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.

 

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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

Echelon August 2015 column: Media Reforms – The Unfinished Agenda

Text of my column written for Echelon monthly business magazine, Sri Lanka, August 2015 issue

Cartoon by Awantha Artigala, Sri Lanka Cartoonist of the Year 2014

Cartoon by Awantha Artigala, Sri Lanka Cartoonist of the Year 2014

Media Reforms: The Unfinished Agenda

By Nalaka Gunawardene

When I was growing up in the 1970s, Sri Lanka’s media landscape was very different. We had only one radio station (state-owned SLBC) and three newspaper houses (Lake House, Times of Ceylon and Independent Newspapers). There was no TV, and the web wasn’t even invented.

At that time, most discussions on media freedom and reforms centred around how to contain the overbearing state – which was a key publisher, as well as the sole broadcaster, dominant advertiser and media regulator, all rolled into one.

Four decades on, the state still looms large on our media landscape, but there are many more players. The number of media companies, organisations and products has steadily increased, especially after private sector participation in broadcasting was allowed in 1992.

More does not necessarily mean better, however. Media researchers and advocacy groups lament that broadcast diversification has not led to a corresponding rise in media pluralism – not just in terms of media ownership and content, but also in how the media reflects diversity of public opinion, particularly of those living on the margins of society.

As the late Tilak Jayaratne and Sarath Kellapotha, two experienced broadcasters, noted in a recent book, “There exists a huge imbalance in both media coverage and media education as regards minorities and the marginalised. This does not come as a surprise, as it is known that media in Sri Lanka, both print and broadcast, cater mainly to the elite, irrespective of racial differences.”

 Media under pressure

 The multi-author book, titled Embattled Media: Democracy, Governance and Reform in Sri Lanka (Sage Publications, Feb 2015), was compiled during 2012-14 by a group of researchers and activists who aspired for a freer and more responsible media. It came out just weeks after the last Presidential Election, where media freedom and reforms were a key campaigning issue.

In their preface, co-editors William Crawley, David Page and Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena say: “Media liberalisation from the 1990s onwards had extended the range of choice for viewers and listeners and created a more diverse media landscape. But the war in the north and insurrections in the south had taken their toll of media freedoms. The island had lived under a permanent state of emergency for nearly three decades. The balance of power between government, judiciary, the media and the public had been put under immense strain.”

Embattled Media - Democracy, Governance and Reform in Sri Lanka

Embattled Media – Democracy, Governance and Reform in Sri Lanka

The book, to which I have contributed a chapter on new media, traces the evolution mass media in post-colonial Sri Lanka, with focus on the relevant policies and laws, and on journalism education. It discusses how the civil war continues to cast “a long shadow” on our media. Breaking free from that legacy is one of many challenges confronting the media industry today.

Some progress has been made since the Presidential election. The new government has taken steps to end threats against media organisations and journalists, and started or resumed criminal investigations on some past atrocities. Political websites that were arbitrarily blocked from are once again accessible. Journalists who went into exile to save their lives have started returning.

On the law-making front, meanwhile, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution recognized the right to information as a fundamental right. But the long-awaited Right to Information Bill could not be adopted before Parliament’s dissolution.

Thus much more remains to be done. For this, a clear set of priorities has been identified through recent consultative processes that involved media owners, practitioners, researchers, advocacy groups and trainers. These discussions culminated with the National Summit on Media Reforms organised by the Ministry of Media, the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) and International Media Support (IMS), and held in Colombo on 13 and 14 May.

Parallel to this, there were two international missions to Sri Lanka (in March and May) by representatives of leading organisations like Article 19, UNESCO and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). I served as secretary to the May mission that met a range of political and media leaders in Colombo and Jaffna.

 Unfinished business

We can only hope that the next Parliament, to be elected at the August 17 general election, would take up the policy and law related aspects of the media reform agenda (while the media industry and profession tackles issues like capacity building and greater professionalism, and the education system works to enhance media literacy of everyone).

Pursuing these reforms needs both political commitment and persistent advocacy efforts.

 

  • Right to Information: The new Parliament should pass, on a priority basis, the Right to Information Bill that was finalised in May 2015 with inputs from media and civil society groups.

