web based media to strengthen democracy, human rights, and a just peace.

Interviewed by Evagelia Tavoulareas (ET)

(Transcribed from audio clip at

ET: Welcome to the citizen media expert interview series. Ashoka Changemakers with the support of Google launched Citizen Media, a global innovation competition to find solutions that use media to catalyse participatory citizenship. In this series we will connect with media experts from around the world to explore major trends, obstacles and what lies ahead.

Joining us today we have Mr Sanjana Hattotuwa, Founder of Groundviews, an online citizen media platform supporting social justice efforts, Sanjana is also one of our judges for the Google supported Citizen Media competition. Sanjana, thank you for joining us.

SH: Thank you!

ET: Tell me a bit about yourself and your current work – what is on your plate at the moment and how does it relate to Citizen Media?

SH: I started the site called ‘Groundviews’ in late 2006 and I have been curating it over the past couple of years. In late 2009 I was joined in my efforts with a co-editor. We’ve gone through some difficult times in the country in which Groundviews is located, which is my home-country, the country I was born into – Sri Lanka. We didn’t know at the time we launched but it turned out to be a fairly tumultuous time in the political and social history of the country where we went through an extremely violent period. Having said that, in May 2009 we also saw an end to a 30 year old war. So there are no outright hostilities at the moment. But there are very serious questions that endure about just how exactly that war ended.  And these are issues and questions that we continue to ask on the platform.

The platform itself is fairly straightforward. Publishers, content in text, audio, video form as well as photography using a range of narrative styles on issues, questions, aspects, facets of life in a country where mainstream media will not or cannot publish or produce, so in that sense it’s almost an outlet for people to tell their stories that would otherwise go unheard and to put issues on the map for discussion in the country as well as internationally and in that respect we get a lot of people coming in to the site to discuss and debate the content that is posted up. We had the country’s first presence on Facebook – it has a Facebook fan page. We also started one of the country’s first Twitter feeds, we have two curated feeds of other Twitter users as well, in addition to our own which is followed by 1,500 and on Facebook we see a weekly growth of about 100 fans and we have right now I think about 10,680 fans. So it is quite large for an initiative which doesn’t have any commercial backing.  So we have interested ourselves in the growth of our content, particularly because it is critical of those in power and seeks to hold them accountable for their actions.

My plate at the moment is quite full as you can imagine dealing with these issues, curating them, moderating discussions – making sure they are according to our moderation guidelines which for example eschew hate speech and violent diatribes in favour of more progressive dialogue even if we agree to disagree. We also do quite a lot of new media experiments, we like to really push the boundaries of what is possible using new forms of story-telling, merging photography and audio for example or new narrative forms, you know, ways of writing from satire to the straight-up long reads, type essay that we put up online which, is simply not possible in mainstream media given the market economics and underpinning.

So we really have a diverse range of content, style; we have right now I think about upwards of 400 contributors who contribute to the site, all of them citizens (of Sri Lanka),  most of them at least, with no formal background in journalism. And our readership extends to both  readers within the country and I think we get an average of about 60% of readers from within the country, as well as increasingly now from the diaspora as well, who are looking at the country post-war with greater interest than they did during the years of war, with a view to engaging. And for some, also with a view of returning back to the country to do whatever. So that’s basically what I’m doing at the moment in addition to teaching which I love. I teach at the  Sri Lanka College of Journalism and I teach new media strategy and digital literacy, which I think are skills that are vital for Sri Lanka’s youth and you need a global population to kind of  grasp as we move forward in the 21st century.

ET: You’ve dedicated your life, particularly professionally, to creating safe spaces for journalists in Sri Lanka to tell compelling stories and call attention to human rights violations. How have people responded to these efforts both from the positive and negative sides?

SH: Well, it depends on the time and the person I would imagine, so it’s difficult to give a straight-up answer to that. Obviously you have people who are appreciative of the fact that there is a safe space, so there ARE ‘safe spaces’ – I suppose it’s a question of safer spaces and Groundviews and other digital media initiatives that have had a hand in producing or putting on the web have encouraged open discussion on some really tough issues. These are really emotional issues; there are divided camps often violently so, posed for around the discussion on for example, human rights, violations, war crimes, accountability issues – they are tough to not just put up but also to curate because people come with emotional baggage and it’s tough to unpack what you believe is to be true – and that goes for us as well, that goes for me as well in addition to the people who seek to engage.  We find it sometimes very difficult to moderate the comments that we get because of the nature of the issues involved.

