I just spoke to a group of 75 provincial level provincial journalists in Sri Lanka who were drawn from around the island. They had completed a training course in investigative journalism conducted by Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), with support from InterNews.
The certificate award ceremony was held at Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI), Colombo, on 2 October 2015.
In this talk, I look at the larger news media industry in Sri Lanka to which provincial journalists supply ground level news, images and video materials. These are used on a discretionary basis by media companies mostly based in the capital Colombo (and some based in the northern provincial capital of Jaffna). Suppliers have no control over whether or how their material is processed. They work without employment benefits, are poorly paid, and also exposed to various pressures and coercion.
I draw a rough analogy with the nearly 150-year old Ceylon Tea industry, which directly employs around 750,000 people, sustains an estimated 2 million (10% of the population) and in 2014 earned USD 1.67 billion through exports. For much of its history, the Ceylon tea producers were supplying high quality tea leaves in bulk form to London based tea distributors and marketers like Lipton.
The media industry also started during British colonial times, and in fact dates back to 1832. But I question why, after 180+ years, our media industry broadly follows the same production model: material sourced is centrally processed and distributed, without much adaptation to new digital media realities.
I draw a parallel between tea small holders – those growing on lands less than 10 acres (4 ha) who account for 60% of Sri Lanka’s annual tea production – and the provincial journalists. Both are supplies at the beginning of a chain. Neither has much or any say in how their material is processed and marketed.
As usual, I don’t have all the answers, but I ask some pertinent questions:
Where are the Merrill Fernandos of our media industry?
Who can disrupt these old models and innovate?
Can disruptive innovators emerge from among provincial journalists?
How can they leverage digital tools and web based platforms?
What if they start value-adding at source and direct distribution via the web?
But since they have families to feed, how to make an honest living doing that?
Text of my column written for Echelon monthly business magazine, Sri Lanka, May 2015 issue
Black Swans, White Lies and the Rise of ‘Info-Doers’
By Nalaka Gunawardene
The Global Village is a pretty noisy place. In today’s networked society, information can spread at the speed of light. Fabrications, half-truths and myriad interpretations compete with evidence-based analyses and official positions. Trust is being redefined.
How can the formal structures of power – whether government, academic, military or corporate – engage in public communication in effective ways? Should they ignore what I call the Global Cacophony and limit themselves to formal statements made at their own bureaucratic pace?
Consider a recent scenario. A controversy erupts over how the Central Bank of Sri Lanka handles the latest Treasury Bond issue, but the government takes several days to respond. The Prime Minister makes a detailed statement in Parliament on March 17, which he opens saying: “I felt my first statement with regard to the so-called controversy over Treasury bonds should be made to this House.”
He offers a characteristically good analysis. But in the meantime, many speculations had circulated, some questioning the new administration’s commitment to transparency and accountability. Political detractors had had a field day.
Could it have been handled differently? Should government spokespersons have turned defensive or combative? Is maintaining a stoic silence until full clarity emerges realistic when governments no longer have a monopoly over information dissemination? What then happens to public trust in governments?
Some information managers still invoke an old adage: this too shall pass. The digitally empowered citizens may descend on an issue with gusto, they contend, but attention spans are short. ‘Smart-mobs’ tend to move on to the next breaking topic within days if not hours…
But how reliable is that as a strategy? And what happens when, once in a while, ‘Black Swan events’ occur disrupting everything?
It was the Lebanese-American scholar, statistician and risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb who proposed the theory of Black Swan events. He used it as a metaphor to describe an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalised afterwards with the benefit of hindsight.
The idea, first introduced in his 2001 book Fooled By Randomness, was initially limited to financial events. In a follow-up book The Black Swan (2007), he extended it to other events as well.
According to Taleb, almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events and artistic accomplishments are “Black Swans” — undirected and unpredicted. Examples include the rise of the Internet, the personal computer, World War I, dissolution of the Soviet Union and the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001.
I recently had a fascinating conversation with its author Nik Gowing, a senior British television journalist with 40 years of experience in news and current affairs. Before he stepped down in 2014, he was main anchor for much of BBC’s coverage of major international events including Kosovo in 1999, the Iraq war in 2003, the global financial meltdown of 2007 and Mumbai attack in 2008. On 9/11, he was on air for six hours leading the coverage.
“In a moment of major and unexpected crisis, the institutions of power – whether political, governmental, military or corporate – face a new, acute vulnerability of both their influence and effectiveness,” Nik says summing up the study’s findings.
He analysed the new fragility and brittleness of those institutions, and the profound impact upon them from a fast proliferating and almost ubiquitous breed of what he calls ‘information doers’.
