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.

Reconciliation accomplished

In 2003, aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, the then US President George W. Bush delivered an infamous address proclaiming an end to large scale combat operations in Iraq. “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed” he said, in front of a massive banner that said ‘Mission Accomplished’. Later on, Bush and this speech in particular became the subject of so much ridicule because most of the combat related and civilian deaths in Iraq occurred after this speech was delivered. And we know now what his words and actions, based on little to no concrete evidence or data, resulted in or contributed significantly towards.

It’s the mission accomplished speech of Bush that sprang to mind when I read last week former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunge’s assertion in an interview published in the media that reconciliation in Sri Lanka was “successfully carried out”. She also goes on to say that with the establishment of the Office on Missing Persons and the new Constitution, “there would not be any necessity to have courts to probe war crimes”. The former President is the head of the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR). It is unclear whether this interview represents the views of ONUR, or whether they were just the former President’s opinion.

Either way, the comments are revealing and need to be placed in some context. Last week, the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM) moved into what is billed by the developers as the “sole luxury office complex” in Colombo. The Parkland Office Complex down Park Street is home to Marks & Spencer, Envoy, Dialog, Mobitel, Ericsson, Maersk Lanka and others. As of last week, the Government’s apex reconciliation body’s headquarters is also in this space. Your author questioned openly on Twitter whether this was the best way to spend funds earmarked for reconciliation. The intent was not to begrudge SCRM staff a working environment conducive to productive output, a central location and essential amenities. It was to flag that it isn’t clear why a luxury office complex is needed for a government agency, and why suitable office space couldn’t be found elsewhere.

The other concern is related to optics. In January, the on-going plight of families of the disappeared was again highlighted by the plight of mothers who went on a fast in Vavuniya. As I read the news of SCRM’s relocation to Parklands, I wondered what these mothers would think and feel were they ever to make it to Colombo, and requested a meeting with the head of the SCRM or any of its staff, in their swank new office space. But perhaps meeting face to face those most affected by violent conflict isn’t really a priority for reconciliation moving forward.

The final concern was around donor priorities and oversight. The government never fails to ask for more time and resources around reconciliation. The first is a call for patience. The second is a call for funding. If the United Nations in Sri Lanka and other entities, including bilateral donors, provide funds for government entities intended to be used towards reconciliation, it would border on farce if it included overheads which included, by definition, luxury office space. For these donors, who usually have at least half a dozen forms to track and justify every cent of every dollar spent, it is incredible how SCRM’s decision to locate itself at Parklands passed muster. And while last week there was vocal pushback on social media around the choice of a high-end, five-star hotel as the venue for a workshop organised by SCRM, far more concerning are recurrent costs incurred as a consequence of opting for renting the Parklands office, and as a percentage of available funding per year, how much of this money could have been better used to more meaningfully address enduring challenges around reconciliation at the national, regional and village levels across the country.

When noting unequivocally that reconciliation is a success, perhaps the former President and head of ONUR was also perhaps unaware of the fact SCRM has deleted all references on its official Twitter account that the final report of the Consultation Task Force (CTF) would be translated into Sinhala and Tamil in full. The tweets promised the translations by the end of January. The translations have not come. The tweets have been deleted.

We then come to the issue of war crimes and courts to address issues around accountability. The CTF final report has a number of specific recommendations in this regard, anchored to thousands it interacted with, including the security forces, over 2016. The report highlights clear fault-lines between communities and reaffirms what is intuitively evident – there are major political challenges around reconciliation in order to address underlying root causes of violent conflict. This is not just some academic exercise. It also emphatically isn’t something the President, PM, JO, former Presidents, Parliamentarians or even civil society can fully contain, represent or define, much as they would each like to. This is why the CTF report is of unprecedented historical importance – it placed for consideration the mandate, reach and depth of transitional justice mechanisms in the hands of citizens including those most affected by violent conflict, who don’t have the luxury of switching off, turning away from or escaping somehow what is to this day, the trauma of war and of not knowing the fate of those who disappeared. Yet, weeks since the report was handed over, there is no word to what degree, if at all, any of CTF’s recommendations will be taken seriously.

