[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

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

Drone assisted journalism in Sri Lanka: ‘Eyes in the Sky’ need ethical and careful ‘pilots’

Brief comment provided to Daily Mirror newspaper, Sri Lanka, on 20 January 2017:

‘Eyes in the Sky’ need ethical and careful ‘pilots’

By Nalaka Gunawardene

Bird's eye view provides a new, useful perspective in journalistic story telling. Image courtesy InterNews Sri Lanka

Bird’s eye view provides a new, useful perspective in journalistic story telling. Image courtesy InterNews Sri Lanka

For some, drones conjure images of death and destruction – military applications have been their most widely reported application. But unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs are increasingly being used for many peaceful purposes. That poses a host of ethical and legal challenges we must confront to get the best of this new technology while minimizing potential harms.

In the past few years, the cost of drones came down (an entry level unit sells for around LKR 35,000 in Colombo) as their versatility increased. This spurred many uses from newsgathering and post-disaster assessments to goods delivery and smart farming.

In Sri Lanka, surveyors, photographers, TV journalists and political parties were among the early civilian users of drones. They all grasped the value of the ‘bigger picture’ perspective such aerial photos or videos can provide. Until recently, accessing that vantage point was possible only through helicopters or fixed wing aircraft – a facility few could afford.

Having the bird’s eye view helps journalists and their audiences to make sense of complex situations like climate change impacts, conflicts over resources or political agitations. We certainly need more field-based and investigative reporting that goes beyond press releases and press conferences. Drones are fast joining the journalists’ toolkit — but what matters is their imaginative and responsible use.

Participants and trainers at Sri Lanka's first workshop on drone assisted journalism, Aug 2016 in Mt Lavinia

Participants and trainers at Sri Lanka’s first workshop on drone assisted journalism, Aug 2016 in Mt Lavinia

Here, we have both good news and bad news. On the positive side, over two dozen journalists and photojournalists have been trained in drone-assisted journalism during 2016 by drone journalism enthusiast (and drone pilot) Sanjana Hattotuwa and journalist Amantha Perera. Some trainees have since done good stories with drone-gathered images. Examples include probing the drought’s impacts in the dry zone, rising garbage crisis in Kattankudy on the east coast, and taking a close look at land use patterns in Hambantota.

Internews Sri Lanka: Drone gathered footage supporting journalism


The downside is that some news organisations are deploying drones without due regard for public safety or existing codes of media ethics. A drone hovered over the Colombo general cemetery as slain editor Lasantha Wickremetunge’s body was exhumed in September 2016. That disregarded a family request for privacy.

The end never justifies the means in good journalism. If some media groups continue to operate drones in such reckless manner, they risk discrediting the new technology and attracting excessive regulations.

Drones or any other new technologies need to be anchored in the basic ethics of journalism. Each new tool would also bring along its own layer of ethics. Where drone use is concerned, respecting privacy and considering the safety of others is far more important than, say, when using a handheld camera.

In February 2016, the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) published regulations for drone operation which apply to all users including journalists. This has been updated in January 2017. The Information Department, in a recent release, says it is working with CAASL to simplify these rules and streamline approval processes. That is a welcome move.

For now, Lankan journalists can follow the Code of Ethics for Drone Journalists already formulated by practitioners and researchers in the United States. It is available at: http://www.dronejournalism.org/code-of-ethics/

Nalaka Gunawardene is a columnist and independent media researcher. He tweets from @NalakaG

Image courtesy Daily Mirror

Image courtesy Daily Mirror

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.

සිවුමංසල කොලුගැටයා #285: ඩ්‍රෝන් තාක්ෂණය දැන් ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ. අප එයට සූදානම් ද?

Drones are coming: Are we ready?

Drones are coming: Are we ready?

For some, drones still conjure images of death and destruction – that has been their most widely reported use. But that reality is fast changing. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being used for many peaceful purposes, from newsgathering and post-disaster assessments to goods delivery and smart farming.

Drones come in various shapes and sizes: as miniature fixed-wing airplanes or, more commonly, quadcopters and other multi-bladed small helicopters. All types are getting simpler, cheaper and more versatile.

