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

#AskLW Twitter Q&A on 19 June 2013: Asking was easy; getting answers was not…

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 8.31.53 PM Courtesy Groundviews.org

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 8.31.53 PM Courtesy Groundviews.org

Along with dozens of tweeps, I took part in an interesting Twitter Q&A session with Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President of Sri Lanka, which unfolded from 14:30 to 16:00 Sri Lanka Time on 19 June 2013.

Our questions were posed using the hashtag #AskLW: they are all displayed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/search/realtime?q=%23askLW While most were in English, some came in the local languages of Sinhala and Tamil too.

Groundviews.org, the citizen journalism website, has archived online 2,680+ tweets related to this exchange. Of these, some 1,140 are original tweets (posted since 14 June 2013, when #askLW was first announced) while others are retweets.

Twitter user @gopiharan created a bundle of tweets Lalith Weeratunga answered in the one and a half hours of the Q&A session.

As Groundviews.org noted, “There was no historical precedent for this kind of engagement over social media, especially for someone so high up in Government and in daily contact with the (Lankan) President.”

Commenting on the timing of this exchange, Groundviews editor Sanjana added: “Ironically, the announcement of the Twitter Q&A with Weeratunga came on the same day Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President’s brother, in a spark of unrivalled genius, called social media no less than a national security threat in post-war Sri Lanka.”

Sanjana has done a quick and very good analysis of what was asked, which selected few among many were actually answered, and which topics gained traction among those participating – especially during the period the event was live.

Even more interesting is how contentious and controversial topics were completely ignored. To be sure, Weeratunga isn’t the first public official to do so, and some might even argue that he had the right to choose his questions. (That won’t have been so easy in a physical press conference.)

All the same, it is highly revealing that the top public servant in Sri Lanka chose not to respond to questions on Islamphobia, Buddhist extremism, hate speech, militarisation, human rights and other topics of great public interest in today’s Sri Lanka.

It’s remarkable that such questions were posed, in a public platform, which is more than what the mainstream media (MSM) of Sri Lanka regularly ask at official press conferences given by senior government officials. From all accounts, the monthly breakfast meetings that the President has with newspaper editors is also a lame affair where no critical questions are raised.

Yes, MSM and citizen journalists are not directly comparable. In the prevailing intolerant environment, it is telling that many social media users took cover under pseudonyms to pose questions to the top civil servant of Lanka (while the rest of us asked under our own names). There was even speculation among some tweeps about what might happen to those who ask pesky questions…

In this post, I want to collate and briefly annotate my own questions to Weeratunga – all of which he chose not to answer. I’m not surprised and certainly not sulky: these were admittedly not as easy as some others.

I posed a few questions in advance, and then some more during the live event. They were in one way or another related to the multiple positions that Weeratunga holds in the Lankan government.

Among other things, he is Chairman of the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka is also the current Chair of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Committee of UNESCAP – the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

One question stemmed from Weeratunga’s meaningful speech at the fifth National Conference on the Role of ICT in Reconciliation held at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS) in Colombo in Nov 2012.

Not answered.

I also asked a question on the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka, which has outlived its original lifespan and whose efficacy is in question.

Not answered. See also my 2006 critique, ICT: Hypes and realities

Commenting on the very different – sometimes contradictory – messages given out by senior elected and other public officials of the Lankan government on matters of domestic and global interest, I asked:

Not answered. But then, I didn’t expect one! To his credit, Weeratunga has been the mild, amiable and intelligent face of the government…

Picking up my lasting interesting seeing a secular state in Sri Lanka, I posed this question:

Not answered.

When the live exchange started, and some tweets were asking him on all sorts of specific interventions, I tweeted this reminder to fellow tweeps:

Not quite heeded – but I didn’t expect it either.

Weeratunga, who does not yet have his own Twitter account, gave his selected answers using the President’s official account, @PresRajapaksa. This was noted by others, and I replied to one:

Many tweeps asked him to comment on the Defence Secretary’s recent remark on social media. Having noted, only minutes earlier, that “Social Media is a powerful tool”, Weeratunga added later: “Sec/Defence has a point; since it has been used for destructive purposes elsewhere, he has said so.”

Some tweeps reacted to this observation among ourselves. My contribution:

Knowing well Lankans don’t like to be compared to Indians, who nevertheless hold many lessons for us in managing diversity and in balancing modernity with tradition, I asked:

Not answered — but elicited some supportive replies from other tweeps.

As Weeratunga and team was slow in responding to the torrent of tweets coming in, I remarked:

As I noticed how easy questions were being answered while a whole lot of hard ones were not, I decided to press on with what seemed like a lost cause:

Not answered. (Well, after all, this wasn’t Hard Talk!).

Prompted by @Groundviews, there was a brief exchange on Sri Lanka’s fully state owned budget airline Mihin, which has been losing billions of public funds from Day One. I reacted:

I’ve described myself as a hybrid journalist with ‘one foot in each grave’ — straddling the worlds of mainstream media and citizen journalism. In years of mainstream journalism — practised in Sri Lanka and across Asia — I have sharpened the art of asking pointed questions. I often ask more questions than I find answers for. So this is part of that process.

But I’m very glad all our questions are archived online — which is highly significant as part of the public record of our times. When Weeratunga next speaks about ICTs nationally or internationally, this digital record will be part of his legacy.

For now, many thanks to Weeratunga and @PresRajapaksa new media team for having organised this event. It’s a good start, and hopefully they will repeat this from time to time with improved capability at their end to cope with the info flood…

My last tweet in this exchange was a salute to the original cyber politician of Sri Lanka: