Around 2,000 media professionals and experts from over 100 countries gathered at the World Conference Centre Bonn (WCCB) for the event, themed on ‘Global Inequalities’. Across many plenaries and parallel sessions, we discussed a whole range of issues related to politics and human rights, media development and innovative journalism concepts.
On 13 June 2018, I moderated a session on “Digitalization and polarization of the media: How to overcome growing inequalities and a divided public” which was organised by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa) or Institute for Foreign Relations, a century old entity located in Stuttgart.
Here are my opening remarks for the panel, setting it in context:
Our topic resonates deeply with my personal experiences. I come from Sri Lanka, where a brutal civil war lasted for 26 years and ended nearly a decade ago. But even today, my society remains highly polarised along ethnic, religious and political lines. This is very worrying, especially as we are a multicultural society.
Our media, for the most part, reflect this division in society — and many sections of the media actually keep dividing us even further! Reconciliation is the last thing some of our tribal media owners and editors seem to want…
This situation is by no means unique to Sri Lanka. Well into the 21st century’s second decade, tribalistic media seems to be proliferating both in analog and digital realms! We can find examples from the East and the West, and from the global North and the South.
But let’s be clear: these trends predate the digitalisation of (what is still called) mainstream media and the emergence of entirely digital media. Trends like ultra-nationalistic media, hate speech and fake news have all been around for decades — certainly well before the web emerged in the 1990s.
What digital tools and the web have done is to ‘turbo-charge’ these trends. The ease with which content can now be created and the speed at which it can be globally shared is unprecedented. As is the intensity of misuse of social media platforms, and the spreading of deliberate falsehoods, or disinformation. Conspiracy theorists, spin doctors and other assorted charlatans never had it so good!
What is all this doing to our politics and societies, especially in democracies?
In today’s discussion, we will consider both the established media – television, radio and newspapers – as well as the newer media that are digitally produced and distributed online. (Demarcations are blurred because many ‘old media’ content is also now digitally available.)
In today’s panel, we want to recognise a few key questions, all of them at ‘big picture’ level:
How are old media and new media so much better at polarising societies than in uniting or unifying societies? Do they tape into a fundamental tribal instinct among us?
Is the free and open internet, especially in the form of social media, undermining free and open societies?
Around the world, digital media have been a powerful force for the good, promoting human rights, democracy and social empowerment. But is that era of idealism coming to an end? What next?
How is the role of news journalism changing in an age of foreign policy making that is increasingly impulsive and driven by social media?
What policies, regulations and actions are needed to avoid undesirable outcomes and to harness all media for the public good?
We may not find all the answers today, but it is very important that we ask these questions and collectively search for answers.
Here is the panel description written by the organisers:
Populism and nationalism are on the rise in many democracies. Recent elections, especially Trump’s victory in the US, are proof of deep social cleavages and the polarization of the media. The media system itself seems to be both the problem and the solution. It reveals the inequality of access to media, to a range of opinions, and to a true exchange that takes place outside of everyone’s echo chamber, and it highlights unequal levels of media literacy.
How can the media itself contribute to overcoming this polarization and disrupt these echo chambers? What does this fragmentation mean for political debates in democracies? How is the role of news journalism changing in an age of foreign policy making that is increasingly impulsive and driven by social media? How important is net neutrality? And what media policies are needed?
The German “Forum on Media and Development” (Forum Medien und Entwicklung, FOME) is a network of institutions and individuals active in the field of media development cooperation. I was invited to participate in, and moderate a panel at FoME Symposium 2017 held in Berlin on 16 – 17 November 2017.
This year’s symposium theme was Power Shifts – Media Freedom and the Internet. It explored how Internet governance issues are becoming more and more important for those who want to develop media (both mainstream media and social media) as democratic platforms.
On 17 November 2017, I moderated an international panel on Fake News: Tackling the phenomena respecting freedom of expression. It brought together representatives from government, civil society and a global media platform to discuss their roles and how they can interact to tackle the issue – all within the framework of Freedom of Expression (FOE).
Miriam Estrin, Public Policy Manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Google
Here are my opening remarks that set the context for our discussion:
Just as there are many definitions of Fake News, there can also be many perspectives on the topic. We all recognise Fake News as a problem, so let’s focus on how it can be countered. What are the local, national and global level strategies? What alliances, tools and resources are needed for such countering? What cautions and alarms can we raise?
To respond to any problem, we need to understand its contours.
