From absent censorship to latent racism: Tweets and mainstream media in Sri Lanka

Two recent stories reported first on Twitter in Sri Lanka demonstrate the power of the medium to reveal bias, and influence a global media agenda. The first was related to the BBC’s rebroadcast on State controlled terrestrial radio, a few days after outrageous threats made by Mervyn Silva, a brutish government MP. I follow the feed of Charles Haviland, the BBC’s country correspondent, and when on the 25th of March he tweeted the following, took it very seriously.

Those familiar with Twitter will pick up that Charlie’s tweet was based on what was first reported by Azzam Ameen (who is also with the BBC in Sri Lanka),

Yet a day after, Charles admitted on Twitter that Sandeshaya didn’t go on air due to a technical fault, which was followed up with a story by Sandeshaya itself.

In an email I penned to several human rights activists I noted that the was damage was done. Two or three international human rights organisations got in touch with me to get more information on what at the time was thought to be government censorship of inconvenient reportage. Retweets and reports of the supposed censorship of a programme on Sandeshaya that covered the attack on exiled journalist Poddala Jayantha spread virally on Twitter, given the government’s record of censoring content. I feared that this would be precisely the kind of thing that the Government would pick up on, in order to dismiss other more serious and valid instances of media censorship.

After Charles published his tweet clarifying the technical fault, I asked via Groundviews both him and Azzam to clarify the allegation made previously that the content was censored.

A good discussion ensued between Azzam and I over the reporting of the incident, and the dangers of – in this case for perfectly understandable reasons – misinformation. Download as image here.

The story doesn’t however end here. During these days, Al Jazeera was doing it’s research on the media landscape in Sri Lanka and in particular the threats made by Mervyn Silva. The research fed into a very good report aired on Al Jazeera’s Listening Post flagging Sri Lanka’s persistent culture violence and threats, with complete impunity, against journalists and human rights activists.

At around 5:05 into the video (which you can see on YouTube) Callum Macrae, the Director of Channel 4’s two controversial documentaries on allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka notes,

“… the trouble is that the Sri Lankan Government are controlling what comes into the country viciously. Recently, BBC Sinhala service and the BBC Tamil service, which used to be retransmitted on State radio, have been blocked. They stopped doing it because there is criticism in there, and they can’t afford their own people to hear it.”

For the record, what Callum flags as the violent and disturbing context for independent media in post-war Sri Lanka is accurate, but it is clear where he got his information from. As I tweeted on Groundviews,

The other story is also one that was first covered by the BBC, and was about a cyclone that hit Vavuniya and displaced, as noted at the time the report on the BBC was filed, over two thousand war refugees in the Manik Farm camp.

Given the scale of the disaster and the ferocity of the cyclone, my immediate response was to tweet on Groundviews why the Met Dept didn’t see this coming, and warn the inhabitants of the area.

What ensued however was more interesting, and a snapshot of the thinly veiled racism that undergirds mainstream media in Sri Lanka today. The BBC tweeted the story about the cyclone at 11:06pm on 31st March. Over 8 hours after, there was not a single tweet by Daily Mirror, Ceylon Today or Ada Derana about the cyclone.

Others on Twitter also picked up on this. Two hours after our tweet, at 9.19am on 1st April, Ada Derana responded by flagging a news story on the cyclone in Sinhala. I said in response,

and noted to another friend and prolific user of Twitter that,

Ada Derana, to their credit, got back and noted that,

The most revealing response however came from the Daily Mirror‘s Twitter stream. In response to my tweet, the Daily Mirror noted,

The sheer insensitivity of the tweet, and the callous dismissal of the disaster, was incredible. I responded by saying that,

Even more bizarrely, the Daily Mirror’s social media team clearly hadn’t read the paper’s own coverage of the disaster. Even though they initially tweeted and went on to reiterate that “500 houses damaged was about it! If you have not seen.” the Daily Mirror‘s own story, in the title itself, clearly noted that 1,200 houses were damaged (see PDF of article here). As I said,

It was only after once the discrepancy between what Daily Mirror was saying on Twitter and what they were reporting on their website that the Twitter team discovered their mistake. As an excuse for the silence, they said they could not confirm numbers given absence of a correspondent on the ground. I responded by noting that,

At this juncture, ‘NavinKonwsBest’, another Twitter user who had followed the debate (and by this time, many others were flagging it in their own streams) chimed in with his thoughts, first telling us,

