ICT without agency?

Cross-posted from my blog featuring my regular newspaper column.

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There is in Sri Lanka an Information and Communications Technology Agency. There are also Ministries of Science and Technology, Mass Media and Information, Telecommunication and Information Technology and incredibly, Technology and Research. In addition, we have the Department of Government Information. Finally, there is a National Science and Technology Commission.

The combined financial and human resources needed to maintain these institutions are significant – billions of rupees per annum. And yet, not a single one has any on-going or planned initiative, made public, around post-war reconciliation in general, or the curation of vital discussions around the final report and recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in particular. And while the LLRC has it’s own website, it is about as useful an archive as a bakery in Colombo during April’s long Avurudu break – there’s a clear structure, but nothing of any worth in it. As I noted in a longer article penned recently for a Sinhala publication, there are already over 18 million SIM registrations in a country of just over 20 million people according to the latest topline census data. 2.3 million smartphones were sold over 2011 alone. Mobile phone companies have an SMS code or service for a plethora of entertainment options, lifestyle choices, news updates, cashless mobile commerce, utility payments and even astrological updates. And yet, there’s no short-code or service yet to inform 18 million subscribers about the contents of the LLRC report, or broadly, host discussions around post-war reconciliation.

Sri Lanka could have set an example on how post-war ICTs can strengthen reconciliation. Sadly and perhaps unsurprisingly, it has not done so. Whether online, on the desktop, via mobiles, using a combination of mainstream print and terrestrial media with web platforms or strictly through SMS and online social networking platforms –technology that can be leveraged to strengthen and support meaningful reconciliation is either already present and used in the country, or can be without much effort and investment, introduced. Mainstream media can play a role. So can so-called ‘serious games’ – games that through small mobile downloads or through the desktop browser use rewards and social recognition to promote engagement with tough issues like reparation, accountability and transitional justice. From online memes – the growth and potential of which I have recently addressed in this column – to bearing witness through mobile phone photography, from citizen driven curation of audio-visual content online to audioscapes of ordinary life in different communities even within a single city, from how we can localise compelling examples like Videoletters that brought together displaced and dispersed families from the former Yugoslavia through video to powerful examples of memorialising violence like the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, literacy, age, socio-economic group, geographic location, topography, language or cost no longer impedes us from leveraging the full potential of ICTs for reconciliation. However, in Sri Lanka, the absence of political will remains a significant challenge. In our country, ICTs will be used for reconciliation despite government and, for the foreseeable future, without any subsidy or support from any major telecommunications company.

The galaxy of line ministries, departments and commissions dealing with information and technology alone, supported by public coffers, should be leading innovation around reconciliation. Clearly, they are not. It is unlikely they ever will. This can be turned around. Every published indicator unequivocally suggests Sri Lankans are more connected today than any other period in history. We call more. We text more. Young Sri Lankans use the Internet more. Mainstream media is on the web, on Twitter, on Facebook. Civic media online, in Sinhala and Tamil, is on the rise. This is a real opportunity through a historic intersection – the contents of a report on reconciliation published at a time when there are growing numbers producing information for and consuming information off online channels. And it’s not just for the Twitterati – information online, when available, debated and highlighted, has the potential to shape policies and practices that affect far larger numbers of citizens. We have the infrastructure, and both government and civil society have much to gain from thinking and using more ICTs for reconciliation.

Either we step up now, or deeply regret later.

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Published in The Nation print edition 1 July 2012.

Creating social justice initiatives online

I was invited by Sri Lanka Unites to speak to a group of 25 students from 13 district at the Royal College auditorium today on the use of new and social media to strengthen social justice and democracy. I remain conflicted about SLU. On the one hand and prima facie, the failure of Beyond Borders in Sri Lanka to live up to its early potential and the absence of any other major youth movement on similar lines in Sri Lanka, SLU’s initiatives are commendable. On the other hand, their understanding of reconciliation glosses over deep-rooted and enduring systemic violence in Sri Lanka, linked to the political culture that is majoritarian and on many occasions, outright racist. To not acknowledge the incumbent government’s direct role in the erosion of democratic governance is to place reconciliation – as an idea and process – in a vacuum. This is not in any way to devalue the work SLU does, but to suggest that with a government that engineered the the 18th Amendmentpartook in the monumental waste of food to celebrate the second term of a President, continue to force Tamils into submissioncontinue to treat them as somehow suspect, countenances violent attacks in broad daylight against Tamil MPs and supports a government whose senior ministers openly call the Tamil version of the national anthem a joke is really able to sustain any meaningful reconciliation is in my mind a stretch. The question is then how to foster reconciliation despite government, not with it. And this is where the potential of social and new media is most palpable.