To recap, reconciliation under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government remains mired in an acronym soup of confusion and disarray. There is no discernible political will around it. There is no strategic overarching vision. Donor priorities seem out of whack. There is poor communication at best. Those most affected by the war remain marginalised and have to resort to demeaning fasts to get their voice heard. The sheer indignity and violence of this goes unacknowledged by government and large sections of mainstream media.  A nationwide consultative process commissioned by the PM in 2016, that resulted in a vital report, is precisely that which the government now wants buried and forgotten. The PM doesn’t acknowledge it. Latching on to a single issue, the President contests it. One entity in charge of reconciliation, having moved into luxury offices, as a first priority, deletes promises to translate into Sinhala and Tamil the contents of this report. It remains unresponsive to any question posed repeatedly over social media. It organises events where foreign experts who know nothing about Sri Lanka offer advice on process design. The head of another government entity anchored to a reconciliation mandate submits in public, even in her private capacity, opinions diametrically opposed to key recommendations of the consultative report, which was ironically officially handed over to her. In doing so, she strongly suggests reconciliation is in fact to be devoid of any meaningful accountability.

So, this is what success around reconciliation looks like! One can’t help but think this is similar to how George W. Bush must have seen victory, in 2003.


First published in The Sunday Island, 5 February 2017.

Droning on

As the use and abuse of drones in Sri Lanka makes headlines, it’s worth reflecting for a moment some trends around their use in journalism. Maligned and feared, drones are the latest technology to be used by mainstream media in the country, especially by television stations. The very name is often problematic – chiefly popularised by offensive, kinetic uses of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in theatres of war like Yemen and Pakistan, mostly by the Americans under former Presidents Bush and Obama. Drones were used for aerial surveillance in Sri Lanka as well, which makes their use and operation in the North particularly sensitive amongst communities who continue to be traumatised by what they endured in 2009, leave aside the military establishment’s fear of this equipment in the hands of civilians. It is also this fear that also drives the pushback against the wider use and adoption of smaller, cheaper drones for recreational use and in the service of journalism.

A high-end consumer drone can be picked up at Liberty Plaza today for under two lakhs. At this price point and given ideal conditions, a drone is capable of around half an hour of flight on a full charge, within a radius of two to four kilometres and easily going up to a ceiling of around five hundred meters – possibly higher. Models in this range come with 4K cameras, capable of extremely high resolution aerial photography as well as video far better than what even HD screens can display. Some models come with more advanced features that for example have the locations of airports around Sri Lanka hardcoded into their firmware, which makes it impossible to take off or operate the drone in close proximity to active airspace, thereby drastically reducing the risk of mid-air collisions with commercial aircraft. Others have an automatic return to home feature, which calculates the remaining battery charge, and if low, overrides a user’s enthusiasm and returns to where it took off from before it literally falls down from the sky. Some, from the company DJI, even have automatic collision detection when flying in certain modes. Smaller drones, which are cheaper, often lack these advanced features.

I have flown, taught the use of and explored the ethics around content generated from drones for a number of years, within and outside Sri Lanka. I’ve looked at their use beyond war and offensive, weaponised use cases. Sales of consumer drones have soared over the past few years, making it a multi-billion-dollar global industry with a steep growth curve that shows no signs of slowing down. Two companies – Parrot and DJI – command this market, but in Sri Lanka, we also make our own drones. The University of Moratuwa’s Department of Electronic and Telecommunication Engineering tested Ravan, a medium sized drone in 2014 and its UAV Research Laboratory, opened the same year, has gone on to produce Ceyhawk, a more advanced drone capable of greater endurance and automation.

