Panel Discussion: Women’s Engagement with New Media

The proverbial glass ceiling has long been in the way of women’s upward movement within the public sphere, including in media institutions. How have women overcome the limitations of access and opportunity of the conventional media structures by increasingly and innovatively engaging with online media platforms and spaces?

The Sri Lankan chapter of South Asian Women in Media Network (SAWM Sri Lanka) organised a panel discussion on women’s engagement with new media, which I was invited to moderate. In addition to Sachini Perera from Women and Media Collective speaking about women’s participation in new media in general, four distinguished women delivered presentations of around 15 minutes each,

  1. DushiYanthini Kanagasabapathipillai (Journalist, Photographer)
  2. Tehani Ariyaratna (CEPA, Blogger)
  3. Rushda Mohinudeen (Reach Out) 
  4. Sanjeewika Manohari (Boondi, Blogger),

The presentations were uniformly excellent, and I understand will be published online anon by WMC and/or SAWM. I requested the panellists to consider the following points when preparing their submissions,

  1. Why are you engaging with new media? What inspired you, or forced you to do so, and why have you continued to publish and engage?
  2. How has your engagement with new media changed from the time you first started? What topics do you focus on and why?
  3. How do you perceive your role when using and engaging through social media?
  4. Has self-expression as a woman/female journalist/female activist, in your perception, increased qualitatively because of your use of new media? What kinds of expression do you engage in today, that you couldn’t do without new media?
  5. Has new media taught you to communicate key messages in different ways (i.e. long FB post, short Tweet, photo caption and photo, audio clip, and short video – around same issue)? How difficult was this learning process?
  6. Just yesterday, Ceylon Today, ironically a newspaper that has two of the most senior women journalists in Sri Lanka at its helm, published an article that was outrageously sexist, documented by myself and others on this email, including Women and Media Collective, via Twitter. Does new media strengthen gendered critiques of old media practises, attitudes and content? If so, how? Conversely, what examples of sexism and misogyny have you experienced or seen in new media platforms?
You may also wish to consider,
  1. The security dimensions, as a female voice/activist on new media. Do you occasionally or always publish content anonymously, pseudonymously, and if so, why?
  2. What tools and techniques have you found helpful to minimise risk, and engage with difficult issues?
  3. How have you dealt with hate speech against self, institution, family and friends? What are some coping mechanisms in this regard?
  4. How do you assess risk online? What are your markers of safety? When and how do you determine, based on online interactions and content, there is fear of physical harm to self, family, friends or colleagues?

Some notes I took down as moderator, to stimulate discussion and also responding to the presentations by the panellists, follow.