 

  • Media Self-Regulation: The Press Council Act 5 of 1973, which created a quasi-judicial entity called the Press Council with draconian powers to punish journalists, should be abolished. Instead, the self-regulatory body established in 2003, known as the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL), should be strengthened. Ideally its scope should expand to cover the broadcast media as well.

 

  • Law Review and Revision: Some civil and criminal laws pose various restrictions to media freedom. These include the Official Secrets Act and sedition laws (both relics of the colonial era) and the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act that has outlived the civil war. There are also needlessly rigid laws covering contempt of court and Parliamentary privileges, which don’t suit a mature democracy. All these need review and revision to bring them into line with international standards regarding freedom of expression.

 

  • Broadcast regulation: Our radio and TV industries have expanded many times during the past quarter century within an ad hoc legal framework. This has led to various anomalies and the gross mismanagement of the electromagnetic spectrum, a finite public property. Sri Lanka urgently needs a comprehensive law on broadcasting. Among other things, it should provide for an independent body to regulate broadcasting in the public interest, more equitable and efficient allocation of frequencies, and a three-tier system of broadcasting which recognises public, commercial and community broadcasters. All broadcasters – riding on the public owned airwaves — should have a legal obligation be balanced and impartial in coverage of politics and other matters of public concern.

 

  • Restructuring State Broadcasters: The three state broadcasters – the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) and the Independent Television Network (ITN) – should be transformed into independent public service broadcasters. There should be legal provisions to ensure their editorial independence, and a clear mandate to serve the public (and not the political parties in office). To make them less dependent on the market, they should be given some public funding but in ways that don’t make them beholden to politicians or officials.

 

  • Reforming Lake House: Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited or Lake House was nationalised in 1973 to ‘broadbase’ its ownership. Instead, it has remained as a propaganda mill of successive ruling parties. Democratic governments committed to good governance should not be running newspaper houses. To redeem Lake House after more than four decades of state abuse, it needs to operate independently of government and regain editorial freedom. A public consultation should determine the most appropriate way forward and the best business model.

 

  • Preventing Censorship: No prior censorship should be imposed on the media. Where necessary, courts may review media content for their legality after publication (on an urgent basis). Laws and regulations that permit censorship should be reviewed and amended. We must revisit the Public Performance Ordinance, which empowers a state body to pre-approve all feature films and drama productions.

 

  • Blocking of Websites: Ensuring internet freedoms is far more important than setting up free public WiFi services. There should be no attempts to limit online content and social media activities contravening fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and international conventions. Restrictions on any illegal content may be imposed only through the courts (and not via unwritten orders given by the telecom regulator). There should be a public list of all websites blocked through such judicial sanction.

 

  • Privacy and Surveillance: The state should protect the privacy of all citizens. There should be strict limits to the state’s surveillance of private individuals’ and private entities’ telephone conversations, emails and other electronic communications. In exceptional situations (e.g. crime investigations), such surveillance should only be permitted with judicial oversight and according to a clear set of guidelines.
Cartoon by Awantha Artigala, Sri Lanka Cartoonist of the Year 2014

Cartoon by Awantha Artigala, Sri Lanka Cartoonist of the Year 2014

 Dealing with Past Demons

While all these are forward looking steps, the media industry as a whole also needs state assistance to exorcise demons of the recent past — when against journalists and ‘censorship by murder’ reached unprecedented levels. Not a single perpetrator has been punished by law todate.

This is why media rights groups advocate an independent Commission of Inquiry should be created with a mandate and adequate powers to investigate killings and disappearances of journalists and attacks on media organisations. Ideally, it should cover the entire duration of the war, as well as the post-war years.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene is on Twitter @NalakaG and blogs at http://nalakagunawardene.com

Media Sector Reforms in Sri Lanka: Some ‘Big Picture’ Level Thoughts

නොගැලපෙන  රෝද - четыре колеса сказка

නොගැලපෙන රෝද – четыре колеса сказка

I’m a story teller at heart. I sometimes moonlight as a media researcher or commentator but have no pretensions of being academic. I always try to make my points as interesting as possible — using analogies, metaphors, examples, etc.

This is the approach I used when asked to talk to the working group on Sri Lanka Media Reforms, convened by the Media Ministry, Sri Lanka Press Institute, International Media Support (IMS) and the University of Colombo.

