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
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.
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.
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).
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:
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.
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.”
For over 48 hours, there was little coverage of the incidents in newspapers, or on radio and TV. This gap was partly filled by social media and international media reports – but only to the extent they have outreach in the island. Those who rely on local newspapers, radio and TV had to settle for ‘radio silence’ while media gatekeepers hesitated and held back.
Taking Sri Lanka as the example, I raise some basic concerns that go beyond the individual incident, and address fundamentals of disaster early warning and information management in the Internet age.
I ask: Was the tsunami warning and coastal evacuation on April 11 justified in Sri Lanka? I argue that this needs careful, dispassionate analysis in the coming weeks. ‘Better safe than sorry’ might work the first few times, but let us remember the cry-wolf syndrome. False alarms and evacuation orders can reduce public trust and cooperation over time.