‘Info-doer’ seems more inclusive than the contested term ‘citizen journalist’. Such ‘info-doers’ are empowered by cheap, lightweight, go-anywhere technologies. That trend, already evident in 2009, has gained further momentum since.
“They have an unprecedented mass ability to bear witness. The result is a matrix of real-time information flows that challenges the inadequacy of the structures of power to respond both with effective impact and in a timely way,” the study says.
Nik adds: “Increasingly routinely, a cheap, ‘go-anywhere’ camera or mobile phone challenges the credibility of the massive human and financial resources of a government or corporation in an acute crisis. The long-held conventional wisdom of a gulf in time and quality between the news that signals an event and the whole truth eventually emerging is fast being eliminated.”
He describes how, in the most remote and hostile locations of the globe, hundreds of millions of electronic eyes and ears are creating a capacity for scrutiny and new demands for accountability. “It is way beyond the assumed power and influence of the traditional media. This global electronic reach catches institutions unaware and surprises with what it reveals.”
The phenomenon is globalised. Info-doers, with a range of motivations, are everywhere from the financial capitals like London and New York to crisis locations in Iraq, China’s Tibet plateau, Burma, the flooded heart of New Orleans or the mountains of Afghanistan. Censorship and crackdowns can’t stop them.
How to respond?
So what is to be done?
The instinct of many authorities is still to deny inconvenient truths and blame “the damn media” in times of crisis. This no longer works (if it ever did).
“Too often, the knee-jerk institutional response continues to be one of denial as if this new broader, fragmented, redefined media landscape does not exist. Yet within minutes the new, almost infinite media dynamic of images, video, texts and social media mean the public rapidly has vivid, accurate impressions of what is unravelling.”
For example, during Burma’s ill-fated Saffron Revolution of September 2007, video footage and images of protests rapidly spread online and through mainstream broadcast media. Most had been captured using mobile phones and sent out through internet cafes despite attempts to block their flow. The junta later dismissed such coverage as a “skyful of lies”, convincing no one.
The immediate policy challenge is to enter the information space with self-confidence and assertiveness as the media do, however incomplete the official understanding of the enormity of what is unfolding.
After a major crisis hits, both the mainstream media and policy makers face what Nik Gowing defines as the F3 dilemma. The F3 options are:
Should they be the first to enter the info-space?
How fast should they do it?
But how flawed might their remarks and first positions turn out to be in ways that could undermine public perceptions and institutional credibility?
Using many examples, the study has analysed the typical institutional response: to hesitate and lose initiative. This is because wielders of power still don’t appreciate dramatic changes in the real-time new media environment. Nik has included a few enlightened policy responses – “too few to suggest any sign of a fundamental shift in understanding and attitudes”.
The study ends with recommendations for how various institutions of political and corporate power can respond to the new challenges.
“The new real-time media realities are harsh. But once understood, embraced and acted upon, the proposed solutions are compelling. They represent a path to institutional effectiveness and credibility when these are currently lacking.”
The Annasi & Kadalagotu Literary Festival (‘A&K Lit Fest’), held on 25 April 2015, brought together literary enthusiasts from across the country. It was a collaborative platform where those who share a passion for literature can come together, explore the way we write, the way we read and learn about the ways of Sri Lanka and its people – their expressions, cultures and perspectives.
I moderated a Session on “Blogging in Sri Lanka: A New Platform for Creativity?” which featured three leading bloggers in Sri Lanka.
Here are my Opening Remarks, where I tried to place blogging in the current cultural, political and societal context of Sri Lanka.
Session: Blogging in Sri Lanka: A New Platform for Creativity?
Opening Remarks by Nalaka Gunawardene, Moderator
Because we are discussing blogs at a lit fest, we will look explore Lankan blogging and blogospheres from a more creative and literary perspective – and not from any technical or technological angle.
Our session has been tagged with a subtitle “Technological Literature?”, which I consider to be a misnomer. Blogs are self-expressions that just happen to be made on the web, but they are not necessarily techie or geeky.
Not any more than, say, convention book writers have much or anything to do with printing and paper production!
The cyberspace is just the medium and the ecosystem in which blogs are written, shared, commented upon and – sometimes – being argued over.
This part of the web is called ‘blogosphere’ – and where Sri Lanka is concerned there are three overlapping such blogosphere in Sinhala, Tamil and English languages.
The web is increasingly attracting more writers, journalists and other creative people because:
It is cheaper and faster to publish online than in book format;
It is often easier than getting published in newspapers or magazines; and
The medium is far more interactive, so creators can get direct audience feedback.