I used a well-loved Russian children’s story that was known in Sinhala translation as නොගැලපෙන රෝද — the story of one vehicle with different sized wheels, and how animal friends tried to make it move and when it proved impossible, how they put each wheel to a unique use…

A framework for media reform in Sri Lanka...by Nalaka Gunawardene

A framework for media reform in Sri Lanka…by Nalaka Gunawardene

A framework for media reform in Sri Lanka...by Nalaka Gunawardene

A framework for media reform in Sri Lanka…by Nalaka Gunawardene

Well, in the case of media reforms, we can’t go off in different directions. We must make the vehicle work, somehow.

Full presentation here: http://www.slideshare.net/NalakaG/media-reforms-in-lanka-big-picture-ideas-by-nalaka-gunawardene

Embattled Media: New Book explores aspects of Democracy, Governance and Reform in Sri Lanka

Embattled Media - Democracy, Governance and Reform in Sri Lanka (Sage, Feb 2015; 416 pages)

Embattled Media – Democracy, Governance and Reform in Sri Lanka (Sage, Feb 2015; 416 pages)

A new multi-author book offers valuable insights into the importance of independent media for democratic governance in the wider South Asian region.

Titled Embattled Media: Democracy, Governance and Reform in Sri Lanka (Sage, Feb 2015; 416 pages), the book examines the role of the media in a state committed to democracy and the rule of law which had suffered extraordinary stresses as a result of ethnic strife, insurrection and civil war.

The book is co-edited by William Crawley and David Page, both fellows of Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, UK, and Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, a legal analyst on civil liberties and columnist with The Sunday Times newspaper in Sri Lanka.

According to its publishers, Sage Publications in India and the UK, the book is an ‘authoritative guide to the state of the news media in Sri Lanka, and the effects of insurgency and civil war on the media’s role in a developing country’.

This is the first book to look comprehensively at the evolution of news media in post-colonial Sri Lanka, with a focus on media policy, law and education. The book reviews the role of new media platforms in widening the scope for public debate.

Further, it provides a detailed analysis of the existing media laws and policies and of campaigns to reform them. It also focuses on the role of institutions in media education by providing a comprehensive analysis of existing media curricula and underlining the importance of improved media literacy and introduction of Right to Information Act for a healthy democracy.

The contributors to this volume, including leading journalists, broadcasters, practitioners in public law, media academics and analysts, write from extensive experience. Chapters have been written by: Sinha Ratnatunga, Ameen Izzadeen, Namini Wijedasa, Amal Jayasinghe, Tilak Jayaratne and Sarath Kellapotha, Nalaka Gunawardene, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena and Gehan Gunatilleke, Jayantha de Almeida Guneratne, and S. Raguram.

The book is dedicated to the memory of the late Tilak Jayaratne (1943-2013), who ‘ably represented a generation of honourable and committed broadcasters’. Having contributed significantly to the book, he did not live to see its publication.

Embattled Media - Publishing Information

Embattled Media – Publishing Information

In their preface to the book, the co-editors write: “Media liberalisation from the 1990s onwards had extended the range of choice for viewers and listeners and created a more diverse media landscape. But the war in the north and insurrections in the south had taken their toll of media freedoms. The island had lived under a permanent state of emergency for nearly three decades. The balance of power between government, judiciary, the media and the public had been put under immense strain.

“In 2009, with the end of the war in the north, all this seemed about to change, increasing the relevance of our enquiries and raising hopes of media reform and greater freedom of expression. But progress towards a different sort of normality has been slow. The war and its aftermath have continued to cast a long shadow, which has limited the scope of our research…

“Over the past few years, universities have been closed for long periods. University teachers have been engaged in disputes with the government, which has affected their teaching and their research. The NGO sector has been heavily criticised by the government for pursuing foreign-funded agendas and finds itself under fire and on the defensive. Many media proprietors and journalists have maintained their long-established habit of self-censorship, for fear of inviting reprisals of one sort or another. Though not on the same scale as previously, there have been killings and disappearances of journalists since 2009 and the memory of past abuses still affects people’s thinking. All this has made the study more challenging.”

Co-editors of Embattled Media - (L to R) William Crawley, David Page and Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena (photos courtesy Sage Publications website)

Co-editors of Embattled Media – (L to R) William Crawley, David Page and Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena (photos courtesy Sage Publications website)

The book also contains a glossary of media related terms; a bibliography and an index.

