125 journalists in jail. 3 in Sri Lanka. Bloggers next?

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) came out with a disturbing report last week, in which it noted that out of 125 incarcerated as of 1st December 2008, 56 of them were online journalists including bloggers. As CPJ notes,

[it is] a tally that surpasses the number of print journalists for the first time. The number of imprisoned online journalists has steadily increased since CPJ recorded the first jailed Internet writer in its 1997 census. Print reporters, editors, and photographers make up the next largest professional category, with 53 cases in 2008. Television and radio journalists and documentary filmmakers constitute the rest.

“Online journalism has changed the media landscape and the way we communicate with each other,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “But the power and influence of this new generation of online journalists has captured the attention of repressive governments around the world, and they have accelerated their counterattack.”

Bloggers in Sri Lanka aren’t recognised as journalists (save for a single statement by leading media freedom organisations in 2007) and do not enjoy the legal protection afforded to traditional media personnel. Independent online media websites have been increasingly hacked into this year. With traditional print media now embracing citizen journalism and with web audiences / consumers growing apace, there is no doubt that the regime’s attention will focus on the web and Internet in the future. Arguably, this already evident is some of the legislation it proposes for media regulation.  

CPJ also highlights the case of  Tamil columnist and editor J.S. Tissainayagam, detained and after a couple of months charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in 2008. As the CPJ notes,

In a statement posted on its official Web site, the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights said the journalist and “his business associates” had produced publications “designed to embarrass the Sri Lankan government through false accusations.”

The CPJ gets it slightly wrong here. The website of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights has no mention of Tissa’s case. That credit goes to the perennially priapic Rajiva Wijesinghe who responded, in his capacity of Secetary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, to a press release by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Secretary General of the Governement’s “Peace Secretariat”. Rajiva is also the Secretary General of the Government’s “Peace Secretariat”, where his incredible response was published. In this response, it is noted that one of the charges Tissa stands accused of under PTA is for writing the following passage,

‘Such offensives against the civilians are accompanied by attempts to starve the population by refusing them food as well as medicines and fuel, with the hope of driving out the people of Vaharai and depopulating it. As this story is being written, Vaharai is being subject to intense shelling and aerial bombardment’.

Tissa isn’t the only journalist to languish in Sri Lanka’s prison system, but his case (also because he was the Editor of an independent media website) brings to light the appalling record of the Rajapakse regime to strengthen and safeguard human rights, including the freedom of expression. As Human Rights Watch noted on 3 December

Article 14 of the Sri Lankan constitution enshrines the right to freedom of speech. However, since 2006 the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse has increasingly intimidated and tried to silence the media, nongovernmental organizations, and others with independent or dissenting views of the government’s military policies and human rights practices. Senior government officials have attacked such critics as supporters of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and traitors of the state. “The government’s disregard for the basic rights and well-being of three well-known detainees raises even greater concerns for the hundreds of others detained under the security laws,” Adams said.

In an editorial I wrote on Groundviews a few months ago I noted that,

Salient points of Tissa’s case point to a larger and more chilling deterioration of media freedom in Sri Lanka under the Rajapakse administration. Tissa’s case in particular reveals a particularly twisted logic, and through it, confirms fears that the regime in the South now completely mirrors the intolerance of media freedom and free expression the LTTE is known and reviled for.

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.

The charges against Tissainayagam: Implications for bloggers in Sri Lanka

Tissa’s case is more than a set of ludicrous charges against an individual. The charges, the length of time he was held without any charge and the manner in which he was treated while imprisoned are all carefully engineered to generate fear and anxiety amongst independent journalists and media. In this, the Rajapakse regime has been tremendously successful. Most journalists today are fearful of even writing about Tissa’s case, much less writing publicly against his unjust predicament or agitating for his quick release.

This is an excerpt from an editorial I wrote on Groundviews to support the campaign by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) to free Tamil journalist J.S. Tissainayagam

One charge against Tissa – that through his writing he tried to bring the Government into disrepute – has serious and chilling implications for bloggers. The mere fact that it is a charge is disturbing, because this author does not know of any law in Sri Lanka under which being critical of a government is a criminal offense. 