The heightened interest in drones comes from their use for recreational purposes – filming holiday and tourist destinations, weddings or gala events – to journalism, where drones have been used to cover political party rallies, large scale natural disasters, man-made disasters and environmental issues. Unsurprisingly, what’s captured headlines of late have been the unethical or illegal use of drones – around the exhumation of graves, crashing into stupas, or flying over crowds with scant regard for public safety. A press release by the Government Information Department earlier this month on the use of drones in journalism was met with a flurry of confusion. Some media said ‘new’ regulations on the use of drones imposed by the current government curtailed the freedom of expression. Other media claimed that the confiscation of drones by private television stations was politically motivated. The confusion is understandable in part due to the censorious, violent context for media and the freedom of expression for a decade. Not being able to fly a drone as media see fit is seen as an affront to media freedom. However, many journalists and the majority of drone pilots in Sri Lanka remain ignorant of regulations, first issued by the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka in August 2015 and revised every year since, that govern the use of drones in Sri Lanka. The most recent regulations, released early January this year, make the use of a drone not unlike driving a car. The equipment has to be registered and insured. The pilot has to be registered and have a valid license. Before any flight in an open area, local Police need to be informed. What last year was a requirement to get clearance from the Office of the Chief of Defence Staff (OCDS) is no longer the case. In many ways, the regulations make it easier to own and fly a drone. But in other ways, this being Sri Lanka, serious challenges persist.

For starters, there is no easy way to register a drone. The CAASL’s systems are grossly antiquated, and though it is now a requirement to register a drone and have a valid license before flying one, the CAASL itself doesn’t know of any way to make this process streamlined or easier for the general public. The resulting frustration will invariably result in drone flight that contravenes regulations, even by those who are interested in lawful flight. Further, insurance companies have no clear guidance on how to insure drones. There are four classes of drones as per the new regulations, but insurance companies have yet to formulate valuation guidelines in order to insure equipment presented to them, ranging from toys incapable of flight outside a home garden, to more capable machines that pose a far greater risk to property and persons. It is unclear whether Police are aware of the new CAASL regulations, which makes anyone flying or carrying around one – even with proper documentation which they may not comprehend or recognise the validity of – a terrorism-related suspect, fit for arrest, interrogation or harassment. The CAASL hasn’t made the regulations available in Sinhala or Tamil. The regulations in English are verbose, technical and hard to grasp. Unlike in the UK, US, Australia and other countries, there are no short guides in print or on the web, using infographics, cartoons and videos, to help new consumers and pilots grasp the essentials around regulations in order to fly safely.

Moves by the Media Ministry, the Government Information Department and the CAASL to promote awareness around regulations, and eventually also train and certify drone pilots, are welcome developments and need to be fast-tracked. In parallel, a conversation around the ethical use of this equipment is vital. Journalists must realise that existing guidelines on ethics are deeply applicable to the use of drones. The right to privacy is explicitly referenced in the CAASL regulations, and beyond this, common-sense guidelines also matter. Akin to not driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, flying a drone should only be undertaken with the greatest care to not do harm to whatever and whoever underneath.

To their credit, the CAASL has repeatedly stressed their interest in promoting the use of drones in Sri Lanka, especially for journalism, noting that other sections of government, no doubt from the security sector, are more keen to ground them. This is an opportunity for journalism. Living conditions in littoral areas, desertification, deforestation, land use, drought coverage, post-disaster needs assessment, covering disasters, urban search and rescue, disaster risk reduction programmes, risk mapping, urban poverty, housing, riparian conditions, inland water resources and risks (around old bunds and dams for example), precision agriculture, examining the costs of development and its impact on the surrounding environment and wildlife, anti-poaching, monitoring of large scale farming, sand mining, tourism development and its impact on local resources and livelihoods. There is so much a drone can be used to report on that brings fresh perspectives and insights. Done right and well, these amazing flying machines can help us see Sri Lanka through new frames, and place on record developments, questions, concerns, challenges as well as opportunities that where hitherto marginal, expensive to generate or inconvenient to produce.