Fake News is not new. The phenomenon has been around, in one form or another, for decades! Many of us in the global South have grown up amidst intentionally fake news stories in our media, some of it coming from governments, no less. And the developing world governments don’t have a monopoly over Fake News either: for over half a century, the erstwhile Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries manufactured a vast amount of disinformation (i.e. deliberately wrong information) that was fed to their own citizens and spread overseas in sustained propaganda efforts.
Sitting here, within a few kilometres from where the Berlin Wall once stood, we need to acknowledge that veritable factory of lies that operated on the other side!
So what’s new? During the past decade, as broadband Internet spread worldwide, fake news peddlers found an easy and fast medium online. From websites to social media accounts (many hiding behind pseudonyms), the web has provided a globalised playing field where dubious content could go ‘viral’.
Yesterday at this Symposium, Mark Nelson from CIMA said “We live in a world where lies are very cheap, and much easier to disseminate than the truth.”
Which reminded me of one of my favourite quotes: ““A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes!”
Variations of this quote have been attributed to several persons including Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain. Whoever said it first, these words neatly sum up a long standing challenge to modern societies: how to cope with the spread of deliberate falsehoods.
As Mark Nelson asked us yesterday, how can we “make the Internet a place where truth is valued and spread – instead of disinformation?” This is the crux of our challenge.
So what is to be done? Among the options available, which ones are most desirable?
In searching for solutions to the Fake News crisis, we must recognise it is a nuanced, complex and variable phenomenon. There cannot be one global solution or quick fix.
Indeed, any ‘medicine’ prescribed for the malady of Fake News should not be worse than the ailment itself! We must proceed with caution, safeguarding the principles of Freedom of Expression and applying its reasonable limitations.
As human rights defenders caution, there is a danger that governments in their zeal to counter fake news could impose direct or indirect censorships, suppress critical thinking, or take other steps that violate international human rights law. This is NOT the way to deal with Fake News.
In my view, Fake News is a symptom of a wider and deeper crisis. It is a crisis of public trust in journalism and the media that has been building up over the years in many countries. Some call this a ‘Journalism Deficit’, or a gulf between what journalism ought be, and what it has (mostly) become today.
In my view, a free press is not an automatic guarantee against Fake News. In other words, media freedom is necessary — but not sufficient — to ensure that media content is trusted by the public. We need to better measure public trust in media and what the current trust levels mean for those producing media content professionally.
I would argue that the medium to long term response to Fake News is to narrow and bridge the Journalism Deficit by nurturing quality journalism and critical consumption of media. If you agree with this premise, what specific measures can we recommend and advocate?
Let us explore how media development can counter Fake News by exposing it, undermining it, and equipping media consumers with the knowledge and skills to spot it – and not spread it inadvertently.
For this, we need everyone’s cooperation.
We need global social media platforms and digital gatekeepers like Google to join with all their might (and what might!).
We need governments to be thoughtfully, carefully evaluate the optimum responses.
We need civil society to go beyond mere hand waving and finger pointing to help enhance media and information literacy.
We need researchers to keep studying and discerning trends that can influence policy and regulation (where appropriate).
We are not going to solve the problem in an hour. But we can at least ask the right questions, and clarify the issues in our minds. Onward!
“For me as an editor, there is a compelling case for engaging with poverty. Increasing education and literacy is related to increasing the size of my readership. Our main audiences are indeed drawn from the middle classes, business and policymakers. But these groups cannot live in isolation. The welfare of the many is in the interests of the people who read the Daily Star.”
So says Mahfuz Anam, Editor and Publisher of The Daily Star newspaper in Bangladesh. I quoted him in my presentation to the orientation workshop for Media Fellows on Poverty and Development, held in Colombo on 24 September 2016.
Alas, many media gatekeepers in Sri Lanka and across South Asia don’t share Anam’s broad view. I can still remember talking to a Singaporean manager of one of Sri Lanka’s first private TV stations in the late 1990s. He was interested in international development related TV content, he told me, “but not depressing and miserable stuff about poverty – our viewers don’t want that!”
Most media, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, have narrowly defined poverty negatively. Those media that occasionally allows some coverage of poverty mostly skim a few selected issues, doing fleeting reporting on obvious topics like street children, beggars or poverty reduction assistance from the government. The complexity of poverty and under-development is hardly investigated or captured in the media.