The Indian edition is priced at INR 995. It is currently available from Sage Publications India: http://www.sagepub.in/books/Book244886?siteId=sage-india&prodTypes=any&q=Embattled+Media&fs=1

Echelon March 2015 column: Beyond RTI – Towards Open Government

Text of my column written for Echelon monthly business magazine, Sri Lanka, March 2015 issue. Published online at: http://www.echelon.lk/home/beyond-rti-towards-open-government/

Beyond RTI: Towards Open Government

 By Nalaka Gunawardene

Illustration by Echelon magazine, http://www.echelon.lk/

Illustration by Echelon magazine, http://www.echelon.lk/

After many years of advocacy by civil society, Sri Lanka is set to adopt a law that guarantees citizens’ Right to Information (RTI). With that, we will at last catch up with nearly 100 countries that have introduced such progressive laws.

Better late than never — but passing the law is only a beginning. Institutionalising it requires effort and funds. Continued vigilance is needed on civil society’s part to guard against the process becoming mired in red tape.

RTI signifies unleashing a new potential. To draw an analogy from water management, opening a ‘sluice’ does not by itself mean much unless the downstream systems are in place. In both cases, the recipients need to know how to make the best use of what comes through.

Journey so far

Why is RTI such a big deal?

Its basis is that in democracies, the public have every right to know what is being done in their name by those entrusted with governance.

RTI is the right to access and obtain information from public officials. This right serves several purposes: improve public participation in policy making; promote transparency and accountability in government; and minimise wastage and corruption of state resources by public officials.

RTI and freedom of information are used interchangeably, but there is an important distinction between the two.

According to lawyer Gehan Gunatilleke, who recently wrote a book on the subject (published by Sri Lanka Press Institute, 2014), freedom of information implies a citizen’s freedom to access and receive public information on request. In such a situation, the government should not violate that freedom by restricting access. RTI goes further, and implies that information is an inherent right of the people. Governments are duty-bound to provide such information.

The concept of RTI can be traced back to the principle of ‘public access’ which emerged in Europe during the 18th century. In 1766, Sweden became the first country to legislate RTI: it allowed the public access to government documents.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted at the United Nations in 1948, recognised the right to seek, impart and receive information as part the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression (Article 19).

Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights

RTI does not mean opening up everything. Sensitive information – related to national security, for example – is excluded. The challenge is to strike a healthy balance between full transparency and a few justified exemptions.

 Indian experience

In Asia, India was a frontrunner in developing RTI laws. The campaign for RTI started in the 1990s with a grassroots movement driven by social activists and rural groups. They saw its clear value to counter the growing misuse of authority and public funds by local officials.

State level RTI laws were adopted in Tamil Nadu (1997), Goa (1997), Rajasthan (2000), Delhi (2001) and Maharashtra (2002). The national law came into effect in October 2005 after a decade of agitation.

Under the Indian law, citizens can request information from any ‘public authority’ within 30 days. It covers all branches of government — executive, legislature and judiciary – as well as institutions and statutory bodies set up by an act of national Parliament or a state legislature. Even non-governmental organisations, if they receive significant amounts of government funds, are covered.

The act required all public authorities to appoint a public information officer (PIO) to handle RTI requests. It also mandated computerizing of public records so that certain categories of information are proactively published online, enabling interested citizens to just look it up.

Since the RTI law was introduced, India has seen an improvement in governance, dissemination of information and involvement of civil society in the governance process, says Dr Rajesh Tandon, founder and head of the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), a voluntary organisation providing support to grassroots initiatives.

At the same time, Tandon points out that some challenges remain at implementation level. Certain states in India have been more active in creating a culture of information sharing and open government, he told me in a television interview in mid 2014.

As Indians found out, it isn’t easy to shake off centuries of misplaced state secrecy and mistrust in the public. “Old rules and procedures continue to co-exist as new laws and methods are invented. Official Secrecy Act and Right to Information Act co-exist, just as written precedent and e-governance co-exist,” says Tandon (watch our full interview: https://vimeo.com/118544161).

 New challenges

In Sri Lanka, civil society groups and journalists’ organisations were at the forefront advocating RTI. Groups like Transparency International and Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) have been lobbying, training and raising awareness on the societal value of this right.