That’s just good journalism.


First published in The Sunday Island, 29 January 2017.

Development journalism

Earlier this week I took part in a two-hour live TV programme on ITN, in Sinhala, around why a development project like the Moragahakanda Reservoir didn’t get much media coverage. The choice of a project to anchor the programme to was interesting. The foundation stone for the project was laid in January 2007 by the current President, who was then a Cabinet Minister under the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa. President Sirisena is on record how after the inauguration of the project ten years ago, moves by Mahinda Rajapaksa to strip him of key Ministries sowed the seed of his dissent, leading to the political dynamics of today. Moragahakanda is a pet project of the incumbent President, championed for a decade. The desire of both station and the specific programme may have been to prop the project as one worthy of greater mainstream media coverage. However, fellow panellist and media commentator Nalaka Gunawardene threw back at anchor a pertinent question – poor coverage relative to what? In the decade between 2005 and 2015, every drain, doorway and culvert opened, leave aside highway, port or airport, resulted in a flurry of media coverage and attention. Just after 2009, the project of deifying the Rajapaksas included sustained coverage on anything and everything they attended and cut a ribbon for – whether it was of any consequence or not. From pillars and lampposts to front-pages and TV news, from full colour, full page advertisements in the print media to the adroit use of social media, the grand narrative of development and prosperity was strategically produced and published to counter justice, reconciliation and accountability.

It worked.

Yahapalanaya promised to change all that. What is perhaps an unintended consequence, though not entirely surprising to some, is that the current government just doesn’t know how to sell itself. On the one hand, it cannot visibly use the State media in much the same way as the previous administration. It doesn’t have comparable levels of charisma amongst the political leadership. The once powerful story of a democratic, peaceful shift away from authoritarianism is now lost, largely because government didn’t know how to run with it over the longer-term. The media story today is one anchored to the failure of government to achieve and sustain meaningful reform. Given the circus of media coverage over the past decade, both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe may in fact be desperate to effectively tell an apathetic public that it is doing lots of interesting stuff. Desperation is a bad basis for strategy. This isn’t going to end well.

For starters, Moragahakanda and similar projects undertaken from 2005 onwards have an associated debt that isn’t clear or always in the public domain. A demographic between 18 – 34, first time voters and more generally engaged in socio-political discussions over social media, aren’t those tuning into ITN or going to websites run by government ministries. Given the debacle of being outed for peddling outright lies regarding investments by Volkswagen in Sri Lanka, plus the largely negative media publicity around the Hambantota economic zone (to the credit of the JO and the Rajapaksas, who played their hand very well)we have now a government is desperate for positive spin and favourable coverage. The ITN programme may have been thought of as a way to place on record, through State media, the importance of one project and the scale of its returns over the next years. There is, to the credit of the gentlemen who appeared on behalf of the project and no doubt deeply committed to it, a lot (of very good things) that the media should have covered about Moragahakanda, but have not. Coverage, as it is always the case, is limited to the President’s comments and his visit. The cure though is not through official propaganda. My submission was three-fold, though it is unlikely to gain traction in government.

One, focus on the millennials, using social media as the primary vector. Inheriting debt is no cause for joy, and the debt portfolio of Sri Lanka being what it is, youth today may well wonder why they should be interested in much less cheering for projects, hundreds of kilometres away from them, with no visible benefit to their lives and yet had to pay for through taxes. A recent multi-media campaign by the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) – the marketing equivalent of rigor mortis – shows how poorly even the more progressive arms of government really understand communicating with a key demographic that placed them in power. Conversely, the focus on Facebook and Twitter Q&As by Mahinda and Namal Rajapaksa, just over the first weeks of 2017, suggest they are far more in tune with how this demographic engages, accesses news and information and makes up their minds. In a post-truth political and media landscape, those who are often first to screens are also those who shape minds the most, independent of factual merit. A government that doesn’t have the institutional agility, imaginative capacity, foresight and indeed, humour to appeal to a key political constituency, spread across the island, is not one who long-term success can be bet on.