Having said that, people are appreciative, they do like the space that is there for engagement, because there is so little of it in this country. And the negative comments or feedback we get, often come from people who don’t want to see this kind of open discussion. Let me say that in terms of my own writing, I certainly have a viewpoint  to anchor a certain world view that I espouse, but on Groundviews we seek to create a site where there  is no one capital ‘T’ truth. But, through engagement we hope that there is a better truth and if possible a better perspective to everybody concerned that is possible and that is what we seek to engage. Not to give privacy to one world view but to say or suggest that in a democracy, there are many world views.  And that a co-existence of this world views in competition, but non-violently, is actually what creates a vibrant democracy. Unfortunately we don’t see that timber of democracy in this country and our efforts to create those safe spaces through lively debate and discussion are sometimes taken to very unkindly by people who would rather have ignorance and a general population that doesn’t seek to question or hold accountable those in power.

So the discussion itself is powerful. It’s also its own power to have those discussions and its intention is that those issues that are open for discussion are also very powerful to have. So the response depends very much on whether you want to have open discussion or not. I don’t need to name the parties but it’s a global phenomenon as well. I mean you take Assange, you take any other country – there are those in favour of a democratic debate and there are those who seek to have ignorance in place of it.

I fall, fairly and squarely in the camp of those who want to have debate but understand on some occasions why there would be people who don’t want to have that debate and why ignorance is power.

ET: Now, do you find that those who are typically opposed to having that debate? Are the citizens and consumers of the information or are they mostly the parties who have the least to benefit from the conversation?

SH: Both I would imagine. We are a deeply divided society and I think what happens in protracted conflict is that you grow up with ignorance but you don’t know it as such. And what you find for example in a country such as ours is a very high literacy. Lots of people can read and write. We have an upwards of 90-95% literacy, which is one of the highest in the region in South Asia, which compares very favourably with statistics around the rest of the world.  What we don’t have however and what is sorely lacking, is media literacy. People believe uncritically what they consume, and this can be very dangerous. We have seen the effects of Radio Milles Collines for example in Rwanda and its contribution to the atrocities on a mass scale that happened there with the genocide. Of course in Sri Lanka the situation isn’t as bleak, but unfortunately we don’t have the people who can critically question even the media that they agree with. So what you have is often propaganda often parading as news and believed to be true and factual. That is extremely dangerous. Because if you have this literacy rate and you have a population that cannot understand what they consume, you then have politicians take advantage of that fact and use propaganda to manipulate public opinion in support of their parochialism and that can be extremely dangerous, particularly also because, it’s those very same policies that led to a 30 year old war in the first instance and we certainly don’t want to revisit that.

So the animosity and the opposition to the content that we put up comes both from those sections in government, not all, but also from citizens who sometimes feel that we shouldn’t be asking and debating and raising and flagging the issues that we put up because we are post war now and these are moot issues – these are not issues that we should be talking about, we should be talking about other issues like  – I don’t know – development and tourism for example. These are also issues that we are interested in, but we are also interested in the deeper systemic issues that continue to persist and to bedevil our democratic progress. So the opposition comes from both the citizens who do not understand that it is important to have these debates as well as obviously, sections of government who finds these issues and debates to quote Al Gore’s book  ‘Inconvenient Truths’

ET: Very interesting. Do you think that there are any technologies in particular that you think have a greater potential for impact than others?

SH: Well it depends very much on content on what you seek to communicate and with whom. Without that in mind it is almost impossible to answer that question. We use a spectrum of technologies that ranges from the web/blogging platform. Groundviews is based on WordPress to one of the first sites in Sri Lanka to be mobile-friendly sSo that we can actually engage with the content from any mobile phone, not just a smart phone. We also use, as I said earlier, Facebook and Twitter  and even on the web we use a range of means – we use photography, audio podcasts, video so that we always try to engage with, two things – one new audiences, new readership – our readership is basically from 18-34 as Facebook tells us. And that age group is a telegenic face and a group which has a shorter attention span, so we keep that in mind as well. But we also try to buck the trend, we introduced a section called ‘Long Reads’ earlier this year, which is long form essay type articles which is more reflective and more in-depth, they ruminate, they have better writing style. We have the space for about 7-8000 words to really go in to the nub of the issue. So we have a range of styles and we use a range of technology platforms to reach out to and to engage different age groups and different readerships.

ET: What I mean by the technologies having the potential for impact is that when you look at internet vs mobile or mobile vs radio or even the types of newer architectures and emerging communication technologies,  are there any of them that seem to be more useful than others in connecting, in your particular context? Sri Lanka for example?

