Dignity and digital identities

My national identity card was issued in 1996, over twenty years ago. It’s the first and only one I’ve ever had. The photo is already of a person largely unrecognisable even to myself. The information written on the card has faded. The lamination, unsurprisingly, is coming undone at the edges. And yet, this ageing slice of plastic remains a vital piece of documentation I have to carry around at all times. I also have a passport, more recently issued and the fifth I’ve had since 1997. During the war, I was required to individually register, along with all other mobile subscribers in Sri Lanka pursuant to a directive by the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, with Dialog. The registration, which for Dialog was digital and accessed by dialling #132#, paired my phone’s SIM card to my NIC and home address, and required me to give a photo, proof of residence and complete a detailed form. Since I had a mobile broadband connection with Mobitel at the time, registration with them resulted in a plastic ID card, that I had to carry around with me as well whenever I had the dongle on my person. But this is already forgotten history. The NIC is now all I really need. And this seems to be the basis for ideas proposed by the government in the public domain, over the past couple of months, for the digitisation of an ageing process, platform and service.

On the face of it, this both long overdue and of vital importance in the years to come. With access to government services and platforms mediated by proof of identity, a digital NIC can in theory facilitate easier access and service delivery. I often forget my blood group. Incorporating this information into an NIC for emergency services to access can be a life-saver. There are plans to incorporate biometric information as well, which again on the face of it can help with the significant reduction of, for example, voter fraud and election malpractice. Given the perishable nature of current national identity cards, and how easy they are to forge, a complete revamp of citizenship registration is really necessary. The debate then is not on the need, but in the details around how the government goes about this.

Let’s take the working assumption of a digitisation project. The end-product, say a credit card sized piece of plastic, needs to contain, at the very least, all the information currently on my NIC. Amongst other marginalised and vulnerable communities, immediate problems arise when dealing with families of the disappeared, the internally displaced and the many thousands working in tea plantations. These individuals have multiple forms of identification, based on transactional needs, geo-location and other factors. Some of these forms of identification are multi-page, handwritten documents. Others are issued by intermediaries like private industries which they work under. The lack of permanent addresses hinders still the issue of national identity cards. Some forms of identification, valid and vital in areas they live and work in, are useless in other parts of the country. If the archetype for a national electronic database of citizens, the basis of a digital identity card, is the average citizen in the South of Sri Lanka, the very livelihood of millions elsewhere in the country will be put at risk. Forms of identification vary by community, location, identity group, profession, gender and other circumstances linked to war, displacement and enforced disappearances. These are complex challenges that have to be planned for at the outset, lest a digital identity card becomes in the years to come the marker of a new societal divide between those who have (priority) access to services, and those who are, by design, left out.

At a presentation on surveillance and privacy given to the Bar Association of Sri Lanka last week, I flagged other concerns around the development of an electronic ID, based on information available in the public domain. There are enduring concerns around a very porous firewall between information collected by the Department for Registration of Persons and the Ministry of Defence, and an assorted array of intelligence services. In the absence of robust, modern data protection laws, information on individuals, their families, profession, home address, work address and biometric data that with little or no judicial oversight or due process can be accessed by State intelligence services is a dystopian future best resisted. If in the guise of efficiency and effectiveness, our lives are essentially overseen and controlled by stentorian agencies that can deny, disrupt, control or curtail our access to essential services, an e-NIC may well result in an Orwellian society where citizens are controlled, monitored and cast out of official systems based on favour or fear. These dangers of an ill-advised and poorly architected e-NIC project aren’t yet well known, or publicly discussed.

The appeal to the Bar Association was to help lead this discussion, and in the public domain. We can look to India in this regard, and the robust, critical and on-going discussions around the Aadhar digital ID card and more broadly, the work and mandate of the Unique Identification Authority of India. Clearly, a purely transactional model will not work. An ID, any ID, is essentially proof that a someone is who they say they are. Humans, over their life, change. We change religion, sexual identity, gender orientation, our politics, our addresses, our partners, our jobs. Our retinas, fingerprints and blood group remain with us from birth to death, but everything else is a social, political or cultural construct of choice or chance. The freedom to move freely within and between these different identities is a vital part of citizenship. Inflexibility in systems that register us as we were once, but not as we are today or want to be in the future, risk systemic discrimination on a potentially large scale, deeply impacting, amongst other things, the registration of, births, deaths, marriages, the opening of bank accounts, school and university entry, rations, land ownership or transfers, hospitalisation and state medical care, vehicle ownership, personal insurance, domestic and foreign travel, employment, EPF and ETF. If an e-NIC is to be a lynchpin of smart cities, as they are proposed today, we need much more scrutiny and debate over what exactly the government is proposing, how it is going to go about it, who will be given the task of developing it, maintaining it and in a context where even the President’s website is effortlessly hacked by a teenager, protecting this information.

All of this is not to suggest, as any principled critique of the government’s plans so often risks, the complete abandonment of an overhaul around how citizens are registered, and interact with official systems and processes. In the ready enthusiasm around the proposed e-NIC, the risk of a largely technocratic approach is that those most in need of the State to recognise them, are ironically those most at risk of even further alienation and isolation. Dignity is inextricably entwined into identity. Expectations of privacy and its protection vary, but is uniformly important to address at a systemic level. There can be no back-door between a citizenship database and intelligence services. Gender, class, location, economic group, profession – the very things an e-NIC records, can place the individuals thus recorded at greater disadvantage, unless policies are put in place to secure rights post-digitisation, especially around access to information in official systems and the revision or updating of personal data.

