Challenges of Regulating Social Media – Toby Mendel in conversation with Nalaka Gunawardene

Some are urging national governments to ‘regulate’ social media in ways similar to how newspapers, television and radio are regulated. This is easier said than done where globalized social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are concerned, because national governments don’t have jurisdiction over them.

But does this mean that globalized media companies are above the law? Short of blocking entire platforms from being accessed within their territories, what other options do governments have? Do ‘user community standards’ that some social media platforms have adopted offer a sufficient defence against hate speech, cyber bullying and other excesses?

In this conversation, Lankan science writer Nalaka Gunawardene discusses these and related issues with Toby Mendel, a human rights lawyer specialising in freedom of expression, the right to information and democracy rights.

Mendel is the executive director of the Center for Law and Democracy (CLD) in Canada. Prior to founding CLD in 2010, Mendel was for over 12 years Senior Director for Law at ARTICLE 19, a human rights NGO focusing on freedom of expression and the right to information.

The interview was recorded in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 5 July 2017.

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Free Media Movement at 25: Challenges of Media Freedom and Media Ethics

Free Media Movement of Sri Lanka: 1992-2017

Sri Lanka’s Free Media Movement (FMM) is media freedom watchdog organization of Journalists. Started in 1992, it completes 25 years in 2017. FMM has been active in all areas relating to media freedom, defending the rights of journalists and other media workres. It also has called for reform of legislation, agitating against censorship and intimidation of media personnel and standing for broad principles of democracy and human rights.

I was invited to speak at the 25th anniversary commemoration held in Colombo on 21 November 2017. Here is a synopsis of my remarks, which were delivered in Sinhala (see below):

Sri Lanka’s media went through its worst period in history during the decade 2005-2014, when journalists and media houses became regular targets of goon squads who acted with impunity. Prominent journalists were killed, made to disappear, or captured and tortured. The government of the day promised ‘prompt investigations’ but nothing happened. For some time, Sri Lanka was one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. FMM and other media rights groups did whatever they could, non-violently, to defend media freedom and the public’s right to know.

That state of siege has ended with the change of government in January 2015. Critics of the government and independent journalists no longer face violent reprisals. But no one can be certain whether this marks a temporary ‘ceasefire’ or a permanent ‘peace’ in the long drawn conflict between the Lankan state and Lankan journalists.

So let us take advantage of the current ‘lull’ — for however long it lasts — to advocate some legal and institutional reforms that will strengthen the safety of journalists and ensure the Constitutional guarantees of free expression work in reality. For the media community to have societal support for these reforms, the media’s ethical conduct and professionalism must be improved, urgently.  Otherwise, why should the public support the rights of an irresponsible, unethical and compromised media?

1992දී ඇරැඹි නිදහස් මාධ්‍ය ව්‍යාපාරය, 2017දී විසිපස් වසරක් සපුරනවා. මේ කාලය පුරා නිදහස් මාධ්‍ය ව්‍යාපාරය වැදගත් හා තීරණාත්මක මෙහෙවරක් ඉටු කළා. එහෙත් එය සදා නොනිමි අරගලයක්.

2017දී අප සිටින්නේ පැවති දරුණු මාධ්‍ය මර්දනය පහව ගොස් මාධ්‍ය නිදහස වඩාත් ස්ථාපිත කරනු ලැබූ අවදියකයි. එදිනෙදා වාර්තාකරණය හෝ නිදහසේ මත දැක්වීම නිසා හෝ පවත්නා රජය විවේචනය කිරීම නිසා හෝ තව දුරටත් නාඳුනන මැර කල්ලි මාධ්‍ය ආයතනවලට පහර ගසන්නේ නැහැ. තර්ජනවලින් මෙල්ල කර ගත නොහැකි මාධ්‍යවේදීන් තව දුරටත් මරා දමන්නේ නැහැ.

නොවැම්බර් 21 වනදා කොළඹ පැවැති සමරු උත්සවයක කථා කරමින් මා කීවේ මෙයයි:

වත්මනෙහි මාධ්‍ය නිදහස අරභයා මේ පවතින්නේ තාවකාලික සටන් විරාමයක්ද නැතහොත් දිගු කල් පවතින සාමයක්? මේ ගැන අප කිසිවකුට අනාවැකි කීමට නොහැකියි. එහෙත් යුද්ධයක් නතර වීම යනු පූර්ණ සාමය නොවන්නා සේම, මාධ්‍යවලට තව දුරටත් ප්‍රහාර එල්ල නොවීම යනු පූර්ණ මාධ්‍ය නිදහසක් ද නොවෙයි.

යම් අස්වැසිල්ලක් ලත් මේ අවස්ථාවේ මෙරට මාධ්‍ය වෘත්තිකයන් කළ යුත්තේ දිගු කාලීනව සිය නිදහස තහවුරු කැරෙන ව්‍යුහාත්මක ප්‍රතිසන්ස්කරණවලට විචාරශීලීව සම්බන්ධ වීමයි. එසේ කරන අතරම සිය මාධ්‍යකරණයේ වෘත්තිමය භාවය (media professionalism) බොහෝ සෙයින් වැඩි කර ගැනීමයි.