The interpretation of bringing into disrepute a government can be anything really, and range from Lirneasia’s critique of recent moves to ban “pornographic” websites, to Indi’s pointed criticism of the regime’s approach to war

As I note in my editorial,

… the incredible charges against Tissa call for defiance and outrage. Every blogger, every journalist, virtually everyone who has articulated an opinion in public through any media should take very careful note of the charges against Tissa. Their nature place us all at risk of arbitrary detention and criminal charges.


Bloggers, fearful of openly expressing an opinion about the case, or convinced that Tissa is guilty, miss the larger point that the charges against him can be brought against anyone this regime, and any in the future, find inconvenient and need to be silenced. That’s just bad news for bloggers and blogging.

We need to fight this. 

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.

George Orwell starts his own blog

George Orwell is one of my favourite authors and starting tomorrow, his diaries are to published online as a daily blog.

Check it out here.

What I find fascinating about this (and a mark of Orwell’s timeless appeal) is that what he wrote 70 years ago will be as compelling to read now as it was then. And then there’s the delicious irony of using a blog to republish his diary, using in effect the same technology (used for repression, control and public surveillance, inspiring such terms as ‘Big Brother‘ and ‘Orwellian‘) he warned us against in works such as 1984.

Addressing hatred on the web


Image courtesy The Economist

An article in the Economist explores an issue central to my work – the rise of hate speech on the web and the means through which it’s production, dissemination and influence can be constrained. In The brave new world of e-hatred, the Economist notes that,

What is much more disturbing is the way in which skilled young surfers—the very people whom the internet might have liberated from the shackles of state-sponsored ideologies—are using the wonders of electronics to stoke hatred between countries, races or religions…

A decade ago, a zealot seeking to prove some absurd proposition—such as the denial of the Nazi Holocaust, or the Ukrainian famine—might spend days of research in the library looking for obscure works of propaganda. Today, digital versions of these books, even those out of press for decades, are accessible in dedicated online libraries. In short, it has never been easier to propagate hatred and lies. People with better intentions might think harder about how they too can make use of the net.

I keep going back to David Pogue’s comments in 2007. Speaking of the timbre of debate online, the NY Times renown tech columnist said:

The real shame, though, is that the kneejerk “everyone else is an idiot” tenor is poisoning the potential the Internet once had. People used to dream of a global village, where maybe we can work out our differences, where direct communication might make us realize that we have a lot in common after all, no matter where we live or what our beliefs.

But instead of finding common ground, we’re finding new ways to spit on the other guy, to push them away. The Internet is making it easier to attack, not to embrace.Maybe as the Internet becomes as predominant as air, somebody will realize that online behavior isn’t just an afterthought. Maybe, along with HTML and how to gauge a Web site’s credibility, schools and colleges will one day realize that there’s something else to teach about the Internet: Civility 101.

I’ve also tracked Sri Lankan bloggers talk about the issue of trolls and hate speech in the SL blogosphere and have documented the downfall of Moju, one of Sri Lanka’s first group blogs aimed at young social and political activists after it was consumed by spite.

In April 2007, a couple of us who were in Liverpool for the Online Dispute Resolution Forum came up with a Statement for Respectful Communication that personally inspired the submission and discussion guidelines at Groundviews, an award winning citizen journalism site I created and edit.

The Economist article makes a vital point however. It notes that,

The small size of these online communities does not mean they are unimportant. The power of a nationalist message can be amplified with blogs, online maps and text messaging; and as a campaign migrates from medium to medium, fresh layers of falsehood can be created. During the crisis that engulfed Kenya earlier this year, for example, it was often blog posts and mobile-phone messages that gave the signal for fresh attacks. Participants in recent anti-American marches in South Korea were mobilised by online petitions, forums and blogs, some of which promoted a crazy theory about Koreans having a genetic vulnerability to mad-cow disease.

I’ve seen plenty of Facebook groups, blogs, community websites and even news services that promote lies, half-truths and vicious propaganda as the one and only Truth. There is no engagement encouraged or possible in these fora with the unlike-minded and it follows that same jingoistic dualism that defines the Bush administration’s approach to so much of its policies on terrorism – one is either with them or against them. No alternatives. No concessions. No debate. No multiple truths. No reconciliation.

