Al Jazeera questions media freedom in post-war Sri Lanka

Al Jazeera’s path-breaking The Listening Post programme looks at enduring challenges facing media freedom in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan media war continues critically looks at the video broadcast by Channel 4, the sentencing of journalist J.S. Tissainayagam and the continued violence against independent media. This programme features at the end very short submissions made by one of Sri Lanka’s leading bloggers, Indi Samarajiva, and myself.

Neda Agha-Soltan’s mother speaks out

The murder of Neda Agha-Soltan is one of the most watched and viral videos and viscerally compelling stories that came out of Iran this year. Neda’s mother was interviewed by the BBC recently. This is one answer.

How would you like your daughter to be remembered?

I don’t want people to forget her. People – Iranians – have all been very supportive. They come to me and congratulate me for having had such a brave daughter. And now I want you to do something for me. I want you, on my behalf, to thank everyone around the world, Iranians and non Iranians, people from every country and culture, people who in their own way, their own tradition, have mourned my child… everyone who lit a candle for her – every musician, who wrote songs for her, who wrote poems about her… you know, Neda loved the arts and music. I want to thank all of them.
I want to thank politicians and leaders, from every country, at all levels, who remembered my child.

Her death has been so painful – words can never describe my true feelings. But knowing that the world cried for her… that has comforted me.

I am proud of her. The world sees her as a symbol, and that makes me happy.

Independent media websites hacked in Sri Lanka?

On the same day The Island newspaper cited net terrorism (sic) as the cause for an outrageous gaffe in its Children Section came news that the Lanka Dissent website had been hacked into. I don’t for a moment believe that The Island was a victim of Internet “terrorism” but as an excuse it’s credence was strengthened at a time when questions are being increasingly posed as to whether the government of Sri Lanka is actively targeting independent media on the web. 

The Lanka Dissent website makes a rather serious claim in this regard:

The Defence Ministry recently set up an electronic media observation unit at a building adjacent to Standard Chartered Bank in front of the President’s House in Colombo to monitor websites reporting on the situation in Sri Lanka.

LD learns through reliable sources that this particular unit staffed with electronic and IT experts, is experimenting on how to disrupt websites.

It gives no further sources or proof to back up this claim, which if true is very disturbing. Further, the LD letter isn’t very well penned, shows no real understanding of the term “hacking” (it’s not always a pejorative term) and the four key points it makes can be seriously contested.

Point #1 on the website is conjecture and just conspiracy theories. Tissa languishes in jail, but his website is still up on the web, though its (for obvious reasons) not been updated from early March. I don’t know enough about Point #2, the “hacking” of the Daily Mirror poll, to comment. However, online polls unless carefully setup are often the targets of those who wish to skew the poll in their favour by repeated voting. So this may not have been “hacking” at all. Point #3 is so convoluted that it barely makes any sense. Point #4 on the alleged travails of The Island to wrest control of its emails from “hackers” is to me very suspect when juxtaposed against the incident that brought this supposed case of “net terrorism” to light

Anyway, LD’s emails have been broken into and it sees this as signs of growing web media repression. 

We wish to stress that this cannot be a ‘lone hacker’ enjoying his/her exploits. We have reason to believe this is an attempt in blocking local news going out into the local and the international community. This is an attempt at suppressing the remaining independent part of the Sri Lankan media and thus a serious infringement on the right for information and expression. Perhaps the beginning of official hacking in suppressing total dissemination of information.

There’s an element of hyperbole there, but as the Free Media Movement notes in a statement released today, LD’s concerns must be taken seriously in the larger context of media censorship and attacks against the press in Sri Lanka. It warns that if true, web censorship places us in the same league as China and Russia, which ain’t a place we want to be at or descend to. 

The FMM urges the authorities to immediately clarify the existence and nature of the electronic media-monitoring unit by the Ministry of Defence as noted by Lanka Dissent.

