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

 

[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.

BBC Sinhala interview after US Presidential Election 2016: සමීක්ෂණ හා සෑබෑ ජනමතය අතර ගැටුමක්

Within hours of the US Presidential Election’s results becoming known on 9 November 2016, I gave a telephone interview to BBC Sinhala service. They asked me how almost all the opinion polls did not see Donald Trump winning the election, even though many polls said it was going to be a close contest.

සමීක්ෂණ හා සෑබෑ ජනමතය අතර ගැටුමක්

නොනවතින තොරතුරු ප්‍රවාහයක පිහිනීමට බටහිර රටවල් ඇතුළු ලොව බොහෝ රටවල ජනතාවට අවස්ථාව ලැබී තිබුණ ද, ඒ බොහෝ තොරතුරු ‘දූෂිත’ හෝ ‘විකෘති කරන ලද’ තොරතුරු වීම වර්තමාන සමාජය මුහුණදෙන අභියෝගයක් බව සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ජාල විශ්ලේෂක නාලක ගුණවර්ධන පවසයි.

දැනට වොෂින්ටනයේ සංචාරයක නිරතව සිටින නාලක ගුණවර්ධන ඒ අදහස් පළ කළේ අඟහරුවාදා (නොවැ. 08) පැවති ජනපතිවරණයේදී බොහෝ ජනමත සමීක්ෂණවල අනාවැකි බැහැර කරමින් ඩොනල්ඩ් ට්‍රම්ප් ජයග්‍රහණය ලැබීම පිළිබඳව බීබීසී සංදේශය සමග අදහස් දක්වමිනි.

වෙනත් ආයතනවල ජනමත සමීක්ෂණ ඇසුරින් බීබීසී සකස් කළ ජනමත සමීක්ෂණය අනුව ද අඟහරුවාදා මධ්‍යම රාත්‍රිය වනවිටත් හිලරි ක්ලින්ටන් ඒකක හතරකින් ඉදිරියෙන් සිටියාය.

“ඇත්තටම මේක අද ඇමෙරිකාව පුරා මාධ්‍ය ආයතන සහ ජනමත සමීක්ෂණ ආයතනවල ප්‍රධානම ප්‍රශ්නය බවට පත්වෙලා තියනවා,” නාලක ගුණවර්ධන පැවසීය.

“අදහගන්න බැහැ සියලුම ජනමත සමීක්ෂණ සැබෑ ජනමතයෙන් මෙතරම් දුරස් වුනේ කොහොමද කියල.” යැයි පැවසූ ඔහු ඒ සම්බන්ධයෙන් මේ අවස්ථාවේ කළ හැක්කේ අනුමාන පළකිරීම පමණක් බව කීය.

‘ජනමත සමීක්ෂණ සැබෑ ජනමතයෙන් මෙතරම් දුරස් වුනේ කොහොමද?’

ජනමත සමීක්ෂණ පිළිබඳව ඇමෙරිකානු ජනතාව කිසියම් කලකිරීමක් දැක්වීම හේතුවෙන් ඔවුන් සිය අවංක මතය හෙළි නොකළේය යන්න එවැනි එක් අනුමානයක් බව ද ඔහු සඳහන් කළේය.

පසුගියදා බ්‍රිතාන්‍යය යුරෝපා සංගමයෙන් ඉවත්වීම සම්බන්ධ ‘Brexit’ ජනමත විචාරණයේදීත් මේ හා සමානම තත්වයක් මතුවීම ජනමත විචාරණ ක්‍රමවේදයේ වරදක් දැයි විමසූ විට ඔහු කියා සිටියේ ක්‍රමවේදයේත් අසම්පූර්ණතා පවතින බව කලක් මුලුල්ලේම දැනසිටි බවය.

එමෙන්ම ජනතාව තවදුරටත් සිය අවංක මතය පළකිරීමට උනන්දුවක් නැති නම් සමස්ත ජනමත විචාරණ කර්මාන්තයම කඩාවැටීමේ අනතුරක් පවතින බව ද නාලක ගුණවර්ධන සඳහන් කළේය.

ඒ සියල්ලටම වඩා ඇමෙරිකානු මැතිවරණයෙන් මතු වූ බරපතලම අභියෝගය වූයේ ජනමාධ්‍ය සහ සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ජාල ඔස්සේ ගලා ගිය තොරතුරු අතුරින් ‘සැබෑව සහ මිත්‍යාව වෙන් කරගැනීම’ බව ඔහු පෙන්වා දුණි.

