Archiving the future

Not without the greatest irony, sometime last week, the website of the Presidential Commission to Investigate into Complaints Regarding Missing Persons disappeared. Some years ago, the official website of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) also disappeared without trace. The then government said the content of the site had folded into the Presidential Secretariat site. This was untrue, since the original site’s record of public testimonies across the island were completely lost. In 2014, there were in fact two distinct websites around the National Action Plan of the LLRC. There is no official trace of them now on the web. Soon after the Presidential election in January 2015, Presidential Secretariat’s website was revamped, and summarily lost all content around and links to the former President’s speeches and submissions, since 2005. The Tharunyata Hetak website, headed by Namal Rajapaksa, is no more. There is no official record of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) website, from the time of the Ceasefire Agreement, containing a vital historical record of government and LTTE relations, internal politics and diplomacy. Around the same time, the then United National Front (UNF) government released the ‘Regaining Sri Lanka’ macro-economic framework as a neo-liberal blueprint for the country’s future development. There is no official trace of that now. Particularly during the CFA, but also for a few years after it, the website of the erstwhile Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) housed invaluable documentation around the negotiations, ceasefire violations, the various rounds of peace talks from Sattahip onwards and official statements from the Sri Lankan government, Norway, the donor co-chairs and others. That site is also now gone. Around 2008, the then government launched a multi-billion-rupee programme called Eastern Revival (Nagenahira Navodaya) to kick start the economy in the East of Sri Lanka. It had an official website with all the details around the projects, and how much of money would be spent on what. There is no record of the site now. The website of the Commission of Inquiry is gone. The website of the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) is gone. The website of the infamous Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) is gone.

The failure to archive these sites is indicative of an enduring problem around the inability and unwillingness to consider content online as a vital historical record. Add to this, in the case of the Presidential Secretariat website after the election of Maithripala Sirisena in 2015, the inability to see the site as a vital national resource, and instead curate it as a partisan platform. This myopia invariably led to the erasure of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s mentions and content. The resulting colossal loss to the country’s historical record goes completely unacknowledged. It may even be celebrated by some, as helpful in blotting out the Rajapaksa’s from history. And yet, each of these websites contained, for students, historians, politicians, biographers, political scientists, researchers and curators, content that simply could not be found elsewhere. There is no physical record of the material on these sites, which captured processes, updates around incidents and the output from official structures that were hotly debated in Parliament, contested on the streets, generated mainstream media responses, shaped domestic politics, informed economic policy, determined military responses and guided international diplomacy. In fact, a conversation a few years ago with Dr. Saroja Wettasinghe, the head of Sri Lanka’s National Archives, had her lament that they barely got the funding to maintain and expand the existing (physical) archives, and had no capacity whatsoever to gear up to archive content online and in the national interest.

This is not just a significant problem with government. In 2010, the Women and Media Collective (WMC), a pioneering feminist organisation, celebrated a quarter century of advocacy and activism by holding an exhibition of their output at the Lionel Wendt. The output, from the silk-screen posters to the type-written letters to President J.R. Jayawardene in the 1980s was in effect a history of media development in Sri Lanka. All this irreplaceable content, I was appalled to learn at the time, was stored in a trunk in someone’s bedroom. Mainstream media in Sri Lanka once every few years upgrade their websites, yet when they do, usually break all existing links to content from previous years. Some don’t even have searchable archives.

The absolutely appalling approach to the management of records and archives will invariably undermine the implementation of Right to Information legislation. Government and public authorities may at first seem to be withholding information or showing a bias towards non-disclosure, when in fact they may not have the tools, man-power, know-how or searchable archives to access the requested information. Government will learn that there is no point in simply storing files or information. If it cannot be found, it does not exist.

There is another dimension to all this, and linked to my column last Sunday. Consultations around reconciliation post-war will invariably deal with memory, and contested historical records. It sounds counter-intuitive, but memory is in fact more about the future than it is about the past. If we lose access to content around what happened in the past and why, we lose the ability to create the future we want and risk repeating history. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s speeches, the statements by Sarath Fonseka during the war, the interviews with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the edicts on the MCNS website against media, the records of ceasefire violations by the LTTE and the statements by the Norwegian negotiators at the time, the Oslo Declaration in 2002, the propaganda of the Sri Lanka Army during the war and after it, the research output of SCOPP, the statements from the COI around the significant problems around the process at the time – these and so much more constitute a vital historical record that Sri Lanka cannot afford to lose. Simply put, the more we create official structures that primarily and sometimes only ever produce content digitally, the less we can afford to ignore the preservation of this content for posterity.

There is some hope. In the case of every single website above save for the original LLRC site, I have since 2008, in my own time and using my own resources, archived the content to the fullest extent possible. ‘Sites at Risk’ was a personal initiative started in 2008 to archive websites that were at risk of being shut down, hacked into, blocked or because their editors or curators could be killed or tortured, suffer long periods of downtime. I also digitised most of the output by WMC over 25 years, which is also now on the cloud for safekeeping. Citizen archivists in Sri Lanka have gone on to document LLRC submissions, personal narratives of those affected by the war and also digitise historical and cultural material in Tamil in the North. And yet, in Pakistan, they have gone much further, with the pioneering Citizens Archive of Pakistan operating as a repository of the country’s cultural heritage and oral storytelling tradition. Here in Sri Lanka, we casually spend hundreds of millions on luxury SUVs for MPs, ignoring that Dr. Wettasinghe has to fight tooth and nail just to slightly increase funding to our National Archives.

Our priorities are clearly out of whack.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 17 July 2016.

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2 thoughts on “Archiving the future

  1. Sanjana says:

    Reblogged this on ICT for Peacebuilding (ICT4Peace) and commented:

    Consultations around reconciliation post-war will invariably deal with memory, and contested historical records. It sounds counter-intuitive, but memory is in fact more about the future than it is about the past. If we lose access to content around what happened in the past and why, we lose the ability to create the future we want and risk repeating history.

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