Two, data. Lots of it, in raw form and in the public domain. Government sponsored news and information is precisely that. Propaganda done right is what the JO and Rajapaksas were, nay are good at. Compelling stories, virally distributed, can entertain, shift focus on to or away from key issues – which as much as it can be a force for change, is often used to gloss over inconvenient truths. Data around projects, from design to implementation, anchored to tenders, procedures, projected costs, cost over-runs, yield, return of investment, benefits, risks, opportunities and challenges can contribute to a culture where citizens, communities and media use what’s in the public domain to hold government accountable. In raw form – also sometimes called machine-readable form – this data can contribute to citizen driven socio-economic modelling, visualisations that simplify complexity and data-driven stories that through production and publication can strengthen governance and accountability. The shift from propaganda – or State led media initiatives – to a data driven media production culture is not just symbolic. Substantively, the debate when anchored to public data is around facts and figures, and much less about spin and opinion. Everyone, including government, stands to benefit from this.

Three, an inquiring mind and openly questioning. I had the mission statement of The Economist magazine in mind when I proposed this on TV. On the contents page of every issue, though rarely noticed even by long-time subscribers, the magazine says it was established to take part in ‘a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress’. Infusing this spirit into the quality of media production and publication around governance is a good thing. Towards the end of the programme, this scared the anchor who thought I may have been asking citizens to rebel and revolt on the streets. While this too is a feature of democracy, what I stressed more on-air was what our existing education system stymies from kindergarten onwards – independent, critical thought. A clash of ideas was what I wanted to see. Good journalism that looks at development is nothing more than a set of questions framing an issue, place, person or process. It pits ideas against each other.

It is unclear if ITN itself understood the thrust of these three points, much less government. We seem to be stuck in a groove where personal cults, sycophancy, uncritical media and the worst sort of propaganda go on to define how we see, and appreciate, much of what is done with our money and in our name. The best form of coverage a government can get is through the interest of citizens to question it hard, and over the long-term.

Yet that’s precisely the currency so many in politics fear.

Obama as a person

There is a data visualisation on the web called ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’, that is anchored to known and recorded drone strikes in Pakistan conducted by the United States. It starts in 2004 and ends in 2015. Around the halfway point, in 2009, out-going President of the US, Barack Obama, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. The exponential increase in drone strikes on Pakistan over the next two years in particular is unmistakable. Here’s an interesting passage taken from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

“…government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press. Those suspected of discussing with reporters anything that the government has classified as secret are subject to investigation, including lie-detector tests and scrutiny of their telephone and e-mail records. An “Insider Threat Program” being implemented in every government department… to help prevent unauthorized disclosures of information by monitoring the behaviour of their colleagues.”

You would be forgiven for thinking this is out of a report dealing with Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksa regime. In fact, this is a 2013 report that focussed on the US administration, under President Obama. In what is a lengthy report, CPJ flags a central and I believe entirely original strategy of the out-going administration as the first to in a sense grow up with and fully embrace social media’s reach.

“… government websites turned out to be part of a strategy, honed during Obama’s presidential campaign, to use the Internet to dispense to the public large amounts of favourable information and images generated by his administration, while limiting its exposure to probing by the press.”