These are not simple challenges, but they are not insurmountable either. In both design and implementation, our e-NIC project needs to embrace a legacy of war and violence, as well as multiple identities our citizens possess and migrate between. If our models and working assumptions are, as is so often the case, only ever based on lived experiences in the South, we risk a digital dystopia through an even more ingrained, systemic discrimination. The promise of digitisation is about a better country, for all. The first step of going digital is for the technocrats at least to experience and understand how the most vulnerable communities and citizens negotiate life in the physical world. Perhaps then, we stand a better chance of a more just, dignified and equitable digital future.


First published in The Sunday Island, 26 March 2017.

The propaganda landscape

“If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer… And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”

Hannah Arendt

Columnists are already writing in favour of or warning against the ascendency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa by 2020, along with the resurgence of the old political order in a new guise. The non-delivery of campaign promises coupled with a non-existent communication strategy makes the current government its own worst enemy. All the JO has to do is to hope climate change continues to wreak havoc with our harvests, activate violent elements in the deep state still partial to the old guard when necessary, clandestinely support anti-government demonstrations at key traffic choke points in and around Colombo and re-activate what was in late 2014 a well-oiled propaganda machine. It’s that last part which interests me the most, if only because interactions with multiple sections of government over two years suggests the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has no plan, capacity or resources to counter a sophisticated misinformation and disinformation campaign engineered by the JO.

A lot has changed since 2014’s Presidential campaign. Psychometrics is playing an increasing role in how media campaigns target individuals. For example, many wouldn’t think twice about granting access to a simple, engaging game, an interesting poll, astrology or cricket app that requires Facebook to work. My newsfeed on Facebook is littered with those who have provided access to a third party, resulting in pseudo-insights that are fun to share and result in what is really intended – the viral sharing of content that in turn provides access to more social media accounts. This in turn provides insights around how carefully crafted communications can sway undecided voters and strengthen the fears of those opposed to a party or candidate. While all this requires significant investment and expertise, it is not impossible, certainly by 2020.

Add to this advancements in technology itself. Adobe, the maker of the eponymous photo editing suite, showcased last year a new product that allows the sophisticated manipulation of audio. Though it won’t for several years at least work in Sinhala or Tamil, by 2020 we will have technology in the hands of anyone with a computer to manipulate a voice recording to make any speaker in English say whatever it is you want them to say, in their own voice. The listener will be none the wiser. Also in 2016 came the preview of technology that manipulated the face of a speaker on TV in real time. This meant that a recording of an individual broadcast on TV, for example, could with audio manipulation software be made to say anything you wanted them to say. The consumer would both see and hear sentences, which they would go on to believe and act on, that the original speaker never really said. These are new frontiers of propaganda that we don’t even know how to comprehensively identify, much less guard against.

Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion and outspoken critic of Putin tweeted in December that the “point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth”. Repeat a lie often enough, and counter-narratives are buried. Fake news is another useful tool – not just by way of producing and disseminating misleading content, but also by volubly decrying critical content and commentary as fake, serving to increase scepticism and fuel apathy which benefits the suppression of facts. The average citizen and media consumer will be oblivious to any of this. Sri Lanka’s very high literacy helps with the dissemination of and engagement around news. On the other hand, the country’s very poor media literacy helps the spread of unverified rumour as well as content without any basis in fact. Coupled with what continues to be high growth in smartphones and data consumption, there is a readymade foundation for the manipulation of information and news the closer we get to 2020.

The government’s reaction to this will be to set in motion mechanisms that monitor social media for content that seeks to inflame communal tensions, and spread rumours. This is both a danger and a false hope. The JO is decentralised, which is its power. It has access to sophisticated marketing and advertising firms that in turn have access to market research data, historical polling data down to polling division, psychometric profiles and sophisticated media monitoring mechanisms across all languages. There is an overarching strategy with decentralised execution – individuals and institutions follow a comprehensive strategic vision laid by a few architects, but aren’t micro-managed and are free to execute campaigns in support of campaign goals as best they see fit. Conversely, the government’s response will be highly centralised and by extension, inflexible. We will see a return to, albeit through an inversion, the kind of media output last seen late 2014 in the lead up to the Presidential election. It is the JO today better at messaging, not government. And all it has to do is to generate one of two things – an interest in registering opposition to government policies or by strengthening apathy, increasing the non-participation around referenda or elections. The government will most likely respond to what it cannot control by reverting to the same methods and tactics used in the past to suppress the spread of content. This in turn will backfire, leading to condemnation from within and outside of Sri Lanka. The JO will gain credibility.

The thing is, even knowing the contours of the threat doesn’t generate measurable interest from government in tackling it with the sophistication and urgency it merits. This must be the most laid back government in history, going into a contentious, historic referendum later in the year. There is no political leadership. There is no coherent plan around generating a Yes vote. There is no discernible strategy to counter moves to strengthen the No vote. It’s almost as if there is no real interest in the referendum itself. But for whatever reason may be a disinterest in this year’s plebiscite is no indicator of a similar attitude closer to 2020. The retention of power when confronted with the loss of political authority, given a zero-sum culture that defines our partisan politics, will invariably result in an unprecedented information war. This is evident even today. Take SAITM. The Hambantota Port. Mattala. The Port City project. The transitional justice agenda. The constitutional reform agenda. The one leitmotif across all these issues is confusion, a deluge of news and commentary with competing viewpoints, leading to frustration, anger and disengagement. There is a set of strategic architects behind all this, and it isn’t government. What in the short term are efforts to foster opposition to constitutional reform will seamlessly migrate into campaigns to secure power.