Unlike radio-controlled model aircraft, which aviation hobbyists have used for decades, UAVs are equipped with an autopilot using GPS and a camera controlled by the autopilot. These battery operated flying machines can be manually controlled or pre-programmed for an entire, low altitude flight.

In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala, appearing in the print issue of 25 Sep 2016), I survey the many civilian applications of drones – and the legal, ethical and technical challenges they pose.

Drones are already being used in Sri Lanka by photographers, TV journalists and political parties but few seem to respect public safety or privacy of individuals.

I quote Sanjana Hattotuwa, a researcher and activist on ICTs, who in August 2016 conducted Sri Lanka’s first workshop on drone journalism which I attended. I agree with his view: drones are here to stay, and are going to be used in many applications. So the sooner we sort out public safety and privacy concerns, the better for all.

See also my article in English (NOT a translation): Drones are coming: Are we ready? (Echelon magazine, Oct 2016)

Sanjana Hattotuwa showing drone operating controls to a participant at Sri Lanka's first journalists workshop on the topic - Mt Lavinia, Aug 2016

Sanjana Hattotuwa showing drone operating controls to a participant at Sri Lanka’s first journalists workshop on the topic – Mt Lavinia, Aug 2016

සිවිල් යුද්ධ සමයේ ශ්‍රී ලංකා ගුවන් හමුදාව ඔත්තු බැලීමට යොදා ගත් ”කේලමා” ඔබට මතක ද?

”කේලමා” කියා නම පටබැඳුණේ නියමුවකු රහිතව ගුවන්ගත කොට දුරස්ථව ක්‍රියාත්මක කළ හැකි කුඩා ගුවන් යානයකට. කැමරා සවි කළ එය යම් තැනකට ගුවනින් යවා, හසුරුවා බිම ඡායාරූප ගත හැකි වුණා.

මේ යානා හඳුන්වන්නේ UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) හෙවත් ඩ්‍රෝන් (drones) නමින්.

ඩ්‍රෝන් මුලින්ම නිපදවා යොදා ගනු ලැබුවේ මිලිටරි වැඩවලට. ඔත්තු බලන්නට පමණක් නෙවෙයි. දුර සිට යම් ඉලක්කයන්ට පහර දෙන්නට අවි ගෙන යා හැකි ඩ්‍රෝන් ද තිබෙනවා.

ඇෆ්ගනිස්ථානයේ හා පාකිස්ථානයේ අමෙරිකානු හමුදා ඩ්‍රෝන් යොදා ගෙන ත්‍රස්ත ඉලක්කවලට පහරදීමේදී නිතරම පාහේ අහිංසක නිරායුධ වැසියන්ද මිය යනවා. තුවාල ලබනවා.

එහෙත් අද වන විට සාමකාමී භාවිතයන් රැසකට ඩ්‍රෝන් යොදා ගැනීම ඇරඹිලා. බඩු ප්‍රවාහනයට, ආපදා හදිසි තක්සේරුවලට, ඡායාරූපකරණයට හා මාධ්‍යකරණයට ආදී වශයෙන්.

අප සමහරුන් කැමති වුණත්, නැති වුණත් ඩ්‍රෝන් තාක්ෂණය ලංකාවටත් ඇවිල්ලා!

දේශපාලන සන්නිවේදනයට ඩ්‍රෝන් හරහා ලබා ගත් වීඩියෝ හා ඡායාරූප යොදා ගැනීම ගිය වසරේ මහ මැතිවරණයේදී දක්නට ලැබුනා. මේ අතින් රාජපක්ෂ සන්නිවේදක කණ්ඩායම ඉදිරියෙන් සිටිනු පෙනෙනවා.

කොස්ගම සාලාව අවි ගබඩාව පුපුරා ගිය පසු එහි විනාශයේ තරම හරිහැටි පෙන්වන්න සමහර ටෙලිවිෂන් නාලිකා ඩ්‍රෝන් මාර්ගයෙන් ගත් දර්ශන සාර්ථකව යොදා ගත්තා.