එසේම මාධ්‍ය නිදහස යනු හුදෙක් මාධ්‍ය වෘත්තිකයන්ගේ හා මාධ්‍ය ආයතනවලට සීමා වූ අයිතියක් නොව සමස්ත සමාජයේම අයිතියක් බව අප සිහි තබා ගත යුතුයි. මාධ්‍ය ග්‍රාහකයන් ලෙස ලක් සමාජයේ අප සැමට ඉහළ ප්‍රමිතියෙන් යුතු, අන්තවාදී නොවූ, ආචාර ධර්මීය මාධ්‍යකරණයක් ලැබීමට අයිතියක් තිබෙනවා. සැබෑ මාධ්‍ය නිදහස සම්පූර්ණ වන්නේ මෙකී පුළුල් වගකීම් සමුදායට මාධ්‍ය වෘත්තිකයන් හා මාධ්‍ය කර්මාන්තය අනුගත වූ විට පමණයි.

මාධ්‍ය නිදහස ව්‍යුහාත්මකව (එනම් ප්‍රශස්ත නීති හා නියාමන හරහා) තහවුරු කර ගන්නා අතරම, සමස්ත මාධ්‍ය ක්ෂේත්‍රයේ වෘත්තීය බව නගා සිටුවීම කළ යුතුව තිබෙන බව මා අවධාරනය කළා.

ඕනෑකමින්ම ආන්දෝලනාත්මක විග්‍රහයක් මා මෙහිදී කළේ මාධ්‍ය වෘත්තීය බවින් තොර මාධ්‍ය නිදහසක් පැවතීමේ බරපතල සමාජ ආදීනව හුවා දක්වන්නයි. 2015න් පසු මාධ්‍ය අයිතින් හා නිදහස සාපේක්ෂව ඉහළ ගොස් ඇතත්, රාජ්‍ය හා පුද්ගලික දෙපත්තේම මාධ්‍ය ප්‍රමිතීන් පවතින්නේ පහත් මට්ටමක බව මා කියා සිටියා.

Note: I spoke these views in my personal capacity.

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at Free Media Movement (Sri Lanka) 25th anniversary, on 21 Nov 2017

FMM 25 anniversary meeting in Colombo, 21 Nov 2017

FMM 25 anniversary meeting in Colombo, 21 Nov 2017 – part of the audience

 

Talking at RSF Germany: Support Sri Lanka’s media freedom and professionalism needs!

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks on media freedom and media professionalism in Sri Lanka at Germany’s Reporters without Borders (RSF, or Reporter ohne Grenzen) in Berlin, 17 Nov 2017

On a brief visit to Berlin, Germany, to speak at a media research and academic symposium, I was invited by Germany’s Reporters without Borders (RSF, or Reporter ohne Grenzen) to address a side event at their office that looked at media freedom status and media development needs of Sri Lanka.

It was a small gathering that involved some media rights activists, researchers  and journalists in Germany who take an interest in media freedom and media development issues in Asia. I engaged in a conversation first with Anne Renzenbrink of RSF Germany (who covers Asia) and then with my audience.

I said the media freedoms have significantly improved since the change of government in Jan 2015 – journalists and activists are no longer living in fear of white vans and government goon squads when they criticise political leaders.

But the pre-2015 benchmarks were abysmally low and we should never be complacent with progress so far, as much more needs to be done. We need to institutionalise media freedoms AND media responsibilities. So our media reforms agenda is both wide ranging and urgent, I said (and provided some details).

I used my favourite metaphor: the media freedom glass in Sri Lanka is less than half full today, and we need to gradually fill it up. But never forget: there was no water, and not even a glass, before Jan 2015!

Sri Lanka has risen 24 points in the World Press Freedom Index that RSF compiles every year: 2016, we jumped up from 165th rank (in 2015, which reflected the previous year’s conditions) to 141st rank out of 180 countries assessed. The new ranking remained the same between 2016 and 2017.  Sri Lanka is still marked as red on the world map of the Index, indicating ‘Difficult situation’. We still have a long way to go…

When asked how European partners can help, I said: please keep monitoring media freedom in Sri Lanka, provide international solidarity when needed, and support the journalists’ organisations and trade unions to advocate for both media rights and media professionalism.

I was also asked about slow progress in investigating past atrocities against journalists and media organisations; recent resumption of web censorship after a lull of two years; how journalists are benefitting from Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information law; the particular challenges faced by journalists in the North and East of Sri Lanka (former war areas); and the status of media regulation by state and self-regulation by the media industry.

I also touched on how the mainstream media’s monopoly over news gathering and analysis has been ended by social media becoming a place where individuals are sharing news, updates – as well as misinformation, thereby raising new challenges.

I gave candid and measured answers, all of which are on the record but too detailed to be captured here. My answers were consistent with what I have been saying in public forums (within and outside Sri Lanka), and publicly on Twitter and Facebook.

And, of course, I was speaking my personal views and not the views of any entity that I am working with.

Nalaka Gunawardene at RSF Germany office in Berlin, next to World Press Freedom Index 2017 map