එක් අතෙකින් ඉතිහාසයේ අන් කවරදාකටත් වඩා ජනතාවට තොරතුරු ලබාගැනීමේ අවකාශයක් මතු වී තිබෙන අතරම ඒ තොරතුරු අතරින් සත්‍යය සහ සම්පූර්ණ තොරතුරු සොයා ගැනීම අභියෝගයක් මෙන්ම ඉතා පරස්පර සංසිද්ධියක් බව ද නාලක ගුණවර්ධන වැඩිදුරටත් පැවසීය.

Siyatha TV CIVIL show: Discussing Sri Lanka’s Right to Information (RTI)

Siyatha TV CIVIL show: Dr Ranga Kalansooriya (left) and Nalaka Gunawardene (right) discuss Sri Lanka's Right to Information law with host Prasanna Jayanththi: 27 Sep 2016

Siyatha TV CIVIL show: Dr Ranga Kalansooriya (left) and Nalaka Gunawardene (right) discuss Sri Lanka’s Right to Information law with host Prasanna Jayanththi: 27 Sep 2016

Back in 2009-2010, I used to host a half hour show on Siyatha TV, a private television channel in Sri Lanka, on inventions and innovation.

So it was good to return to Siyatha on 27 September 2016 — this time as a guest on their weekly talk show CIVIL, to talk about  Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) law.

Joining me was Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, experienced and versatile journalist who has recently become Director General of the Government Department of Information. Our amiable host was Prasanna Jayaneththi.

We discussed aspects of Sri Lanka’s Right to Information Act No 12 of 2016, adopted in late June 2016, with all political parties in Parliament supporting it. Certified by the Speaker on 4 August 2016, we are now in a preparatory period of six months during which all public institutions get ready for processing citizen request for information.

I emphasized on the vital DEMAND side of RTI: citizens and their various associations and groups need to know enough about their new right to demand and receive information from public officials — and then be motivated to exercise that right.

I argued that making RTI a fundamental right (through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in April 2015), passing the RTI Act in June 2016 and re-orienting the entire public sector for information disclosure represent the SUPPLY side. It needs to be matched by inspiring and catalysing the DEMAND side, without which this people’s law cannot benefit people.

In the final part, Ranga and I also discussed aspects of Sri Lanka’s media sector reforms, which are stemming from a major new study that he and I were both associated with: Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka (May 2016).

 

Part 1:

 

Part 2:

 

Part 3:

[Op-ed] Investigative Journalists uncover Asia, one story at a time

Op-ed written for Sri Lanka’s Weekend Express newspaper, 23 September 2016

Investigative Journalists uncover Asia, one story at a time

By Nalaka Gunawardene

Second Asian Investigative Journalism Conference: Kathmandu, Nepal, 23-25 September 2016

Second Asian Investigative Journalism Conference: Kathmandu, Nepal, 23-25 September 2016

The second Asian Investigative Journalism Conference in opens in Kathmandu, Nepal, on September 23.

Themed as ‘Uncovering Asia’ it is organized jointly by the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), Centre for Investigative Journalism in Nepal, and the German foundation Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (2016.uncoveringasia.org).

Founded in 2003, GIJN is the world’s leading international association of investigative reporters’ and their organizations. Its membership includes more than 100 non-profits and NGOs in 45 countries. They are committed to expanding and supporting quality investigative journalism worldwide. This is done through sponsoring global and regional conferences, including the every-two-year Global Investigative Journalism Conference. GIJN also does training, links journalists together worldwide, and promotes best practices in investigative and data journalism.

For three days in Kathmandu, reporters from across Asia and beyond – including several from Sri Lanka – will swap stories, cheer each other, and take stock of their particular craft.

It is true that all good journalism should be investigative as well as reflective. Journalism urges its practitioners to follow the money and power — two factors that often lead to excesses and abuses.

At the same time, investigative journalism (IJ) is actually a specialized genre of the profession of journalism. It is where reporters deeply investigate a single topic of public interest — such as serious crimes, political corruption, or corporate wrongdoing. In recent years, probing environmental crimes, human smuggling, and sporting match fixing have joined IJ’s traditional topics.

Investigative journalists may spend months or years researching and preparing a report (or documentary). They would consult eye witnesses, subject experts and lawyers to get their story exactly right. In some cases, they would also have to withstand extreme pressures exerted by the party being probed.