What’s sinister about what is otherwise a perfectly democratic and legitimate interest in re-election is the weaponisation of voters. Unable to critically question, fed up with non-delivery of promises, left out in decision making, talked down to by government, ignored by policies they can’t identify with, frustrated by a daily commute, unable to afford a basic food basket and fed instead with carefully engineered propaganda, the JO will aim to destabilise polity and society and in the ensuing chaos, offer a vision of calm, prosperity and stability – giving life to the popular expression that even with corruption, “there was something done and development you could see” under the Rajapaksa’s, not unlike the nostalgia today around the brutal Premadasa era.

The researcher in me is really interested in how this will all pan out. As a citizen, I am deeply fearful of what this will mean for the quality of our democracy. What is fertile ground for study is also the terrain for despair. The dynamics of 2014’s electoral campaigning are going to get more complex closer to 2020, and my fear is that Sri Lanka’s citizens aren’t ready or willing to critically engage. And that suits at least one power bloc in our country just fine.


First published in The Sunday Island, 19 March 2017.

Eyes in the sky

In 2009, we had the end of a war often flagged as one without witness. This is not entirely correct. There were of course witnesses. Taschen has a book on photography that features a slain Prabhakaran surrounded by a sea of ebullient khaki. Most in that photo sport digital cameras. From Channel 4’s infamous video to photographs of Prabhakaran’s son, first eating chocolate, then with bullet holes in his torso, there were witnesses aplenty in those final, hellish months of the war in early 2009. The issue often was not so much getting images, but the independent verification of what really was going on. Both the Army and the LTTE, at the time, fought two battles – one on the ground, one around propaganda. The theatre of war at the time involved the dissemination of really disturbing imagery, including sometimes footage, judging by vantage point, perspective and framing, shot by victims themselves. And since independent media weren’t allowed in, with embedded journalists only ever providing a partial perspective, the conditions on the ground were out of sight and out of mind for those in the South, some of whom remain convinced, to this day, that war’s end was in the main a humanitarian effort aimed at saving lives, conducted with clinical precision.

Three years after the end of the war, using nothing more than the historical imagery available on Google Earth, I examined in detail the satellite imagery of Nandikadal and surrounding areas. The scorched earth, the incredible concentration of tents in a sliver of land, the large black circles on the ground that emerged from one point of time to another, the evisceration of trees, verdant green fields replaced by brown or a grey over just a few months – these are all covered in detail in reports believed or contested vehemently, but are facts on the ground, through a witness in space, that can’t be wished away. The commercial imagery on Google Earth isn’t enough to provide the kind of analysis one needs to determine perpetrators of alleged war crimes. We just see the magnitude of the devastation, and it alone is deeply unsettling. In another story at around the same time, also using nothing more than Google Earth imagery spanning a few years, I looked at how mass graves in the region were slowly taken over by nature. Google Earth remains an under-utilised programme – most install it, immediately zoom in to see if they can see the roof of their home and neighbourhood, share it with family and friends and never re-open the programme. But what the programme actually did was something quite extraordinary – it democratised the use and access to satellite imagery. Till recently, that’s the best ordinary citizens had access to. Higher resolution tiles – as satellite images are referred to – cost enormous amounts of money, and are hard to procure even with cash in hand. The highest resolution imagery remains classified and inaccessible to anyone outside intelligence agencies and the military establishment. And even though the end of Sri Lanka’s war was captured from space, a lot of that imagery, including from the UN’s own UNOSAT, remains inaccessible.

This context is important to keep in mind when appreciating the historical significance of the eighty-eight satellites launched into space from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India, last month. The launch made the news for setting a record for the most satellites ever launched on a single rocket, a shining testimony to Indian space engineering. But the true importance of the launch was something much greater, and will only be realised in the months and years to come. The eighty-eight satellites now orbiting earth are now part of a larger constellation, totalling one hundred and forty-nine in all. That too is a record. But what makes this ring of eyes in space special is the capability it gives, for the first time, civilian actors to monitor from space developments on the ground. The achievement is staggering – the constellation is now able to photograph Earth’s entire landmass, every single day. Let that sink in.

When I first started to look into and write about the potential of technology to change the gaze of human rights, I worked in a context where WAP enabled phones allowed, on pixelated, monochromatic screens, the first, excruciatingly slow access to a very restricted web. SMS was the norm, and mobile phones were used predominantly to actually call people. There was no social media. There were no smartphones. And yet even then, the trajectory of technology was clear – in the hands of many, the new vectors it would provide to bear witness would change the way violence and human rights violations were reported on. These satellites now in space are a paradigm shift, and the natural evolution of technology, first in a restricted, exclusive, expensive domain, slowly making its way into more civilian theatres of operation and access, for free or comparably much less cost. The applications are many and are anchored to a central, simple fact. You can no longer hide the impact of large scale atrocities by blocking off ground level access to the frontlines. At a much lower altitude, drones can capture ground-truths that would a few years ago have been hidden. At a much higher, and impossible to shoot down altitude, satellites can provide information around what has happened in a particular area – with insights into enforced displacement, new settlements, key formations, large scale or targeted destruction, new construction, diversions and even newly established camouflage. Groups like Amnesty International are already using this imagery to examine attacks against refugee and internally displaced camps around the world. Aided by significant advances in image processing, there are now techniques to identify mass graves from space as well as the detection and counting of shelters in displacement camps.