SH: The mobile phone is globally the phenomenon that’s showing year-on-year a growth that’s mind-boggling, that ITU would have that in our lifetime, for the first time in human history, we are going to what I call ‘an addressable humanity’ where man, woman or child, IDP or citizen of New York, you are going to have a mobile number either in your own name or within walking distance. We have never had that in human history before. And that single fact makes every one of us potentially, from anywhere in the world, both an information producer but also a consumer, on an individual basis. So we don’t really know what kind of future that has for journalism as we know it today, citizen or mainstream where anybody anywhere can produce information but also consume through text messages. That has seen an incredible growth in my own country both during war and certainly post war. In areas where it was ravaged by war, for example you now have 3G telefonie and they seem to have leap-frogging the areas that had connectivity, so the areas for example that were war ravaged are now getting very good wireless 3G services that took years for us in Colombo to get. So they are completely leap-frogging into wired broadband and then to wireless connectivity which is great because then it encourages people on the ground to create their own content in time and to consume content that has been produced for them by their own identity groups in the country and also from the diaspora. So it just creates this very rich pot, melting pot almost, of producers and consumers.

So the mobile phone is really powering this, but let me also add that one of the interesting things we have seen in the country post war in particular, has been the growth of local language blogging. Couple of years ago this was limited to an urban elite who would use and consume content in English. Now you see the burgeoning of the local language content – it’s just absolutely fantastic. In my country there is Sinhala and Tamil. Sinhala is spoken only in Sri Lanka, Tamil as you know is spoken in many parts in India plus by also a much larger disapora worldwide. So Sinhala has had technical problems. We had problems in rendering the font and typing it in but these are slowly but surely being addressed and it’s really nice to see that content blossoming as well. And one of the things that I have started about 3-4 years ago is the Sinhala equivalent of Groundviews called ‘Vikalpa’, you won’t be able to read it because you won’t have the font or understand the language but there is a growing readership of that site and the YouTube videos that they produce in Sinhala, who also engage in Sinhala. So it is really fantastic to see that kind of growth as well. And that is happening on the web and that is also happening on the mobile phone as well.

On the mobile phone, let me end by saying that it is also very interesting because although the Sinhala fonts have been developed for mobile phones, very few use it. They use instead a ‘Romanic’ Sinhala. They type Sinhala in English and that’s how they communicate even though there are built in Sinhala fonts for the Nokia phone that you buy in Sri Lanka. So you are seeing new emergent ways of people using both, their own language plus also English, and pcs and mobile phones to both produce content and also to engage with. I think that is really, really rich texture for civic media and citizen journalism initiatives to take root, grow and be part of my country’s post war democratic potential.

ET: Very interesting things to consider here, particularly the local language blogging and this seeming line between the use of Roman language characters and local languages, would be really fascinating to see how that grows.  So moving forward a little bit about the conversation of how this functions at the local level, what are the more daunting or even common challenges that citizen journalists face in your context in Sri Lanka?

SH: There is digital media literacy and people know about Facebook and Twitter and people use it for personal communications, you know, ‘I had coffee here’’ ‘my dog died’, ‘my cat is with a knitting ball’ or ‘I just broke up with my girlfriend’ kind of thing, which is great. But what we seek to encourage is the more serious discussion, the more serious engagement with polity and society as a citizen. As a country we have voters but we have a very embryonic notion of citizenship because we are so fearful of engaging with government for fear of what that would entail to self, family and loved ones. We are, unfortunately, still a very violent society and democratic dialogue very often has very real life/physical consequences for those who ask inconvenient questions.  So that fear, anxiety, fright – a combination of all of those three, keeps people away from having the discussions and debates we would like to see far more on social media, web media platforms, even though they are growing phenomenally and mind blowing year-on-year, most of it is not for political discussion. So that’s a fundamental problem that we have across all media. When it comes to web it is an issue of connectivity – our connectivity is really good and is getting better year-on-year, so I think in the next 5 years or so, wherever you are in the country, you are going to have internet access and broadband.

Then it’s just a matter of creating the media literacy which again is across media to help citizens create their own media, that’s meaningful to their own community. So they don’t have, for example, Colombo telling a district or a province miles or hours away what they should be consuming. I see no need for that at all. Sometimes the US calls it the ‘hyper local media’ but I think that is also hyped too much but I think it’s a healthy interaction between the two who I think stands to benefit the most from– the people on the ground – content that they produce and that which they are interested in from the local their local vicinity, locality and neighbourhood, province and district coupled with the broader national perspective and the international perspective that larger media houses can bring.

