Citizen News now on YouTube

YouTube, as promised earlier, has launched a new content creation category called Citizen Reporters. This is now what Vikalpa YouTube Video publishes under, as Sri Lanka’s first and only mobile phone based video CJ initiative

While you are at it, check out the comments in response to the announcement video here. Very revealing. 

Tactical Technology Collective Citizen Journalism Toolkit – How not to do a toolkit

Tactical Technology Collective has come out with a new Citizen Journalism toolkit, to complement earlier toolkits for NGOs and activists on security, audio and video publishing on the internet and FOSS publishing.

Covering audio, blogs, images and print (strangely no video) the toolkit is somewhat of a useful resource, but as its stands is irascibly incomplete, confusing and badly executed.

The lack of an emphasis on online video production and dissemination is bizarre, because this is a vital aspect of citizen journalism on the web (e.g. Vikalpa YouTube Channel). Far as I could gather, it only gets passing mention in the sections dealing with podcasts on WordPress!

There’s also no real media / advocacy strategy talked about in any of the sections. This suggests the authors are more versed in the technical aspects of new media and desk research than with any lived experience of citizen journalism in violent contexts, where I usually find the most innovation and the greatest need for this kind of manual.

Further, there is no emphasis on the strategic complementarity of using a range of services and products (e.g. blog + twitter or podcast + transcript on blog), redundancy or planning for failure. No mention of mobile phones. No mention of RSS and how it can be used to get information across even when websites are blocked by ISPs.

The website is also quite a mess. Content could have been vastly better edited and proofed. Navigation is difficult and not at all intuitive. There’s no PDF to download to read and print content off when offline and bizarrely no search function at all. Some of the pages are also just formatted all wrong (e.g. ironically, the page on best practices for effective blogging). The presentation and grouping of content can at time get very confusing. For example, the page of Distributing & publicising your blog’s content lists Flickr and as sites that allow you to store, share and view a range of media such as digital photographs, audio files like podcasts, videos. I fail to see the connection here. While these sites certainly help in online content storage and have dissemination mechanisms of their own (without the need for any blog at all) how they feed into blogs and how blogs can be connected to them isn’t made at all clear. 

There are also pages where the graphics don’t show up at all (didn’t anyone actually go through this website before it went public?!)

There’s an emphasis on products like VLC, Songbird Firefox and WordPress in the manuals, but no real explanation given as to why they were chosen above other competing products and services. I blog for example using Safari 3.1 – others may blog just as well using Internet Explorer, Opera or other browsers. While I know the advantages of Firefox, just saying that it’s a better programme isn’t terribly helpful. Ditto with WordPress. Why not Blogger for example? (An exception here is the discussion on the pros and cons of Flickr)

There’s some really useful content here, but I was really struck more by what’s missing. Tactical Technology must live up to its name and reputation and urgently work on this set of resources to make it much better than what it is. As it stands, the section on print media is the strongest, with some really useful insights and tips on how best to communicate one’s message.

As noted earlier, the exclusion of video from a CJ toolkit is wholly unpardonable. This, and an emphasis on mobile phones will make this toolkit far more useful than what it presently is.


Updated – 22 May 2008, 7.42pm

Perhaps as a result of the feedback they got and on account of my suggestion below, the website now clearly notes that it is a work in progress and will be officially launched in June 2008. A tactical mistake by Tactical Technology, now rectified. 

E-Government vs. E-Governance in Sri Lanka – A place for Web 2.0 and mobiles?

An article on the future of e-government from the US proclaims that Web 2.0 will “transform service delivery, make smarter policies, flatten silos and, most importantly, reinvigorate democracy” and facilitate a shift “from monolithic government agencies to pluralistic, networked governance Webs that fuse the knowledge, skills and resources of the masses.”


There are undoubtably great examples of e-government working meaningfully to empower citizens (and even non citizens). Two diverse examples are the British Government e-petition service and the US Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) blog, Evolution of Security. The British Government’s e-petition service statistics are interesting:

  • Over 29,000 petitions have been submitted, of which over 8,500 are currently live and available for signing, over 6,000 have finished and 14,601 have been rejected outright.
  • There have been over 5.8 million signatures, originating from over 3.9 million different email addresses.

In Sri Lanka however, e-gov remains just a great idea.