This process is illustrated in the Academy award winning Hollywood movie ‘Spotlight’ (2015). It is based on The Boston Globe‘s investigative coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The movie reconstructs how a small team systematically amassed and analyzed evidence for months before going public.

Spotlight: investigative journalism at work

Spotlight: investigative journalism at work

Nosing Not Easy

Investigative journalism is not for the faint-hearted. But it epitomizes, perhaps more than anything else, the public interest value of an independent media.

The many challenges investigative journalists face was a key topic at the recent International Media Conference of the Hawaii-based East-West Center, held in New Delhi, India, from 8 to 11 September 2016.

In mature democracies, freedom of expression and media freedoms are constitutionally guaranteed and respected in practice (well, most of the time). That creates an enabling environment for whistle-blowers and journalists to probe various stories in the public interest.

Many Asian investigative journalists don’t have that luxury. They persist amidst uncaring (or repressive) governments, intimidating wielders of authority, unpredictable judicial mechanisms and unsupportive publishers. They often risk their jobs, and sometimes life and limb, in going after investigative stories.

Yet, as participants and speakers in Delhi confirmed, and those converging in Kathmandu this week will no doubt demonstrate, investigative journalism prevails. It even thrives when indefatigable journalists are backed by exceptionally courageous publishers.

Delhi conference panel: investigative journalists share experiences on how they probed Panama Papers

Delhi conference panel: investigative journalists share experiences on how they probed Panama Papers

Cross-border Probing

 As capital and information flows have become globalized, so has investigative journalism. Today, illicit money, narcotics, exotic animals and illegal immigrants crisscross political borders all the time. Journalists following such stories simply have to step beyond their own territories to get the bigger picture.

Here, international networking helps like-nosed journalists. The Delhi conference showcased the Panama Papers experience as reaffirming the value of cross-border collaboration.

Panama Papers involved a giant “leak” of more than 11.5 million financial and legal records exposing an intricate system that enables crime, corruption and wrongdoing, all hidden behind secretive offshore companies.

This biggest act of whistle blowing in history contained information on some 214,488 offshore entities. The documents had all been created by Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider Mossack-Fonseca since the 1970s.

A German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, originally received the leaked data. Because of its massive volume, it turned to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a Washington-anchored but globally distributed network of journalists from over 60 countries who collaborate in probing cross-border crimes, corruption and the accountability of power.

Coordinated by ICIJ, journalists from 107 media organizations in 80 countries analyzed the Panama Papers. They were sworn to secrecy and worked on a collective embargo. Within that framework, each one was free to pursue local angles on their own.

After more than one year of analysis and verifications, the news stories were first published on 3 April 2016 simultaneously in participating newspapers worldwide. At the same time, ICIJ also released on its website 150 documents themselves (the rest being released progressively).

Registering offshore business entities per se is not illegal in some countries. Yet, reporters sifting through the records found that some offshore companies have been used for illegal purposes like fraud, tax evasion and stashing away money looted by dictators and their cronies.

Strange Silence

 In Delhi, reporters from India, Indonesia and Malaysia described how they went after Panama leaks information connected to their countries. For example, Ritu Sarin, Executive Editor (News and Investigation) of the Indian Express said she and two dozen colleagues worked for eight months before publishing a series of exposes linking some politicians and celebrities to offshore companies.

Listening to them, I once again wondered why ICIJ’s sole contact in Sri Lanka (and his respected newspaper) never carried a single word about Panama Leaks. That, despite nearly two dozen Lankan names coming to light.

Some of our other mainstream media splashed the Lankan names associated with Panama Papers (often mixing it up with earlier Offshore Leaks), but there has been little follow-up. In this vacuum, it was left to civic media platforms like Groundviews.org and data-savvy bloggers like Yudhanjaya Wijeratne (http://icaruswept.com) to do some intelligent probing. Their efforts are salutary but inadequate.

Now, Panama Leaks have just been followed up by Bahamas Leaks on September 22. The data is available online, for any nosy professional or citizen journalist to follow up. How many will go after it?

Given Sri Lanka’s alarming journalism deficit, investigative reporting can no longer be left to those trained in the craft and their outlets.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene blogs at http://nalakagunawardene.com, and is on Twitter as @NalakaG.