Imagery from this satellite constellation, and others in space, can be used to document development, and its impact. Over a period of time, this provides unprecedented insights into everything from urban development and land use to desertification or riparian conditions. But if I am honest, what interests me the most is the use of this data in the domain of human rights. To be clear, there is no guarantee the political will to address violations will in any way be strengthened as a consequence of this content in the public domain. What this imagery does do is to help concerned actors name and shame those who could have taken life-saving decisions, but did not, including governments and international entities like the UN. In the near future, claiming ignorance as a way to excuse inaction around rapidly escalating or sustained human rights violations will be moot. Local media censorship and severe restrictions on access to theatres of hostilities will be moot. Claims that shelling and targeting of civilians didn’t occur, or were done by rebel forces, can now be independently verified, and not just by a select few long after the violations were committed. Imagery, with speed and at scale, can be opened up for scrutiny, erasing accusations of partisan bias, partial analysis or selective use of imagery.


What to some readers may appear still to be the domain of a few who have access to these tools and content is in fact a significant shift in power, unimaginable just a few years ago. I am excited by the technological development, but I am driven by the potential of what it offers for those interested in protecting those most vulnerable to violent conflict. New horizons in this kind of content generation brings new challenges around data use, retention, ethics, access, verification and timely, effective response – but these are challenges I would take any day over an information vacuum or worse, a context where the only news and information covering an issue is manufactured by those who propagate violence.

The fog of war can mask or erase facts on the ground, but one hundred and forty-nine impartial witnesses in the sky now watch over the worst of us every single day, to give our better angels a strategic advantage they never had before. That’s something to celebrate.


First published in The Sunday Island, 12 March 2017.

On travel

The late Mangala Moonesinghe was the High Commissioner in Delhi at the time I was an undergraduate student. He and his wife Gnana hosted, aside from the usual Independence Day celebrations at the High Commission in Chanakyapuri, a few of us for home cooked meals. These were treasured, not just for the flavours from back home but also the conversation, meandering through issues flagged in the last edition of The Economist, which the High Commissioner repeatedly noted was essential reading for any undergraduate, through to politics back home. We also often talked about travel, and the importance of it.

In the late 90s, the Sri Lankan student community in Delhi, largely from Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, exceeded seven hundred. We were the second largest foreign student community at the time, next to Mauritius. Delhi University was divided geographically between North and South Campus, and at the time – before the metro or ubiquity of Uber and Ola – there was little interaction between the students from either campus save for occasions when we would congregate at the High Commission. The Association of Sri Lankans in Delhi, which at one point I was the Secretary General of and Sasheendra Rajapaksa, the former President’s nephew, headed, also served as a platform for the student body to meet, markedly divided even at the time by language, class and the alma mater back home. Whenever he met us, the former High Commissioner made a simple point, and as often as he could. Travel in India at the time, especially by train, was cheap. He implored us to visit as many places as we could, and mingle with Indians as much we could.

India was more than a country – it was, and still is, a pot-pourri of flavour, sight, sound and smell, somehow entwined in a vast experiment that since 1947 incredibly succeeds, warts and all, in containing within the structure of a single country what is the diversity of many.  And yet, it was the case at the time that Sri Lankan students only ever mingled with, made friends or enemies out of, cooked, shared ingredients and recipes, went to College, movies or generally only ever spent time with other Sri Lankan students. Rooms and apartments were scouted and selected on the basis of proximity to other Sri Lankans. There were seniors at the time I entered University who for three or more years had never, or very rarely travelled out of Delhi. In essence, they came to Delhi, created little enclaves that were segregated by race and class, and never ventured out. This was evident in events that brought the community together – conversations were often around events, places and communities from back home, instead of new experiences, friends, places and sights from India. The tragedy of this was well understood by Mangala and Gnana, but I don’t think translated with any urgency to the student body writ large. This was a pity.

My travel bug began with India. The flight to New Delhi was my first. I was twenty at the time, and still have that Air Lanka ticket stub. There was no Gmail, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or smartphones. In fact, there were no mobile phones at all. Yahoo! offered a grand total of 5Mb, and aerogrammes were my primary mode of communication with friends. With the Kirori Mal College theatre group, ‘The Players’, we once travelled to a theatre festival in Bangalore at the National Law School, University of India, by train – first from Delhi to Chennai and then on to Pune, and finally, a local train to Bangalore. I cannot recall how many days it took, just one way. When travelling with a group, travel time is compressed into episodes of conversation and laughter. I do recall amazing mutton curry, lentils and rice served by the side of the train station in Chennai, our first proper meal after leaving Delhi. Every station offered through outstretched limb forced through window or acrobatic acts between slow moving train and platform a variety of flavours which had to be picked, bought and handed over in just a few minutes, at most. It was like living in the magic-realism of a McCurry photo, enveloped by the sheer number of people taking the train or seemingly living on the platforms, jostling for space with goats, cows, marigold adorned gods, snakes, chickens and the occasional piglet. In my final year, I packed all the books I had accumulated over three years and shipped them back to Colombo, opting to take the train right down to Trichy, or Tiruchirappalli as it is called now, instead of flying back straight from Delhi. The train takes you under the Western Ghats, through innumerable tunnels and hundreds of bridges, in what was at the time a journey that spanned days. And yet, a single return ticket to Jaffna from Colombo by air today would cost about the same as what I spent for all these journeys by train at the time – it was that ridiculously cheap.