Even when an exceptional journalist ventures into exploring these issues in some depth and detail, their media products also often inadvertently contain society’s widespread stereotyping on poverty and inequality. For example:
Black and white images are used when colour is easily available (as if the poor live in B&W).
Focus is mostly or entirely on the rural poor (never mind many poor people now live in cities and towns).
Under this, 20 competitively selected journalists – drawn from print, broadcast and web media outlets in Sinhala, Tamil and English languages – are to be given a better understanding of the many dimensions of poverty.
These Media Fellows will have the opportunity to research and produce a story of their choice in depth and detail, but on the understanding that their media outlet will carry their story. Along the way, they will benefit from face-to-face interactions with senior journalists and development researchers, and also receive a grant to cover their field visit costs.
I am part of the five member expert panel guiding these Media Fellows. Others on the panel are senior journalist and political commentator Kusal Perera; Chief Editor of Daily Express newspaper Hana Ibrahim; Chief Editor of Echelon biz magazine Shamindra Kulamannage; and Consultant Editor of Sudar Oli newspaper, Arun Arokianathan.
At the orientation workshop, Shamindra Kulamannage and I both made presentations on media coverage of poverty. Mine was a broad-sweep exploration of the topic, with many examples and insights from having been in media and development spheres for over 25 years.
Drawing from my recent interactions with the IGF Academy, as well as several academic and civil society groups, I position the current public debates on web’s socio-cultural impacts in the context of freedom of expression.
With 30 per cent of our population now using the Internet, it is no longer a peripheral pursuit. Neither is it limited to cities or rich people. So we urgently need more accurate insights into how society and economy are being transformed by these modern tools.
My basic premise: many well-meaning persons who urge for greater regulation of the web and social media overlook that governments in Sri Lanka have a terrible track record in stifling dissent in the name of safeguarding the public.
I argue: “As a democracy recovering from a decade of authoritarianism, we need to be especially careful how public sentiments based on fear or populism can push policymakers to restrict freedom of expression online. The web has become the last frontier for free speech when it is under pressure elsewhere.
“When our politicians look up to academics and researchers for policy guidance, the advice they often get is control or block these new media. Instead, what we need is more study, deeper reflection and – after that, if really required – some light-touch regulation.”
I acknowledge that there indeed are problems arising from these new technologies – some predictable, and others not. They include cyber-bullying, hate speech, identity theft through account hijacking, trolling (deliberately offensive or provocative online postings) and sexting (sending and receiving sexually explicit messages, primarily via mobile phones).
I cite some research findings from the work done by non-profit groups or media activists. These findings are not pretty, and some of them outright damning. But bans, blocks and penalties alone cannot deal with these or other abuses, I argue.
I end with these words: “We can and must shape the new cyber frontier to be safer and more inclusive. But a safer web experience would lose its meaning if the heavy hand of government or social orthodoxy tries to make it a sanitized, lame or sycophantic environment at the same time. We sure don’t need a cyber nanny state.”
In this week’s Ravaya column (appearing in the print issue of 31 July 2016), I explore the many faceted phenomenon called the Sri Lankan diaspora.
I emphasize why it is very important for everyone in Sri Lanka to understand the diaspora factor in all its nuances and complexity. Simplistic perceptions have dominated public discourse for too long, and we owe ourselves a more informed approach to this topic
Most media outlets narrowly and negatively interpret the term ‘diaspora’ mean only a section of oversease Lankans of Tamil ethnicity who supported terrorism. This is not merely a case of semantics, as diaspora engagement for national reconciliation is hampered by these persistent misconceptions.
I point out that sympathisers of Tamil Eelam were/are only a small part of the spectrum that includes people of ALL ethnicities, social backgrounds and professional skills originating from Sri Lanka who have spread to different parts of the world for over 150 years.
The latter report’s opening para says: “With nearly three million Sri Lankans living across the world (approximately fourteen percent of the country’s population) Sri Lanka’s diaspora-to-population ratio is known as one of the highest in the South Asian region. This ratio is the product of different waves of migrations that are mainly attributed to: post-colonial developments, the need for better economic prospects, political instability – including the JVP insurrection and the 30-year civil war, and education opportunities. As such, the Sri Lankan diaspora is by nature not considered to be homogenous as it represents the many social, political, ethnic and religious ideologies and experiences that exists in Sri Lanka.”
In this week’s Ravaya column (appearing in the print issue of 1 May 2016), I return to the topic of Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) law that has recently been tabled in Parliament.
