Night of Ideas in Colombo: Panel on Freedom of Expression and Cartooning

L to R - Kianoush Ramezani, Nalaka Gunawardene, Gihan de Chickera at Night of Ideas in Colombo, 26 January 2017

L to R – Kianoush Ramezani, Nalaka Gunawardene, Gihan de Chickera at Night of Ideas in Colombo, 26 January 2017

On 26 January 2017, the Alliance Française de Kotte with the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka presented the first ever “Night of Ideas” held in Colombo. During that event, participants were invited to engage in discussions on ‘‘A World in common – Freedom of Expression (FOE)” in the presence of French and Sri Lankan cartoonists, journalists and intellectuals.

I was part of the panel that also included: Kianoush Ramezani, Founder and President of United Sketches (Paris), an Iranian artist and activist living and working in Paris since 2009 as a political refugee; and Gihan de Chickera, Political cartoonist at the Daily Mirror newspaper in Sri Lanka. The panel was moderated by Amal Jayasinghe, bureau chief of Agence France Presse (AFP) news agency.

Human Rights Lawyer and activist J C Weliamuna opens the Night of Ideas

Human Rights Lawyer and activist J C Weliamuna opens the Night of Ideas in Colombo, 26 January 2017

In my opening remarks, I paid a special tribute to Sri Lanka’s cartoonists and satirists who provided a rare outlet for political expression during the Rajapaksa regime’s Decade of Darkness (2005-2014).

I referred to my 2010 essay, titled ‘When making fun is no laughing matter’ where I had highlighted this vital aspect of FOE. Here is the gist of it:

A useful barometer of FOE and media freedom in a given society is the level of satire that prevails. Satire and parody are important forms of political commentary that rely on blurring the line between factual reporting and creative license to scorn and ridicule public figures.

Political satire is nothing new: it has been around for centuries, making fun of kings, emperors, popes and generals. Over time, satire has manifested in many oral, literary and theatrical traditions. In recent decades, satire has evolved into its own distinctive genre in print, on the airwaves and online.

Satire offers an effective – though not always fail-safe – cover for taking on authoritarian regimes that are intolerant of criticism, leave alone any dissent. No wonder the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc inspired so much black humour.

This particular dimension to political satire and caricature that isn’t widely appreciated in liberal democracies where freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed.

In immature democracies and autocracies, critical journalists and their editors take many risks in the line of work. When direct criticism becomes highly hazardous, satire and parody become important — and sometimes the only – ways for journalists get around draconian laws, stifling media regulations or trigger-happy goon squads…

Little wonder, then, that some of Sri Lanka’s sharpest political commentary is found in satire columns and cartoons. Much of what passes for political analysis in the media is actually gossip.

A good summary of our panel discussion reported by Daily News, 30 January 2017

Part of the audience for Night of Ideas at Alliance Française de Kotte, 26 Jan 2017

Part of the audience for Night of Ideas at Alliance Française de Kotte, 26 Jan 2017

Audience engages the panel during Night of Ideas at Alliance Française de Kotte, 26 Jan 2017

Audience engages the panel during Night of Ideas at Alliance Française de Kotte, 26 Jan 2017

Night of Ideas in Colombo - promotional brochure

Night of Ideas in Colombo – promotional brochure

 

Sri Lanka State of the Media Report’s Tamil version released in Jaffna

Rebuilding Public Trust: Tamil version copies displayed at the launch in Jaffna, 24 Jan 2017

Rebuilding Public Trust: Tamil version copies displayed at the launch in Jaffna, 24 Jan 2017

Journalists, academics, politicians and civil society representatives joined the launch of Tamil language version of Sri Lanka’s Media Development Indicators (MDI) Report in Jaffna on 24 January 2017.

The report, titled Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka, contains 101 recommendations for media sector reforms needed at different levels – in government policies, laws and regulations, as well as within the media industry, media profession and media teaching.

The report, for which I served as overall editor, is the outcome of a 14-month-long consultative process that involved media professionals, owners, managers, academics and relevant government officials. It offers a timely analysis, accompanied by policy directions and practical recommendations.

The original report was released on World Press Freedom Day (3 May 2016) at a Colombo meeting attended by the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and Minister of Mass Media.

The Jaffna launch event was organised by the Department of Media Studies of the University of Jaffna, the Jaffna Press Club and the National Secretariat for Media Reforms (NSMR).

Students of Jaffna University Media Studies programme with its head, Dr S Raguram, at the launch of MDI Sri Lanka Tamil version, Jaffna, 24 January 2017

Students of Jaffna University Media Studies programme with its head, Dr S Raguram, at the launch of MDI Sri Lanka Tamil version, Jaffna, 24 January 2017

Reginald Cooray, Governor of the Northern Province, in a message said: “I am sure that the elected leaders and the policy makers of this government of Good governance will seize the opportunity to make a professionally ethical media environment in Sri Lanka which will strengthen the democracy and good governance.”