If you think about it, the adulation and adoration of the out-going President is a product of a svelte media campaign that no doubt will result in at least one book with an insider-partial perspective after January this year, giving insights into how the media operations in Obama’s White House were planned and executed. Before Obama, we didn’t have a news and policy rapping President who went with comedians in cars, danced his way into talk shows, appeared in self-deprecating comedy shows to promote his administration’s work, took questions from YouTube, appeared on Reddit, guest edited issues of Wired magazine and appeared on its cover, published some of the most shared tweets and images on Twitter for any user on its network, was a Facebook phenomenon, contributed to Cosmopolitan magazine and posted on Instagram. For the first time ever in the history of the American Presidency, there are initiatives like ArchiveSocial’s archive of all the social media content produced by Obama administration, MIT Media Lab’s data driven visualisations of Obama’s tweets, and even now a search engine for all the animated GIF images that featured the out-going President, or were in some way connected to his administration’s policies. Obama was the first social media President of the US, and his success at crafting so well his public image was in no small part linked to demeanour, the strength of conviction and character, a scandal free White House, a remarkably normal, loving wife and family, lovely dogs and a disarming sense of humour.

Yet, this is precisely what masks the significant failures of his administration – the disarming of trenchant critique through the adroit use of telegenics over the Internet could well be a political art that marks best Obama’s time at the White House. From the use of drones often with scant regard for national sovereignty, to pervasive surveillance architectures unprecedented in their ability to undermine privacy, from the inability to shut down Guantanamo – an Inauguration Day promise –  which as of 20 January 2017 will still have around forty inmates to his administration’s crackdown on whistle-blowers, much of what will invariably be flagged as wrong or violent under Trump’s administration would in fact have been seeded, championed, strengthened or wilfully ignored under Obama. A central irony will be that the ‘bubbles’ he warned us all against in his final speech as President were those he himself manufactured and largely inhabited – where an America partial to and who placed their trust in Trump were largely outside of, impervious to and indeed, angered by what they saw framed in White House media output under Obama. The more we were taken up by slick media productions featuring Obama and a concert of staff, family and others including Hollywood’s greats, the more we ignored those languishing outside the frames we shared, liked and reacted to so much. This was Trump’s opportunity, which he exploited, and how.

Another irony is how there is now only after the US election an emphasis on false news generation, a post-factual political culture, the danger of unverified news consumption and the realisation that those outside what appears to be an all-encompassing, all-embracing social media gaze or embrace can actually shift political power. Post-factual politics, or the art of openly lying about policies, statements and accountability, defines Sri Lankan politics for as long as I can recall. There is a spike after 2007, with the manufacture of lies that had to support the war, but a counter-factual political culture, deeply resistant to data driven and evidence based policymaking is deeply ingrained in our country over successive administrations. Citizens don’t demand better. Much of media doesn’t care. Politicians go on with impunity. Nothing of what the US media fears with Trump was what local media didn’t endure under Rajapaksa. It was in fact much worse. Everything that can be said of Trump, from his vitriolic expression to a deeply misogynistic, racist brand of politics, can be ascribed to Presidents, politicians and political parties Sri Lankans have endured, and indeed voted into power, for years. This includes prominent members of the present government.

As Obama leaves office and media even in Sri Lanka reflects on his time as President, I wonder what our current crop of politicians will choose to be remembered for. We have in just the first two weeks of 2017 a PM who was outed as a liar over claims made by him and others in government around Volkswagen’s investments in Sri Lanka, or lack thereof. We have a President completely silent over his party’s claims that he will stand as a candidate for elections in 2020 to elect an Executive President – seemingly a complete volte-face from a promise unequivocally made on the evening of 9th January 2015, after Sirisena was sworn into office, to abolish it. Constitutional reform is in a mess. The economy is in a mess. The transitional justice agenda is in a mess, coloured by resistance and repulsion instead reform and revision. Reconciliation is without any clear agenda or strategic vision. The government is becoming increasingly thin-skinned, especially around criticisms generated on and distributed over social media. That Obama-esque moment of 9th January, where hope for a better country drowned out, for most of us assembled that evening at Independence Square, deep-seated cynicism around meaningful reform, is now long gone. We have in its place a reversion to the politics of yesteryear, and though vastly different by way of scale and scope, the brand of politics we thought we had voted out in January 2015. With Trump, the US will see a political culture they had an eight-year respite from. In 2020, the fear is that we return to the politics of 2014. Trump gives the world a modern, malleable model to exploit those left out of the mainstream political discourse, who swayed through populist promise and inward looking nationalism number more than those social media reaches, and a more liberal, cosmopolitan worldview appeals to. We must be open to the dangers we see in the US under Trump being applicable to us in Sri Lanka, under a different political leadership.