Our conversation with him tells its own story,

‘NavinKnowsBest’ did not get back to us on our challenge, and that last tweet is important to underscore. In August 2009, Groundviews was the first to report on the flooding in – and this is ironic – Menik Farm. Mainstream Sinhala and English media simply ignored the tragedy (see media monitoring here). The scale of the flooding and devastation was far worse three years ago, but to date, the bias of mainstream media to gloss over and indeed, callously dismiss disaster’s that primarily impact Tamils is sharply brought out by the tone and language of the Daily Mirror tweet and the lack of any meaningful coverage of the recent cyclone many hours after it was reported in international media.

To date, the Daily Mirror hasn’t sent a single SMS regarding the cyclone in Menik Farm. Aside from a single (wrong) tweet about the cyclone, the Daily Mirror hasn’t updated its followers about the devastation in Menik Farm. It isn’t an emergency that can be off-handishly dismissed. As an update from the Danish Refugee Council notes,

“Saturday afternoon a tornado accompanied by heavy winds, rain and golf ball sized hail hit Zone 1 of Menik Farm, a camp housing 1,842 internally displaced families near Vavuniya in Northern Sri Lanka. 16 people received medical treatment from a nearby hospital, while 942 out of 1031 shelters for families living in Zone 1 of the camp, the school and several Sri Lankan Red Cross Health facilities were destroyed or damaged.

“There had been a food distribution that began just days before the storm, these food rations were ruined and therefore our first response is to provide supplementary food items to those affected,” says Rob Drouen, Country Representative of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in Sri Lanka.”

Why is this not covered in Sri Lanka’s Sinhala/Southern centric mainstream print media in newsprint,and on their social media platforms and streams? As I noted in 2009 (The shame of Menik Farm),

And does the traditional media feature in this debate? Who in traditional media has questioned the plans of raving megalomaniacs in the Ministry of Defence who have a muscular grip over the fate of these IDPs? All SMS news services, that never fail to deliver cricket scores minutes after events on the pitch, were silent for over 3 days after the devastating floods in Menik Farm. Only Tamil media featured news of the flooding the day after the floods. The plight of IDPs was, shamefully, a non-issue for Sinhala newspapers last Sunday, with no front-page coverage whatsoever. This was despite a number of reports which suggested that toilet pits were overflowing, floors of tents were soggy and wet, IDPs had no change from wet clothes, a lack of dry firewood for cooking, that roofs of some tents blown away are increasing concerns over health and sanitation conditions with the impending monsoon. Erased by a supine traditional media, many in the South do not know the real ground conditions faced by IDPs. Worse, in a damning display of indifference, the South does not care enough to find out and demand this information.

The outrageous bias of mainstream media aside, what can we take from these two examples of Twitter to report on and interrogate key events? One lesson, quite clearly, is to not always believe what goes first on Twitter, and to be – especially when you are perceived to be a respected and reliable voice on the medium – circumspect when tweeting (read Twitter for Newsrooms: What’s missing?). Once up, there’s really no deleting a tweet (you can on Twitter and through a client, but the RSS entry of the tweet is persistent). Sometimes better to be late and more accurate, than first, fast and largely incorrect. Or else, if it’s a story worth tweeting quickly, preface it clearly that what is noted is fluid, partial and can possibly change radically.

Regarding the tone and language of tweets, especially when representing a mainstream media organisation, it’s best not to let personal prejudice influence what is institutional output. A tweet from the Daily Mirror dismissing a disaster that affected thousands of Tamils is fundamentally different to a tweet from an personal account. It’s tragic that mainstream media today has the financial resources to do so much with social and new media, but are bedevilled by, inter alia, young journalists who are new media illiterate, and more importantly, insensitive.

Sadly, I don’t see a deep humanism and commitment to professionalism driving mainstream media and reporting in the public interest in Sri Lanka today. Cash rich media institutions are spending millions on back-office IT and brand-related social media strategies, but they fail to leverage the true potential of these platforms to connect, to interrogate, to shine light on what’s inconvenient, and bear witness to what is wrong. Nobody has an exclusive handle on the truth, but when disasters (and cricket updates!) in the South are so clearly more important to the media than disasters in the North of Sri Lanka, one has to wonder, can we really see old media embracing new platforms as progress?

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