  • As women move from the margins to the centre, and their use of new media grows qualitatively as well as quantitatively, there will be new challenges around privacy, safety and security as well as redefinitions of identity, participation and engagement. This discussions will be both shaped by, and mediated through, new media – the media itself will shape the content, and the content will go on to shape how new media will be used and perceived.
  • The need to move away from blogs and blogging, and to more nuanced discussions of how new media ecosystems can support advocacy and activism.
  • While the frustration with more rights based, gendered and high quality content creation persists, it is also the case that the more people who create content for and publish on the likes of YouTube, Flickr and various blogs also, over time, make it that much harder for the government to censor or block these platforms. While WMC can and must strengthen more serious advocacy by and for women, it should also encourage more content creation of any kind – the more people are online and using new media, the more the impact of censorship is felt across multiple levels and segments of society.
  • Activists need to augment their technical knowledge to keep up with privacy concerns and increasing sophistication of surveillance. The online and virtual today has a direct and immediate impact on the physical and institutional. This connection isn’t made in the minds of many activists, who remain more concerned about physical safety and security and less interested in online security and secure communications.
  • There are attendant challenges of growing audiences online, on multiple fronts. At its simplest, its about growing a fan and following base on Facebook and Twitter, which can cost money, and requires strategic thinking and an understanding of online social network and audience dynamics. There is also the challenge of reaching beyond the converted. Following and engaging with difference – which can often be rudely and insultingly couched – is another challenge. The language of hate, hurt and harm overwhelms the negotiation of difference online, esp. when anonymity is a handy cloak. The nature of this venom is particularly virulent against women and women activists – who need to develop coping mechanisms using technology as well as human/institutional networks.
  • Understanding one’s network influencers can be done through Wolfram Alpha’s Facebook tool –
  • The central challenge of activists in the digital age remain one of the imagination. Activists and institutions consider new media as promotional extensions of their old, street level activism (i.e. by posting videos and photos online of demonstrations around Lipton Circus). While this is in and of itself useful and on occasion, extremely powerful, few if any in Sri Lanka are thinking of the wholly new ways of using social and new media for activism and the captivation of new supporters and audiences. A number of compelling examples in this regard were provided by panellists, and one hopes there is a more robust documentation of what worked when, with whom and why, as a template for others to emulate.
  • The challenge of hyper-connectivity and over-sharing. The first fractures our attention – our brains are today, quite literally, wired differently, because we engage with media and information in a fundamentally different way to how our parents did. A Microsoft researcher called this a few years ago ‘continuous partial attention’ – being ensnared by multiple information nodes (e.g. checking FB on mobile whilst listening to a panel presentation, and quickly tweeting something a soundbite, and at the same time snapping a shot of the speaker and posting on Instagram). Over-sharing (esp. through apps like Foursquare) means that we now share where we have coffee, and with whom. While both can lead to interesting studies of human movement and behaviour, in a repressive regime, they also provide a lot of information that could be useful in censoring and harming activists. The other problem of course is how activists can address a generation and audiences whose attention span is so limited.
  • Photography today is not just limited to D-SLR cameras. Every single phone now has a camera, and most smartphones today have cameras many times better than even low end digital cameras. The power and potential of these cameras to bear witness need to be encouraged and explored, esp. on women’s issues.
  • More awareness about Creative Commons licensing of content needed –
  • The enduring challenge of attribution can in part be addressed by CC licensing, but also requires mainstream media to engage with new media collectives, perhaps convened by the likes of WMC in the case of women who are active on new media, and how they can properly attribute content and use these new voices in their own reporting. Producers of content need to also make their content open, for e.g. (the Twitter archive download feature is being progressively introduced to all Twitter accounts)
  • Engage with Charitha Herath’s / Media Ministry’s new media ethics framework, due to made public in the next week or so. For a government that usually kills, maims, forces into silence or exile, censors and defiles us, even though there is great scepticism about the framework’s raison d’etre, it’s still useful to engage with him and the Media Ministry about it, esp. from a gendered perspective.
  • The challenges of anonymity on a platform like Facebook needs to be fully understood – as it stands, creating a false id on the platform is contravenes usage guidelines and risks account deletion. With the introduction of FB’s new Social Graph feature in the coming months, content on the platform will be far more open to other users, which again raises concerns about how much activists on it know about privacy controls.
  • Know what you want to say and do before embracing tools and platforms. A panellist noted the introduction of Vine by Twitter (6 second looping videos) but rather than be guided by the latest and most hyped tech, it is fundamentally important to ascertain which audience one wants to speak to and engage with, on what issues, and how. Being guided by tech is a recipe for disaster. Being guided by the thrust of a core message helps one select what tools to use, when, and with whom.
  • Know thy network – who are the connectors, who are the influencers. Wolfram Alpha’s FB tool noted above can help a lot in this regard.
  • Institutionally, leverage multiple networks for the greatest dissemination of content – if there is a very popular person in office who has a social media network many times greater than the institution itself, but doesn’t use it for activism, and there is a more advocacy oriented person who updates social media platform more regularly with say rights based content, it is useful to see how the two networks can complement each other.
  • The use of SMS wasn’t discussed, but there are a number of examples from FrontlineSMS alone, incl. in Sri Lanka amongst women – WMC has details – where it has been used. More study and emulation needed.

A ‘gay girl in Damascus’ is actually a callous white American man

Image courtesy The Telegraph

I first wrote about the purported abduction of Amina Abdallah Arraf The ‘abduction’ of a gay activist in Syria: A cautionary tale for media. In what can only be called a bizarre twist, the author of A Gay Girl in Damascus turns out to be a Tom MacMaster, an American 40-year-old graduate student. The New York’s Times blog The Lede has the details, but it turns out that the entire blog is a fictional account, based on a stolen identity. The most recent post on A Gay Girl in Damascus, now called ‘A Hoax’, is an apology by MacMaster, which notes that,

“I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.”

MacMaster’s suggestion that he has not harmed anyone is incredible. There is no mention of Jelena Lecic, whose identity MacMaster stole. There is no reflection about what this elaborate hoax means for real activists, and real issues in Syria, since it puts into question everything that was written on the blog, whether or not it mirrored reality. There is seemingly no cognition that this is good fodder for brutish Syrian authorities to conveniently suggest that other content online is actually false. It calls to question Facebook as a tools for activism, if spoofing an identity is so easy. It calls to question, which had posted an article suggesting  Amina was actually “a 35 year-old lesbian living in Edinburgh, Scotland”. This post and in fact, the content on this entire site has since been taken down, and The Lede hints that this site is also run by MacMaster. A PDF of a Google Cache copy of this page can be read here.

In The ‘abduction’ of a gay activist in Syria: A cautionary tale for media I reiterated the need for media to improve their digital media literacy in order to be more resilient to fraudulent characters on the web. What’s sad is that so many of the news outlets that published stories on Amina, even when increasingly sceptical of the story, continued to use Jelena Lecic’s photo in their coverage, or didn’t take it down from their websites. The media, in this case, served to strengthen MacMaster’s callous attitude as much as they now seek to expose him as a fraud.

An Israeli blogger named Elizabeth Tsurkov, who had interacted at length with ‘Amina’ online, noted to The Lede in an e-mail,

“I reacted more strongly than most people to the news of Amina’s kidnapping because I felt that I knew the person who was kidnapped, but many other people who had simply read the blog were terrified. I’m not sure there is a way to protect oneself from such sociopaths, but I know that I will try to distance myself emotionally from people that I am not very familiar with online.”

Elizabeth speaks for so many of us. As for MacMaster, the media should now treat him the way they treated Amina’s abduction. Include as many photos of him as they can find in the news stories on this issue, so that the long memory of Google also captures for posterity and exposes him for what he is – a sociopath, a fraud.

As for Facebook itself, the platform from which Jessica says her identity was stolen by MacMaster, I wonder whether its controversial face recognition technology can play a more positive role? If the company chooses to do so, it can warn other users of photos that appear on its social network which may be a false identity, done simply by flagging photos that are tagged as one identity appearing in other instances / profiles / albums / walls as another, or alongside claims to be someone else.

What other ideas do you have to sniff out and avoid similar online debacles?

Blogging as a journalist, woman and individual in Sri Lanka

One or two years ago my friend Tarika Wickremeratne delivered a presentation on blogging to a group of female journalists in Sri Lanka that I had spoken to previously. I champion blogging in Sri Lanka for many reasons, and the empowerment of women being one of them. Over the past 10 years I have spoken to a number of women’s collectives in urban centres as well as remote villages on how new media, including mobile phones, can enhance their livelihoods and lives by enabling them to produce content that they feel is most important to produce. It is hardly a revolutionary idea, though in many parts of the island, the idea of a community owned and run SMS based news and information service, led by women, often inspires them to explore how new media can raise and discuss issues that mainstream media and even provincial journalism are rarely interested in covering, or cannot cover.

Tarika’s presentation speaks to this and needs to be read alongside her slide notes.

The arrest of the ‘blogger’ in Sri Lanka: Crowd-sourcing trumps traditional media follow up

Ayubowan, a blog I didn’t know of before, helpfully posted a screen grab of a post from Gossip Lanka, a blog I also didn’t know of before, on the recent arrest of a ‘blogger’ in Sri Lanka that had many concerned. Gossip Lanka’s post is in Sinhala and doesn’t render at all on my Mac, which is why Ayubowan’s screen grab is helpful. The post avers in Sinhala that,

A few days ago, a derogatory email, also containing five nude photos, were sent to the Secretary of Defense and the President. Resulting CID investigations probed the IP address to ascertain the sender. It was discovered that the email was sent from a cybercafe in Matale. Based upon further investigations, the Police were able to apprehend the individual who was a regular customer of the cybercafe and owned the account used to send the email. However, the suspect vehemently denied he had sent the email in question. “This must have been done by someone to set me up” he said. The Police then asked who this could be. It was then the suspect said that his password was with his former girlfriend, who was not on good terms with him.