වියදම් අධික හෙලිකොප්ටර් භාවිත නොකර ගුවනින් යමක් පෙනෙන හැටි බලා ගන්න ලෙහෙසිම හා ලාබම ක්‍රමය මෙයයිග මූලික වියදමින් පසු නඩත්තු වියදම වන්නේ විදුලියෙන් බැටරි චාජ් කිරීම පමණයි.

අප මෙහිදී drone යනුවෙන් අදහස් කරන්නේ නියමුවන් රහිත, ස්වයංක්‍රීය කුඩා ගුවන්යානාවලට. මෙයට තවම සිංහල යෙදුමක් නැති නිසා ඩ්‍රෝන් යැයිම කියමු.

ගුවන්යානා තාක්ෂණය තරම්ව වාගේ දිගු ඉතිහාසයක් ඩ්‍රෝන් තාක්ෂණයට තිබෙනවා. 1903දී රයිට් සොහොයුරුන් නිපද වූ ගුවන්යානය වසර කිහිපයක් තුළ මිලිටරි භාවිතයන්ට යොදා ගත් අතර නියමුවන් අවදානමකට ලක් නොකර ස්වයංක්‍රීය ගුවන්යානා හරහා ඔත්තු බලන්නේ හා ප්‍රහාර දෙන්නේ කෙසේද යන්න 1920 පමණ පටන් විවිධ හමුදා අත්හදා බැලුවා.

මිලිටරි තාක්ෂණය තුළට මෑතක් වන තුරු සීමා වී තිබූ ඩ්‍රෝන්, සිවිල් ජන භාවිතයට ප්‍රචලිත වූයේ ජංගම දුරකථන කර්මාන්තය නිසයි. ස්මාට්ෆෝන් සඳහා දියුණු කරන ලද දෘෂ්ටිමය, පරිඝණකමය හා සන්නිවේදන උපාංග ඩ්‍රෝන්වලටද යොදා ගැනීම හරහා ඒවායේ මිළ සීඝ්‍රයෙන් පහත බැස තිබෙනවා.

අපේ අවධානය නිරායුධ වූත්, නියමුවන් රහිත වූත් ඩ්‍රෝන් යානා (unmanned and unarmed aerial vehicles) සාමකාමී භාවිතයන්ට යොදා ගැනීම ගැනයි.

මීට වසර කිහිපයකට පෙර ඩොලර් දහස් ගණනක් (රුපියල් ලක්ෂ ගණනක්) මිළ වූ ඩ්‍රෝන් අද වන විට මිළෙන් අඩු වී, තාක්ෂණික හැකියාවෙන් වැඩි වී විවිධ සමත්කම් ඇති යන්ත්‍ර පරාසයක් බවට පත්ව තිබෙනවා.

අද වන විට සංකීර්ණත්වයෙන් අඩු ඩ්‍රෝන් රුපියල් 35,000 – 40,000 අතර මිළකට කොළඹ විකිණෙනවා. වඩාත් හැකියාවන්  ඇති ඩ්‍රෝන් (උදා – Phantom IV) මේ වන විට රු. 180,000ක් පමණ වනවා.

මේවා බොහොමයක් අලෙවි කැරෙන්නේ සෙල්ලම් බඩු (electronic toys)  ලෙසයි. විදෙස්ගතව මෙහි එන අයට මීටත් වඩා අඩු මිළකට ඩ්‍රෝන ගෙන ආ හැකියි. එසේ මෙරටට ගෙන ඒමට කිසිදු තහනමක් නැහැ.

එහෙත් රටට ගෙනැවිත් භාවිත කරන විට මෑතදී හඳුන්වා දී ඇති සිවිල් ගුවන් සේවා ප්‍රමිතීන් හා නියාමනවලට අනුකූල විය යුතුයි.

තාක්ෂණය ලබා ගත්තට මදි. එය නිර්මාණශීලිව භාවිත කළ යුතුයි. එසේම එහිදී නීතිමය හා ආචාර ධර්මීය රාමුවක් තුළ ඩ්‍රෝන හැසිරවීම වැදගත්.

