Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 30 June 2013
“Let us drink to the success of our hopeless endeavour,” was a favourite toast of old Soviet dissidents. As things turned out, ‘people power’ of millions of exasperated individuals eventually brought down the system. It partly collapsed under its own weight.
Since the Iron Curtain crumbled, the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries continue to grapple with many challenges – such as enhancing real pluralism, safeguarding the public sphere and preventing a relapse to the bad old days of state diktats and propaganda.
Totalitarianism – in which the state holds total authority over a society and seeks to control all aspects of public and private life – isn’t quite dead. In the twenty first century, it has got a makeover and gone global.
Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 23 June 2013
“We’ll never allow satellite TV into our country! The minds of our youth must be shielded from those decadent western TV shows!”
Those words, uttered in private conversation by a top Bangladeshi government official in charge of youth affairs, have stuck in my mind even two decades after I heard them.
We were taking a bus ride from Bangkok to a beach resort in Cha-am, 200 km south of the Thai capital. As a young consultant working for UN-ESCAP, the United Nations regional arm, I was part of a team that ran an Asian consultative meeting on youth and sustainable development (such meetings mostly take place in exotic locations!).
Sharing our journey were permanent secretaries or additional secretaries of ministries covering youth or environmental affairs in over a dozen countries. Collectively, these…
Who is a citizen journalist? Does everyone who blogs and tweets automatically become one? If not, who qualifies? Who judges this on what criteria? And what niche in media and public sphere do citizen journalists fill when compared with salaried journalists working for more institutionalised or mainstream media?
These have been debated for years, and there is no global consensus. They are belatedly being asked and discussed in Sri Lanka, and form the basis of my latest Ravaya column (in Sinhala).
My views were summed up sometime ago in this comment I left on a blog:“Just as journalism is too important to be left solely to full-time, salaried journalists, citizen journalism is too important to be left simply to irresponsible individuals with internet access who may have opinions (and spare time) without the substance or clarity to make those opinions count.”
Along with dozens of tweeps, I took part in an interesting Twitter Q&A session with Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President of Sri Lanka, which unfolded from 14:30 to 16:00 Sri Lanka Time on 19 June 2013.
Groundviews.org, the citizen journalism website, has archived online 2,680+ tweets related to this exchange. Of these, some 1,140 are original tweets (posted since 14 June 2013, when #askLW was first announced) while others are retweets.
As Groundviews.org noted, “There was no historical precedent for this kind of engagement over social media, especially for someone so high up in Government and in daily contact with the (Lankan) President.”
Commenting on the timing of this exchange, Groundviews editor Sanjana added: “Ironically, the announcement of the Twitter Q&A with Weeratunga came on the same day Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President’s brother, in a spark of unrivalled genius, called social media no less than a national security threat in post-war Sri Lanka.”
Sanjana has done a quick and very good analysis of what was asked, which selected few among many were actually answered, and which topics gained traction among those participating – especially during the period the event was live.
Even more interesting is how contentious and controversial topics were completely ignored. To be sure, Weeratunga isn’t the first public official to do so, and some might even argue that he had the right to choose his questions. (That won’t have been so easy in a physical press conference.)
All the same, it is highly revealing that the top public servant in Sri Lanka chose not to respond to questions on Islamphobia, Buddhist extremism, hate speech, militarisation, human rights and other topics of great public interest in today’s Sri Lanka.
It’s remarkable that such questions were posed, in a public platform, which is more than what the mainstream media (MSM) of Sri Lanka regularly ask at official press conferences given by senior government officials. From all accounts, the monthly breakfast meetings that the President has with newspaper editors is also a lame affair where no critical questions are raised.
Yes, MSM and citizen journalists are not directly comparable. In the prevailing intolerant environment, it is telling that many social media users took cover under pseudonyms to pose questions to the top civil servant of Lanka (while the rest of us asked under our own names). There was even speculation among some tweeps about what might happen to those who ask pesky questions…
In this post, I want to collate and briefly annotate my own questions to Weeratunga – all of which he chose not to answer. I’m not surprised and certainly not sulky: these were admittedly not as easy as some others.
I posed a few questions in advance, and then some more during the live event. They were in one way or another related to the multiple positions that Weeratunga holds in the Lankan government.
One question stemmed from Weeratunga’s meaningful speech at the fifth National Conference on the Role of ICT in Reconciliation held at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS) in Colombo in Nov 2012.
#AskLW: I read your speech on ICTs at LKIIRSS last Oct. How can #lka govt that doesn't tolerate any dissent really promote #reconciliation?
Commenting on the very different – sometimes contradictory – messages given out by senior elected and other public officials of the Lankan government on matters of domestic and global interest, I asked:
#AskLW#lka Govt publicly stated positions often remind us of 'Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'. Why this sharply split personality?