The Police then questioned the suspect’s girlfriend, who let known in her fear that she had given the password to her new boyfriend. She also told Police that her new boyfriend had set out to teach her old boyfriend a lesson.

Gayan Rajapakse is the name of her new boyfriend, and he admitted that he had sent the email. He will be in remand till the 6th under the instructions of the Matale District Courts.

This version is corroborated, also in Sinhala, by Web Alochana, an identity I read and trust. As Web Alochana notes, it is still not clear what the exact nature of the threat to the Defense Secretary and the President was.

It is not yet confirmed whether Gayan Rajapakse is a blogger, though he could still turn out to be one. His actions deservedly put him in the hands of the law and cannot be condoned. However, sending an email is emphatically not the same as publishing “offensive and defamatory comments regarding the President and the Secretary of Defense through a website he was operating”, which is what the Daily Mirror first reported and in turn gave rise to fears that a blogger had been arrested in the context of Sri Lanka’s atrocious media freedom. The Daily Mirror’s follow up story the day after also failed to mention that the suspect had been arrested over an email.

There has been to my knowledge no further reporting by the Daily Mirror on this incident. Leading Sri Lankan bloggers, justifiably alarmed, wrote a number of posts such as this one by Indi Samarajiva to find out more information on the incident that were also picked up by Global Voices Online. And it’s on comment threads on these posts, and on the blogosphere, that the incident was probed deeper and a more comprehensive account determined.

It’s an interesting model of crowd-sourcing a story, and one that the Daily Mirror and other traditional print media are well advised to study. The Guardian in England has already shown how this works to hold government accountable.

State of the blogosphere in 2009

Technorati’s State of the Blogosphere 2009 report is out, and as in previous years, makes for interesting reading. The findings help dispel somewhat the commonly held perception that those with the most influence online are ‘ordinary citizens’, when in fact many, as in Sri Lanka, come from privileged backgrounds. Importantly, this would not be the case with mobile phone content creation and information consumption around the world.

Screen shot 2009-10-20 at 10.01.04 AM

Screen shot 2009-10-20 at 10.01.47 AM

It’s time someone did a similar study on the state of the Sri Lankan blogosphere.

Plaigarising our content: How should bloggers respond?

Echoing a post just three days ago on the Daily Mirror‘s plagiarism, this post on Chuls Bits & Pics blog does not come as a surprise. The author notes that the photo accompanying the story on the Sunday Times here was published without any attribution. As the author notes,

Infuriating was a mild term to describe how I felt, cheated is more like it, considering this photograph was taken by me during a short stop in London in 2008 when this statue was on display at the British Museum.  I had made a special visit to the British Museum for the sole purpose of seeing this statue, take this photograph and write the story.

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Full text: Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility, October 2008

Available as a PDF in English, Sinhala and Tamil.

Also see emphasis on Internet freedom and respecting blogger’s rights here.


On the Occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedomand Social Responsibility (“Declaration”), we, the undersigned:

Reaffirming our commitment to the principles and values articulated in the Declaration, and to the process of Reform of Media Laws that we set out on.

We take this opportunity to revisit the Declaration, to acknowledge the positive developments that have taken place since then, to remind ourselves of the many goals that remain unfulfilled, and to chart out new challenges that have arisen since the Declaration

We note that the Government of Sri Lanka was one of the signatories to the Colombo Declaration on Media, Development and Poverty Eradication, Colombo, 2006 (“UNESCO Declaration”) and its commitments under this Declaration include the promotion of a free, pluralistic and independent media committed to social justice and development. We recall further that the Windhoek Declaration of 1991 asserted that the right to a free press is a fundamental right underpinning participatory democracy.

We believe that one of the ways of achieving a free, pluralistic and independent media is by implementing the reforms suggested in the Declaration of 1998 and by guaranteeing to journalists the constitutional right to practice their profession while ensuring their safety and security.

Towards that end, we take this opportunity to present a revised version of the 1998 Declaration, and we pledge to work towards translating the normative aspirations of the Colombo Declaration into lived reality.

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