Pushing “big media” in Sri Lanka?

Though I missed it, Nalaka Gunawardene’s presentation at the Sri Lanka launch of Asia Media Report 2009 has found it’s way to his blog. Nalaka’s is Sri Lanka’s most insightful writers on the media. His presentation at this event squares with my own keynote presentation delivered at the Sri Lankan chapter of the South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA) Annual General Meeting held in November 2008 on the future of the media industry in Sri Lanka.

In an email exchange, a colleague present at this meeting told me that “pushing ‘big media’ to take online media seriously is important for their survival”. I agreed with the sentiment but noted that,

I don’t think you can push big media in Sri Lanka to adopt new media. Look at the Daily Mirror. From proprietary backend to WordPress and now back to a combination of two proprietary backends, utterly unsustainable, content blackholes with RSS and commenting thrown in – which is the paper’s understanding of new media adoption and adaptation.

Or take a look at their video site – zero integration with YouTube, nothing very social about it. You may have already read my post about the Twitter fiasco with the Sunday Times, and of course their shenanigans with Wikipedia and plagiarism off Flickr from before. The ST Twitter account is now, get this, is a private account.

ST Twitter

Even Young Asia Television, one of Sri Lanka’s most engaging and progressive content producers, does not understand new media – most of their YouTube videos are low quality, their YouTube channel is not frequently updated and at last count they have about 3 wholly different platforms for their A/V content, spread across as many sites.

From YATV to the Sunday Times, no one asks for help with new media development because they think they have it figured out. Even for example when I gave the Sunday Leader a detailed brief, pro bono, of a complete web strategy for their paper post-Lasantha, nothing has changed. Ironically, many of these ideas found their way into a new website in Lasantha’s name, but this is very peripheral to the Leader’s core business, which is suffering on account of poor ad revenue and sales. Sadly too, even Unbowed and Unafraid is now offline.

The fear of “big media” towards new media? Multifaceted.

They fear that the investment in rapidly evolving technologies will be never ending. They fear the corruption of brand identity. They fear CJ’s taking over their jobs. They do not have the money to invest. They do not see a sufficient return of investment. They do not have human resources and younger people more web savvy are often bad journalists. Their IT Dept’s are outdated, but hugely obdurate. Editors don’t know tech and worse, are given bad or just wrong advice. When things go bad, they then blame the tech, and are resistant to more investment. Some still see subscription models as viable online.

These are a range of problems that call for engagement, but with champions from within “big media” circles. How to address these challenges will be fundamental to post-war Sri Lanka’s media development.

IGP now wants to “suspend licenses” of porn websites in Sri Lanka

An order by the Inspector General of Police in Sri Lanka, the same chowderhead who once said women could record themselves getting raped through mobile phones, now wants to the Director General of Telecommunication Regulatory Commission to suspend the licenses of 12 websites which were exhibiting nude photographs.

Firstly, none of the websites the IGP has got all hot and bothered about are registered in Sri Lanka, but a simple whois search would be as alien to the Police in Sri Lanka as peacebuilding is to the incumbent government.

Secondly, why this sudden love for the rule of law? Websites in Sri Lanka are arbitrarily banned and blocked without warning or any due process, despite flat denials by government when asked about their censorship regime in place for web media. Tamilnet remains blocked on all ISPs in Sri Lanka. Recently, another website was blocked in Sri Lanka for showing images of the President’s son, which was very conveniently on the same day the site reported the egregious public statement of a highly placed goon in government and close friend of the President. Subsequent reports circulated over email that these photos were doctored and the report on the President’s son was false is reason to hold the journalists accountable for libel or conduct investigations into their false reporting, not shutdown an entire site.

The Island notes the CID started the investigation into the pornographic sites following a written complaint lodged by the IGP Jayantha Wickramaratne. While it’s heartening the IGP is concerned about our morals, I would much rather judge for myself the content I view on the web. There’s a real danger here of setting a precedent of blocking and banning website for website defined and seen as unsuitable by the incumbent regime’s set of puritan values, as noted by Foreign Policy with examples from China and Bahrain. In August 2008, there were news reports of an even wider, more intrusive net filtering regime proposed by the President. A the time, it was reported that the TRC had gone to the extent of demanding ISPs to ”filter the websites featuring Obscene/phonographic (sic) /sexually explicit materials”.

As Lirneasia notes tongue in the cheek,

Criminal Investigation Department, working on a complaint by the IGP revealed these sites contain pornographic images and video clips of men and women, possibly Sri Lankan. They also suspected an international conspiracy to tarnish the image of the country, reported, Divaina. One may term the act anti-protectionist, because while the local production is blocked the vast majority of international porn sites still remain open.

