The continuing disinformation campaigns in Sri Lanka: Is mainstream media complicit?

This was initially written for and posted on Groundviews. Since it was published, the Sunday Times also carried the same ad on 29 May 2011.


For the second time in a fortnight, subscribers to the Daily Mirror newspaper have been entreated to an interesting disinformation campaign that appears to be conducted with those embedded within, and possibly with the full support of the Sri Lankan Army and its network of patriots.

The full page ad above was published on the Daily Mirror on 23rd May. A high resolution scan can be downloaded here. At the bottom, the advertisement is attributed to the ‘Free Mass Media Movement’. No such movement exists, or has existed. With the clear intention to obfuscate rather than enlighten, the name is a spin off from the Free Media Movement, which for a variety of reasons, is well known to government and also amongst media freedom activists.

To be fair, the concerns expressed therein about the handling of Osama Bin Laden’s murder raise very serious concerns over the ability of the United States to practice the very policies and practices it preaches abroad, including to our own government. The disconnect between advice and action is stark, but fundamentally, the space for robust, critical discussion and debate within the US over its government’s actions is far greater than the space in Sri Lanka, even post-war.

What is most curious about this ad is that within the text, there is reference to an ‘International Accountability Network’. To reiterate, while the ad itself is attributed to the ‘Free Mass Media Movement’, the text refers to the ‘International Accountability Network’. It was this same ‘network’ that on 11 May 2011 ran a full page ad against the UN Secretary General Panel that looked into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka. We did some digging and tellingly found that the sole member of the ‘network’ we could find was the person who set up what is a largely dysfunctional site. When we exposed him, he proceeded to take his CV off the web, but not before we saved a copy of it. As we noted before,

The ’International Accountability Network’ is a fascinating, recent creation. It was registered late March 2011 by an individual called Chirasthi Perera. The domain name record notes the registrant as one Arnold Chira, though a simple Google search of the associated email (a Gmail account) reveals the real name, and a personal website which has his CV. Clearly, the man has some technical training, but particularly revealing is that the one non-related referee noted in the CV is Dr . Thiran De Silva, Head Of IT, Sri Lanka Army along with the fact that this individual is currently a Web Consultant/Trainer to Sri Lanka Army. The ’International Accountability Network’ website is, politely put, a dysfunctional mess with content largely automatically generated from various web (RSS) feeds. The little human curation of this content suggests that the site’s owner seeks to expose the double-standards of the US in supporting the UN Panel’s report in light of the events surrounding the murder of Osama Bin Laden. Absolutely no details about what is exactly is ‘international’ about this ‘network’. Few of the links on the site in fact work. This is most unfortunate, because Chirasthi Perera is associated with other leading sites like Colombo Fashion (as its CEO), Sri Lanka: Awake in a Miracle (sic) and the yet to be launched Colombo Night Life, sites that are clearly about issues of war crimes, crimes against humanity, justice and accountability. Not.

In sum, there is no network, there is no real interest in accountability and there is nothing really international about it other than the money which could have flowed in from ‘patriotic’ diaspora individuals and networks to fund the ad campaign.

In fact, The Hindu paper called this a “mocking ad” of President Obama. Speaking of The Hindu, something quite peculiar happened there as well. Sri Lanka mocks Obama, Ban Ki-Moon was the headline of a story that was published on its website on 23 May 2011, around 14:59:28 GMT. The original URL of the story was It has since been deleted. Though we cannot say exactly when it was deleted, the Google Cache version of it appears here. A PDF version can be downloaded here.

In general terms, it’s rather silly for a paper of the stature of The Hindu, which must surely have at a minimum one person at least slightly knowledgeable about web media, to believe that something published on its site could be successfully erased off the web, even if it wanted to. More specifically, we wonder why The Hindu – known be extremely partial to the Rajapaksa regime – deleted this article? It is not just The Hindu. The Daily Mirror, after having published a news story that exposed what was clearly a outrageous lie by Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, proceeded, perhaps on account of pressure, to delete it, but not before we read it off its RSS feed, where it is still archived.

A final concern lies with media institutions that run these ads – which are in effect supported by those working in the Sri Lankan armed forces. NGOs engaged in rights advocacy and governance reform, and even this site, are repeatedly and viciously berated for the funding their receive, which somehow makes them everything from agents of the CIA hell bent on regime change to apparatchiks of the West, who can only send their tourists here, and emphatically not their democratic ideals or liberal institutions. But one can employ the language of hate and harm because the sources of funding are in the public domain – online, audited, with the Central Bank, tabled in Parliament with varying degrees of accuracy, published in the media, spat out on TV and radio.

Where does the funding for the ‘Free Mass Media Association’ and the ‘International Accountability Network’ come from? If we are principled in a robust quest for greater transparency, which rightfully includes civil society, then it is particularly revealing that the majority in Sri Lanka today don’t apply these high standards to content that is congruent with the government’s strident propaganda, and can in effect be traced back to its armed forces. While somewhat poorly expressed, the essence of Sohan Fernando’s serious ethical concerns over the publication of dubious ads such as this are useful for mainstream media to consider.

We suspect, however, they won’t. The bogus ‘Free Mass Media Association’ and the ‘International Accountability Network’ offer mainstream media what they need most – money, and lots of it. A full page, full colour ad in the Daily Mirror runs into several lakhs, and perhaps closer to six figures.

Ethics at bay, when coffers are at play?