Thwarting independent media especially on the web and Internet is brings us in line with the reprehensible censorship and thinly veiled government sponsored hacking of countries such as China and Russia, now friends of Sri Lanka. Further, it is simply not possibly to shut off access to independent journalism unless like Myanmar after the Saffron Revolution, Information and Communications Technology in the entire country is shut down.

Though Tamilnet is still blocked and high powered members of the Government have called for outright bans on independent media, there’s a very active SL blogosphere and other independent media websites don’t seem to have been touched. Yet. Anyway, wouldn’t it just be more effective for a Government that certainly has no qualms in doing so to just physically roughen up or kill journalists it doesn’t like with a view to silencing dissent? Plausible deniability doesn’t work with IP blocks. 

As the FMM points out, it’s really quite difficult to shut down information flows and ICTs today. It’s easy on one level – a Government can just pull the plug – but it’s impossible to hide that you’ve done it. Every citizen is a potential reporter today. You’ll have to go down the path of Myanmar and shut every cellphone, ISP and shoot every carrier pigeon to completely halt information flows. Hell, even then information will get out. 

I may be very wrong, but I don’t think this regime is foolish enough to block websites on a large scale. Not because it doesn’t want to do it, but because it’s got more effective means at its disposal against those who promote inconvenient truths.

For starters, just ask Iqbal Athas or J.S. Tissainayagam.

The regime vs. bloggers in Egypt

I first wrote about the targeting of bloggers in Egypt two years ago. Things seemed to have got worse. There’s stuff happening in Egypt today that we need to be mindful of. Here are a couple of stories that are a must read to get up to speed:

“The call to strike had little impact because the young people who made it have neither experience, networks nor a popular powerbase,” said renowned political analyst Mohammed Kamel al-Sayyed. “But you mustn’t underestimate it because it’s a first, set against the background of general discontent in the country,” he told AFP. Today’s younger generation recognises opposition forces other than the umbrella protest movement Kefaya whose popular demonstrations calling for Mubarak to step down grabbed the spotlight in 2005. Importantly, the Internet also provides a forum for anti-establishment surfers to disagree with each other. “We didn’t manage to show ourselves, but the strike worked,” Rihan al-Kadi said on Facebook, to which Yahia Ewadah Hassun replied “No, the strike was also a failure, but that was because of the police.”

Approach to web media and internet activism in Sri Lanka may soon mirror China on Darfur

The NY Times carries an article on the alleged activities of Chinese and / or the Chinese Government in disrupting the online advocacy of The Save Darfur Coalition by sophisticated  Internet attacks. Kristof goes on to note that:

The Darfur advocacy community has tried to shame China into suspending arms transfers to Sudan and taking other steps to get Sudan to stop slaughtering its citizens. This has enraged the Chinese authorities, and that may explain these web attacks. The Chinese government has put resources into high-tech Internet warfare, and thus the government is suspect, but it’s also plausible that the hackers are ordinary Chinese citizens who feel patriotic and are indignant at foreigners besmirching the reputation of the Beijing Olympics.  

With regards to Sri Lanka, as the renowned Sri Lankan blogger Indi says on his blog:

… China is more complicated because they simply give us money and look the other way on human rights. They give us over $1 billion dollars and all we pay with is our geopolitical balls. China gets a vassal vote at the UN and builders interests in our highways, power plants, and ports. Basically, the most important shit in the country. We are becoming dependent on them for our economy and security. There is no free lunch in this world, especially with real players like China. They are not stupid, they aren’t nice, and they aren’t spending $1 billion dollars out of human kindness. China is acquiring a voting share in Sri Lanka to use against bigger players like India.

With China now our largest donor and a despicable regime in Sri Lanka partial to blocking websites, the open militarisation of media institutions, total closure of media houses, open intimidation of journalists with complete impunity, the growing censorship of books and knowledge production along with other disturbing human rights abuses by sections of the Government and military, it is when, not if, Sri Lanka starts to clamp down more heavily on critical web and Internet based media.

And disturbingly, this includes private telcos uninterested in standing up for democratic governance themselves.