“Sri Lanka wants to make a new Constitution in a radically different way. It is poised to become the first developing country in the world to ‘crowd-source’ ideas for making the highest law of the land.
“That is all well and good – as long as the due process is followed, and that process has intellectual rigour, transparency and integrity. Therein lies the big challenge.”
So opens my latest op-ed essay, just published by Groundviews.org
In it, I describe the experience of Iceland which was the world’s first country to ‘crowd-source’ a new Constitution. From 2011 to 2013, the European nation of 330,000 people engaged in an exercise of direct democracy to come up with a modern Constitution to replace the existing one adopted in 1944. That involved many public hearings as well as using social media and other communications platforms to gather public inputs and to ensure public scrutiny.
This is the path that Sri Lanka has now chosen: open and participatory Constitution making. To be sure, tropical Sri Lanka is vastly different. Its population of 21 million is 60 times larger than Iceland’s. But the Arctic nation’s generic lessons are well worth studying – both for inspiration and precaution.
I point out: “In doing so, it is important to ensure that public consultative process is not limited to the web and social media. Instead of dominating, technologies should only enable maximum participation.”
“The bottom-line: gathering public proposals is commendable, but not an end by itself. The government needs to adopt a systematic method to study, categorize and distil the essence of what is suggested. And that must happen across English, Sinhala and Tamil languages.”
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.
Nelson Mandela was not only an effective communicator, but also a champion of communication for development.
He spoke and wrote with conviction and empathy, which in turn enhanced his credibility and appeal. He changed history with his careful choice of words and images delivered with the right degree of passion. Social communicators can learn much from him.
However, his communications prowess extended beyond thoughtful prose and skillful oratory. He also understood the power of mass media in today’s information society — and used it well for nation building.
When they are in office, many political leaders of the majority world tend to overuse or misuse the media, for example by forcing public broadcasters to peddle ruling party propaganda. During his term as South Africa’s president, Mandela carefully avoided such excesses.
Instead, he strategically tapped the country’s pluralistic broadcast media to unify the divided nation. Clint Eastwood’s 2009 movie Invictus re-enacted a highlight of that approach.
As a policy maker, Mandela grasped the role of communication in development – both the concepts and delivery tools.
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the UN agency promoting and tracking the progress of information society, recently saluted Mandela for having been a firm supporter of ICTs as a catalyst for social change and economic development.
At the same time, Mandela’s vision went beyond mere gadgets and telecom networks. Speaking at the ITU Telecom World in Geneva in 1995, he underlined the importance of communication and access to information to human beings. He called for eliminating the divide between information-rich and information-poor countries.
Three years later, while hosting ITU Telecom Africa in Johannesburg, President Mandela said: “As the information revolution gathers yet more pace and strikes deeper roots, it is already redefining our understanding of the world. Indeed, the speed of technological innovation could bring the ideal of the global village sooner than we thought possible. For the developing world, this brings both opportunity and challenge.”
Lofty statements like these are common at policy gatherings. But Mandela went further – and believed that communication should be seen as a basic human need. That set him apart from many members in the development community who have long considered it a secondary need.
Although it has been discussed for centuries, there is no universally accepted definition of basic human needs. During the 1970s, basic needs emerged as a key topic in development debates. Various studies — catalysed by UN agencies and the Club of Rome – tried to define it.
In 1976, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) prepared a report that identified basic needs as food, clothing, housing, education and public transportation. It partially drew on ILO’s country reports on Columbia, Kenya and Sri Lanka.
Since then, different development agencies have adopted variations of the original ILO list. National planners have used the concept to benchmark economic growth.
The ground reality has changed drastically since those heady days. About a year ago, I asked Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, if communication should be considered a basic human need. He welcomed the idea, especially in view of rapid evolution of information society.
I soon found that Mandela had thought of it years earlier. Perhaps because he had such limited access to communication during his long years in prison, he appreciated its central value to all human beings.
That remark, made while opening a mobile telecom network, was rather perceptive. At the time, less than 1 per cent of all Africans had access to a fixed phone, and there were only around one million mobile phones on the continent of 800 million.
Since then, mobile phones and other low-cost digital tools have spread phenomenally, transforming lives and livelihoods across the majority world. Sullivan calls it an external combustion engine: “a combination of forces that is sparking economic growth and lifting people out of poverty in countries long dominated by aid-dependent governments.”
While the market and society have marched ahead, many development professionals are still stuck in obsolete development paradigms. That is probably why some worry that there are more mobile phones than toilets in India. (So what? Mobiles are personal devices; toilets are a shared household amenity. Comparing their numbers is meaningless.)
It’s high time we revisited basic human needs and redefined them to suit current realities. The development community must finally catch up with Nelson Mandela.
Science journalist and development communicator Nalaka Gunawardene has been following social and cultural impacts of ICTs for over 20 years.
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…”
As I later heard, some in my audience had mistakenly believed that I was advocating everything going entirely online. Actually, I wasn’t. I like to think that both the physical and virtual media experiences enrich us in their own ways. Real world is never black and white; it’s always a mix or hybrid of multiple processes or influences.
So I’ve just revisited the topic. I adapted part of the talk, and included more personalised insights, and wrote an essay titled ‘Confessions of a Digital Immigrant‘, which has just been published on Groundviews, the path-breaking citizen journalism initiative.
It opens with these words:
“My daughter Dhara, 13, finds it incredible that I had never seen a working television until I had reached her current age — that’s when broadcast television was finally introduced in Sri Lanka, in April 1979. It is also totally inconceivable to her that my entire pre-teen media experience was limited to newspapers and a single, state-owned radio station.
“And she simply doesn’t believe me when I say — in all honesty and humility — that I was already 20 when I first used a personal computer, 29 when I bought my first mobile phone, and 30 when I finally got wired. In fact, my first home Internet connectivity — using a 33kbps dial-up modem — and our daughter arrived just a few weeks apart in mid 1996. I have never been able to decide which was more disruptive…
“Dhara (photographed above, in mid 2007) is growing up taking completely for granted the digital media and tools of our time. My Christmas presents to her in the past three years have been a basic digital camera, an i-pod and a mobile phone, each of which she mastered with such dexterity and speed. It amazes me how she keeps up with her Facebook, chats with friends overseas on Skype and maintains various online accounts for images, designs and interactive games. Yet she is a very ordinary child, not a female Jimmy Neutron.
“Despite my own long and varied association with information and communication technologies (ICTs), I know I can never be the digital native that Dhara so effortlessly is. No matter how well I mimic the native ‘accent’ or how much I fit into the bewildering new world that I now find myself in, I shall forever be a digital immigrant.”