Citizens Journalism, War & Peace

Citizens Journalism, War & Peace

“while we certainly need vigilance to prevent acts of terrorism, and firmness in condemning and punishing them, it will be self-defeating if we sacrifice other key priorities – such as human rights – in the process” – Kofi Anan in 2002

The “War on Terror”, that diplomatic, political and military strategy of choice after the attacks against civilians in New York in September 2001, is one that has been silently waged in Sri Lanka for over 27 years. Generations are woven into the vortex of violence. Citizens across the island, particularly in the North and the East, have suffered the twin effects of terrorism, and equally reprehensible strategies of successive governments to weed out terrorism with only occasional regard for fundamental rights and humanitarian norms. Human dignity and its corollary, the regard for human life, has eroded so dramatically in two decades of bloody conflict that the killings of a few dozen are now no longer exceptional. Indeed, perversely, days in which there are only a few killings are now considered “good” days, given the striking rise in violence on the ground in 2006. Sri Lanka’s own “Wars on Terror” over the past two decades, looked at from the perspective of a citizen, is a multi-faceted and complex series of struggles to secure human rights, basic human needs and above all, the hope for a just and sustainable peace. Those who stand in the way are not just the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE), a known terrorist organisation proscribed by the US State Department and reviled by human rights activists and the breakaway faction led by Karuna, now largely in control of the East of the country. State authorities – the military and the Police – have not been above using terrorism to achieve their own parochial ends. Not just the pogrom in 1983, but also the Marxist uprising in the late 80’s demonstrated unequivocally the brutality of the State. In dealing with dissent, Sri Lanka is a country that is almost pathologically conditioned to use violence as a first option, with negotiations as a distant alternative.

Accordingly, dealing with terrorist requires us to look at systemic change of the social, economic and political status quo. Recognising that the roots of terrorism lie in the effective marginalisation of the aspirations of distinct communities, we realise that addressing such deep seated systemic inequality requires a radical long term reformist agenda, a commitment to recognising the existence of and putting a stop to discrimination in all forms, strengthening the legitimacy of democratic rule by measures that enable citizens hold their representatives accountable and governance frameworks that are transparent and highly responsive to the basic human needs of all citizens.

Citizens are well aware of these steps. Governments however are resistant to change, and often choose populist strategies with guaranteed high visibility in the media – such as military offensives with “victories” against terrorism – over measures to change the systems of power in polity and society that continue to exacerbate communal and ethnic tensions through the continuation of policies of discrimination & marginalisation. What we are then left with is an ever-shrinking space for concerned citizens – often called civil society – to express dissent and antipathy towards the actions of those who perpetuate violent conflict and destroy further the hope of peace & reconciliation.

Citizen journalism can help cauterise this festering vortex of violence. Through new Internet and web based technologies are revolutionising communications even over vast distances, even citizens in Sri Lanka who have been effectively cut off from mainstream media bursting over with propaganda of political elites have found new ways of expressing themselves, their concerns, their aspirations and their ideas for conflict transformation. Often, this new age of citizen journalism lacks the grammar of age old diplomacy and socio-political norms – the conversation is raw, visceral, impatient, irreverent, pithy, provocative. In Sri Lanka, it is a conversation that’s largely still in English, and also limited to urban centres. The potential of citizen journalism, however, is that in giving a foundation for all citizens – literate, illiterate, male and female, of all ethnicities, castes, class and religion – to express themselves freely, the transformation of polity and society to accommodate ideas and measures that facilitate conflict transformation and engender peace also occurs apace.

At least – this is the much-vaunted promise. The reality is somewhat different. Citizen journalism can fall by the way side as a fad if it doesn’t foster measurable and tangible change for citizens facing the brunt of violence and conflict. The conversations can be trivial and silly as well as racist and deeply divisive. It cannot be assumed that communication automatically brings with it greater understanding and it may well be the case that terrorists (and sections of the State interested in the perpetuating of war that brings with it huge material wealth for a coterie deeply disinterested in peace) mould the basic technologies and frameworks of citizens journalism to spread hate and violence.

Cognisant of the above, and yet interested in the subversive nature of citizen journalism to effect progressive conflict transformation in Sri Lanka through a space simply not available in other media, Groundviews – http://www.groundviews.org – was launched in December 2006 as the first tri-lingual citizen journalism initiative in the country. It is to date the only such initiative. Anyone, from anywhere in Sri Lanka, with access to a Internet connected and a PC, can write in their thoughts in Sinhala, Tamil or English to the website. Importantly, Groundviews is seen as a mechanism through which can bear witness to and report on Sri Lanka’s democratic deficit, the culture of impunity and the flagrant violations of human rights through simple, compelling stories that seek to humanise the on-going violence.

Different perspectives lead to a fuller understanding of why we are once again at war. Some of the ideas and opinions on Groundviews, even a month after its launch, are those that come from the battle weary North and East, demonstrating that even faced with starvation, there are those who still believe in a negotiated settlement as a means through which to secure lasting and just peace. Other submissions explore the many contradictions between word and action of the government, the LTTE and other armed groups, explore the problems of governance, flesh out issues related to the economy and celebrate community level dispute resolution mechanisms, which in some parts of the country are flourishing.
These stories are vital pegs of hope, diversity and coexistence. They are those that will possibly never make it to mainstream media. Ordinary citizens, weary of violence, write them. Artistes, human rights and media activists, academics, young bloggers and thinkers – none of them with any journalism background or training, write them. Groundviews is already a repository of content and the thrust and parry of debate that is sorely lacking in mainstream media, and is eroding in mainstream polity and society. It is, finally, an experiment in progress – the enactment of new anti-terrorism legislation by the government that is in effect a means through which to shut drown voices of dissent – is a Damoclean sword for Groundviews, and all websites in Sri Lanka, that seek to air voices of citizens interested in federalism, democracy and peace.

Therefore, there is no guarantee that it will foster a new social movement in support of peace, even when to do so is to risk one’s life. There is no guarantee it will secure peace and support real world conflict transformation initiatives. There is no guarantee that hate speech will not take over the timbre of online debate. Ironically, the more Groundviews is successful in fostering new voices in support of peace, the more it will be a target of concerted attacks to prevent it from growing further.

And it is here that our greatest challenge lies. Not in the technology itself, but in the creation of a social and political movement, fostered by citizen journalism mediated through new media and new technology, that is able to maintain, in some small way, the hope of a just and lasting peace in Sri Lanka, even when the world around is going to hell. And it is this hope that fuels Groundviews, not as a simplistic magic bullet against terrorism, but as an increasingly important vehicle for ordinary citizens to record their views in support democracy as the only way through which terrorism can be effectively combated.

And in this endeavour, Groundviews (www.groundviews.lk) needs all the support you can give.

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