The only e-gov website I’ve personally used is that of the Department of Immigration and Emigration to renew my passport. Of the others, the less said the better. The Government of Sri Lanka Official Web Portal is a rather sad affair. The standard of English across the site is atrocious – but I’ll let that pass (try reading their “Descliamer” (sic)). E-Gov in Sri Lanka should after all be tailored first to the needs of those who speak Sinhala and Tamil. But tellingly, the site is only available in Sinhala and English – so much for constitutionally guaranteed language rights!

Worse, the site is replete with bad links and erroneous information. Try for example clicking on Disasters and Emergencies. . The NGO link has a hilarious misspelling (or maybe it was deliberate). The Health and Nutrition section has a link to yet another portal (a portal linking to a portal – and I thought e-gov was about efficiency?) which does not work. And just check out the link to Traditional Medicines of Sri Lanka (even though there actually is a Department of Ayurveda that the portal is blissfully unaware of). The list goes on. Sadly, the most useful website of them all – that of the Government Information Centre – is hidden behind a button called GIC – 1919, which makes sense only after you know what 1919 and GIC stands for. You know there’s something seriously wrong with e-gov when the humanitarian section of official website of the President of Sri Lanka has only a single mention of a human (though one wonders whether the person mentioned also fell into the animal welfare directives of the Mahinda Chintana).

In sum, e-gov in Sri Lanka is a mirror image of government – it simply does not work as it should. The problem here is one that Anthony Williams points to as well. “Single-window services constitute one-way information flows to the citizen. In today’s social-media environment, these one-way conversations fail to build credibility and trust in government. More importantly, they fail to harness the knowledge, skills and resources that could be tapped by government by using a more collaborative approach to service delivery and policy-making.”

The question then arises as to whether governments are really interested in this kind of two-way conversation with its citizens or indeed have the capacity (human, technical and financial) to moderate and fuel such discussions all the official languages of a country. Sri Lanka’s regime certainly isn’t. There’s simply no political will to create, to sustain and act upon any information that embarrass the incumbent regime. Forget about “G-Webs” as Anthony calls them – in Sri Lanka e-gov will only ever be a one way, top down, static website driven monologue. It’s always about “delivery” but never about feedback, participatory decision making, transparency or accountability – never mind what ICTA and the World Bank would have us believe.

Why for example is it that the monumental corruption in government as brought out by the COPE Reports fail to register on the Official Website of the Government of Sri Lanka? Try searching for “Cope Reports” and the answer is revealing. (Confusingly, Official Website of the Government of Sri Lanka is not the same as the Government of Sri Lanka Official Web Portal – so much for non-duplication of services).

I guess over 2 billion rupees lost to corruption in Government is really outside the remit of e-gov, save for the website of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption (which also does not operate in Tamil). Mind you, this is the same government that then has the gall to accuse of NGOs of non-transparency and financial mismanagement.

From the non-functional and dysfunctional to the blatantly racist, Sri Lanka’s so called e-gov framework is a mess that does not in any way hold government more responsive, accountable and transparent to citizens.

As Anthony points out, “You can’t expect radical change too fast. Governments are large, complex beasts subject to a number of constraints. In fact, the institutions of democratic government were deliberately designed to induce stability and prevent radical change. Stability can be quite healthy, but implementing change is difficult and onerous when deep and resilient traditions combine to frustrate progress.”   

While I agree, what’s missing here is an emphasis on governance and how ICTs can help strengthen it in contra-distinction to e-government. Citizens can now use a range of methods – from mobile phones to digital cameras – to document the litany of grievances with regards to illiberal governance. From capturing the many aspects of corruption to the lackadaisical attitudes of local government authorities that for example result in garbage that’s uncollected for days on end, ICTs allow civil society hold government and non-governmental bodies accountable even when they are themselves unable and unwilling to do so.

Key ideas in this regard could be:

The elephant in the room however is the political will necessary to support and act upon information generated by these mechanisms. Governments, not NGOs, are primarily responsible for the well-being of citizens. As Anthony notes, “It’s about political will and a willingness to be open and to incorporate feedback and put it into practice. At the same time, digital communications make geography less relevant and reinforce the need to open up the policy-making process to global participation. Governments that choose not to open up or those that fail to foster active participation in governance will eventually lose legitimacy and authority.”