නව මාධ්‍ය හා නව තාක්ෂණයන් සමාජගත වීම ගැන පර්යේෂණ කරන සංජන හත්තොටුව, UAV සාමකාමී භාවිතය ගැන කලක සිට ගවේෂණය කරන්නෙක්. විශේෂයෙන්ම මානවහිතවාදී (humanitarian) ක්‍රියා සඳහාත්, ආපදාවලින් පසු කඩිනම් ප්‍රතිචාර දැක්වීමේදීත් ඩ්‍රෝන් කෙසේ යොදා ගත හැකිද යන්න ගැන ඔහු වසර කිහිපයකට සිට ජාත්‍යන්තර මට්ටමින් දැනුම ගවේෂණය කරනවා.

Peacekeepers in the Sky

Peacekeepers in the Sky

2015 සැප්තැම්බරයේ ICT4Peace Foundation නම් ආයතනය පළ කළ මේ පිළිබඳ විද්වත් පොතකට (Peacekeepers in the Sky: The Use of Unmanned Unarmed Aerial Vehicles for Peacekeeping) පෙරවදන ලියමින් සංජන මෙසේ කියනවා:

”මානහිතවාදී ආධාර ආයතනත්, පෞද්ගලික සමාගමුත් නිරායුධ ඩ්‍රෝන්වලින් විවිධ ප්‍රයෝජන ගන්නා සැටි අත්හදා බලනවා. ඒ අතර සාමයට ළැදි ක්‍රියාකාරීකයන් සහ පර්යේෂකයන් තැත් කරන්නේ යුධ අවියක් ලෙස වඩා ප්‍රකට වූ මේ තාක්ෂණය සාමය තහවුරු කරන්නත්, සාමකාමී භාවිතයන්ටත් විවිධාකාරයෙන් යොදා ගන්නයි.”

ඔහු කියන්නේ ඩ්‍රෝන් තව දුරටත් පර්යේෂණාත්මක මට්ටමට සීමා නොවී එදිනෙදා භාවිතයන්ට පිවිස ඇති බවයි.

ගුවන් තාක්ෂණයේ යොදා ගන්නා ඉලෙක්ට්‍රොනික් (avionics), වඩාත් දියුණු බැටරි හා  කැමරා තාක්ෂණයන් ආදිය ඒකරාශී කරමින් වැඩි වේලාවක් ගුවන්ගතව සිටිය හැකි වූත්, විවිධ සැරිසැරීම් සඳහා  ප්‍රෝග්‍රෑම් කළ හැකි වූත් ඩ්‍රෝන බිහි වී තිබෙනවා.

”අද වන විට ලොව බොහෝ රටවල පොදු කටයුතු සඳහා ඩ්‍රෝන් පාවිච්චි කරනවා. වනජීවී හා වනාන්තර නිරීක්ෂණයට, පොලිස් ආවේක්ෂණ ක්‍රියාවලට, (ගොඩබිම්)  දේශසීමා අධික්ෂණයට, ගොවිතැන්වල උදව්වලට හා චිත්‍රපට නිෂ්පාදනයට ආදී වශයෙන්. එහෙත් නිිසි වගකීමකින් යුතුව, මනා නියාමනයක් සහිතව ඩ්‍රෝන් භාවිත නොකළොත් එයින් යහපතට වඩා අයහපතක් වීමට ඉඩ තිබෙනවා.” සංජන කියනවා.

උදාහරණයක් ලෙස මාධ්‍යකරණය සඳහා ඩ්‍රෝන් යොදා ගැනීම සළකා බලමු.

මෙරට සමහර ටෙලිවිෂන් ආයතන එළිමහන් දර්ශන වීඩියෝ කිරීමට ඒවා යොදා ගන්නවා. මගුල් ඡායාරූප ශිල්පීන්, වනජීවි හා සොබා ඡායාරූප ශිල්පීන් මින් පෙර නොතිබූ ගුවන් දැක්මක් ලබා ගන්නට ද ඩ්‍රෝන්ගත කැමරා භාවිත කරනවා.