He added: “The research work should be studied, appreciated and utilised by the leaders and the policy makers. Everyone who was involved in the work should be greatly thanked for their research presentation with clarity.”

Lars Bestle of International Media Support (IMS) speaks at Sri Lanka MDI Report's Tamil version launch in Jaffna, 24 January 2017

Lars Bestle of International Media Support (IMS) speaks at Sri Lanka MDI Report’s Tamil version launch in Jaffna, 24 January 2017

Speaking at the event, Sinnadurai Thavarajah, Leader of the Opposition of the Northern Provincial Council, urged journalists to separate facts from their opinions. “Media freedom is important, but so is unbiased and balanced reporting,” he said.

Lars Bestle, Head of Department for Asia and Latin America at International Media Support (IMS), which co-published the report, said: “Creating a healthy environment for the media that is inclusive of the whole country is an essential part of ensuring democratic transition.”

He added: “This assessment points the way forward. It is now up to the local actors – government, civil society, media, businesses and academia – with support from international community, to implement its recommendations.”

Nalaka Gunawardene, Consultant Editor of Sri Lanka Media Development Indicators (MDI) Report, speaks at the launch of Tamil version in Jaffna on 24 Jan 2017

Nalaka Gunawardene, Consultant Editor of Sri Lanka Media Development Indicators (MDI) Report, speaks at the launch of Tamil version in Jaffna on 24 Jan 2017

I introduced the report’s key findings and recommendations. In doing so, I noted how the government has welcomed those recommendations applicable to state policies, laws and regulations and already embarked on law review and regulatory reforms. In sharp contrast, there has been no reaction whatsoever from the media owners and media gatekeepers (editors).

Quote from 'Rebuilding Public Trust' - State of Sri Lanka's media report

Quote from ‘Rebuilding Public Trust’ – State of Sri Lanka’s media report

Dr S Raguram, Head of Media Studies at the University of Jaffna (who edited the Tamil version) and Jaffna Press Club president Ratnam Thayaparan also spoke.

The report comes out at a time when the country’s media industry and profession face multiple crises stemming from an overbearing state, unpredictable market forces and rapid technological advancements.

Balancing the public interest and commercial viability is one of the media sector’s biggest challenges today. The report says: “As the existing business models no longer generate sufficient income, some media have turned to peddling gossip and excessive sensationalism in the place of quality journalism. At another level, most journalists and other media workers are paid low wages which leaves them open to coercion and manipulation by persons of authority or power with an interest in swaying media coverage.”

Notwithstanding these negative trends, the report notes that there still are editors and journalists who produce professional content in the public interest while also abiding by media ethics. Unfortunately, their work is eclipsed by media content that is politically partisan and/or ethnically divisive.

The result: public trust in media has been eroded, and younger Lankans are increasingly turning to entirely web-based media products and social media platforms for information and self-expression. A major overhaul of media’s professional standards and ethics is needed to reverse these trends.

MDI Sri Lanka - Tamil version being presented to stakeholders in Jaffna, 24 Jan 2017

MDI Sri Lanka – Tamil version being presented to stakeholders in Jaffna, 24 Jan 2017

MDI Sri Lanka - Tamil version being presented to stakeholders in Jaffna, 24 Jan 2017

MDI Sri Lanka – Tamil version being presented to stakeholders in Jaffna, 24 Jan 2017

The Tamil report is available for free download at:

https://www.mediasupport.org/publication/rebuilding-public-trust-media-assessment-sri-lanka-tamil-language-version/

The English original report is at:

https://www.mediasupport.org/publication/rebuilding-public-trust-assessment-media-industry-profession-sri-lanka/

Read my July 2010 op-ed: [Op-ed] Major Reforms Needed to Rebuild Public Trust in Sri Lanka’s Media

Drone assisted journalism in Sri Lanka: ‘Eyes in the Sky’ need ethical and careful ‘pilots’

Brief comment provided to Daily Mirror newspaper, Sri Lanka, on 20 January 2017:

‘Eyes in the Sky’ need ethical and careful ‘pilots’

By Nalaka Gunawardene

Bird's eye view provides a new, useful perspective in journalistic story telling. Image courtesy InterNews Sri Lanka

Bird’s eye view provides a new, useful perspective in journalistic story telling. Image courtesy InterNews Sri Lanka

For some, drones conjure images of death and destruction – military applications have been their most widely reported application. But unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs are increasingly being used for many peaceful purposes. That poses a host of ethical and legal challenges we must confront to get the best of this new technology while minimizing potential harms.

In the past few years, the cost of drones came down (an entry level unit sells for around LKR 35,000 in Colombo) as their versatility increased. This spurred many uses from newsgathering and post-disaster assessments to goods delivery and smart farming.

In Sri Lanka, surveyors, photographers, TV journalists and political parties were among the early civilian users of drones. They all grasped the value of the ‘bigger picture’ perspective such aerial photos or videos can provide. Until recently, accessing that vantage point was possible only through helicopters or fixed wing aircraft – a facility few could afford.