“Internet access on a commercial basis became available in Sri Lanka on 26 April 1995, when Lanka Internet Services Limited (LISL) started operating a local Internet server (‘Sri Lanka Web Server’) through a local gateway. Their server was connected to a host in the US through a 64kbps dedicated transmission line leased from SLT. This gave Sri Lankan Internet users the opportunity of accessing the Internet simply by dialling a local phone number. Sri Lanka was thus the first country in South Asia to have unrestricted and commercial Internet access facilities…”
We have come a long way since those early days of dial-up, narrowband access. Not everyone is online yet, of course, but we have around 22 to 25% of our 21 million people regularly using the web now for a variety of purposes.
Blogging is one such purpose. At its most basic, blogging entails using web-based, free spaces to write and self-publish words, images, videos or multimedia content.
Bloggers have been active in Sri Lanka for at least a dozen years, if not a bit longer. We don’t know exactly who the first Lankan blogger was (that’s a research project for you!), but some pioneering work was done by English language bloggers like Indi Samarajiva. There are others.
Blogging became more popular after around 2003/4. This was the time broadband Internet started rolling out, giving us faster speeds and always-on facility (on a fixed monthly cost, without having to count the minutes we stay online).
Blogging in Sri Lanka picked up when more and more computer users realized that they didn’t need to have any programming or coding skills to do web pages. The early web was limited to webmasters wielding HTML and other specialized software skills. But the advent of Blogger (1999) and WordPress (2003) free platforms meant that guys like myself – not knowing a single line of coding – could put together my own content on the web.
As broadband services spread, and as local language font issues were finally resolved, more people started blogging in Sinhala and Tamil too. The Lankan blogosphere is diverse and vibrant today.
Blogging is being pursued by a few thousand people, and many thousands more participate as readers or discussants. Some blogs offer serious political and social commentary, while others have become platforms for nurturing new talent in prose, verse, photography, videography or graphic art.
The formats and topics are only limited by our own imagination and dedication. The latter is important, as blogging is unpaid work that can take up a good deal of time (especially if you become a widely read and commended upon).
Bloggers fit into a much larger new media ‘ecosystem’ called citizen journalism, which is also constantly evolving. Although not well studied by media researchers, this phenomenon is now a part of our public sphere.
Before I introduce the panel, let me pose and answer four questions.
Who is a typical blogger in Sri Lanka?
There is no such profile. Besides having basic computer skill and Internet connectivity, there is little in common among our bloggers – among whom are students, teachers, professionals, retirees, housewives, househusbands and many others. Anyone with Internet access and some spare time can, in theory, become a blogger. And if not inclined to write, anyone can still become a reader and/or commentator of others’ blogs.
What do Lankan bloggers publish about?
Again, the interests and topics of blogs are as diverse as our people! There is every type of content generated by bloggers and their readers (sometimes comments are more interesting than the original post that provoked them). Bloggers variously address social, cultural, political, commercial and personal issues and topics.
If you’re new to this space, the best point to start exploring would be to look at blog aggregators that automatically list new blogposts being published by bloggers who have registered with them (for free). There are several aggregators to choose from, but none that is comprehensive:
Kottu.org is the oldest, which just completed 10 years
What quality and creativity are found in Lankan blogs?
Again, this is like asking what quality and creativity can be found in all the books, newspapers and magazines published in our land. It all depends on where you look!
There is everything in our blogs, from the mundane and unremarkable (including angry rants) to very perceptive and even occasionally profound expressions. And much in between…
We find some news reporting, much commentary/opinion, some analysis and investigation, as well as short stories, poems, satire, cartoons and videos on blogs. The genres are now nearly as diverse as in the printed word, even though public awareness of this diversity is still lacking.
Finally, why have me moderate this panel, and why these panelists?
I have been a long-time observer and chronicler of the Internet in Sri Lanka from the very beginning, often partnering with my friend Chanuka Wattegama. I wish more of our social scientists and media researchers would take a closer look at what is going on in cyberspace and help us understand just how that is impacting our society, culture and politics.
Blogging in cyberspace itself is sometimes frowned upon by those who don’t know — or have only a fleeting awareness of — what blogs really are. Some confuse blogs with political or gossip websites.
Sadly, many in our mainstream media are either ignorant or dismissive of blogs (and some editors shamelessly reproduce them without acknowledgement!). The Secretary to the Media Ministry – himself an occasional blogger — told a blogging award ceremony last month that he has met chief editors of Lankan newspapers who had no clue what blogs were!