Has e-gov in Sri Lanka made government or governance better? Is it not the case that most of the strategies employed by ICTA for e-gov are doomed to failure, even if no one in it, for obvious reasons can or will acknowledge it? Can e-gov mechanisms really succeed or stand any chance of success when you have thugs in government running amok, a culture of impunity, the breakdown in the rule of law and massive levels of corruption with absolutely nothing citizens can do through current e-gov mechanisms to address these issues?

More effective, meaningful and sustainable solutions to our growing democratic deficit lie in exploring ways through which ICTs, including mobile phones, can help empower citizen centric governance mechanisms. It’s possibly the case that government and governmental agencies will be deeply suspicious of or even actively hostile to such measures. But as Anthony succinctly notes, “Governments can either be active participants in this process or unwilling bystanders.”

Watch this space.

UPDATED – 14th April 2008

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) confirms that South Asia remains far below the world average and is the lowest ranking region in Asia when it comes to e-government. Sri Lanka in fact has slipped in the UN DESA e-gov rankings, from 94 in 2005 to 101 in 2008 amongst the countries surveyed.

Download the report here.

State of the News Media and Citizen Journalism 2008

State of the News Media 2008

At over 700 pages and with more than 180,000 words, the State of the News Media 2008 report by the Project for Excellent in Journalism in the US brings new meaning to the word comprehensive. There’s no printed version to be found, but the entire report is online here. The content is largely US centric, yet the section on Citizen Media makes for some extremely interesting reading.

A few points from the chapter are worth highlighting.

Consumers of CJ and User Generated Content

  • As of spring 2006, according to a study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 37% of all Americans who go online were engaged with user-generated content.
  • The percentage is even higher for teenagers. According to survey data collected by Pew Internet in the fall of 2006, 64% of 12- to 17-year-olds say they have created content for the Internet, up from 57% in 2004

What is news and who defines news? Is user governed and user generated content inherently more insightful than traditional media coverage?

  • A snapshot study by the Project in the summer of 2007 found the top stories on popular user-driven news sites – Digg, Reddit and – were very different than those of the mainstream media.
  • In the week studied (June 24 to June 29, 2007), the release of Apple’s new iPhone was the most popular story on Digg, while the mainstream press focused on the immigration debate in Washington. Coverage of the war in Iraq accounted for 10% of all articles in the traditional press that week, but across the three user-news sites that PEJ studied, it made up just 1% of all stories.
  • PEJ’s one-week study also found the sources for stories on these sites tended to differ from the mainstream press. Blogs by non-journalists proved to be the most popular source, making up 40% of the stories. Nearly 31% of stories originated on sites such as YouTube and Technorati that also offer citizen-generated content.
  • Mainstream media, by contrast, made up just 25% of articles on these sites. Wire services, such as the Associated Press Reuters, accounted for 5% of them.
  • Newsmakers themselves, from the Pentagon to the presidential candidates to humanitarian and activist groups, began placing content directly on YouTube and MySpace as a way of countering what might be in the mainstream press or even beating the press to the punch.

Growth and influence of Blogs and blogging

  • Data from Technorati, a blogging search engine, found in the spring of 2007 that the number of blogs was doubling every 320 days. According to the research, there were 70 million blogs produced worldwide at that time.
  • Despite the proliferation of blogs, survey data suggest most Americans have yet to accept them as significant news sources. According to a winter 2007 Zogby Poll, blogs were the lowest on the list of “important” sources of news, coming in at 30%, well after Web sites (81%), television (78%), radio (73%), newspapers (69%) and magazines (38%). More Americans, 39%, chose friends and neighbors over blogs as an important informational source.
  • The Pew Internet & American Life Project found in 2006 that most bloggers wrote about issues other than news. Nearly four in ten (37%) said they blogged mainly about their “life and experiences,” with issues of public life (11%) cited as the second most popular topic area. Just 5% said they concentrated primarily on news and current events.

Wikipedia for news?

  • Survey research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 36% of Americans who go online have consulted the site, with nearly one in ten (8%) doing so on typical day in the winter of 2007. The same survey also found that Wikipedia’s highest use came from those with at least a college degree.

Citizen Journalism sites

  • In the absence of revenue, most appear to be running on the owners’ blood, sweat and tears. (I can personally attest to this!)
  • In the midst of the uncertainty that surrounds the business model for citizen journalism sites, nonprofits have become a more visible presence in online journalism. This is especially true at the hyperlocal level, where nonprofits have contributed money to encourage and support citizen reporting.

How open are Citizen Journalism sites?

