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

[Op-ed] April Fools, All Year Round? A Call for Fact-Checking Our Media & Politics

Text of my op-ed article published in Weekend Express newspaper on 7 April 2017.

April Fools All Year Round? Op-ed by Nalaka Gunawardene, Weekend Express, 7 April 2017

April Fools, All Year Round?

By Nalaka Gunawardene

April 1 is observed in many countries as a day for fooling people with practical jokes and harmless fabrications. This aspect of popular culture can be traced back to the times of ancient Greece.

There is now a new twist to this tradition. Every day is beginning to feel like April Fools’ Day in the age of Internet pranks, clever satire and fake news!

Sadly, many among us who apply some measure of skepticism on April 1 are not as vigilant for the rest of the year.

Ah, how I miss the time when intentional misleading was largely confined to just one day. I’m old enough to remember how some Lankan newspapers used to carry elaborate – and seemingly plausible – stories on their front pages on April Fools’ day. The now defunct Sun and Weekend excelled in that delightful art of the tall tale. Of course, they owned up the following day, poking fun at readers who were fooled.

During the past two decades, our media landscape has become a great deal more diverse. Today we have 24/7 SMS news services, all-news TV channels, numerous websites and, of course, millions using social media to spread information (or misinformation) instantaneously.

But does more necessarily mean better? That is a highly debatable question. We seem to have too much media, but not enough journalism! At least journalism of the classical kind where facts are sacred and comment is free (yet informed).

That kind of journalism still exists, but along with so much else. Today’s global cacophony has democratized the media (which is to be celebrated). At the same time, it spawned veritable cottage industries of fake news, conspiracy theories and gossip peddlers.

Image source – American Journalism Review, 21 April 2015

Fact checking

What is to be done? The long term solution is to raise media literacy skills in everyone, so that people consume media and social media with due diligence.

That takes time and effort. Since misinformation is polluting the public mind and even undermining democratic processes, we must also look for other, faster solutions.

One such coping strategy is fact checking. It literally means verifying information – before or after publication – in the media.

In a growing number of countries, mainstream media outlets practise fact checking as an integral part of their commitment to professionalism. They seek to balance accuracy with speed, which has been made more challenging by the never-ending news cycle.

In other cases, independent researchers or civil society groups are keeping track of news media content after publication. In the United States, where the practice is well developed, several groups are devoted to such post-hoc fact checking. These include FactCheck, PolitiFact, and NewsTrust’s Truth Squad. They fact check the media as well as statements by politicians and other public figures.

In 2015, fact checking organisations formed a world network and this year, they observed the inaugural International Fact Checking Day.

Not coincidentally, the chosen date was April 2. (See details at: http://factcheckingday.com)

The initiative is a collaboration by fact checkers and journalism organisations from around the world, “with a goal to enlist the public in the fight against misinformation in all its forms.”

“International Fact Checking Day is not a single event but a rallying cry for more facts — and fact checking — in politics, journalism and everyday life,” says Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in the US.

Oops!

Pinocchios

One visual icon for the Fact-Checking Day is Pinocchio, the fictional puppet character whose nose grew long each time he uttered a lie.

We in Sri Lanka urgently need a professional, non-partisan fact checking service to save us from the alarming proliferation of Pinocchios in public life. Not just our politicians, but also many academics and activists who peddle outdated statistics, outlandish claims or outright conspiracy theories.

Take, for example, the recent claim by a retired professor of political science that 94 Members of Parliament had not even passed the GCE Ordinary Level exam. Apparently no one asked for his source at the press conference (maybe because it fed a preconceived notion). Later, when a (rare?) skeptical journalist checked with him, he said he’d “read it in a newspaper some time ago” — and couldn’t name the publication.

A simple Google search shows that an MP (Buddhika Pathirana) had cited this exact number in September 2014 – about the last Parliament!

Given the state of our media, which often takes down dictation rather than asks hard questions, fact checking is best done by a research group outside the media industry.

A useful model could be South Asia Check, an independent, non-partisan initiative by Panos South Asia anchored in Kathmandu. It “aims to promote accuracy and accountability in public debate” by examining statements and claims made by public figures in Nepal and occasionally, across South Asia (http://southasiacheck.org).

See also: Getting it Right: Fact-Checking in the Digital Age: American Journalism Review, 21 April 2015

South Asia Check – home page captured on 10 April 2017

Nalaka Gunawardene is a science writer and independent media researcher. He is active on Twitter as @NalakaG

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