මහජන පෙළපාළි, රැස්වීම්, පෙරහැර ආදී අවස්ථාවල ජනකාය හා ක්‍රියාකාරකම් ගැන අමුතු දෘෂ්ටිකෝණයක් ලබන්නට ඩ්‍රෝන් යොදා ගැනීම ඇරඹිලා.

නමුත් මේ කී දෙනෙක් සුපරීක්ෂාකාරීව හා ආචාරධර්මීය ලෙසින් ඩ්‍රෝන් භවිත කරනවාද?

Fromer President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited the landslides victims at Arnayake in Kegalle on 20 May 2016 - Drone Photo

Fromer President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited the landslides victims at Arnayake in Kegalle on 20 May 2016 – Drone Photo

මෑතකදී කොච්චිකඩේ ශාන්ත අන්තෝනි මංගල්‍යයේදී එය රූපගත කළ ඩ්‍රෝන් ඉතා පහළින් ගමන් කළ බව වාර්තා වූණා. මෙහිදී මහජන ආරක්ෂාව පිළිබඳ ප්‍රශ්නයක් මතු වනවා. ජනාකීර්ණ තැනක පියාසර කරන ඩ්‍රෝන් හදිසියේ ඇද වැටුණොත් යම් අයට තුවාල විය හැකියි. ඒවා අධි බලැති විදුලි සම්ප්‍රේෂණ රැහැන්වල ගැටී අනතුරු සිදු කිරීමට ද හැකියි.

(විශේෂ ආරක්ෂිත ස්ථාන හැර) පොදු ස්ථානවල ඡායාරූප හා විඩියෝගත කිරීමට සාමකාමී රටක අවකාශය තිබිය යුතුයි. එහෙත් පෞද්ගලික නිවාස, කාර්යාල ආදියට ඉහළින් පියාසර කරමින් ඒ තුළ ඇති දර්ශන රූපගත කිරීම මඟින් පුරවැසියන්ගේ පෞද්ගලිකත්වය (privacy) උල්ලංඝනය වනවා.

රේඩියෝ තරංග හරහා දුරස්ථව පාලනය කරන සියලු උපකරණ සඳහා විදුලි සංදේශ නියාමන කොමිසමේ අනුමැතිය අවශ්‍යයි. එහෙත් ඔවුන් අධීක්ෂණ සීමා වන්නේ නිසි සංඛ්‍යාත භාවිතයට පමණයි.

2016 පෙබරවාරියේදී සිවිල් ගුවන්සේවා අධිකාරිය මෙරට UAV/ඩ්‍රෝන්  භාවිතය ගැන ප්‍රමිතීන් හා මග පෙන්වීම් සිය වෙබ් අඩවියේ ප්‍රකාශයට පත් කළා. http://www.caa.lk/images/stories/pdf/implementing_standards/sn053.pdf

මේ දක්වා ඉංග්‍රීසියෙන් පමණක් ඇති මේ ලේඛනයට අනුව කිලෝග්‍රෑම් 1ට වඩා බරින් අඩු ඩ්‍රෝන් සඳහා ලියාපදිංචියක් අවශ්‍ය නැහැ. එහෙත් ඒවා භාවිත කළ හැක්කේ විනෝදය හෝ අධ්‍යාපනික අරමුණු සඳහා යම් පෞද්ගලික ස්ථානයක එහි හිමිකරුගේ අනුමැතිය සහිතව, හා පොදු ස්ථානවල පමණයි. මෙකී ස්ථාන දෙවර්ගයේම මහජන සුරක්ෂිතබව හා දේපල  සුරක්ෂිත බවට අවධානය යොමු කළ යුතු යැයි කියැවෙනවා.

ක්‍රිලෝග්‍රෑම් 1 -25 අතර බර ඇති ඩ්‍රෝන් භාවිතයට සිවිල් ගුවන් සේවා අධිකාරිය සමඟ ලියාපදිංචි විය යුතුයි. එවන් ඩ්‍රෝන් පියාසර කිරීම සිදු කළ යුත්තේ සිවිල් ගුවන්සේවා අධ්‍යක්ෂ ජනරාල්ගේ අනුමැතිය සහිතව පමණයි.

