Corridors of Power Panel: Tapping our ‘Hybrid Media Reality’ to secure democracy in Sri Lanka

Sanjana Hattotuwa, curator, introduces panel L to R Asoka Obeyesekere, Amantha Perera, Nalaka Gunawardene, Lakshman Gunasekera

Sanjana Hattotuwa, curator, introduces panel L to R Asoka Obeyesekere, Amantha Perera, Nalaka Gunawardene, Lakshman Gunasekera. Photo by Manisha Aryal

I just spoke on a panel on “Framing discourse: Media, Power and Democracy” which was part of the public exhibition in Colombo called Corridors of power: Drawing and modelling Sri Lanka’s tryst with democracy.

Media panel promo

The premise for our panel was as follows:

The architecture of the mainstream media, and increasingly, social media (even though distinct divisions between the two are increasingly blurred) to varying degrees reflects or contests the timbre of governance and the nature of government.

How can ‘acts of journalism’ by citizens revitalise democracy and how can journalism itself be revived to engage more fully with its central role as watchdog?

In a global contest around editorial independence stymied by economic interests within media institutions, how can Sri Lanka’s media best ensure it attracts, trains and importantly, retains a calibre of journalists who are able to take on the excesses of power, including the silencing of inconvenient truths by large corporations?

The panel, moderated by lawyer and political scientist Asoka Obeyesekere comprised freelance journalist Amantha Perera, Sunday Observer editor Lakshman Gunasekera, and myself.

Here are my opening remarks (including some remarks made during Q&A).

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks during media panel at Corridors of Power - Photo by Manisha Aryal

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks during media panel at Corridors of Power – Photo by Manisha Aryal

Panel on “Framing discourse: Media, Power and Democracy”

20 Sep 2015, Colombo

Remarks by Nalaka Gunawardene

Curator Sanjana has asked us to reflect on a key question: What is the role of media in securing democracy against its enemies, within the media itself and beyond?

I would argue that we are in the midst of multiple, overlapping deficits:

  • Democracy Deficit, a legacy of the past decade in particular, which is now recognised and being addressed (but we have a long way to go)
  • Public Trust Deficit in politicians and public institutions – not as widely recognised, but is just as pervasive and should be worrying us all.
  • Media Deficit, probably the least recognised deficit of all. This has nothing to do with media’s penetration or outreach. Rather, it concerns how our established (or mainstream) MEDIA FALLS SHORT IN PERFORMING the responsibilities of watchdog, public platform and the responsibility to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.

In this context, can new media – citizens leveraging the web, mobile devices and the social media platforms – bridge this deficit?

My answer is both: YES and NO!

YES because new media opportunities can be seized – and are being seized — by our citizens to enhance a whole range of public interest purposes, including:

  • Political participation
  • Advocacy and activism
  • Transparency and accountability in public institutions
  • Peace-building and reconciliation
  • Monitoring and critiquing corporate conduct

All these trends are set to grow and involve more and more citizens in the coming years. Right now, one in four Lankans uses the web, mostly thru mobile devices.

BUT CAN IT REPLACE THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA?

NO, not in the near term. For now, these counter-media efforts are not sufficient by themselves to bridge the three deficits I have listed above. The mainstream media’s products have far more outreach and and the institutions, far more resources.

Also, the rise of citizen-driven new media does NOT – and should NOT — allow mainstream media to abdicate its social responsibilities.

This is why we urgently need MEDIA SECTOR REFORMS in Sri Lanka – to enhance editorial independence AND professionalism.

The debate is no longer about who is better – Mainstream media (MSM) or citizen driven civic media.

WE NEED BOTH.

So let us accept and celebrate our increasingly HYBRID MEDIA REALITY (‘hybrid’ seems to be currently popular!). This involves, among other things:

  • MSM drawing on Civic Media content; and
  • Civic Media spreading MSM content even as they critique MSM

To me, what really matters are the ACTS OF JOURNALISM – whether they are RANDOM acts or DELIBERATE acts of journalism.

Let me end by drawing on my own experience. Trained and experienced in mainstream print and broadcast media, I took to web-based social media 8 years ago when I started blogging (for fun). I started tweeting five years ago, and am about to cross 5,000 followers.

It’s been an interesting journey – and nowhere near finished yet.

Everyday now, I have many and varied CONVERSATIONS with some of my nearly 5,000 followers on Twitter. Here are some of the public interest topics we have discussed during this month:

  • Rational demarcation of Ministry subject areas (a lost cause now)
  • Implications of XXL Cabinet of the National/Consensus Govt
  • Questionable role of our Attorney General in certain prosecutions
  • Report on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Session
  • Is Death Penalty the right response to rise of brutal murders?
  • Can our media be more restrained and balanced in covering sexual crimes involving minors?
  • How to cope with Hate Speech on ethnic or religious grounds
  • What kind of Smart Cities or MegaCity do we really need?
  • How to hold CocaCola LK responsible for polluting Kelani waters?

Yes, many of these are fleeting and incomplete conversations. So what?

And also, there’s a lot of noise in social media: it’s what I call the Global Cacophony.

BUT these conversations and cross-talk often enrich my own understanding — and hopefully help other participants too.

Self-promotional as this might sound, how many Newspaper Editors in Sri Lanka can claim to have as many public conversations as I am having using social media?