Having the bird’s eye view helps journalists and their audiences to make sense of complex situations like climate change impacts, conflicts over resources or political agitations. We certainly need more field-based and investigative reporting that goes beyond press releases and press conferences. Drones are fast joining the journalists’ toolkit — but what matters is their imaginative and responsible use.

Participants and trainers at Sri Lanka's first workshop on drone assisted journalism, Aug 2016 in Mt Lavinia

Participants and trainers at Sri Lanka’s first workshop on drone assisted journalism, Aug 2016 in Mt Lavinia

Here, we have both good news and bad news. On the positive side, over two dozen journalists and photojournalists have been trained in drone-assisted journalism during 2016 by drone journalism enthusiast (and drone pilot) Sanjana Hattotuwa and journalist Amantha Perera. Some trainees have since done good stories with drone-gathered images. Examples include probing the drought’s impacts in the dry zone, rising garbage crisis in Kattankudy on the east coast, and taking a close look at land use patterns in Hambantota.

Internews Sri Lanka: Drone gathered footage supporting journalism


The downside is that some news organisations are deploying drones without due regard for public safety or existing codes of media ethics. A drone hovered over the Colombo general cemetery as slain editor Lasantha Wickremetunge’s body was exhumed in September 2016. That disregarded a family request for privacy.

The end never justifies the means in good journalism. If some media groups continue to operate drones in such reckless manner, they risk discrediting the new technology and attracting excessive regulations.

Drones or any other new technologies need to be anchored in the basic ethics of journalism. Each new tool would also bring along its own layer of ethics. Where drone use is concerned, respecting privacy and considering the safety of others is far more important than, say, when using a handheld camera.

In February 2016, the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) published regulations for drone operation which apply to all users including journalists. This has been updated in January 2017. The Information Department, in a recent release, says it is working with CAASL to simplify these rules and streamline approval processes. That is a welcome move.

For now, Lankan journalists can follow the Code of Ethics for Drone Journalists already formulated by practitioners and researchers in the United States. It is available at: http://www.dronejournalism.org/code-of-ethics/

Nalaka Gunawardene is a columnist and independent media researcher. He tweets from @NalakaG

Image courtesy Daily Mirror

Image courtesy Daily Mirror

[Op-ed]: Lankan Civil Society’s Unfinished Business in 2017

Sri Lanka's Prime Minister (left) and President trying to make the yaha-palanaya (good governance) jigsaw: Cartoon by Anjana Indrajith

Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister (left) and President trying to make the yaha-palanaya (good governance) jigsaw: Cartoon by Anjana Indrajith

As 2016 drew to a close, The Sunday Leader newspaper asked me for my views on Lankan civil society’s key challenges in 2017. I had a word limit of 350. Here is what I wrote, published in their edition of 1 January 2017:

Lankan Civil Society’s Unfinished Business in 2017

By Nalaka Gunawardene

Sections of Sri Lanka’s civil society were closely associated with the political changes that happened at the presidential and general elections in 2015. That was only natural as the notion of good governance had been articulated and promoted by civil society for years before Maithri and Ranil embraced it.

Now, as we enter 2017, civil society faces the twin challenges of holding the current government to account, and preventing yaha-palanaya ideal from being discredited by expedient politicians. At the same time, civil society must also become more professionalised and accountable.

‘Civil society’ is a basket term: it covers a variety of entities outside the government and corporate sectors. These include not only non-governmental organisations (NGOs) but also trade unions, student unions, professional associations (and federations), and community based or grassroots groups. Their specific mandates differ, but on the whole civil society strives for a better, safer and healthier society for everyone.

The path to such a society lies inevitably through a political process, which civil society cannot and should not avoid. Some argue that civil society’s role is limited to service delivery. In reality, worthy tasks like tree planting, vaccine promoting and microcredit distributing are all necessary, but not all sufficient if fundamentals are not in place. For lasting change to happen, civil society must engage with the core issues of governance, rights and social justice.

Ideally, however, civil society groups should not allow themselves to be used or subsumed by political parties. I would argue that responsible civil society groups now set the standards for our bickering and hesitant politicians to aspire to.

Take, for example, two progressive legal measures adopted during 2016: setting aside a 25% mandatory quota for women in local government elections, and legalising the Right to Information. Both these had long been advocated by enlightened civil society groups. They must now stay vigilant to ensure the laws are properly implemented.

Other ideals, like the March 12 Movement for ensuring clean candidates at all elections, need sustained advocacy. So Lankan civil society has plenty of unfinished business in 2017.

Nalaka Gunawardene writes on science, development and governance issues. He tweets from @NalakaG.

Note: Cartoons appearing here did not accompany the article published in The Sunday Leader.

After 18 months in office, Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena seems less keen on his electoral promises of good governance, which he articulated with lots of help from civil society. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror, 24 June 2016.

After 18 months in office, Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena seems less keen on his electoral promises of good governance, which he had articulated with lots of help from civil society. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror, 24 June 2016.