The issue of legacy divides historians. Obama will be remembered variously, as we all are. He was exceptional in many ways. Yet more than politician or President, and in the fullness of time, we may come to appreciate more Obama as that father who supported a daughter skip his last official speech, as important as his first in office, in order to study for an exam she had to sit for the next day. His track-record with children, the handshakes with janitors and security guards, the thoughtfulness, reflection, respect and dignity he brought to office – these are qualities that defined Obama the person, beyond Obama as President.

And for that, if not so much more, he will be missed.


First published in The Sunday Island, 15 January 2017.

A report on reconciliation

Last week, the Consultations Task Force (CTF) handed over its final report to former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga. It was supposed to be handed over to the President. However, he wasn’t present at the ceremony, on a date and time his office had negotiated after many delays spreading over months. As widely noted, the CTF comprised of eleven members drawn from civil society and was appointed by the Prime Minister in late January 2016, to seek the views and comments of the public on the proposed mechanisms for transitional justice and reconciliation, as per the October 2015 UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka, co-sponsored by the Government of Sri Lanka. Accordingly, you would expect the PM, whose brainchild the CTF was, to be present at the handover ceremony. He wasn’t either.

The optics of the PM’s and President’s combined absence – no accident – will be the defining frame through which government writ large engages with the substance of the report. Already, the Justice Minister has dismissed the CTF’s findings. The Cabinet Spokesperson went on record saying that a key mechanism flagged in the report was not one the Government of Sri Lanka or the UN had agreed to. The comprehensive rebuttal over Twitter from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was unequivocal in its support for the report, and key recommendations therein. To date, the President and the PM have not issued any press release or statement welcoming the report. The Official Secretariat for the Coordination of Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM), now the custodian of the report, has no demonstrable capacity to champion any of the recommendations, and furthermore, in an incredible display of incompetence, managed to make a complete hash of the report’s release to the public on the web.

It remains to be seen whether civil society, quite vocally critical of the Rajapaksa regime’s unwillingness and inability to deliver key recommendations in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report, will hold this government accountable for, what will invariably be given the signs, the non-implementation of many CTF key recommendations. An acronym soup of official entities risks confusing the general public as well. The CTF, as noted in the report itself, even though set up by government, was debilitated in its ability around public outreach during consultations. Funding was crippled – much slower than expected, far lower than required. The official entities tasked with reconciliation have no coherent coordination framework. Consultation fatigue has set in amongst the general public, with many, even as they engaged with the CTF, clearly noting that they were hugely sceptical of any meaningful redress and reform. Above all, the timbre of the public mood the CTF report clearly flags is far removed from a healthy democracy. Legitimate grievances, from those in the South and families of the military, to those in the North and families of the disappeared, undermine all the rosy scenarios painted by government around a stable, just, peaceful future. This is not some academic argument or the wild imaginings of a few at the helm of CTF. A complete, trilingual archive of submissions, which for the first time in any national consultation held to date in the country will be made public in the months to come, will support and strengthen the report’s thrust.