During the past decade when freedom of expression and media freedom in Sri Lanka were seriously undermined, bloggers and citizen journalists partially filled the void created by mainstream media stepping up self-censorship. Indeed, I argue that some of our leading bloggers offer more refreshing and authentic analysis of current social and political issues than do many newspapers!
In their own ways, our three panelists have distinguished themselves in the Lankan blogospheres. We want to find out what motivates and inspires them, and what kind of dialogue they have with their readers.
Abdul Halik Azeez is a strategy consultant, independent researcher and citizen journalist. He blogged for some years at https://abdulhalik.wordpress.com. His recent interest in journalistic and conceptual photography has garnered a large following on Instagram where he is known as Colombedouin. http://instagram.com/colombedouin
Ajith Perakum Jayasinghe (Blog: http://www.w3lanka.com) is a teacher by profession who is immensely engaged in writing, translating and blogging. He likes to identify himself as a political activist who is committed to change the order so as the life is better for the humans and nature.
Yashodha Sammani Premaratne who is known by her pen name “bassi” is a blogger as well as a microblogger. Her blog, “Bassige nawathana” (http://bassigenawathana.blogspot.co.uk) started in August, 2013 attracted the readers immediately due to her lucid style of writing. Her range of blog posts is highly diverse from simple humour to Politics, Science, Poetry and Fiction. ‘Bassige Nawathana’ has already won two awards for its creativity.
We also ask panelists to address larger questions such as:
How vibrant and diverse is blogging in Sri Lanka?
Is there a dedicated and growing audience for blogs?
Do bloggers influence public opinion, and how?
Is blogging in decline with the rise of micro-blogging (Twitter) and Facebook?
Who were the earliest citizen journalists in Sri Lanka? In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I argue that ordinary people expressing themselves in a public space without gatekeepers — which fits the basic definition of citizen journalism — can be traced back to at least 6th century AD. That’s the earliest date for a visitor graffiti on the famous ‘mirror wall’ in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka’s “rock fortress in the sky” built by a maverick 5th century King Kasyapa (reign: 477 – 495 AD).
Who is a citizen journalist? Does everyone who blogs and tweets automatically become one? If not, who qualifies? Who judges this on what criteria? And what niche in media and public sphere do citizen journalists fill when compared with salaried journalists working for more institutionalised or mainstream media?
These have been debated for years, and there is no global consensus. They are belatedly being asked and discussed in Sri Lanka, and form the basis of my latest Ravaya column (in Sinhala).
My views were summed up sometime ago in this comment I left on a blog:“Just as journalism is too important to be left solely to full-time, salaried journalists, citizen journalism is too important to be left simply to irresponsible individuals with internet access who may have opinions (and spare time) without the substance or clarity to make those opinions count.”
As I reflected then: “We live in a crisis-ridden world where we have to cope with multiple emergencies unfolding at the same time, impacting us on different fronts. This illustration captures three of them: crisis in biodiversity, man-made climate change, and the new reality of living in a rapidly WikiLeakable world — what I called the Global Glass House.”
I also built on ideas initially discussed in my 2007 book, Communicating Disasters, which was part of the reference material used during th ZiF research project.
Here’s the Summary (Abstract) of my talk. PowerPoint slides below.
Breaking News on a Restless Planet: Covering Disasters in a Networked Society
by Nalaka Gunawardene
Science Writer, Blogger & Columnist; Director – TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP)
Communicating disasters — before, during and after they happen — is fraught with many challenges. The increased volume and flow of information, enabled by the proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICTs), fills some gaps — but not all. Other critical elements such as institution building, training and awareness raising are needed at all levels to create societies that are better informed and prepared.
The news media, driven by their quest for what is new, true and interesting, can be useful allies for disaster managers. But the nexus between these two groups has always been contentious, and the acceleration of the news cycle has made it more so. Having to sustain 24/7 coverage for their fragmented and distracted audiences places enormous pressures on news media to break news first — and reflect later. In this scenario, how can empathetic, ethical and balanced reporting happen?
As disasters increase in frequency and intensity partly due to climate change, mainstream media practitioners across Asia struggle to keep up. Disasters are more drawn out (e.g. Pakistan floods, 2010 & Thailand floods, 2011), geographically scattered (Indian Ocean tsunami, 2004) and economically devastating (Tohoku/Fukushima, 2011) than before. This stretches the capacities and resources of many news organisations. Saturation coverage of unfolding disasters can also cause ‘compassion fatigue’ and apathy in audiences.