One example of this mindset is to be found in a comment on an article concerning a landmark ruling by the European Court of Human Rights which noted that a Tamil denied asylum in Britain could not be sent back to Sri Lanka because he would be at risk of torture.

The comment notes that,

Some Sri Lankan Tamils seeking asylum in the West on account of what they call “torture” in Sri Lanka (and we from Sri Lanka know the self-inficted torture that Tamils practice) are falsely producing scars as evidence of having been inflicted by the military and/or police.

One has only to go to Kataragama and see the Kavadi dancers with the sharp metal objects pierced through their skins, mouths, and tongues; others similarly pierced dragging heavy loads using these pierced elements as harnesses to prove their devotion, and fire-walkers, etc. etc.).

The sheer chutzpah of this statement is incredible, but is indicative of a milder version of the vicious, partisan, exclusive nationalist rhetoric that colours both pro-LTTE Tamil national as well as pro-Sinhala Buddist / pro-Rajapaksa Sinhala nationalism on the web.

This vicious narrative echoes much of what is outlined in a recent article published in the New York Times that is fascinating for its exploration of the (secret) lives of trolls, including the one purported behind the notorious Kathy Sierra incident. Looking at why online hate is promoted by trolls, Malwebolence notes,

One promising answer comes from the computer scientist Jon Postel, now known as “god of the Internet” for the influence he exercised over the emerging network. In 1981, he formulated what’s known as Postel’s Law: “Be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others.” Originally intended to foster “interoperability,” the ability of multiple computer systems to understand one another, Postel’s Law is now recognized as having wider applications. To build a robust global network with no central authority, engineers were encouraged to write code that could “speak” as clearly as possible yet “listen” to the widest possible range of other speakers, including those who do not conform perfectly to the rules of the road. The human equivalent of this robustness is a combination of eloquence and tolerance — the spirit of good conversation. Trolls embody the opposite principle. They are liberal in what they do and conservative in what they construe as acceptable behavior from others. You, the troll says, are not worthy of my understanding; I, therefore, will do everything I can to confound you.

Emphasis mine.

My own interest is in the creation of (virtual) spaces that allow the unlike-minded to engage as constructively and progressively as possible in the shared belief that it is only through civil, respectful conversations that peace can be imagined, nurtured, given birth to and sustained.

One measure I took when creating Groundviews for example was a well defined framework for submissions and discussions on the site. What I noticed very early on was that few actually cared to read this and fewer comprehended what was put down. I then put up a blurb on top of the comments section that noted quite expressly that comments were moderated according to a set of guidelines. Both measures were able to keep the trolls at bay on the site, though the site and I got plenty of vicious flak on the blogs and websites run by individuals who felt slighted that their diatribes weren’t published.

Today, the number of comments I actually reject is close to zero, proving that a set of guidelines that allow for the negotiation of difference and the contestation of varying viewpoints in a civil manner can and does ultimately facilitate a qualitatively rich discussion online.

Social and political change in the Arab world through new media

The European Journalism Centre (EJC) has a good write up of an event held recently in London that looked at the impact of new media, the web and Internet on polity and society in the Arab world. It notes that,

Keeping up or catching up, respectively, with world standards of communication infrastructure, the Arab and Muslim nations could not help but at the same time create opportunities for the distribution and exchange of news and opinion that did not exist before.

Some of the most interesting presentations on the impact of new media and (mobile) communications writ large I have witnessed are from the Arab world. Time and again I have been fascinated at how repressive regimes and hugely conservative (not to be necessarily confused or conflated with backward) cultures are grappling with the challenges posed by citizen producing, accessing and disseminating news and information through the web, mobiles and the Internet.

Over a year ago, I catalogued some of the most interesting blogs / bloggers in the Arab world based on a story by Gal Beckerman called the The New Arab Conversation. In the interim, many regimes have jailed or persecuted independent voices in the blogosphere that have dared to criticise them.

As the EJC notes the growth of new media in the Arab region,

…does not necessarily mean that the Arab nations are now on the fast track to European-style democratisation and open societies. Rather, they may be on the way to modernise their own traditions, however difficult and painful that might turn out to be in any given case.