Media innovation in Sri Lanka: Responding then to tyranny, and now to opportunity

East-West Center 2016 International Media Conference in New Delhi, India, from September 8 to 11, 2016

East-West Center 2016 International Media Conference in New Delhi, India, from September 8 to 11, 2016

The Hawaii-based East-West Center held its 2016 International Media Conference in New Delhi, India, from September 8 to 11, 2016. Themed “South Asia Looking East”, it drew over 350 participants from across Asia and the United States.

On September 11, I took part in a breakout session that discussed media innovation in Asia and the United States. While my fellow panelists spoke mainly about digital media innovation of their media outlet or media sector, I opted to survey the bigger picture: what does innovation really mean when media is under siege, and how can the media sector switch from such ‘innovation under duress’ to regular market or product innovation?

Here are my remarks, cleaned up and somewhat expanded:

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks on media innovation under duress

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks on media innovation under duress

Innovation has been going on in media from the beginning. Faced with major challenges from advancing technologies and changing demography, innovation is now an imperative for market survival.

We can discuss this at different levels: product innovation, process innovation and systemic innovation. I like to add another kind for our discussion: innovation for physical survival.

With forces social and market Darwinism constantly at work, you might ask, shouldn’t the most adaptable and nimble players survive – while others perish?

Yes and No. Sometimes the odds against independent and progressive media organisations are disproportionately high – they should not be left to fend for themselves. This is where media consumers and public spirited groups need to step in.

Let me explain with a couple of examples from South Asia.

They say necessity is the mother of invention or innovation. I would argue that tyranny – from the state and/or extremist groups – provides another strong impetus for innovation in the media.

In Nepal, all media came under strict control when King Gyanendra assumed total control in February 2005. Among other draconian measures, he suspended press freedom, imposing a blanket ban on private or community broadcasters carrying news, thus making it a monopoly of state broadcasters.

The army told broadcasters that the stations were free to carry music, but not news or current affairs. Soldiers were sent to radio and TV stations to ensure compliance.

When the king’s siege of democracy continued for weeks and months, some media started defying censorship – they joined human rights activists and civil society groups in a mass movement for political reforms, including the restoration of parliamentary democracy.

Some of Nepal’s many community radio stations found creative ways of defying censorship. One station started singing the news – after all, there was no state control over music and entertainment! Another one in central Nepal went outside their studio, set up an impromptu news desk on the roadside, and read the news to passers-by every evening at 6 pm.

Panel on Media innovation at East-West Center Media Conference, Delhi, 11 Sep 2016: L to R - Philippa McDonald, Nalaka Gunawardene, LEE Doo Won, Fernando (Jun) SEPE, Jr. and ZHONG Xin

Panel on Media innovation at East-West Center Media Conference, Delhi, 11 Sep 2016: L to R – Philippa McDonald, Nalaka Gunawardene, LEE Doo Won, Fernando (Jun) SEPE, Jr. and ZHONG Xin

The unwavering resolve of these and other media groups and pro-democracy activists led to the restoration of parliamentary democracy in April 2006 and the subsequent abolition of the Nepali monarchy.

My second example is from Sri Lanka where I live and work.

We are recovering from almost a decade of authoritarian rule that we ended in January 2015 by changing that government in an election. The years preceding that change were the darkest for freedom of expression and media freedom in Sri Lanka – the country, then nominally a democracy, was ranked 165th among 183 countries in the World Press Freedom Index for 2014.

In June 2012, Sri Lanka was one of 16 countries named by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression for “attacks against journalists during coverage of street protests and demonstrations, such as arbitrary arrests and detention, verbal and physical attacks, confiscation or destruction of equipment, as well as killings.”

Threats of attacks and actual incidents of physical violence in recent years led to a climate of fear and widespread self-censorship among journalists in Sri Lanka. This is slowly changing now, but old habits die hard.

At the height of media repression by the former regime, we saw some of our media innovating simply for physical survival. One strategy was using satire and parody – which became important forms of political commentary, sometimes the only ones that were possible without evoking violent reprisals.

Three years ago, I wrote a column about this phenomenon which I titled ‘When making fun is no laughing matter (Ceylon Today, 5 May 2013).

What I wrote then, while still in the thick of crackdown, is worth recalling:

“For sure, serious journalism can’t be fully outsourced to satirists and stand-up comics. But comedy and political satire can play a key role in critiquing politicians, businessmen and others whose actions impact the public.

“There is another 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 commentary is found in satire columns and cartoons. Much of what passes for political analysis is actually gossip.”

For years, cartoonists and political satirists fulfilled a deeply felt need in Sri Lanka for the media to check the various concentrations of power — in political, military, corporate and religious domains.

