Right to Information: All hype with no bite?

Right to Information (RTI) legislation was unanimously passed in Sri Lanka’s Parliament last week without a vote. It sounds easy and inevitable when framed thus, but that one sentence masks decades of activism and advocacy to pass RTI to no avail, and strong pushback from government predominantly based around national security issues. It was unlikely that during war, Sri Lanka would have passed this legislation. Yet even today, seven years after the war ended, the default mode of operation for government is to hoard, retain, hide and obscure information. The law will invariably engineer great resistance at all levels of government and state administration. RTI is progressive because it places the onus on public institutions to respond to queries by the public, opening them up to a degree of legal scrutiny hitherto unprecedented. The law is disruptive precisely because of this. Decades of a culture of secrecy, of hoarding information, of not releasing information in the public interest is now turned on its head. Public institutions will have to proactively disclose information to the public, and also disclose when requested by the public. To do this, information officers will be appointed – and they will face the gargantuan task of dealing with requests from the public for information there may not even be official records around. Our bureaucracy is based on who knows whom, and what one knows about another. It is based on clientalism and nepotism, with systemic record keeping more to thwart and stifle genuine accountability, over any interest in efficiency and effectiveness. RTI turns this on its head too. Comprehensive records management now trumps favour, personal relations and convenient amnesia. And it is not just the hoarding of files in gunny bags in a dark basement. RTI emphasis that records must be kept in an easily and effectively retrievable manner that is systematic, without being hostage to the often mercurial and entirely subjective “filing systems” of individuals who happen to inhabit a particular office over a period of time.

Beyond all this is how RTI can strengthen and support civic media as well as investigative reporting. In a regular column to the newspapers, I wrote that RTI comes to Sri Lanka at a time when we are on the cusp of almost ubiquitous connectivity – from continued upgrades of existing telecommunications infrastructure to the advent of new technologies like Google Loon which promise high speed wireless connectivity from all corners of the country. I argued that the implementation of RTI in Sri Lanka needs to be digital and mobile first, enabling citizens to interact with and ask questions from government, using the provisions in the law, through their mobile phones, tablets and desktop browsers instead of resorting to paper, pen and post. It is here that I foresee the greatest challenges around RTI’s implementation, which I frame as a crisis of the imagination.

Used to being in the opposition, and stuck in survival mode, civil society now needs to use RTI to frame requests from government in support of their work. This means understanding the law, and using it, instead of fighting against unjust laws, which has largely defined the work of rights-based civil society advocacy and activism in Sri Lanka. The emergence of ‘solutions based journalism’ is a school of practice and thought that holds great promise for the practice of journalism under RTI, which is anchored to generating ideas to solve key issues, rather than just flag what’s going terribly wrong. The generation of new ideas and innovation, it stands to reason, can only gain from information around what decisions have been taken in the past and why, which is where RTI comes into play. Questions that interrogate structures, decisions, mechanisms, institutional history, purchases, the hiring and firing of individuals, the non-disclosure of interests and the under-utilisation of assets, the awarding of tenders to the selection of service providers, measuring key performance indicators around promises made and asking information that impacts the families of the disappeared – this is in the future all possible in Sri Lanka because of provisions in our RTI legislation.

At least, it is in theory. Information in the public domain does not automatically engender the political will to address official wrongdoing or maladministration. Oftentimes, information secured by RTI will require more requests to be made possibly from other public institutions, cross-verification, some translation and finally, contextualisation. Ordinary citizens may demand information, but government is not bound to provide the information in a manner that is easily comprehended. This is why it is so important to strengthen civil society and independent media to use RTI to transformation information to knowledge, and raw data into context. This is where journalists, including citizen journalists, step in. While RTI’s importance extend far beyond media and journalism, journalists and acts of journalism by citizens can showcase the power and potential of RTI to prise open official mechanisms. Accountability is not a given today, and will never be. Just like the decades of activism and advocacy, against the most determined adversity that was required before RTI was passed in Sri Lanka, the litmus test of legislation will be in its fullest implementation. Else, all this hype and hoopla would have been for nothing.

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First published in SAMSN Digital Hub

Home

The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.