I have since University travelled to over thirty countries, mostly on work. Invariably, some are loved more than others, but all offer an opportunity to engage with difference and diversity. Even to vehemently dislike, one must encounter, explore and engage. An early subscription by my father to National Geographic ensured I had the spatial recognition of a world beyond just what I could frame with my eyes, around me. An early introduction to travel without the trappings of luxury made me ready, even at short notice, to experience the journey in whatever form or route it took as much as the lure of a destination.  An enduring interest in travel remains at the heart of what I love to do, and now, with my son. His mother shares the bug, and I now find myself retracing their footsteps in countries and places I have yet to visit. The late High Commissioner’s repeated peroration to travel makes more sense today – for through it, I am able to see Sri Lanka, loved the most, anew – despite all what I and others say is wrong with it, or going awry. An old friend in Edinburgh recently said that it was easy now to travel out of Sri Lanka, but impossible to really leave it behind. Yet even before social media, I found that travel – from just across hallway, neighbourhood or city to region, province, country or continent – helped me to understand myself, my location, my skin and my gender. To travel is to realise the insignificance of what often one fights over, claims and argues for. Ethnic and other divisions in Sri Lanka, for example, are erased when stopped and questioned at immigration counters outside the country. To travel is also to reaffirm the values of a larger, like-minded, cosmopolitan liberalism over the parochialism of populism, which is on an ascendant today across the world. It is no surprise that along with this disturbing rise of intolerance comes the closure of borders, the erecting of walls, and the imposition of travel bans.

Travel remains, even in a world of immersive photography, virtual reality, social media and live streaming video, something that is best experienced actually doing. It is also deeply subversive, because to travel is to not just see, but observe, question and engage. I am deeply envious at present of a colleague who spends most weekends travelling to destinations in Sri Lanka I would love to go to. That envy, that yearning to go outside, risk an upset tummy, a stolen wallet or phone, a missed flight or train, to get hopelessly lost, is in essence what is politically so explosive – for it forces you to engage with a world beyond that which is handed down to you or framed for political or personal gain. When you realise through travel that we are all equally afraid of and interested in much the same things, our border controls, protectionism, quotas, segregation, othering through fear and hate make much less sense.

This is why travel is so important. I just wish more of us, at the time, listened to the late High Commissioner.


First published in The Sunday Island, 5 March 2017.

Technology and the Right to Information

Sri Lanka took over twenty years of activism to get Right to Information legislation. This elephantine gestation has an upside. We now have an RTI law, at least on paper, that is amongst the strongest in the world – the Canadian-based Centre for Law and Democracy think-tank flags it as the third best out of one hundred and ten countries. Recent media reports flag already notable cases where RTI has been used to gain information, and also where it has floundered, with government still getting into gear around responding to requests and also actively resisting compliance by feigning ignorance. This is to be expected, given that we are just over a fortnight into the enactment of the law. What’s lacking are innovative approaches to raising awareness and taking RTI, which rests entirely on the demand from citizens for information from public authorities, to the grassroots – linking it with the daily lives of those who need timely, accurate information the most.

Realising the potential of RTI in 2017 requires twinning it with last mile technologies citizens already have, notably the mobile phone. Much of the implementation of the law, even with proposed digitisation government records, relies of paper based transactions. Awareness raising to date has followed tried and tested models of workshops, training of trainers, lectures, roundtables, panel discussions, various websites to promote and monitor the implementation of RTI, frequently asked questions, short guides, posters and booklets. Clearly, a concert of approaches embracing the reach of mainstream print and electronic media is needed. But where discussions fall short are ways through which to harness the reach and influence of social media, instant messaging and SMS. Imagination to use more traditional communications vectors – like the postal service, are also lacking in RTI promotion. Methods can range from public notices in all post offices around RTI and pre-paid forms that can be filled out and posted on demand, and stamps promoting the law. If the President can send us all greetings on the 1st of January, by the same token, his office can leverage their influence over telcos to send out a message or two on what is a law that is the embodiment of yahapalanaya – giving to citizens the power of oversight, scrutiny and accountability.

There is also the excellent trilingual 1919 hotline and related website, run by the Government Information Centre which falls under the Presidential Secretariat and predates RTI legislation. I proposed last year a way in which the website and hotline service could be revamped to support and strengthen RTI implementation. This kind of platform can serve as an intermediary or as a concierge service, providing citizens with both the information they need to make use of RTI and thereafter, on demand, providing them with the means through which to lodge RTI requests. These requests could be tracked, monitored and delivered through the same platform, not unlike the RTI portal in Uganda called ‘Ask Your Gov’ or India’s ‘Your RTI’ platform.  This idea, proposed as part of the Open Government Partnership process, was apparently approved by Cabinet and is slated to, again on paper, come online by the end of the year in some avatar.