Let me end with the closing para in a chapter on social media and governance I recently wrote for Transparency International’s Sri Lanka Governance Report 2014 (currently in print):

“Although there have been serious levels of malgovernance in Sri Lanka in recent years, the build up on social media platforms to the Presidential Election 2015 showed that Lankan citizens have sufficient maturity to use ICTs and other forms of social mobilisation for a more peaceful call for regime change. Channelling this civic energy into governance reform is the next challenge.”

Photo by Sanjana Hattotuwa

Photo by Sanjana Hattotuwa

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Untold story behind the story: “Barack Obama: People’s President”

A film to reveal what the old media didn't show...

A film to reveal what the old media didn't show...

When Barack Obama and his running made Joe Biden won the US Presidential Election held on 4 November 2008, they not only beat the Republican duo McCain-Palin but also a host of other also-rans. It’s too soon to tell, but that date might also mark the beginning of the end for the old media, also called the mediasaurus, who have been dominating the public’s access to news, information and commentary for over a century.

But how did it all happen? Who can tell us the real story as it happened, and why, without filters and biases so rampant among the mediasaurus?

On this blog, we have watched with deep interest and some fascination the rise of Barack Obama from relative obscurity to become the President of the United States. On 6 November 2008, soon after the election results were confirmed, we noted how Obama had just been elected ‘President of the New Media world’. I explained: “Obama’s rise has epitomised change in many ways. Among other things, he is the first elected leader of a major democracy who shows understanding and mastery over the New Media World, which is radically different from the old media order.”

On 20 January 2009, when he was inaugurated, we wrote: “For four or eight years, Obama’s every move, word and gesture will be captured, dissected and debated to exhaustion by admirers and detractors alike. And his administration will be under scrutiny by thousands of citizen journalists who don’t share much except the digital platforms and social networks on which they post their impressions. Welcome to the New Media Presidency. The hard work – and real fun – begin now!”

And now, one of the world’s leading new media activists, Danny Schechter, is about to release a new documentary on how the Obama campaign rode the new media wave to the White House — and more importantly, how the same new media can help the American public to keep Obama Administration accountable.

The film “Barack Obama, People’s President”, (slated for DVD release later this month by ChoiceMedia.net), documents the online and on the ground techniques that were used to win the highest office in the land.

As the film’s advance promo blurb says: The one story that most TV outlets didn’t tell in the 2008 election was the most important one -how did a young and relatively unknown candidate become President? If you voted for Barack Obama or not, this is a story you will want to know because it shows how the face of presidential politics changed forever. Barack Obama used techniques never seen before in a nationwide election — his grassroots mobilization and use of the internet was unprecedented, inspiring and effective. You have seen the rest of the coverage — now see the real story.

The film goes inside the official and unofficial campaign to show how Barack Obama was turned into a political brand to appeal to young first time voters. It shows how social networking on the internet — blogs, Facebook, texting and other techniques — were used carry the message to the masses and to raise tens of millions of dollars for the campaign. Popular online videos such as “Obama Girl”, along with those created by regular yet passionate supporters to engage their own communities, became one of the most important tools in the campaign’s success.

Watch the trailer of “Barack Obama, People’s President” directed by Danny Schechter:

Emmy award winning film-maker Danny Schechter, who is also blogger-in-chief at MediaChannel.org that keeps a critical eye on the media, just wrote this explaining why he made this film:

“It is hard to remember that two years earlier Obama was barely known, registering on the radar screen for just 10% of voters. He was also hardly a brand name as a first term Senator who spent more time in state politics in Illinois than on the national stage. Moreover, he was young and a man of color — not qualities that usually prevail in a presidential arena which tends to draw far older, far whiter, and far more centrist candidates. The thought that he would beat frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the primaries was, quite frankly, unthinkable to most of the elite.

“And yet he prevailed, as he used a phrase appropriated from labor organizer and Latino legend Caesar Chavez. Obama turned the farm workers Spanish language slogan “Si Se Puede” into “Yes We Can.” Rather than focus on specific political issues, he built a campaign on the promise of “Hope.” Rather than just rely on traditional fundraising — although by the end, he was plush with it — he reached out over the internet for smaller donations from millions of donors.

Perils of the New Media Generation...

Perils of the New Media Generation...

“Few in the major media gave him a chance, but he was not discouraged because he had created his own grassroots media operation using sophisticated organizing and social networking techniques to build a bottom-up movement, not the usual top-down apparatus. While his campaign ran the show, he encouraged independent initiatives including citizen-generated media, music videos, personalized websites, twittering and texting, etc..

“This is the new direction our politics has taken. It is a story that may be somewhat threatening to old media – and older activists – who prefer a one to many approach to communication, as opposed to forging a more interactive empowering platform. There is no question that young people — especially those mobilized by Obama — prefer online media and that choice is making it harder and harder for traditional outlets to sustain their influence and, in some cases, even their organizations. Old media may be on the way out.

“This is why our film is, in my mind, so important, not just as a record of how Obama won and what happened in 2008, but in what will happen, can happen, and is happening in the future. This is why I believe its critical for Americans to see it — and others in the world as well — to recognize how Obama represents more than just another politician, but a whole new approach to politics. That old adage is worth remembering: “It’s not the ship that makes the wave, it’s the motion of the ocean.”

“Obama, for all his shortcomings, which are becoming more obvious by the day, has pioneered the way change must be won — not by people on the top, but by all of us. It remains for “us” to hold him accountable. We live in a culture of amnesia – it is important to learn the lessons of the recent past.”

Read the full comment: New Film Tells Unreported Story of Obama’s Election on MediaChannel.org