  • The other discovery was that, for all that citizen journalism might imply openness and interactivity, the majority of sites analyzed tended to demonstrate the instincts of “strong gatekeepers” who control the content and are somewhat more difficult to interact with than the ideals of citizen journalism suggest. Now, instead of professionals, those gatekeepers were the bloggers or citizens who ran the sites.
  • The one form of openness was that the majority, indeed almost all, did allow users to post comments about the material on the site, but the staff reserved the right to edit or otherwise screen the comments to meet its standards of civility.
  • The 2007 PEJ Report included a content study of 38 news Web sites and found the participatory nature of the Web was more theoretical than tangible.

Shooting in public – Citizen journalism under threat in Sri Lanka

In recent months, pedestrians who filmed public bomb attacks on their mobile phones have been confronted by the police. One citizen who passed on such footage to an independent TV channel was later vilified as a ‘traitor’. Overly suspicious (or jealous?) neighbours called the police about a friend who was running his video editing business from home in suburban Colombo.None of these individuals had broken any known law. Yet each one had to protest their innocence.

It may not be illegal, but it sure has become difficult and hazardous to use a camera in public in Sri Lanka today. Forget political demonstrations or bomb attacks that attract media attention. Covering even the most innocuous, mundane aspects of daily life can be misconstrued as a ’security threat’.

Nalaka Gunawardene writes to Groundviews on the emerging threats facing citizen journalists in Sri Lanka in an article titled Endangered: Our right to ’shoot’ in public

As Nalaka points out in his article, even liberal democracies such as the US have also tried to clamp down on User Generated Content (USG). As I’ve noted on this blog, while France24’s citizen journalism initiatives are commendable, they largely ignore the fact that France has clamped down on citizen journalism as well.

The problem facing citizen journalists in Sri Lanka is the vigilante justice in the form of Civil Defence Committees that have sprung up all over the country. As the Free Media Movement (FMM) in an open letter to the Inspector General of Police notes in relation to two recent cases involved accredited journalists:

We firmly assert that journalists and media workers have a right to gather and disseminate information in the public interest. Any means that directly or inadvertently curtails the rights journalists is tantamount to censorship. We believe the duty of the Police is to protect these rights that are the foundation of democracy. Sadly, in the both cases noted above, the actions of the Police were inimical to their role as defenders of rule of law, giving in as they did to the arbitrary actions of essentially over enthusiastic vigilantes.

If the situation is incredibly bad (and deteriorating further to boot) for journalists today, Nalaka’s understates the challenges facing citizen journalists in Sri Lanka today when he avers that:

It may not be illegal, but it sure has become difficult and hazardous to use a camera in public in Sri Lanka today. Forget political demonstrations or bomb attacks that attract media attention. Covering even the most innocuous, mundane aspects of daily life can be misconstrued as a ’security threat’.

Read his article in full here. The chapter on Citizen Journalism I wrote for Communicating Disasters, that Nalaka quotes from in his article, can be read in full here.

Interview with Dan Gillmor on Citizen Journalism at GK3

Interview with Dan Gillmor at GKP GK III in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 13th December 2007. I moderated a panel titled Pushing the envelop: New Media, Citizens Journalism, Human Rights and Development that had Dan on it at the Global Knowledge Partnership, GK III conference.

Interviewer: Ahmed Shifan from Young Asia Television

Clip 1 – What is Citizen Journalism?

Clip 2 – How did you become involved in Citizen Journalism?

Clip 3 – Citizen Journalism seems to be a growing trend in the world. So what now is the role of the professional media?

Clip 4 – What about the credibility of reports that are posted by Citizen Journalists?

Clip 5 – What is the future for Citizen Journalism?

Communicating Disasters: Seeking common ground for media and disaster managers

Communicating Disasters

Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book (Edited by Nalaka Gunawardene and Frederick Noronha with a Foreword by Sir Arthur C Clarke) was published in December 2007. It is a multi-author book that discusses how information, education and communication can help create disaster resilient communities across the Asia Pacific region, home to half of humanity. It also takes a critical look at the communication lessons of the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, and explores the role of good communications before, during and after disasters.

The book comprises 160 pages (17.3 cm x 24.4 cm) and contains 19 chapters authored by 21 contributors, plus 7 appendices. It is co-published by TVE Asia Pacific and UNDP Regional Centre in Bangkok.

Download the entire book for free from here.

Also see:

Who’s afraid of citizen journalists? – Chapter from “Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book”