එසේම සියලු ඩ්‍රෝන්වල එහි හිමිකරුගේ ජාතික හැඳුනුම්පත් අංකය හා දුරකථන අංකය සටහන් කර තිබිය යුතු වනවා. මීට අමතරව ඩ්‍රෝනයට විශේෂිත අංකයක්ද එය නිපදවන විටම එයට ලබා දී තිබෙනවා.

වාණිජ අරමුණු සඳහා ඩ්‍රෝන් භාවිත කරන විට ඒ සඳහා අධිකාරීයේ ලිඛිත අවසරයක් ලැබිය යුතු අතර එයට යම් ගෙවීමක් ද කළ යුතුයි.

Sanjana Hattotuwa demostrating a drone at drone journalism workshop

Sanjana Hattotuwa demostrating a drone at drone journalism workshop

සෑම විටම ඩ්‍රෝන් හසුරවන්නා සිය ඩ්‍රෝනය ඇසට පෙනෙන මානයේ (line of sight) තබා ගත යුතු බවත්, ඩ්‍රෝනය ගමන් කරන පරිසරය මනාව නිරීක්ෂණය කළ හැකි තැනෙක සිට එය කළ යුතු බවත් අධිකාරීය අවධාරණය කරනවා.

”අපේ රටේ ප්‍රසිද්ධ ස්ථානවල රූපගත කරද්දී දේශපාලන පක්ෂ සැමෙකක්ම මේ සිවිල් ගුවන්සේවා ප්‍රමිතීන් උල්ලංඝනය කරනවා.” යැයි සංජන කියනවා.

වඩාත් සංකීර්ණ ඩ්‍රෝන් තුළ ඇති පරිගණක පද්ධතියට ලෝකයේ සියලු ගුවන්තොටුපළවල පිහිටීම් දත්ත (location data) කවා තිබෙනවා. මේ නිසා ගුවන්තොටුපළක් ආසන්නයේ ඒවා පියාසර කිරීම ඉබේම වැළකෙනවාග

එහෙත් චීනයෙන් එන ලාභ ඩ්‍රෝන් සැම එකකම මේ  ආරක්ෂිත විවිධිධානය නොතිබිය හැකියි.

රාත්‍රියේ ඩ්‍රෝන් පැදවීම හා ඩ්‍රෝන් අතර තරඟ රේස් යාමද සිවිල් ගුවන්සේවා අධිකාරීය අවසර නොදෙන තවත් ක්‍රියාවන් දෙකක්. කෙසේ වෙතත් දැනට වෙළදපොලේ ඇති කිසිදු ඩ්‍රෝනයකට රාත්‍රී පෙනීම නැහැ.

මාධ්‍යකරණයට ඩ්‍රෝන් යොදා ගන්න විටත් මෙකී ප්‍රමිතීන් හා නියාමන සියල්ල අදාළයි. එහෙත් ඉන් ඔබ්බට යන ආචාර ධර්මීය රාමුවක් තුළ පමණක් මාධ්‍යකරුවන් ඩ්‍රෝන් හරහා රූප රැස් කළ යුතුයි.

ඩ්‍රෝන් කියන්නේ සරුංගල් මෙන් අහිංසක සරල උපාංගයක් නොවෙයි. ඉතා ඉහළ රූපමය අගයක් ^image resolution) සහිත විඩියෝ හා ඡායාරූප ගැනීමේ හැකියාව ඇති නිසා ඩ්‍රෝන් මිනිසුන්ගේ පෞද්ගලික ජීවිතවලට අනවසරයෙන් එබී බලන්නට හොඳටම ඉඩ තිබෙනවා.

අධිකාරීයේ ප්‍රමිතීන්ට අනුව පෞද්ගලික ඉඩම් උඩින් හිමිකරුවන්ගේ අවසරයෙන් තොරව ඩ්‍රෝන් පියාසර කරන්නට ඉඩ නැහැ.

