DW Global Media Forum 2018: Moderating panel on ‘Digitalization and Polarization of the Media’

Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum (GMF), in Bonn, Germany, 11 – 13 June 2018

I was a participant and speaker at the 11th Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum (GMF), held in Bonn, Germany, from 11 to 13 June 2018.

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 Bonn.

My accomplished panellists were:


L to R – Nalaka Gunawardene (moderator), Christian Humborg, Jillian York, and Curd Knupfer. [Photo courtesy DW GMF 2018]

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.)

Nalaka Gunawardene moderating session on “Digitalization and polarization of the media: How to overcome growing inequalities and a divided public” at DW Global Media Forum 2018 in Bonn, 13 June 2018 [Photo courtesy DW GMF 2018]

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.

Some of the participants at session on “Digitalization and polarization of the media” at DW Global Media Forum 2018 [Photo courtesy DW GMF 2018]

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?

Speakers for the DW-GMF 2018 session on “Digitalization and polarization of the media: How to overcome growing inequalities and a divided public”



සමාජ මාධ්‍ය අවහිරයෙන් ඔබ්බට: නව නීති හා නියාමන අවශ්‍යද? Beyond Social Media block in Sri Lanka

This article, in Sinhala, appeared in Irida Lakbima broadsheet newspaper on Sunday, 18 March 2018 and is based on an interview with myself on Sri Lanka’s Social Media block that lasted from 7 to 15 March 2018.

I discuss Facebook’s Community Standards and the complaints mechanism currently in place, and the difficulties that non-English language content poses for Facebook’s designated monitors looking out for violations of these standards. Hate speech and other objectionable content produced in local languages like Sinhala sometimes pass through FB’s scrutiny. This indicates more needs to be done both by the platform’s administrators, as well as by concerned FB users who spot such content.

But I sound a caution about introducing new Sri Lankan laws to regulate social media, as that can easily stifle citizens’ right to freedom of expression to question, challenge and criticise politicians and officials. Of course, FoE can have reasonable and proportionate limits, and our challenge is to have a public dialogue on what these limits are for online speech and self-expression that social media enables.

Lakbima 18 March 2018




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.

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.



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