In today’s networked society, news media are no longer the sole gatherers or distributors of news. Without the trappings and inertia of the institutionalised media, citizen journalists are quick to adopt ICT tools and platforms. What does this mean for communicating disasters that requires care and sensitivity? In which ways can we find synergy between mainstream and new/social media to better serve the public interest on a warming planet? What value-additions can the mainstream media still offer to the coverage of disasters near and far?
We examine these and other larger questions with reference to recent disasters in Asia.
My regular readers know my deep interest in political satire, and fascination with cartoons of all kinds including those political. On this blog, we’ve also discussed the worldwide decline in mainstream journalism.
“Political satire is nothing new: it has been around for as long as organised government, trying to keep the wielders of power in check. Over the centuries, it has manifested in many oral, literary or theatrical traditions, some of it more enduring — such as Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm. And for over a century, political cartoonists have also been doing it with such brilliant economy of words. Together, these two groups probably inspire more nightmares in tyrants than anyone or anything else.
“Today, political satire has also emerged as a genre on the airwaves and in cyberspace, and partly compensates for the worldwide decline in serious and investigative journalism. Many mainstream media outlets have become too submissive and subservient to political and corporate powers. Those who still have the guts often lack the resources and staff to pursue good journalism.
“If Nature abhors a vacuum, so does human society — and both conjure ways of quickly filling it up. Into this ‘journalism void’ have stepped two very different groups of people: citizen journalists, who take advantage of the new information and communications technologies (ICTs), and political satirists who revive the ancient arts of caricaturisation and ego-blasting…”
MSM have gone from denial to dismissal to apprehension about this murky, distributed phenomenon called citizen journalists. But, as I asked, must MSM and CJ always compete? Must they consider each other mutually exclusive? I don’t think so.
Consider these facts: CJs are not an organised, unionised mass of people. They are a scattered, loosely connected group that is a community of practice across geographical borders and time zones. They rarely agree on anything among themselves. CJs are not out to topple MSM.
Once we get those points clarified, we can move beyond chest-thumping egotism. We can then address the fundamental values of why MSMs and CJs are both doing what they do: for the free flow of information, ideas and opinions.
Indeed, we should see how MSM and CJs can join hands more to serve the public interest. CJs today are not just frustrated poets and writers who never found a public outlet in the past. Today’s plethora of CJs include scientific experts, professionals, retirees with loads of experience and tech-savvy geeks among many others. This is a vast resource that MSM can tap into — especially in these days of leaner budgets and fewer staff.
And why not? Many issues these days are just too complex, technical or nuanced for even the most committed full-time, paid journalists to tackle all on their own. The information is often too vast to wade through in time for deadlines. And things are changing faster too. In such situations, can MSM work collaboratively with CJs, sharing the work load, risk and eventually, the credit?
In fact, MSM have historically relied on citizens to provide part of the content – whether they are letters to the editor, or funniest home videos, or news tips from the public that reporters then pursue. Today’s CJs can take this ‘crowd-sourcing’ to a new level.
The story still unfolds. Now, The Guardian has involved readers to dig through the several truckloads of MPs’ expense documents to spot claims that merit further investigation because they seem…a tad suspicious. This is more than what a small team of paid journalists can do on their own: a total of 458,832 pages of documents need be manually checked. So far, 23,262 readers had signed up by 2 August 2009. Many hands make light work for The Guardian, whose editors will then decide which claims are to be further probed and queried.
Can we expect to see more of such collaborations in time to come? I certainly hope so. Under siege as they are, MSM should be the first one to make the move to search for this common ground – after all, they have everything to gain and little to lose. We can all think of tedious record-scanning, number-crunching tasks that are needed to unearth and/or understand complex stories of our times.
Of course, for such collaborations to work well, the rules of engagement between MSM and CJs need to be clear, transparent and based on mutual trust. That requires some work, but when it works well, everybody stands to gain.
In late 2005, I researched and worked with Sir Arthur C Clarke to write an essay on the rise of citizen journalists, which first appeared in the Indian news weekly Outlook on 17 October 2005. I’m quite proud of how we ended the essay: “There is more than just a generation gap that separates the mainstream media from the increasingly influential online media…Yet one thing is clear: the age of passive media consumption is fast drawing to an end. There will be no turning back on the road from Citizen Kane to citizen journalist.”
Emerging new models of collaboration in media and journalism indicate that this evolutionary road need not be a one-way street. So nearly four years on, I now raise the question that I first put to the media tycoons of Colombo the other day: Can Citizen Kane and Citizen Journalist join hands in the public interest?
I very much hope the answer is a resounding: Yes, We Can!