Many tweeps asked him to comment on the Defence Secretary’s recent remark on social media. Having noted, only minutes earlier, that “Social Media is a powerful tool”, Weeratunga added later: “Sec/Defence has a point; since it has been used for destructive purposes elsewhere, he has said so.”
Some tweeps reacted to this observation among ourselves. My contribution:
I’ve described myself as a hybrid journalist with ‘one foot in each grave’ — straddling the worlds of mainstream media and citizen journalism. In years of mainstream journalism — practised in Sri Lanka and across Asia — I have sharpened the art of asking pointed questions. I often ask more questions than I find answers for. So this is part of that process.
But I’m very glad all our questions are archived online — which is highly significant as part of the public record of our times. When Weeratunga next speaks about ICTs nationally or internationally, this digital record will be part of his legacy.
For now, many thanks to Weeratunga and @PresRajapaksa new media team for having organised this event. It’s a good start, and hopefully they will repeat this from time to time with improved capability at their end to cope with the info flood…
My last tweet in this exchange was a salute to the original cyber politician of Sri Lanka:
#AskLW scored around 3.5 on Moragoda Scale of #lka Cyber Engagement where @milindamoragoda set benchmark of 1 & high end is 10. Do u Agree?
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I continue my discussion on challenges of modernisation for small, independent media in the world today when print media industry faces formidable challenges.
I quote Sanjana Hattotuwa, new media researcher and activist, who was a speaker at the recent 65th annual congress of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) held in Bangkok.
I also refer to the Guardian newspaper’s model of Open Journalism, and ask how this can be adapted to suit our own realities. The challenges are more within the minds of media organisations, I argue, than in the technology tools or platforms.
I observe how, some 18 years after commercial Internet connectivity was introduced in Sri Lanka, not a single Lankan newspaper has been able to develop a modern website: all are stuck in the 1990s first generation web, and their attempts to ‘modernise’ and enter the 21st Century have been pitiful and hilarious at the same time. Ravaya has a real opportunity, therefore, to become the first Lankan newspaper — in any language — to develop an engaging and interactive website. But first, it must make some top level decisions on how it wants to position itself in the rapidly changing world of media content creation, dissemination and consumption.
Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 9 June 2013
“Don’t we need permission to blog?” asked a bright and eager grassroots development worker during one of my new media training sessions in Sri Lanka a few months ago. When I assured her that none was required, she still didn’t seem convinced.
All her young life, she had played by our society’s hierarchical rules and looked for somebody’s consent (parent, teacher or boss) before expressing herself. She couldn’t believe it was now possible to do so online without any!
Indeed, thousands of Lankans already do, and our blogosphere – cyber space made up of all blogs and their interconnections — is alive with the voices of people from all walks of life (more diverse than you’d think).
Lankan bloggers regularly speak their mind, and discuss all sorts of issues both profound and…
Ravaya, Sri Lanka’s only newspaper owned by its journalists and editors, has embarked on a process to modernise itself — and sparked off a debate on how new investments should be raised. Some loyal readers are concerned what might happen to the newspaper’s editorial independence when private capital comes in.
In this week’s Ravaya column, I place this debate in the context of economic survival challenges of the newspaper industry worldwide. I take the experience of the Guardian (UK) and the New York Times to explore what changes in strategy and funding they have adopted, and with what degree of success.
The biggest challenge, I argue, is that the newspaper industry must find how to engage the web as a central part of its content creation, dissemination and archiving.
Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 2 June 2013
How should we respond to a rapidly spreading infectious disease like a particularly virulent form of influenza? What precautions are essential to safeguard ourselves? When do preventive actions go beyond the reasonable to disrupt social and economic systems? How to avoid run-away panic?
There are no easy answers, and we can only learn from experience. As the prospect of new influenza outbreaks looms on the horizon, some media discussions have recalled what happened with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) a decade ago.
Public health professionals define a pandemic as “an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people”.
Some pandemics, like HIV/AIDS, build up slowly over time. Others, like various types of flu, spread much faster. SARS was a good…
Another World Environment Day will be observed on June 5. We can expect Lankan environmentalists to raise their shrill, giving us more rhetoric than substance.
I have always stayed clear of such impulsive green extremism, instead advocating a more measured approach to balancing modern lifestyles with their ecological impacts. In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I debunk a widely peddled green myth that suggests ‘Mother’ Earth will look after us if only we take better care of her.
Well, our home planet doesn’t care one way or the other. People can lull ourselves into whatever illusion of their choice, but Earth is indifferent. Coming to terms with this can help our greens to reach some maturity they badly need.
See also these previous explorations of the same theme: