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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