The ‘abduction’ of a gay activist in Syria: A cautionary tale for media

I first heard about the abduction of the ‘gay’ Syrian blogger through the Facebook feeds of friends following events in the Middle East in general, and Syria in particular, closely. A number pointed to this Al Jazeera article, but really, this was picked up and reported on almost all the major wire news services. The disclaimer on the top of the Al Jazeera article didn’t exist at the time of its first publication, and gives an idea of why this story is so tragic.

Known only as Amina Abdallah Araf, the story was this person was abducted in Damascus, the Syrian capital, on Monday.  The first news of her ‘abduction’ came from a guest post on her blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus. This blog, as well as Amina’s Facebook page, were apparently cornerstones of the activist movement in Syria. Turns out, however, no one had really met Amina. As Al Jazeera now notes,

 A number of questions have been raised about Arraf’s identity, which the New York Times summarizes on its Lede blog. One of her alleged photos is actually a photo of a woman named Jelena Lecic, who lives in London and says she has never met anyone named Amina Arraf. And a 2007 post on Arraf’s old blog suggests that at least some of her writings are fictional. No one has come forward who has actually met Arraf in person; all of her friends and contacts seem to have conducted purely online relationships.

It got worse. As The Lede notes,

Andy Carvin, an NPR journalist and expert at debunking Internet rumors, pointed out that none of the reports of the arrest of Amina Abdallah Arraf appeared to have been written by journalists who had previously met or interviewed her. 

Some of my Facebook friends and their friends refused to believe that Amina wasn’t a person, and when it became apparent that her identity was a mask, then refused to believe that she or the person(s) behind the blog could have deliberately misled people, pointing also to the fact that the blog was rather well tuned to the politics of Syria which for an outsider would be extremely difficult to parse. But the evidence kept stacking up.

Later in the week, the BBC broadcast a damning interview with Jelena Lecic of London, who identity and photos were actually those that Amina had portrayed as her own. It is unfair to blame Facebook based on what she says in the interview, but she does clearly note that the photos were taken off her Facebook profile in spite of her privacy settings, which raises larger questions about identity theft and management in our age of online social networking. Mahmoud Hamad, a Syrian rights activist on the programme places the blame on lazy journalism, but this is rich. Amina had deliberately taken on the identity of another person, and given her blog’s profile and the profile of her writing, gave no reason at all to disbelieve that she was not who she said she was. In any case, save for the use of a platform like www.tineye.com, there is also no way for journalists to easily trace back the origins of a photo. Plus, it is unclear if Tin Eye actually has access to and indexes photos in the walled gardens of online social networks.

The reason for taking on an assumed identity are well known. No one is contesting this, or why this can’t continue to be the case for the most vociferous critics of the Syrian regime, in order to protect their lives. That said, there is an obvious benefit of making this known from the get go, and letting readers judge one’s output based on content, and not necessarily name. On Groundviews for example, a site I curate, there are dozens, nay hundreds of online commentators and contributors who are pseudonymous. In sticking to their pseudonym over time, have rich conversations with others because it becomes for most part indistinguishable from an identity using a real name. Why wasn’t Amina upfront?

The story then gets even more farcical. This site, which claims to have set up Amina’s blog for her, now claims it was “a 35 year-old lesbian living in Edinburgh, Scotland” behind it. No evidence is given, no names are shared. Ironically, the site still has stories of Amina’s abduction with Jelena’s photos. No clarifications at all.

“Posting it again. Because it’s worth posting again.” was the status message of one of my friends on Facebook when the story of Amina’s ‘abduction’ was first doing the rounds. Now no one is touching it. As The Washington Post succinctly notes,

One activist contacted in Damascus, the Syrian capital, said he doubts Arraf is real and expressed concern that the opposition’s efforts to convey to the world the regime’s ruthlessness will be undermined by the apparent fabrication. “It’s selfish because it means real issues in the future won’t be taken seriously at all,” he said, speaking via Skype on the condition of anonymity because he fears the consequences of talking to the media.

And there’s the rub. Amina’s episode casts a shadow of doubt over the entire Syrian activist landscape online, raises (valid) questions over who to believe, and how to ascertain the veracity of what is posted on blogs and social networks. These are now familiar challenges. Part of what I do in Sri Lanka is to train mid-career journalists in the new media literacy they need to avoid being beguiled by examples like A Gay Girl in Damascus, or more accurately, to treat the information therein in much the same way as any other source in journalism.  As I note in Online propaganda of pseudo-patriots: Need for digital media literacy,

With the increasing sophistication of online propaganda, including campaigns on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr (inter-linked and with multiple campaign on each platform), journalists need to, inter alia,

  1. Know how to cut through retweets and get to the originator of a message,
  2. Ascertain the legitimacy of a Facebook profile,
  3. Do basic digital photo forensics using online tools to determine what, if anything, has been altered, where a photo has been used previously and sourced from
  4. Determine the registrant of a website across multiple domain registrars, if this information is in the public domain
  5. Use advanced search features of Google to hone in on key phrases, sites, file type, date ranges and sources
  6. Learn to use online visualisation tools to tell a story otherwise too complex or technical to articulate in words (e.g. money laundering networks, or connections between various diaspora groups)

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.