Maya Angelou

‘Sampur’, a new and compelling short documentary by filmmaker Kannan Arunasalam released last week, is now freely available online and over social media. The film deals with displacement. Seven years after the end of the war in Sri Lanka, that so many in Sri Lanka can’t go back to their homes may come as a surprise to some readers. The documentary centres around internally displaced individuals from Sampur – a town located about thirty kilometres South-East of Trincomalee. The hellish conditions those displaced had to endure for over nine years was, in part, highlighted by the enervating heat we’ve endured for so many weeks across Sri Lanka. If from the relative comfort and security of our own homes we often complain about the withering weather, it is hard – even when their lives and living conditions are projected in high definition – to truly imagine the lives of entire families confined to small shelters, tin roofs over their heads, with no electricity or running water. The film showcased the struggle of seven individuals to return home. There are many more in similar conditions, also waiting to go back home.

The end of the war was a ripe moment for those displaced to return to their homes. This did not happen. Instead they spent years in IDP camps before returning to find their land still occupied, and were forced to live in temporary, makeshift housing. The opening up of the North and East to journalists provided new frames and opportunities to capture stories that for decades were marginal, or even violently erased. And yet, their stories are still not meaningfully documented or reported. The filmmaker highlighted another ironical development, post-war. During war, he noted, an intrepid filmmaker was able to capture footage from the North and East under the radar of the military and other officials. Since 2015, he noted that while filmmakers can move around freely, the military continued to block or ban the filming of tracts of land, festivals, or specific locations, despite official requests from government authorities to allow filming. So while Sri Lanka’s post-war “success story” continues to generate kudos from the international community, thousands continue to be traumatised by the presence of the military. This is not hyperbole. A character in ‘Sampur’ speaks of how humiliating it is to have to ask permission from the military weeks in advance to just visit a temple, only to be turned down with no reason given. Another says how scared she was of being shot by the military when returning to her own home. It’s just one line amongst many others that are equally poignant, and points to an enduring fear years after the end of war in Sri Lanka that can’t be laughed off or somehow wished away.

A rough analogy would be to have armed, resident and State-sponsored burglars in your home, who on a logic entirely distinct from and independent of you or your family, opened and closed the front door, oversaw what you did and said, used your home as they saw fit. Further, they also saw you you and your family as annoyingly occupying property that belonged to the State, even though it really is your own land to which you have a legal entitlement to.

This is Sampur in a nutshell. The absurdity of it all is in fact what so many endure, with no recourse to the law, no savings to start anew elsewhere, and in fact, no desire to leave their homes. The indignity is what is most disturbing. Long after you’ve forgotten what was said by someone, you remember how you felt. Successive governments have promised equality and freedom for Tamils. Few have made them feel at home. The excuse for what is essentially systemic racism on multiple levels can no longer be that political change takes time. It’s really quite basic – allowing someone to go back to their homes in lands privately owned and occupied by generations, cultivate their land, sleep without fear of being shot at. Being spoken to in a language they can communicate in. Being treated with dignity, or at the very least, with nothing more than the same rudeness and maddening inefficiency that all of us face when dealing with government. There are various theories about winning hearts and minds as integral to a just and lasting peace. Intellectual exercises around power sharing, electoral reform and transitional justice have no traction with displaced people eking out a living. Symbolic gestures matter perhaps far more? The restoration of a title deed. Even a simple hut in one’s own land, constructed by oneself, contrary to the government’s recent attempts at resettlement with recipients having no say over the type of house with little or no room for modification according to individual needs. Symbolic gestures can over time, and in the aggregate, invariably strengthen more complex institutional, constitutional and political reform agendas. No matter what genius guides a top-level political reform process, if communities and individuals like those depicted in ‘Sampur’ continue to live the way they have since 2006, we risk more violent conflict – and there is no sugar-coating this.

This would be such a tragedy, for all of us.

This is why ‘Sampur’ as a film, Sampur as a location, and Sampur as a frame of reference cuts across party political, communal, ethnic, economic and other identity markers. The film will be broadcast on TV and will hopefully resonate amongst those in other parts of the country who have also been displaced, or forcefully evicted. Those in Colombo need not look as far East as Trincomalee – the relatively invisible yet sustained evisceration of entire neighbourhoods and inter-ethnic, inter-religious communities who have lived together for decades, under the ‘beautification’ drive of the previous government and the megapolis plans of the present government, strongly mirrors the violence of those featured in the film. And while we may debate the scale and scope of the violence, the point of ‘Sampur’ is that we never lose sight of an essential, shared humanity.

