Senior academics commend citizen journalism in Sri Lanka

The unique Special Edition Groundviews ran a year after the end of war in Sri Lanka was recently critically acclaimed recently by Prof. Sasanka Perera from the University of Colombo.

Fire and Storm: Essays in Sri Lankan Politics is the latest book by Prof. Michael Roberts. Michael was trained in history and the social sciences at Peradeniya University in Sri Lanka. Read a fuller description of the author on his blog and watch a recent interview, produced for broadcast TV and featured on Groundviews here.

Referring to the bloody end of war in Sri Lanka, when original content and debates on Groundviews interrogated stark ground and political realities, Michael has this to say of the site and citizen journalism in Sri Lanka in the introduction to the tome:

“It is to the credit of the Centre for Policy Alternatives website, Groundviews…. that it raised this Catch-22 situation in full-frontal style on 3 May 2009: “would killing 50,000 civilians to finish off the LTTE bring peace?” When, predictably, this question was misunderstood, the Groundviews editors clarified the issue thus: “This post intends to interrogate extremism. The numbers in the quote are really peripheral to the argument, which exists today, that to finish off the LTTE, collateral damager is not just unavoidable, it is even a prerequisite. What do you feel about that?” It is to the credit of some measured voices who spoke up at this point, among them several Tamils (with pseudonyms, but speaking as Tamils), insisting that the defeat of the LTTE was a vital goal and that “we” should be ready to accept civilian casualties of even 50,000, though hopefully somewhat less. This debate, suitably edited, is worth reproduction in print as an outstanding example of citizen debate and citizen journalism that beats the Sri Lankan newspapers by a proverbial mile.

Emphasis mine. The post in question can be read in full here.

Prof. Roberts and Prof. Perera flag something interesting over 2009 and 2010. For the first time in Sri Lanka’s media history, the most engaging content interrogating key political and social issues was produced or published not by mainstream media, but by citizen journalism, notably voices featured on Groundviews as well as the site’s own original reporting.

Since 2006, Groundviews has published content mainstream media has been unwilling or unable to cover, guided by a set of content curation, discussion and comment moderation guidelines unique to online media in Sri Lanka, from the time of the site’s inception to date. I know of no other site in Sri Lanka, both during war and after it, that features a similar and sustained level of content (from prose and poetry to satire and photography) and reader generated debate interrogating war, human rights, politics, corruption, peace and other key issues. The International Federation of Journalism (IFJ) agree. A short excerpt from their most recent report reads,

“The citizen journalism website Groundviews (www. groundviews.org) did some of the most telling early reporting on the conditions within the IDP camps, alerting national and international opinion to the growing conditions of squalor and distress following heavy rains in August and then October 2009. The website’s reporting was accompanied by a poignant commentary on the level of concern of the mainstream media in the situation in the camps.”

It’s an exciting time to be a citizen journalist in Sri Lanka.

Relaunch of Vikalpa: Engaging opinion and analysis in Sinhala from Sri Lanka

Vikalpa (www.vikalpa.org) relaunched its website yesterday, with a renewed focus on compelling and original opinion and analysis in Sinhala from Sri Lanka.

First launched in 2007, the old website had become unwieldy, inelegant and hard to navigate. The new website introduces a number of new sections, and makes it easier to follow content updates on Twitter, Facebook, access Vikalpa’s Flickr and YouTube channels and listen to its in-house podcast productions.

An enduring challenge beyond the scope of the site, yet central to its reach and accessibility is Sinhala font installation. This of course will gradually and invariably disappear over time, with new versions of Windows for example featuring Sinhala language support out of the box. At present however, journalists and readers outside of Colombo have repeatedly asked Vikalpa for directions on how Sinhala and Tamil fonts can be installed on their PCs. One of the best resources currently in this regard are the Sinhala Bloggers Union guides.

Vikalpa’s channel on YouTube has repeatedly entered the global top 100 list. With more than 500 videos watched well over 400,000 times, short-form video content seems to be, perhaps also in the face of the technical challenges of rendering Sinhala on the web, more popular. For example, this one filmed recently in Colombo clearly showing Police protecting the thugs who attacked a peaceful protest in support of Sarath Fonseka was viewed over 9,000 times in a week.

I’m working with the Vikalpa team to develop their digital media production and web journalism skills.

Must be doing something right…

When in the course of a single day, you are asked to lead the development of web media strategies for a leading newspaper as well as the online avatar of a new political magazine, published by a person very closely associated with the incumbent regime yet keen to promote engaging, inclusive debates.

My driving interest is in securing more news and analysis in public domain to allow citizens to vigorously contest and best judge what’s acceptable or not.  I hope that both entities, in their own way, contribute to a more vibrant media culture and informed citizenry in Sri Lanka.

We desperately need it.