The CTF is a historic achievement, and by far, one of the most far-ranging consultations around four key mechanisms of transitional justice and reconciliation conducted in any post-war context. Instead of having institutions, frameworks and mechanisms imposed on them, citizens were asked for their opinion around what was important to focus on, why, how and with whom – including the capture of aspirations, concerns and ideas well beyond the four specific mechanisms the CTF was anchored to. You would think that as a consequence, the release of the final report would bring with it a flurry of mainstream media attention, analysis and engagement. This hasn’t happened – the English press has focussed on a single topic – the issue of international involvement in judicial mechanisms. Nowhere is it made clear that the recommendations are reflective of the submissions made by those across the country. Editorials in the Sinhala press have already dismissed the CTF, calling it an NGO canard – unsurprising, given the nationalism that so often cloaks Editorial gaze. At the press conference held by the CTF last week at the Media Ministry, at least one journalist from a leading TV news station sitting in the front row didn’t know what he had come to cover, until he was informed by a colleague what the CTF was. This anecdotal story is more broadly indicative of what we can expect from mainstream media by way of critical engagement with the CTF’s findings.

The CTF’s press conference underscored other structural concerns I had with the final report. What was a process of consultation mandated and initiated by government, is now pitched as a report that is a clarion call for civil society to hold government accountable around implementation. This shift here is telling and perhaps the result of the CTF’s inability, at least for now, to openly criticise the PM for not following through with the promise of consultations. Though the report emphasises the critical role of civil society, it is essentially a complete revamp of the State as it is structured now. This is a task for government. And herein lies the rub. The entire report is written with the assumption that government will champion its recommendations. If it was evident even during consultations – with plenty of evidence on this score – that the government would not in fact take kindly to what was proposed, the report should have been structured around what could be done despite government, and refocussed recommendations around regional, international, media and civil society strategies to diplomatically and by other means strongly encourage political office to take heed of vital recommendations in line with existing commitments at the UN in Geneva. A report that pegs the success of reform to a government that isn’t really interested in it stands little chance of success. Further, there is no prioritisation of the recommendations, which when reading the report can be seen as overwhelming – even to government. Arguably, this will come by way of consultations around how the recommendations can be implemented, but we don’t find in the report safeguards against filibuster by focussing on the least important points, and in the noise and attention generated as a consequence, pushing to the periphery far more important recommendations that need to be urgently implemented. An inadvertent consequence of strong, sustained civil society advocacy and activism around the recommendations may also be that it gives life to what leading critics of the report, including from within government, misleadingly say it is – an NGO campaign. If the government itself doesn’t give life and leadership to reform and reconciliation, civil society cannot fill the gap. And since this isn’t about regime change but rather State reform, it is unclear to what degree civil society itself has the competency and capacity to engage with government, over the long-term, to achieve intended outcomes. And finally, no political party, even though invited by the CTF, made any representation or submission whatsoever. Beyond the bi-partisan coalition in power, this suggests the political firmament of Sri Lanka is hostile to or at best dismissive of the CTF’s recommendations and by extension, what so many citizens so desperately want to see, achieve and feel, post-war.

The great pity of merely quoting politicians, reading slanted Editorials and news features, hostile opinion pieces and other material against the CTF and its findings is that they will be entirely unreflective of the rich, textured and multi-faceted foci in the report, anchored to the thousands across the country who, despite visible and repeated intimidation, came out and spoke their mind. Even in the passages and points dealing with the military and their opinion, there is opportunity for engagement and negotiation. Arguably, at close to 1,000 pages spread over two volumes, this will be read completely by just a handful at best. Even the Executive Summary is too long for most. Much will need to be done to communicate back to those who engaged what the report focussed on, and beyond, how a government fearful of pushback from the South, the military and Buddhist clergy can be supported, without being co-opted, in a courageous reform agenda.

The CTF is a historic attempt. Let our disagreement as well as our support be based on what’s in the report, which essentially requires us to read, at the very least, the Executive Summary. One also risks disappointment to hope there is the political will to take the key recommendations forward. This will require compromise on all sides, but is there any task more important than this? The sustenance of a government that that embodies everything that is denied to citizens must not be how history records this time. The CTF’s report is cartography we must explore.

Else we will forever be lost.


First published in The Sunday Island, 8 January 2017.