But given the vicissitudes of government, what can be done aside from this, by civil society? A great deal, if we can only think out of the box. Cutting-edge technologies like bots – completely automated, algorithmic agents that work with popular instant messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, Skype and Viber to process natural language queries posed by users. Installation is as easy as adding a friend or new account to the app – completely intuitive, second nature to most users, and non-technical. When installed, a query like “Who is responsible to give me information in a public authority?” will generate a response that takes from Section 25 of the RTI Act, presented in a manner that strips away the legal jargon. This is not just a random question. It is one of many that Transparency International Sri Lanka has uploaded to a dedicated website dealing with RTI in the form of a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) list. While at present it requires a citizen to go to this website and seek out the relevant section and question, the same question asked from a bot from any platform that supports the technology can result in the immediate delivery of accurate information, for free, over desktop, mobile or tablet, anywhere in the country, at any time.

Sadly, bot technology is only possible, at the moment, in English. This may make it of limited use at the last-mile and the grassroots. What technologies can be leveraged at this stage around RTI? Much can be done with public-private partnerships that see local government entities partner with telcos to inform subscribers around their rights under RTI. These can range from SMS campaigns that are limited to specific grama niladari divisions, to the promotion of RTI through billing – printing on what millions get every month details of how to access information on RTI. Interactive Voice Recognition (IVR), tried and tested technology used by banks to ordering a pizza, works on any phone and without any Internet connection. Structured queries – navigated by voice in Sinhala, Tamil or English, or by punching a number on the keypad – can offer even illiterate citizens information around the basics of RTI for free, if government with the support of telcos create an RTI hotline anyone can dial into. Any telco knows with a great degree of accuracy where a mobile is at a given point of time. Government institutions – departments, ministries and other public authorities that fall under the RTI legislation – are fixed locations with specific geographic coordinates, that don’t often change. It is possible, not unlike the international roaming activation reminder that automatically pops up over SMS when a subscriber goes to Bandaranaike International Airport, to have the details of the relevant Information Officer appear on phones that come within say a ten-meter radius of the main entrance or reception of a public authority. To avoid spam, citizens can opt out from these SMS updates, but the idea is to promote by default to everyone the fact that every public authority needs to now have, by law, an Information Officer citizens can address queries to.

But say government will soon realise the folly of promoting accountability and start to block or back-track.  What then can civil society do? Technologies like FrontlineSMS are easy to install and free, allowing the smallest community based organisation to send short messages, over any mobile network, to a select group of RTI enablers or champions, who then forward the SMS to a broader group, and so on. Just ten out-going messages can, if forwarded to ten more, in just ten hops, reach one thousand citizens. Costs are kept to a minimum, yet the reach is potentially unlimited if sufficient numbers of citizen-cells are architected and activated, per division, district or province.

I haven’t even touched on what’s possible over social media, albeit with a demographic bias weighted towards those between 18 – 34, or in effect, first, second or third time voters. Given that this demographic would be amongst those most involved and interested in politics, the promotion of RTI amongst them is critical in order to create over the longer-term a citizenry unafraid of using the law to hold government accountable. Short-form videos, leveraging popular YouTube stars like ‘Gappiya’ to incorporate RTI in their programming, animated images called GIFs, posters, stickers for use in instant messaging apps, short audio recordings called podcasts, fan pages, public chats on Viber – these are just some ideas to piggyback on the ubiquity of mobile devices connected to social media in order to promote RTI, aside from mainstream media campaigns.

Ways to promote RTI don’t necessarily have to embrace technology. The reverse side of train and bus tickets, for example, can promote RTI, reaching millions every single day. I would argue though that the promotion of a law that is only as powerful as those who use it and how often it is used needs to embrace what are already today vectors through which news and information are disseminated online. RTI champions in 2017 cannot ignore how technology, both pervasive and persuasive, can assist in every aspect from initial query to final response. We have a really strong law. We can also be a country that showcases how RTI can be entrenched amongst a connected citizenry.

I really hope I see that in my lifetime.


First published in The Sunday Island, 26 February 2017.

Facebook in Kabul and Yangon

In Summer, it is an endless carpet of dust and sand, a shimmering haze violently punctured with mountains more menacing than they are majestic. In Winter, as the plane descends into Kabul, the snow-capped mountains are more welcoming from the air, and offer an illusory image of calm serenity. Kabul is anything but serene or calm. Nestled in a narrow valley at the foothills of the Hindu Kush, Kabul simply isn’t on the usual tourist’s map and with good reason. I have gone to Kabul on work around six times over three years. In the same period of time, I have also travelled to Yangon, in Myanmar around seven to eight times. Unlike Kabul, Yangon and Myanmar is a new hot-spot for tourism and donor-driven political and economic optimism.

Even just a few years ago, both countries weren’t meaningfully connected to the Internet. There was no international call or data roaming possible, because the quality of the telcos and their service was so poor. Web browsing was both incredibly expensive and terribly slow. In Yangon, the best speeds at one point were from the fashionable lobby of the Sule Shangri-La, the occupation and use of which required not so infrequent refills of at least fruit juice and snacks, at five-star hotel prices, in addition to the exorbitant connection charges. In Kabul, the nature of my work prevents me from walking about freely or going into the handful of hotels that operate in the city. At media institutions and the offices of civil society organisations, at the time, the Internet was at one point was a really precious resource – tightly controlled, and rarely given out to even core staff. Like water in a drought. Every megabyte was rationed, carefully considered and slowly disbursed over crumbling infrastructure.