Over 15 years in the making, the RTI law is to be debated in June and expected to be adopted with multi-party consensus. The law represents a transformation across government by opening up hitherto closed public information (with certain cleared specified exceptions).
While media can also benefit from RTI, it is primarily a law for ordinary citizens to demand and receive information related to everyday governance (most of it at local levels). For this, citizens need to understand the RTI process and potential benefits. Media can play a major role in explaining RTI law, and promoting its use in many different ways to promote the public interest and to nurture a culture of evidence-based advocacy for good governance and public accountability.
In this column, I look at how RTI can benefit citizens, and share examples from other South Asian countries where even school children are using RTI to solve local level problems that affect their family, school or local community.
“Sri Lanka wants to make a new Constitution in a radically different way. It is poised to become the first developing country in the world to ‘crowd-source’ ideas for making the highest law of the land.
“That is all well and good – as long as the due process is followed, and that process has intellectual rigour, transparency and integrity. Therein lies the big challenge.”
So opens my latest op-ed essay, just published by Groundviews.org
In it, I describe the experience of Iceland which was the world’s first country to ‘crowd-source’ a new Constitution. From 2011 to 2013, the European nation of 330,000 people engaged in an exercise of direct democracy to come up with a modern Constitution to replace the existing one adopted in 1944. That involved many public hearings as well as using social media and other communications platforms to gather public inputs and to ensure public scrutiny.
This is the path that Sri Lanka has now chosen: open and participatory Constitution making. To be sure, tropical Sri Lanka is vastly different. Its population of 21 million is 60 times larger than Iceland’s. But the Arctic nation’s generic lessons are well worth studying – both for inspiration and precaution.
I point out: “In doing so, it is important to ensure that public consultative process is not limited to the web and social media. Instead of dominating, technologies should only enable maximum participation.”
“The bottom-line: gathering public proposals is commendable, but not an end by itself. The government needs to adopt a systematic method to study, categorize and distil the essence of what is suggested. And that must happen across English, Sinhala and Tamil languages.”
Population ageing happens when older people (typically over 60) account for an increasingly large proportion of the total population. It is the result of declining fertility rates, lower infant mortality and increasing survival at older ages – all triumphs of development.
This happened slowly but steadily during the last few decades. Worldwide, older people’s share of population has risen sharply. In 1950, when the world’s population was 2.5 billion, there were 205 million persons over 60. In 2014, there were 868 million such persons – nearly 12% of the total.
Meanwhile, the number of new-borns has been falling. In 2000, for the first time in history, there were more people over 60 globally than children below 5. And within the next decade, the number of older persons will surpass 1 billion.
Proportions matter more than absolute numbers. It is the age structure of a country’s population that directly affects economic productivity and human development.
In South Asia (SAARC region), Sri Lanka has the highest proportion of older people, which was 13% in 2014. This is projected to rise to 20% by 2031, and a quarter by 2041. Parallel to this, the proportion of working age population – which reached its peak in 2006 (65.1%) – will keep falling. This is similar to what is happened in many East Asian countries.
“As Sri Lanka experiences a demographic transition, the country will face several economic and social challenges, especially in handling the social protection and health care needs of a rising elderly population,” cautioned the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in its ‘Sri Lanka State of the Economy 2014’ report. “In addition, Sri Lanka will also have to address the implications of a shrinking workforce on the growth of the country.”
How can we prepare for this shift, to avoid being overwhelmed economically and socially?
In this week’s Ravaya column (appearing in issue of 13 Dec 2015), I explore this big challenge, with data and analysis from 2012 Census and the Global AgeWatch Index 2015 that came out in September 2015.
After many years of advocacy by civil society groups and journalists, Sri Lanka is set to soon adopt a law guaranteeing citizens’ Right to Information (RTI, also known as freedom of information laws in some countries). With that, we will join over 100 other countries that have introduced such progressive laws.
The first step is already taken. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in Parliament in April 2015, made the right to information a fundamental right. The Right to Information Act is meant to institutionalize the arrangement – i.e. put in place the administrative arrangement where a citizen can seek and receive public information.
RTI signifies unleashing a new potential, and a major change in status quo. First, we need to shake off a long historical legacy of governments not being open or accountable to citizens.
In this week’s Ravaya column, (appearing in issue of 22 Nov 2015), I explore how RTI can gradually lead to open government. I also introduce the 9 key principles of RTI.