Blogging as a journalist, woman and individual in Sri Lanka

One or two years ago my friend Tarika Wickremeratne delivered a presentation on blogging to a group of female journalists in Sri Lanka that I had spoken to previously. I champion blogging in Sri Lanka for many reasons, and the empowerment of women being one of them. Over the past 10 years I have spoken to a number of women’s collectives in urban centres as well as remote villages on how new media, including mobile phones, can enhance their livelihoods and lives by enabling them to produce content that they feel is most important to produce. It is hardly a revolutionary idea, though in many parts of the island, the idea of a community owned and run SMS based news and information service, led by women, often inspires them to explore how new media can raise and discuss issues that mainstream media and even provincial journalism are rarely interested in covering, or cannot cover.

Tarika’s presentation speaks to this and needs to be read alongside her slide notes.

3 day training course on new media

I recently conducted a 3 day course on new media for students, coming from academia as well as mainstream journalism, at the Sri Lanka College of Journalism. In 2010, I did a similar course for the SLCJ Faculty and senior administration staff to build internal capacity to engage with new media.

Though this outline gives a framework for the technologies and issues that I cover, in actual fact, after my initial presentation, the delivery and content respond to what I ascertain are actual needs and challenges faced by those in the classroom. I teach largely in Sinhala and make the class environment as interactive as possible, which is not something many are used to, since lectures in Sri Lanka are often thought of as sterile environments to take down notes and stay silent. Each student has access to a computer and SLCJ encourages them to bring their laptops if they have one.

Far more than web technologies, I teach them new media strategies to deal with censorship, online safety and security basics, minimising risk, content management and disseminating strategies using cloud services and a range of other platforms and tools, including VOIP, web based file transfer and field based multimedia production tools for mobiles. So it’s a large spectrum we cover, and because it is based on class discussion and pegged to real world challenges, including censorship and violence, three days goes by in a flash.

I also bring to bear experience from setting up and curating Groundviews and sites like Websites At Risk, which help the class understand though real world challenges I have faced how best to use new media to bear witness to whatever issues they are passionate about, ranging from sports to human rights violations.

High-definition documentaries and photo essays from Sri Lanka

Moving Images is a series of stunning short-form documentary and narrated photographic portraits on facets of life in post-war Sri Lanka.

These high-definition productions, the country’s first, range from portraits of resilience from the war ravaged Jaffna and reflections on the Eurasian community by the last surviving Eurasians themselves to fascinating lives in Colombo invisible even to most who live and work in the city.

Produced for and supported by Groundviews, this unique content is will be progressively uploaded to the Moving Images website over April and May.

Trailers for the productions follow along with the flyer announcing the launch of the content.

Walkabout: Slave Island

Koothu, kerosene and paper: portraits of resilience

A Lost White Tribe: The Eurasians of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s and South Asia’s first citizen journalism iPhone app

Thanks to the brilliant Cezar Neaga with whom I worked for around two months on this, I launched today Sri Lanka’s as well as South Asia’s first citizen journalism app for Apple’s iOS platform. The Groundviews app works on the iPod Touch, iPad and is optimised for the iPhone 4’s Retina display.

The press release I sent out today noted,

“This innovative app enables those, particularly in the diaspora, to more easily access updated content published on the site” said Sanjana Hattotuwa, founding Editor of Groundviews. “Based on our experience in developing this app, we welcome inquiries to help develop similar iOS apps for other citizen journalism and mainstream media initiatives”.

Apple has around 25% of the smartphone market in the US alone, and it’s mobile app store is the world’s largest, with around 350,000 apps downloaded well over two billion times.

The Groundviews app is free and allows a user to,

  • Read all the latest updates to the site
  • Read all the special editions, including the critically acclaimed End of War Special Edition
  • Read all the sections on the site including the satirical Banyan News Reporters, the long-form journalism section and A-Z of Sri Lankan English
  • Follow all updates made on our curated Twitter feed
  • Search through content on the site
  • The app also allows users to quickly take a photo, write down the context and fire off an email to the Editors of Groundviews, enabling new forms of real time journalism that can help bear witness to challenging events and processes.

Featuring high-resolution graphics that look amazing on the iPhone 4’s screen, the app also allows for user customisation.

Download the app from Apple iTunes here. Screenshots of the app here.

Sri Lanka inside-out: Cyberspace and the mediated geographies of political engagement

Save for the treatment of Tamilnet in Mark Whitaker’s book on Sivaram, I know of no other Sri Lankan website other than Groundviews that has inspired rigorous academic study. From as early as 2007, content on Groundviews has been studied and quoted in academic journals, books and media reports. Today I was forwarded Sri Lanka inside-out: Cyberspace and the mediated geographies of political engagement, the most recent serious consideration of  the site’s content. I know of two other post-grad students – at Fletcher and Columbia – who are basing their thesis in large part on Groundviews’ content and raison d’être. It is a fascinating paper.

This research note begins by pointing to the forms of geographical and political enclosure that have resulted from the current Sri Lankan government’s effective regulation of parts of the national media, as well as its mediation of knowledge produced about Sri Lanka more generally. It argues that a rather draconian and unbreachable geography of inside and outside is instantiated by the political regime’s insularizing regulation of the country’s media(tion). The research note then points to new virtual spaces in the Sri Lankan context that are reconfiguring this sticky geography of inside and outside. In particular, it argues that Sri Lanka’s burgeoning blogosphere and online citizen journalism provide new, participatory spaces for dissent, debate and the free flow of information that have much potential to assist in the production of a more robust and critical civil society. The emergence of these spaces points to the importance of geography and spatiality in manufacturing an effective critical politics in contemporary Sri Lanka.

Other recent serious reviews of the site’s content include:

Mention in books include,

Recent mention in global media reports include,

I was told last week by a senior journalist that Groundviews was first looked upon as a platform to publish stories newspapers would or could not. It then had turned into a source itself, and a location for good leads and story ideas. Now, I was told, it shows mainstream media what journalism should be.