However, RTI is not only for journalists or social activists. It is a right for all citizens living in modern societies where their well-being – sometimes even survival – depends on knowing critical information. Ignorance may have been bliss once upon a time, but it is not recommended for the 21st century.

Reorienting the public institutions to a new culture of openness and sharing will be an essential step. Undoing decades of habits will take effort.

Asanga Welikala, a legal scholar now with the Edinburgh Law School, said in a tweet that we need a moratorium of ‘at least two years’ before RTI law comes into force – so as to train officials and make all government procedures compliant.

He also says the Information Commission must have a proper budget for promotion and public awareness of the new Act, rights and procedures. For example, how to ensure citizen information requests can be accommodated equally in both official languages and the link language?

As champions of RTI, media and civil society must now switch roles. While benefiting from it themselves, they can nurture the newly promised openness in every sphere, showing citizens how best to make use of it.

National Right to Ino laws status - as of 2013 Source: http://home.broadpark.no/~wkeim/foi.htm

National Right to Ino laws status – as of 2013 Source: http://home.broadpark.no/~wkeim/foi.htm

Info Literacy

Public information can exist in many forms today – ranging from minutes of meetings, budget allocation and expense records, and scientifically gathered information such as census data, or trade statistics. These may be stored on paper, tape or – increasingly – in digital formats.

In recent years, with digital technologies the volume of specialised data held by governments has risen phenomenally. Both the data custodians and public today need higher levels of information literacy to navigate through this torrent.

The good news: the web makes it easier to store and share information. ‘Open Data’ means that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control.

The open data approach is especially applied to scientific data and government data. But the debate is far from settled: while there are many strong arguments for opening up, some are concerned about potential misuses. Guidelines are still evolving.

A key attribute of open data is its usability. Each country needs to adopt information gathering and data storage standards, so as to minimize users facing problems that arise with the use of different devices, systems and measuring systems.

Some public data custodians in South Asia still release vast amounts of data in hard copy (paper-based) form. For example, India’s Marine Fisherfolk Census of 2010 had results running into thousands of pages of data tables – they were only released on paper. That made further analysis impossible. Undaunted, a fishers’ collective mobilised some tech-savvy volunteers to create computerised spreadsheet databases.

Like many other elements of good governance, RTI’s effectiveness depends on imagination, innovation and persistence on the part of citizens. Its best results will accrue in a society and political culture where evidence and analysis are trusted. Sri Lanka is not there yet.

The road to RTI is a journey, not a destination!

ACT

 

BBC Sinhala interview: සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ජාල වල ක්‍රියාකාරීත්වය 2015 ජනාධිපතිවරණ ප්‍රතිඵලයට කොපමණ බලපෑමක් කළේද?

On 13 Feb 2015, while briefly in London, I visited BBC’s new Media Centre and recorded brief interviews with BBC Sinhala and BBC Tamil services (radio) on the role of social media during the Sri Lanka Presidential Election 2015 – the topic of my talk at University of London the previous day.

BBC Sinhala published the story online on 22 Feb 2015, along with an edited down audio track.

Here is the accompanying text. Listen to audio interview on BBC Sinhala website.

Nalaka Gunawardene in BBC World Service studio, 13 Feb 2015

Nalaka Gunawardene in BBC World Service studio, 13 Feb 2015 – Photo by Saroj Pathirana

සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ඔස්සේ ‘නැති බැරි අයට වැඩි අනුකම්පාවක්’

22 පෙබරවාරි 2015 අවසාන වරට යාවත්කාලීන කළේ 11:33 GMT

පසුගිය ජනාධිපතිවරණයේදී ‘ඇති හැකි’ අපේක්ෂකයන්ට වඩා ‘නැති බැරි’ අපේක්ෂකයන්ට සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ජාල ඔස්සේ වැඩි ‘අනුකම්පාවක්’ ලැබුණු හැඩක් පෙනී ගිය බව සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ජාල ක්‍රියාධරයෝ පවසති.

එබැවින් සම්පත් විශාල වශයෙන් යොදා ගනිමින් පුළුල් සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ජාල ක්‍රියාකාරිත්වයක නිරත වූ හිටපු ජනාධිපති මහින්ද රාජපක්ෂට වඩා සීමිත සම්පත් යොදා ගෙන සිය පණිවුඩය ඉදිරිපත් කළ මෛත්‍රීපාල සිරිසේන විපක්ෂයේ පොදු අපේක්ෂකයාට වැඩි අවධානයක් යොමු වූ ආකාරයක් දක්නට ලැබුණු බව විද්‍යා ලේඛක සහ තීරු ලිපි රචක නාලක ගුණවර්ධන බීබීසී සංදේශයට කියා සිටියේය.