However, what was even at this time quite jarring to see was, in both countries, the prevalence of smartphones. Without access to the Internet, these smartphones were status symbols in the main. Used more for actual phone calls than for social media or web browsing, rich media content was quite literally uploaded to the phones by the shops that offered pre-paid top-ups. These merchants, who installed both apps and content on smartphones, at the time and even to date, are important nodes in an information distribution architecture that is a unique mix of online access and offline injects based entirely on subjective preferences. Some merchants put religious content and apps. Others chose to focus on entertainment, from movie clips and music videos to photographs and sound clips. Even today, pre-registered SIM cards are sold openly on the street in Kabul by merchants who sell both the hardware and data to consumers who are in this strange twilight zone of mobile users – operating on registered networks, yet entirely outside of corporate customer databases. You don’t find that category of users here in Sri Lanka, or even now in Myanmar. There are other differences. From not being on the Internet, Myanmar is now investing in 4G services in major urban areas and beyond. Afghanistan’s telecoms infrastructure and regulatory frameworks, in comparison, are woefully under-developed – even though when I travel there now, my phone switches over automatically to 3G networks, now offering voice and data at speeds, though still frustratingly slow by Sri Lankan standards, unimaginable a few years ago.

Tellingly, Facebook is huge in both countries. In Kabul, from May last year to February this year, Facebook’s own statistic indicates a growth of around 500,000 new users, mostly anchored to and around Kabul. In Myanmar, the growth has been more significant year on year, resulting in a captive user base of around 15 million, in country of around 54 million. I work with major media institutions in Kabul, and a range of civil society collectives and organisations in Yangon. In both countries, media and civil society advocacy in just two or three years has moved from zero focus on social to an almost complete reliance on it in order to get news, information and advocacy across to key constituencies. In Kabul, illiterate gardeners in the office complex I work in are seen gleefully clicking ‘like’ on photos that appear in their Facebook Newsfeed. Small shops in Yangon, with entrances often too short and narrow to enter without acrobatic manoeuvres, are all on Facebook, and proudly advertise the fact. For many, Facebook is the Internet, with everything they think is the Internet actually a function, feature or app developed by one company.

Particularly in Afghanistan, though all media is very young, web based social media has taken off at an explosive growth rate consumed largely by the most politically active segment of the population. And with special data packages across all major telcos offering unlimited data for Facebook and popular instant messaging apps like WhatsApp, the consumption of media is now mediated through palm held devices and the flick of a thumb more than the turn of a page or dial, the tuning of a frequency or the changing of a channel.

What makes this an interesting time for media development, including programmes to develop media literacy, is that in both countries, more and more are consuming and generating news and information independent of literacy levels, livelihood and location. What makes this a particularly frustrating and downright dangerous time to be involved in content development are the new found, economically viable and technically sophisticated vectors of fake or false news generation. In a context where what is online and distributed over social media is believed more than what government or old media states, the potential for rumour to spread, and for misinformation and disinformation to take root, is unprecedented. This in turn has resulted in four key developments. A government and officialdom in both countries interested in surveillance and the monitoring of social media, ostensibly to prevent the spread of hate speech and content that incites violence. An explosive growth in the production of misleading information, that over social media, is impossible to stem the flow of much less censor completely. An interest in counter-speech and counter-messaging, to tackle meaningfully and as effectively as possible the spread and reach of violent rumours. And finally, the use of social media to bear witness to inconvenient narratives – from violence rarely covered in mainstream media to corruption that embarrasses government.

These four competing developments are in constant tension. But academic and professional interests aside, observing how the chaotic life of Kabul flows around the phones of those who inhabit it is as fascinating as watching devotees at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon offering prayers in Pali read off glowing screens, cheek in jowl with young couples who are tuned into whatever their Facebook newsfeeds offer them. There are glaring contradictions galore in both the harsh Hindu Kush and the vast, verdant plains of Myanmar, but it is a given that social media in general and Facebook in particular are already inextricably entwined in the socio-political negotiation of any future for both countries.


First published in The Sunday Island, 19 February 2017.

New(s) media

The election of the new President of the United States will result in a new dawn for investigative, independent journalism, globally. As fake news and alternatives facts command the attention of the West, and around up-coming elections for political office in Germany, France and elsewhere, the challenge of countering pervasive and sophisticated propaganda is not new. In Sri Lanka, the Presidential Election of 2015 brought to the fore how a sophisticated re-election campaign by the Rajapaksas was trumped (no pun intended) by a more chaotic, loosely knit yet responsive, guerrilla, adaptive communications campaign in support of the incumbent Sirisena. According to mainstream media reports early 2015, the Rajapaksa campaign spent well in excess of two billion rupees on the campaign, coming from various ministries and the President’s Office. This included billboards reminded voters of LTTE atrocities littered across Colombo and the country, posters, banners, clocks, mugs, TV spots, jingles, mass SMS’s, social media campaigns, radio spots, basically the whole programming line-up and news programming of State media, full page, full colour advertisements and inserts, stickers and other means. The sheer volume and velocity of production, combined with the vectors citizens were bombarded with this propaganda was unprecedented. But it is wasn’t entirely novel.