”යම් කාලීන සිදුවීමක පරිමාණය ගැන ඉක්මනින් හොඳ අවබෝධයක් ලබා දීමට ඩ්‍රෝන් හරහා ලබා ගන්න රූප මාධ්‍යවලට ඉතා ප්‍රයෝජනවත් වනවා. එහෙත් තරඟකාරී මාධ්‍ය කර්මාන්තයේදී මහජන සුරක්ෂිතබව හා සියලු දෙනාගේ පෞද්ගලිකත්වය රැකෙන පරිදි පමණක් එවන් රූප ලබා ගැනීම ඉතා වැදගත්,” යයි සංජන අවධාරණය කරනවා.

යුද්ධ කාලේ කේලමා කළ ඔත්තු බලන වැඩ සාමකාමී අද කාලේ හිතුමතයට ඕනෑ කෙනකුට කිරීමට ඉඩ නොතිබිය යුතුයි.

 තම නිවාස හා කාර්යාල තුළ තමන්ගේ පාඩුවේ සිටීමට කාටත් අයිතියක් තිබෙනවා. මෙය අතික්‍රමණය කිරීමට ඩ්‍රෝන්වලට ඉඩ දිය නොහැකියි.

ඩ්‍රෝනයක් හැසිරවීම සඳහා යම් අවම හැකියාවක් හා සංයමයක් අවශ්‍යයි. මේ වන විට ළමයින් පවා ඩ්‍රෝන් පාලනය කරනු මා දැක තිබෙනවා. එය සංකීර්ණ ක්‍රියාවක් නොවූවත් සංයමය නැති වූවොත් අනතුරු සිදු විය හැකියි.

ඩ්‍රෝන් නිසි පරිදි භාවිතය ගැන මාධ්‍යවේදීන්ට මෙරට පැවැත්වූ මූල්ම වැඩමුළුවට මීට සති කිහිපයකට පෙර මාද සහභාගි වූණා. ඉන්ටර්නිවුස් ආයතනය වෙනුවෙන් ගල්කිස්සේ පැවති එය මෙහෙයවූයේ සංජන හත්තොටුවයි.

ඩ්‍රෝන් භාවිතය මෙරට රාජ්‍ය, පෞද්ගලික හා විද්වත් ක්ෂේත්‍ර හැම එකකම කෙමෙන් මතුව එනවා. මිනින්දෝරු දෙපාර්තමේන්තුව හා ජාත්‍යන්තර ජල කළමනාකරණ පර්යේෂණායතනය (IWMI) දැනටමත් ප්‍රායෝගීකව ඩ්‍රෝන් යොදා ගන්නවා. ගොවිතැනට ඩ්‍රෝන් හරහා නව දත්ත සේවාවක් හඳුන්වා දෙන බව CIC සමාගම 2016 අගෝස්තුවේ ප්‍රකාශ කළා.

ඩ්‍රෝන් භාවිතය වැඩිවත්ම අපේ සමහරු ඒවා ගැනත් භීතිකාවක් පැතිරවිය හැකියි. ඩ්‍රෝන් තාක්ෂණයේ නිසි ඵල නෙළා ගන්නා අතර ඒවා ප්‍රවේශමින්, ආචාර ධර්මීයව හා නිසි නියාමන රාමුවක් තුළ භාවිතයයි අවශ්‍ය වන්නේ.

ඇත්තටම සිවිල් ගුවන්සේවා අධිකාරීයේ ප්‍රමිතීන් ගැන බොහෝ දෙනා තවම දන්නේ නැහැ. ඉංග්‍රීසියෙන් පවා මේවා ලියා ඇත්තේ අතිශ්‍ය නීතිමය බසකින්. එය සරලව මෙරට භාවිත වන තිබසින්ම සමාජගත කිරීම හදිසි අවශ්‍යතාවක්.

Journalists getting used to drone control unit at Sri Lanka's first workshop on drone journalism, Aug 2016

Journalists getting used to drone control unit at Sri Lanka’s first workshop on drone journalism, Aug 2016

 

[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.