කෙසේ නමුත් සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ජාල වල ක්‍රියාකාරීත්වය ජනාධිපතිවරණ ප්‍රතිඵලයට කොපමණ බලපෑමක් කළේද යන්න සම්බන්ධයෙන් පුළුල් සමීක්ෂණයක් අවශ්‍ය බව ඔහු සඳහන් කරයි.

ලන්ඩන් විශ්ව විද්‍යාලයේ සහ පොදු රාජ්‍ය මණ්ඩලීය මාධ්‍යවේදීන්ගේ සංවිධානයේ මෙහෙයවීමෙන් ජනපතිවරණයේදී ශ්‍රී ලංකා සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ජාලවල බලපෑම සම්බන්ධයෙන් දේශනයක් පැවැත්වීම පිණිස ලන්ඩනයට පැමිණ සිටි නාලක ගුණවර්ධන එම අදහස් පල කළේ බීබීසී මැදිරියේදී සංදේශයේ සරෝජ් පතිරණ සමඟ සාකච්ඡාවකට එක්වෙමින්.

‘නිදහස් අදහස්’

විශේෂයෙන්ම නිදහස් අදහස් ප්‍රකාශනයට ප්‍රබල බාධක පැවතුණු වාතාවරණයක සිය අදහස් සහ යෝජනා ඉදිරිපත් කිරීමට සහ සිය විවේචන එලි දැක්වීමටත් සමාජ ක්‍රියාකාරිකයන් මෙන්ම විපක්ෂයද සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ජාල යොදා ගත් බවත් නාලක ගුණවර්ධන පෙන්වා දෙයි.

“අනෙක් කාරණය තමයි කිසිම දේශපාලන පක්ෂයකට අයත් නොවූ නමුත් දේශපාලනය ගැන උනන්දුවක් තියෙන තරුණ පිරිස් මේ සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ජාල යොදා ගත්තා ඔවුනොවුන් අතර කතාබහ කරන්න මේ සමාජ ක්‍රමය, සංස්කෘතිය කෙසේ නම් වෙනස් වෙන්න ඕනෙද? ඔවුන් සෘජුව අමතන්න පටන් ගත්තා ප්‍රධාන අපේක්ෂකයන් දෙදෙනා,” ඔහු පැවසීය.

ෆේස්බුක් හෙවත් මුහුණු පොත ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ තරුණ පරපුර අතර වඩාත්ම ජනප්‍රිය සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ජාලය බවට පත්වෙද්දී, ජනපතිවරණය සමයේ ට්විටර් ජාලය ඔස්සේද පුළුල් ක්‍රියාකාරිත්වයක් දක්නට ලැබුණි.

ජනපතිවරණය සමයේ විශේෂයෙන්ම සිංහල බ්ලොග් අඩවිවල ක්‍රියාකාරීත්වයද කැපී පෙනුණි.

කෙසේ නමුත් සිය නිවේදන සහ පුවත් අඩවිවල යොමු (ලින්ක්) බෙදාහැරීම හැරුණු විට විශේෂයෙන්ම සිය ඡන්දදායකයන් සමඟ අදහස් හුවමාරුවකට, නොඑසේනම් සංවාදයකට, ජනපතිවරණ අපේක්ෂකයන් ට්විටර් වැනි සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ජාල යොදා නොගත් බව නාලක ගුණවර්ධන පෙන්වා දෙයි.

“මේක දැක්මේ තියන සීමාවක්,” ඔහු පැවසීය.

සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ජාල ක්‍රියාකාරිත්වය සිය ජයග්‍රහණයට ප්‍රබල දායකත්වයක් සැපයූ බව ජනාධිපති මෛත්‍රීපාල සිරිසේන විසින් ද පිළිගෙන තිබුණි.

Nalaka Gunawardene (left) with his BBC interviewer Saroj Pathirana

Nalaka Gunawardene (left) with his BBC interviewer Saroj Pathirana – Photo by Prasanna Ratnayake