It was the BBS in Sri Lanka that led the way with fake news and alternative facts. Their mastery of whipping up public emotion through viral content blossomed under the previous regime. As with the US today, the result of fake news – and very likely the intent of those who produce it – is twofold. One, to convince those who have an uncritical appreciation of content they consume. The lack of media literacy helps. Sri Lankans, and as it turns out, the majority of voters anywhere, believe what they read, hear and see without hesitation or questioning. The interest in a fact-based election is often touted, but lacks empirical evidence – voters are swayed by emotion, not by appeals to reason and intellect. This brings us to the second more insidious intent of those who produce news and content that inflames, angers and misguides. It is to make voters lose faith in factual information, and that facts matters. Confronted with stories that are hard to determine the veracity of, with mainstream media that too often treats due diligence as optional, with the onslaught of information from social media, and the resulting chaos by way of a credible news agenda, voters are increasingly tuning out of debates on the importance of evidence based decision making, and instead becoming sceptical of all media and information, including that which is from established, reliable, professional and fact-checked sources and platforms. This in turn results in a reversion to more insular perspectives, derived from media sources that are followed by captive telegenics or content, habit or convenience. Entertainment and gossip remain the most engaged with media, while interest in progressive politics, combined with hopelessness and apathy, is low.

This is not the way it was supposed to be with the rise of social media, promising more open and accountable government, and governance that was more responsive to the needs of citizens. And yet, there is hope. In the US, the subscriptions of the New York Times, repeatedly attacked by the Trump administration, have soured. So-called hyperlocal media – media produced by and for local communities and neighbourhoods – is thriving. In Sri Lanka, new social and web media ventures like Staat, Roar and the just launched Blerd offer what mainstream media continues to marginalise – content that resonates with a demographic which doesn’t buy newspapers in print, watch TV at scheduled times, or listen to radio on airwaves. And aside from the vector, there is the difference in content. While the journalism models differ, all three offer prospective consumers, followers and fans content, from substance to presentation, that is not just appealing visually, but appealing to their interests and often too, to their intellect. There are new magazines being launched – from free print based ones dealing with lifestyle and travel, to others that will feature original writing and features on more serious issues. In the US, the media is openly fact-checking the Trump administration, admonishing it for nepotism, the lack of ethics, the lack of transparency, lack of basic competency, terrible policymaking, authoritarian strains and tellingly, terrible spelling. It is a remarkable departure from the previous eight years. It is also a revealing counterpoint to how media can and should react to political office and a government that cares little for the rule of law, separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary and democratic norms. In Sri Lanka, over the ten years of the Rajapaksa regime, we had a mainstream media largely supine and servile, pandering to the administration in order to secure and sustain ad revenue that kept all print media institutions afloat. There was no lampooning, no spoofs, no comedic critique, no real fact-checking. Stenography was promoted as journalism.

Despite well documented and researched promotion of inflammatory, racist content over social media in Sinhala, companies like Google and Facebook didn’t show the kind of interest they show now in the West, and for some years in countries like Burma, around curtailing hate speech, false news and also supporting counter-speech narratives. Those interested in critical commentary, bearing witness, fact-checking, and producing counter-narratives contesting the excesses of the regime were very alone, always over-worked, under-funded and under-attack.

The electoral result in the US changes the game. Just as in Sri Lanka a new generation of media is coming to life, authoritarianism and the rise of the right-wing exclusion in the West brings with it not just media that promotes divisiveness, but also (new) media ventures, technology collaborations, algorithmic improvements, better human curation and more generally, the greater availability of human resources and funding around innovation that supports a fiercely independent, creative, critical media. New journalism models will come about. More collaborative models around journalism will also blossom, that along with technological improvements around platforms and apps, will enable the flagging, curtailing and even removal of misleading, factually inaccurate, inflammatory content easier and closer to real time.

Can all these developments help with media literacy in Sri Lanka, which remains abysmal? Perhaps. Perhaps not. New media ventures continue to be commercial in nature and operations, opting mostly to continue to avoid, downplay or only in passing cover issues, persons and loci that can be seen as too ‘controversial’. Civic media initiatives are rare. Investigative reporting remains elusive. Funding around quality journalism also remains weak – journalism as a profession remains grossly underpaid, appealing only to the worst qualified or those, supported by other means, who intend to malign and mislead. Anchored to what roles the media will play in a post-factual world, we must plan for and invest in the future. Incubators for new journalism models, media literacy education from pre-school to University. New apps for collaborative storytelling on national issues, from local perspectives. The adaptation and adoption of new technologies for journalism, from drones to bots. A rise in the use of satire and humour to critique governance. Immersive virtual reality experiences, taking citizens to places where they wouldn’t go to or experience. New media ventures will prise open closed data despite government. RTI, still terribly paper and fax based, will in the months and years to come embrace more fully the potential of mobiles and the web. Supported by adequate funding, there will hopefully be new journalism hubs, bringing together statisticians, data evangelists, programmers, designers, urban planners, scientists, economists and researchers to support new models of journalism that question and cross traditional boundaries.

All this can be leveraged to spread harm and fear. All this can also be harnessed to capture resilience, facts, the lives of others and marginal narratives so important for justice, reconciliation and democracy. Signs of a rebellious, independent, innovative media culture already abound in the US, beyond just mainstream media. Since 2015 and a sea-change in the freedom of expression context, Sri Lankan media has yet to embrace the potential of what journalism can and should be. New media ventures are showing the way. One hopes others follow suit.


First published in The Sunday Island, 12 February 2017.