Relaunch of Vikalpa: Engaging opinion and analysis in Sinhala from Sri Lanka

Vikalpa (www.vikalpa.org) relaunched its website yesterday, with a renewed focus on compelling and original opinion and analysis in Sinhala from Sri Lanka.

First launched in 2007, the old website had become unwieldy, inelegant and hard to navigate. The new website introduces a number of new sections, and makes it easier to follow content updates on Twitter, Facebook, access Vikalpa’s Flickr and YouTube channels and listen to its in-house podcast productions.

An enduring challenge beyond the scope of the site, yet central to its reach and accessibility is Sinhala font installation. This of course will gradually and invariably disappear over time, with new versions of Windows for example featuring Sinhala language support out of the box. At present however, journalists and readers outside of Colombo have repeatedly asked Vikalpa for directions on how Sinhala and Tamil fonts can be installed on their PCs. One of the best resources currently in this regard are the Sinhala Bloggers Union guides.

Vikalpa’s channel on YouTube has repeatedly entered the global top 100 list. With more than 500 videos watched well over 400,000 times, short-form video content seems to be, perhaps also in the face of the technical challenges of rendering Sinhala on the web, more popular. For example, this one filmed recently in Colombo clearly showing Police protecting the thugs who attacked a peaceful protest in support of Sarath Fonseka was viewed over 9,000 times in a week.

I’m working with the Vikalpa team to develop their digital media production and web journalism skills.

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

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

Mainstream bloggers?

Indi and Dinidu are two examples of bloggers who transition easily, and arguably effectively, between new and mainstream print media. Indi’s just taken up a column in the Sunday Leader (as I have, more anon) and Dinidu was formerly with the Daily Mirror, helping them inter alia to set up a Twitter feed. Both write regularly on their blogs, treating blogs not as another chore but an integral part of their self-expression and work.

The three of us are perhaps the only bloggers in Sri Lanka that engage regularly with mainstream media (though authors such as David Blacker write the occasional piece). I have an on-going English TV talk show, write to Montage and Spectrum monthly, have just accepted to write a column in the Sunday Leader, blog here, edit and manage Groundviews, occasionally give input into Vikalpa, Vikalpa’s YouTube channel, archive websites at risk of being blocked or just dissapearing and am part of a many other web initiatives that seek to promote progressive, civil dialogue aimed at securing dissent and democracy in a violent context.

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Internet and Web based Citizen Journalism in Sri Lanka

Background paper to a workshop on Citizen Journalism I’m organising in the near future. Full paper with references as a PDF from here.

Many less radical institutions – governments, NGOs, think tanks – are struggling to address the same challenge, unable to respond to the rapidly shifting balance of power between the individual and the institution radically disrupted by the Internet. In today’s ultra-networked world, an unaffiliated individual with a laptop and an Internet connection is often more influential and resourceful than an organization with a staff of twenty and a fax machine was only twenty years ago.

– Evgeny Morozov on openDemocracy.net

Introduction

The overarching problems of a State riven by violent conflict, corruption, nepotism and the significant breakdown of democratic governance and human rights, especially in recent years, deeply inform the timbre of traditional media. It is a vicious symbiosis – traditional media is both shaped by and shapes a violent public imagination. The potential of Web 2.0 and new media in general and citizen journalism, mobile phones and USG in particular (e.g. YouTube videos, blogs, SMS and mobile sites) suggests that content that critiques the status quo, authored by civil society, can play a constructive and increasingly significant role in peacebuilding and stronger democratic governance in Sri Lanka. The renowned Columbia Journalism Review has an interesting short article on the power of citizen journalism even under repressive regimes. Blogging the Coup by Dustin Roasa notes,

The debate over citizen journalism in the U.S. tends to dwell, tediously, on whether citizen reporters can supplant, rather than complement, the professional press. But in many countries around the world, where the press is under government control, corrupt, or simply incompetent, citizen journalists may be the only source of information that is reasonably credible. Without citizen reporters in Myanmar, for instance, it would have been impossible to know what was happening during anti-government demonstrations last year, while in the Middle East, bloggers have become a viable alternative to the heavily censored, state-run media.

Citizen journalism on the web and Internet is seen in this short paper as a way through which all peoples of Sri Lanka, with something as basic as ownership of or access to a mobile phone, can hold to account the violence practiced by the Rajapakse regime, the LTTE, the TMVP and other armed groups in the country who policies and practices are inimical to democracy. Put simply, citizen journalism aims to be as much as a annoyance to them as they are to democratic governance. There are well over 300 blogs in English, Sinhala and Tamil now aggregated on www.kottu.org, Sri Lanka’s largest blog aggregation site. There is already a growing culture of vibrant debate on issues linked to governance, human rights, war and peace on the blogosphere that rivals the qualitative reportage in mainstream media (MSM). New voices on blogs like Dinidu de Alwis and Indi Samarajiva are speaking with a new voice, appealing to new audiences and capturing malleable minds of youth more familiar with web media than traditional print and electronic journalism.

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