I took up the invitation to speak because these students are our future. Sri Lanka’s education system – placing great emphasis on learning by rote and simple regurgitation – is an enemy of critical thinking, the basis of media literacy. Without media literacy, no amount of new media content production and dissemination alone with result in a stronger democracy. If only these students are inspired to continually – from every person and every media – ask ‘Why’, and based on the answers or silence in response, create their own media, I’ll be happy.

Unique perspectives on the end of war in Sri Lanka

Groundviews Special Edition

“I am an Indian pediatrician who served with the Indian Medical Team at Menik Farm IDP center. The point I am trying to raise is this – we were managing scores of infants with bullet / shell blast injuries (some festering, mostly healed). It gives an idea of the extent of collateral damage suffered by the civilians caught in the last days of the conflict. If an infant could not be protected, imagine the plight of older children and adults. The so-called “Sri Lankan Solution” being touted as the panacea for dealing with terrorism worldwide needs a thorough relook.”” by Tathagata Bose

Groundviews was set up to bear witness, contest the status quo and document inconvenient truths. This comment by Dr. Bose, from over 300 published to date in response to the Special Edition on the end of war, is a cogent example of the site’s raison d’être. Over the previous weekend alone, over 6,500 readers read the content on the site. With over 22,000 readers to date, and three more days of compelling content looking at the end of war yet to be published, Groundviews is a unique platform for perspectives, opinions and a defiant remembrance that mainstream print and broadcast media in Sri Lanka, even post-war, will not feature.

The Special Edition includes content – in prose, verse, photography and video – from the well known political commentators, award winning poets, photographers, senior civil servants, erstwhile high-ranking diplomats, senior academics, leading feminists, researchers, film-makers, novelists, leading voices from the Tamil diaspora, senior journalists, youth activists and bloggers.

As I noted in an Editorial to the Special Edition, Groundviews strongly encourage your responses complementing and contesting this content. I also noted that that it is only through vibrant and civil debate, without fear of violent physical or verbal reprisals, that a just peace and a timbre of democracy we so richly deserve after war’s end can be engendered.

A full list of the content published to date in chronological order:

You simply won’t find this content anywhere else. And remember, the Special Edition runs till the 26th – expect more compelling content and discussions!

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Groundviews

Groundviews – http://www.groundviews.org – Sri Lanka’s first and international award-winning citizens journalism website uses a range of genres and media to highlight alternative perspectives on governance, human rights, the arts and literature, peacebuilding and other issues. The site has won two international awards for the quality of its journalism, including the prestigious Manthan Award South Asia in 2009. The grand jury’s evaluation of the site noted, “What no media dares to report, Groundviews publicly exposes. It’s a new age media for a new Sri Lanka… Free media at it’s very best!”

Join over 1,400 other readers to get updates and comment via Facebook – http://www.facebook/groundviews

Our Twitter feed is updated frequently every day and gives editorially vetted pointers to breaking news and incisive writing online on Sri Lanka. Follow us along with over 550 others here –http://www.twitter.com/groundviews

Groundviews was the first and currently one of just two sites in Sri Lanka that renders content for mobiles. On your iPhone, Blackberry, Symbian, Android phone or on any other mobile browser, simply go tohttp://www.groundviews.org to access site content automatically rendered to best suit your screen and device.

Negotiating ethnic hatred in Sri Lanka

Groundviews
Groundviews

Can we End this Cycle of Hatred? an article published on Groundviews, a citizen journalism site I edit in Sri Lanka, elicited this comment from someone called Ramanan:

Nice article. I see a lot of parents infesting the young minds in western world. I am a Tamil, living in the US for a long time. I went for a birthday party recently. The birthday was for a kid, whose dad is a friend of mine. I met another kid there, who is of Sinhalese origin, born and raised in the US. The kid asked me whether I am from India and I told him that I am from Sri Lanka. Next question was, “Are you Sinhalse”? When I said, “No. I am Tamil”, he told me that his parents have told him not to talk to tiger supporters. See the hatred here.

Actually, I should be the one who shouldn’t be talking to Sinhalese. My dad was burnt alive by Government backed Sinhalese thugs during 1983 riots. I should have vengance. However, I don’t think these few guys who did that don’t represent the community as whole.

The point is, both sides are putting hatred in their kids minds. If I hate you, you made me hate you. In my case, Sinhalese made me hate them. Still, I don’t.

How does one engage with and respond to such stories? How can we use these stories to help us heal?

Read the original article and leave your thoughts here.