They still continue to perform an important role, but there is more space today for journalists and editors to report things as they are, and to comment on the key stories of the day.

During the past decade, we have also seen the rise of citizen journalism and vibrant blogospheres in the local languages of Sinhala and Tamil. Their advantage during the dark years was that they were too numerous and scattered for the repressive state to go after each one (We do know, however, that electronic surveillance was attempted with Chinese technical assistance.)

Of course, Sri Lanka’s media still face formidable challenges that threaten their market survival.

Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka (May 2016)

Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka (May 2016)

A new assessment of Sri Lanka’s media, which I edited earlier this year, noted: “The economic sustainability of media houses and businesses remains a major challenge. The mainstream media as a whole is struggling to retain its consumer base. Several factors have contributed to this. Many media houses have been slow in integrating digital tools and web-based platforms. As a result, there is a growing gulf between media’s production models and their audiences’ consumption patterns.”

Innovation and imagination are essential for our media to break out of 20th century mindsets and evolve new ways of content generation and consumption. There are some promising new initiatives to watch, even as much of the mainstream continues business as usual – albeit with diminishing circulations and shrinking audience shares.

Innovate or perish still applies to our media. We are glad, however, that we no longer have to innovate just to stay safe from goon squads.

 

Right to Information (RTI) in South Asia: Staying the Course on a Bumpy Road

East-West Center 2016 International Media Conference in New Delhi, India, from September 8 to 11, 2016

East-West Center 2016 International Media Conference in New Delhi, India, from September 8 to 11, 2016

The Hawaii-based East-West Center held its 2016 International Media Conference in New Delhi, India, from September 8 to 11, 2016. Themed “South Asia Looking East”, it drew over 350 participants from across Asia and the United States.

On September 11, I moderated a plenary session on Right to Information (RTI) in South Asia: Staying the Course on a Bumpy Road.

It tried to distill key lessons in RTI implementation from India and Pakistan, especially for the benefit of Sri Lanka that has recently adopted its RTI law. Such lessons could also benefit other countries currently advocating their own RTI laws.

Panel on Right to Information in South Asia, 11 Sep 2016 in New Delhi. L to R - Venkatesh Nayak, Ranga Kalansooriya, Nalaka Gunawardene & Maleeha Hamid Siddiqui

Panel on Right to Information in South Asia, 11 Sep 2016 in New Delhi. L to R – Venkatesh Nayak, Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, Nalaka Gunawardene & Maleeha Hamid Siddiqui

Here is the synopsis I wrote for the panel:

Right to Information (RTI) in South Asia:

Staying the Course on a Bumpy Road

In June 2016, Sri Lanka’s Parliament unanimously passed a Right to Information (RTI) Act, making the island nation the 108th country to have a RTI or freedom of information (FOI) law. That leaves only Bhutan in South Asia without such a law, according to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) in New Delhi.

Sri Lanka’s RTI law was preceded by over two decades of sustained advocacy by journalists, social activists and progressive lawyers. But the struggle is far from over. The island nation now faces the daunting task of ‘walking the talk’ on RTI, which involves a total reorientation of government and active engagement by citizens. As other South Asian countries know only too well, proper RTI implementation requires political will, administrative support and sufficient funds.

This panel is an attempt to address the following key questions:

  • How do India and Pakistan fare in terms of implementing their RTI laws?
  • What challenges did they face in the early days of RTI implementation?
  • What roles did government, civil society and media play in RTI process?
  • What key lessons and cautions can their experiences offer to Sri Lanka?
  • Can South Asia’s RTI experience offer hope for other countries pursuing RTI laws of their own?

In this session, experienced RTI activists from India and Pakistan will join a Sri Lankan policymaker in surveying the challenges of openness and transparency through RTI.

Panel:

  • Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, Director General, Department of Information, Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media, Government of Sri Lanka
  • Mr Venkatesh Nayak, RTI activist; Programme Coordinator, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), New Delhi
  • Ms Maleeha Hamid SIDDIQUI, Senior Sub-Editor and Reporter, Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan

Moderator: Mr Nalaka Gunawardene, Science writer and media researcher who is secretary of the RTI Advisory Task Force of Ministry of Mass Media, Sri Lanka

L to R - Ranga Kalansooriya, Nalaka Gunawardene & Maleeha Hamid Siddiqui

L to R – Ranga Kalansooriya, Nalaka Gunawardene & Maleeha Hamid Siddiqui