Gagging the web and Internet: Implications of the proposed Private TV Broadcasting Regulations in Sri Lanka

Censorship of media in Sri Lanka isn’t a new phenomenon, but the Rajapakse regime took it a step further recently when it recently promulgated a new set of regulations through a gazette notification, called the Private Television Broadcasting Station Regulations. The over broad and ill-defined regulations, in parts copied and pasted verbatim from Indian Cable TV and IP TV regulations, were a measure to further undermine independent media in Sri Lanka.

On 14th November 2008, the Supreme Court, issuing a stay order suspending the operation of these regulations, granted a case lodged by the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association and others who opposed the proposed regulations as an affront to the freedom of expression leave to proceed. The case is to be heard on 26 January 2009.

Disturbingly, the proposed regulations are a significant challenge to all bloggers in Sri Lanka, since they seek to hold accountable all ISPs for the qualitative nature of the content transmitted, accessed and produced using their networks and further, makes no distinction between IP TV (e.g. SLT’s PeoTV) and TV / televisual content over the web and Internet (e.g. YouTube, Vimeo).

To discuss the implications of these proposed regulations, I’ll facilitate a roundtable discussion together with Beyond Borders on the 22nd November, from 3.45pm to 6pm at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI). I hope this discussion will animate youth activists and bloggers in Sri Lanka to take individual and collective action against these regulations which particularly under the Rajapakse regime and also future governments can be used to censor, at will, (video) content on the web and Internet.

Read the agenda for the discussion here. Read the background briefing for the discussion, written from the perspective of a new media producer / blogger / web activist critiquing the proposed regulations as a PDF here.

The participation I have in mind are youth activists, new media producers and bloggers, NOT mainstream media journalists, or senior staff / heads of the communications units of of NGOs, INGOs or CSOs. There’s no real cut off age, but I want to target this discussion at compelling new voices, who may not agree with each other, but are passionate about self-expression using web and online media on the Internet. We already have the confirmed participation of some of Sri Lanka’s most recognised and respected voices in the blogosphere.

Please confirm your participation with Beyond Borders or myself, since seats are limited at the venue.

Journalism of the future? Problems and challenges.

Late last year, Ashoka received a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to create a program aimed at identifying, supporting, and connecting social entrepreneurs in knowledge and news. The idea was to use Ashoka’s existing global network to find innovators using journalistic strategies to create transformative social change—and to create a sort of incubator whose leading-edge ideas would, in turn, inform the future of the news field.

Keith Hammond, the team leader of  the Ashoka Foundation’s new Social Entrepreneurs in Journalism programme, has an interesting interview (on Conversation Agent) where he speaks on the future of journalism. I completely agree with Keith when he notes that,

The fields of news and knowledge are foundational to vital democratic society. People who enjoy access to free, fair, and high-quality news media per se become more effective citizens: they understand more about how their community works, and they’re more likely to participate in making the decisions that shape their lives.

As an Ashoka Fellow, I feel particularly privileged to be part of a group of thought-leaders shaping the way the news and media agenda grapples with significant social, economic, political and identity based conflict and violence. Yet there’s always more to the solution that adding ICTs to the mix. In Sri Lanka, the fact that there is little or no civic consciousness is the real challenge to new media and citizen journalism. It is a country of voters, and the difference is not just semantic. There is a real dearth of critical thinking, media literacy and a sense of public outrage at the breakdown in governance, human rights and corruption. New media can create that outrage, or hold to scrutiny issues mainstream media cannot or will not. But this requires citizens to write in with their ideas and thoughts – which proves exceedingly difficult in a society that does not work in this manner.

There are other challenges.

  • Donors, most of them, have no clue as to how to best support new media. Many of them don’t understand the term, the concept or the technology. The worst of them end up supporting initiatives that aren’t anchored to ground realities. The best of them are often misguided and believe that the introduction of ICTs can magically and in the short term change socio-political, cultural and other identity based relations scarred by protracted conflict.
  • There are few Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) tools capable of measuring the impact of social / new media. The tools that exist are designed to measure the effective of mainstream media. New media’s impact is harder to capture, esp. when you recognise the range of technologies involved, the difference in the way the media is consumed, produced and disseminated, the difference in the content – the medium as well as the message – and the difference in audience demographics.
  • Acknowledge the fact that initial thought experiments may be in an of themselves failures, but are key in generating debate, discussion and interest in new / social media. Donors tend to write off entire initiatives and projects because they don’t show the results promised or desired in the short term. On the other hand, the disruptive nature of the projects may be more manifest over the medium to long term, which requires long term strategic interventions. As note in “Mass audiences” and citizen journalism “I would be elated to realise political change on account of the content featured on say Groundviews, but I would not be dissapointed if this does not happen any time soon. The content on the site and the larger content on the SL blogosphere, including all of that which I don’t agree with, are deeply valuable in a country precisely for the reason that they offer a greater spectrum of opinion than what I find in traditional media today – which is silent by fear or coercion.”
  • New media producers often disregard the wider cultural, economic and political repercussions of the content they create. The challenge of hyper-local media is that it is both local and it isn’t. A local news story published on the web may pique national interest if the issue is connected to (or seen to be connected to) a larger debate. This is especially the case in violent conflict. This has serious implications for local content producers, both positive and negative, that need to assessed and managed. This includes identity protection.
  • Thought leaders often attract parasites who come in the form of individuals and organisations, both local and international. Managing these parasites, who often have access to power, funding and other vital connections, is very difficult and can lead to more conflict.
  • As I note in Authoritarian regimes and governments vs. bloggersBlogs and blogging, from production to dissemination and influence need to take into account, inter alia, class, caste and (party) political power centres and structures. Importantly, issues like language politics, ethnicity and other identity markers and their interplay with web based media production and generation as well as aspects such as gender (which does not even get a single mention in the EJC article) cannot be ignored when talking about the reach and influence of blogs and blogging as a means of communication.

Please read the conclusion in an earlier post of mine titled “Mass audiences” and citizen journalism where I question some of the assumptions of the impact of new media in violent contexts.

I think the future of journalism is very exciting. I don’t think that the adding of technology, voices and perspectives necessary makes it better by default. As ever, the commitment of a few thought leaders will be needed to inspire, inform and shape the news and information cycles to anchor and frame them to more meaningful issues and processes.

The Ashoka Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will hopefully play a lead role in supporting such individuals and organisations and I look forward to exchanging ideas in this regard with Keith.

Unmasking bloggers in India raises some interesting questions

First it was shutting down blog sites after the Mumbai bombings in 2006. This year it was attempting to snoop into communications conducted over BlackBerry’s. Now Google has been instructed to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger in a defamation lawsuit filed by an Indian construction company against them.

The story on the Wall Street Journal reports that,

A small Indian construction-equipment company is demanding that Google Inc. disclose the name of a person who used its blogging service, in a case that could change the way the Internet giant does business in India.

The WSJ article needs a subscription to read (try BugMeNot) but another on Wired on the same issue ends on an interesting note,

This could potentially become an issue for bloggers bashing folks overseas, and set an example for cases regarding anonymity.  On the positive side, maybe it will encourage citizen journalists to back up their posts with more researched and trustworthy information.

A landmark ruling in California in 2006 gave bloggers protection from revealing their sources. In a case filed against Apple, the court ruled that

….online journalists and bloggers have the same right to protect their sources as all other journalists. The case was brought to court by Apple Computer demanding from a number of news website operators to reveal the source of confidential information posted about some of its products.

Apple did not appeal.