Post-war Sri Lanka needs to worry more, at the very least, about the abysmal freedom of expression in the country than strengthening, widening and worsening existing informal and formal censorship of media. Honestly, shouldn’t the Police be far more concerned about the dozens of dormant investigations into acts of murderous violence against journalists since this President took office?

But if the IGP really is serious about eradicating pornography on the web like dengue, he should ban Google too. A simple search brings up over 800,000 pages and a couple of hundred sites in addition to those above that if the Divaina is to be believed, is are all part of an international conspiracy to tarnish the image of the country.

Post-war ICT and media

My last column in the Sunday Leader enumerated some ideas post-war government and the ICT Agency could champion to strengthen media freedom and e-governance respectively.

One blueprint worth emulating in post-war Sri Lanka for more open, accountable government comes from Vivek Kundra, the new federal chief information officer in the US under the Obama administration. Data.gov is a great example of how information placed in the public domain can stimulate creative thinking to shared challenges and development. The NY Times has a good write up about this.

Post-war government in Sri Lanka can also re-look at RTI legislation and meaningful community radio. As I noted in my column,

Post-war Sri Lanka cannot be what it was before the war, or during it. Tarun Tejpal, award winning Indian author and the brains behind one of India’s leading investigative journalism websites Tehelka.com, said that they were silent when India was at war with Pakistan, but openly critical of the defence establishment and government once the war was over. We have a different recent history – where independent media tried and failed to report the war in the public interest, with many journalists killed with impunity and forced into hiding or exile. There is no place for the vicious war against free media in post-war Sri Lanka. Likewise, if war militated against Right to Know legislation, renewed agitation by civil society must result in its rapid establishment. If Bangladesh with a military regime and India with a billion people could do it, so can we. While it may be too much and too early to ask Government to give up its vice grip of State media, decades of opposition to and censorship of real community radio must end. I was in Nissankamallapura two weeks ago, a small, relatively remote village in Polonnaruwa, to help 48 villages that have collectively lodged a request to set up Saru Praja Radio to broadcast on 96.1 FM news and information produced by villagers for their own community. It is a remarkable venture by peoples who are no strangers to the human cost of war. Post-war Sri Lankan must foster the development of such hyper-local media – media made by and for regions in the vernacular – that can fuel equitable, endogenous and sustainable development, precisely what the government desires. All of this supports the need for post-war governance to be transparent and accountable. A fraternal cabal that passes today for government and overrides parliament is incompatible with our democratic potential. Initiatives such as the new Open Government initiative under the Obama Administration in the US are instructive in this regard, with examples such as http://www.data.gov and http://www.regulations.gov useful for our own ICT Agency to champion, adapt and adopt along with of course initiatives to empower local and Provincial government. Everyone knows what needs to be done, but the war has always been an excuse for non-implementation.

Cutting through crowdsourcing

Paul Currion has a very interesting post that cuts through a whole lot of codswallop on the potential of crowsourcing in disasters. His pointed post refers to two by Patrick Meier, entitled Internews, Ushahidi and communication in crisis and Ushahidi: From Croudsourcing to Crowdfeeding

I consider both to be significant thought-leaders in the domains of humanitarian aid and in particular, the use of technology for relief and effective response. Paul notes, inter alia, that,

Because crowdsourcing is unfamiliar, it’s untested in the field and it makes fairly large claims that are not well backed by substantial evidence. Having said that, I’m willing to be corrected on this criticism, but I think it’s fair to say that the humanitarian community is legitimately cautious in introducing new concepts when lives are at stake.

As I noted in response to Paul’s post and referring in particular to the vital challenge he presents of having to prove the direct benefits and impact of ICTs in humanitarian aid,

Just to note that not everything generated from the field, and subsequently verified to the extent possible, is for decision support in the present context. Much of what I and others are able to gather today from the field in Sri Lanka (and information from the ground is precious and dangerous to produce) is bearing witness, silently, at what is going on.

Used for parochial optics and propaganda, the value of crowdsourcing soon diminishes. This is not to say that information cannot be used howsoever their handlers choose to. I am merely trying to respond to your question as to whether a Twitter feed can shape events. Perhaps not the one you point to (but then again, who knows?) but the technology certainly can. Used to bear witness, cognisant that there is no one truth and that a multiplicity of viewpoints is better than fewer, technologies such as Ushahidi, Twitter and many others help a great deal in my line of work – which is self-effacing and outside the domain of headlines and handshake moments.