So I don’t see it as an either/or proposition, I think that civic media can and should co-exist with mainstream media and the both can grow from the growing ubiquity of web based platforms that aid the dissemination and production of content for both, as well as I said earlier, the ubiquity now of mobile devices here in the country.  There are challenges still remaining with local language productions, for example as I said earlier, Sinhala language is only spoken in Sri Lanka we still have some issues about producing the script on a web browser or on a computer but, these all technical problems that are slowly being addressed.

Perhaps, may I end by being slightly politic? One of the underlying problems we have in this country is two-fold; one is that we have very limited awareness of open source technologies, about stuff like Ubuntu which can be as helpful as MS Windows in many instances and also because it has better language support  out of the box. The problem with a lot of propriety software, licensed software is precisely that they are licensed! With that in perspective of MS Windows plus Office license in Sri Lankan Rupees would be more than the price of a computer. So if you are buying a brand new computer, you have to spend the same amount, if not more to get your license software and that is not a viable proposition. That leads to software piracy and even though the police and the government and the large software corporations  are clamping down on piracy, you really don’t have a choice as a consumer, much as you would like to respect the law, to economically purchase that licensed software. So I think that awareness of open source technology, tools and operating systems is vital for any country to encourage their citizens to be mindful of the law and yet reach their digital media potential. So it is not one way that they can go, but there are also lots of free tools out there. I think that awareness of free tools also needs to grow in any country, particularly in my own if we are keen to see our citizens producing more and more content.

ET: What do you think it will take to really propel the field of citizen media forward? I know this is a large question but is anything in particular that would be really helpful to citizen journalists, anything that is missing to facilitate that story-telling process?

SH: I think it is the story-telling itself. I think there is this conception or notion that citizen media is one thing or the other but it is a wonderfully rich spectrum of how you tell a story!  And that story can be a single photo with a powerful caption; that story can be an audio podcast of an illiterate person who has a story to say and who has borne witness to something very interesting that nobody else has or has a unique perspective on it; that story can be a series of photo essays done by a professional, narrated by somebody on the ground; that story can be an HDV video or a camera phone video; that story can be written as an essay or as a poem or as a satirical piece.

I think the rich spectrum, the diversity of story-telling of which, we have a very rich aged tradition and indeed a global tradition, needs to be reflected into technology. Very often we speak about technology first and story-telling second. I choose the other way around.  I seek to first understand ‘what is the story we want to tell?’ That can be a hard story; that can be a human rights violation; that can be the allegations of the most horrific acts of war imaginable, and it can also be a good story. It can be the government official who refuses to take a bribe; it can be the teacher who comes to school on time and stays after school every single day, unappreciated with no salary increase for a quarter century; it can be the bus conductor who actually gives a ticket instead of just pocketing the money that gives rise to corruption; it can be the public official who stood up against corruption and got acid thrown in his face.

It’s not just about opposition to government. It’s also about celebrating that which in government works despite all odds and figuring out with our rich tradition of story-telling, how you can communicate this to a broader audience with the technologies that we as a generation have today that our former generations didn’t even a couple of years ago. I think if we start there, the technology becomes less of the issue and then the problem then becomes as to what stories you actually curate and how do you tell them.

To get this into the minds of people is the toughest challenge I have faced as a teacher. It’s in a sense, opening up their imagination, opening their eyes and making them realize that they do have stories to tell and it’s about how you tell the stories and not so much as to how you produce them and put them up on the web that’s most important.  I think that is the greatest challenge because what war does to many people, including myself to a great degree, is that it makes us fearful of telling stories.  Our stories are of Hansel and Gretel and Alice in Wonderland. We have rich stories of our own that are stories of my own cultural heritage that I grew up with. They are no longer told. They are no longer transported into digital media. But there are also other stories – stories of bombs in the night and white vans that have come and taken and broken families away.

There are plenty of stories around. No country, no region, no peoples, no culture is devoid of stories. Civic media for me, is about the potential to a) get those stories to a wider audience and b) to capture those stories for posterity.  Please note that I am not asking necessarily for what many in the global media call for as ‘regime change’, I think that is a facile notion that stories published can lead to an overthrow of a government. It can, in some instances but it’s very, very rare. I am more interested in stories for their own value, their own worth, not just for us but for a future generation. So that we have a richer history and when we have a richer history, my working assumption is that, we have a richer citizenry and that can only benefit democracy.

ET: Beautifully stated and so much to think about. Sanjana, thank you so much for taking the tie to share your thoughts with us and we are so excited to have Groundviews and yourself on board for this competition and really the amazing things that come out of it. Again, thank you so much for your time.

SH: Thank you very much.

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