Making victims witnesses is possible through new technologies. We are just discovering how.

Please join the discussion here.

Updates – 1st April 2009 | 6.21pm +5.30GMT
Paul responded to my comment by saying,

The general principle of collecting detailed information about human rights violations and making them available in some useful form is not controversial. What bothers me is whether a) “crowdsourcing” as a methodology yields more information benefits than costs and b) how useful this information actually is in the form(s) that it will be collected. Our starting position is that technology can make a huge difference to the effectiveness of our work; I just want to see somebody explain to me exactly how this technology will make the specific difference that is claimed for it. So far I haven’t seen that explanation.

I reciprocated by saying,

This is a shared bother. From Ushahidi’s own Swift River concept to the ICT4Peace Foundation Crisis Information Management Demonstrator that seeks to augment the platform with more robust information qualification and analysis tools (and for a closed, trusted network – not public writ large) there’s work afoot to make sense of the noise of crowdsourcing.

I like the term though, but that’s because I live (and have grown up in) a country hugely partial to violent censorship. More eyeballs on events and processes is for me refreshing, even if they are by definition partial accounts. The danger in crowdsourcing though is that they may not be seen as such, and this is where a single SMS can exacerbate violence hundreds of miles away – rapid onset disasters facilitated by new media!

As for your second points – it depends? A “camjo” with a mobile phone who captures footage of police abuse can post this video to Witness to create a storm of advocacy against police brutality. Quieter initiatives such as oral histories through audio and video, or even celebrating champions within Govt who stand up against corruption, or document, through the eyes of children armed with mobiles, life in conflict or with HIV / AIDS – these can be moving, powerful narratives that lead, over time, to social change. Eyeballs on Darfur through Google Earth catalyses and sustains limited and transient global interest in claims of genocide. An initiative like Wikileaks can support whistleblowers and strengthen transparency and accountability in polity and civil society, including in NGOs.

My gut instinct, forged through the bloody difficult work I do is that tech helps, but I would be the last to suggest that it is a panacea. The metrics of measuring impact, or put another way, building up the evidence base of ICTs actually “making the specific difference that is claimed for it” would be an interesting study for luminaries in the field like you, Tom and Paul to take on?

I’ve also responded to some key points brought up by Tom Longley.

This will be my last update, but I’m glad Paul’s original post has stimulated such a lot of great comments.

ICTA’s E-Sri Lanka music video and the Year of English

Never mind that the Chief Operating Officer of ICTA Reshan Dewapura and our President don’t see eye to eye when it comes to IT literacy rates in Sri Lanka. For the President, our IT literacy rate is 23%, whereas for Reshan it’s 16%. IT literacy as some have pointed out is a politically dependent variable.


The President has declared 2009 as the year of English and Information Technology. This is a good thing, since many in his own administration stand to benefit immensely from the emphasis on developing competancies for good governance. I was interested to note that the President says,

English, on the other hand, will be our language to reach out to the world and access the global pool of knowledge and technology. As the national initiative on English gathers momentum and achieves desired results, I visualise in fact a trilingual Sri Lankan society in the long run. My policy framework, ‘Mahinda Chintana’, clearly lays down our policy on language. The inalienable link between language and culture is recognised and respected. To the people of my country, Sinhala and Tamil are not mere tools of communication. They encapsulate our values and world-views, give expression to our inner feelings and define our cultural categories. They embody the soul of our people. They confer to us our distinct identity. (Emphasis mine)

This is a very good basis of appreciating the pronouncement from Gen Sarath Fonseka that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese.

But back on to ICT and the video, of the millions that must have been spent producing this ostensibly to promote ICTA and its work, I’m not entirely convinced that it was the best use of resources? The video for example doesn’t feature at all real footage of real ICT use. Images of children listening to iPods is great optics, but far removed from reality. What about the superb work and thought leadership of Horizon Lanka Foundation and its work in Mahavilachchiya? Are there not visuals here of real strides in the adoption of ICT by rural communities not worth highlighting?

I don’t find the video particularly appealing or meaningful, but it may be addressing a different target group. What is tragically ironic however is the cover in which ICTA chooses to distribute the DVD and another CD soundtrack, has gems like the following:

“…Enabling each Lanka proudly raise his head like a ship’s strong mast
For the gamut of knowledge overflowing in the world through vast
Will be at finger-tips of the man ‘e-Sri Lanka’ will recast”

I have no idea what the devil this means. Perhaps ICTA’s aim here was to suggest that the programmes it promotes nationally are those that are most needed first within its own offices?