This Sunday it’s very likely that you have this newspaper in your hands, or are reading this article on your palm or desktop, at home. Whatever form home takes and wherever it is, you are the custodian of a small piece of Earth’s crust to open out to others, to grow trees or bonsai, to build or break down, sell or rent out, walk in and out whenever you please and with whoever you please. To sing in the shower, or hog the loo. To run away from, or return gratefully to. To show off to others, or just admire privately. To party or rest. Pause to think about everything home means to you and your family. Where you are now. Where you grew up. Is it really too much to ask the same freedom, the same contentment, security and dignity for everyone in our country – especially for those who have lost so much?

The new old media

Growing up close to the Ratmalana airport during the 80’s, the noise from the pressurisation of large turbo-prop planes pierced the air at night and into the early hours of the morning. It was a sound we got used to. The other sound was of sirens, from ambulances. Endless streams of wailing sirens followed a few minutes after we heard a plane land. The ambulances didn’t stop. But after a while, the sirens did. Every morning, after one of these convoys of ambulances ruptured the night, the media – my father used to buy a government owned newspaper at the time – heralded some great victory for the Sri Lankan armed forces. Casualties, and ultimate defeat were on the side of the LTTE. Advances, and imminent victory, were on the side of the Sri Lankan military. And so the fiction went on – headlines in the media suggesting a narrative violently countered by the bodies of the dead and grievously injured airlifted from the North of the country to Ratmalana almost every night.

My distrust of media – electronic, print, mainstream, even new and social – is anchored to these nights, and the content published the day after. Over three decades later, the foundations of what gave life to blatant lies in the media remain firm and indeed, even more entrenched. New and social media on the web, and through our mobiles, do two things – they democratise narratives, allowing the discriminated, marginal or weak to take centre-stage. Two, for little to no expense or effort, the consumer can potentially go to a plethora of sources in order to find out more, determine the veracity of, counter or confirm a story. Has this helped media literacy? The jury’s out on this score, and what’s evident already is that access to greater choice, or the opportunities to interrogate more what one consumes, hasn’t translated into better journalism.

Readers of this newspaper may not fall into a demographic that takes for granted ‘news’ in the form of an infinitely scrolling section featuring video, text, photos and audio, conflating the private and personal with the public and official, on a single social media network. And yet many of my readers, at least in print, may have subscribed to one or two SMS news services. Others may get articles via email, sent by family, friends or colleagues. A few may still buy more than one newspaper – one State, one Private – in order to get a ‘balanced’ view. Rarer still are the readers who will go to a public library in order to read newsprint. Much has changed in three decades in the generation and consumption of news. Much remains unchanged.

Open for example a leading daily newspaper owned by one of the largest media groups in Sri Lanka. On most days, on the front page and continued within, there is a column dedicated to gossip. There is no effort to disguise this – the very title of the section makes it clear the content featured in it is as far removed from journalism as bulto toffee (remember those?) from an After Eight mint chocolate. This bears repeating – in our daily news media staple, idle-talk, unconfirmed stories, sexist bunk, unverified incidents from unnamed sources, the personal lives of individuals punctured with insinuations, innuendo and inanity – find their way on to a front page. Often, this content is published with scabrous graphics. We pay to read gossip. It gets worse. The media itself reports, without a hint of irony, various government schemes to help journalists purchase laptops, broadband connections, cars or motorcycles. To my knowledge, not a single journalist who has been the recipient of or benefitted from these easy payment and gift schemes has self-disclosed what they received. Some would argue that the majority of individuals who have benefited from these schemes are in fact worthy of supporting – journalism they will point out, isn’t a profession that is well paid or regarded in this country. And yet, the non-disclosure is deeply problematic. There is a clear conflict of interest, and an understandable barrier against independent reporting, if a journalist indebted to government is asked to critically examine governance. During Aluthgama’s communal riots – the worst Sri Lanka had seen in many years – official mainstream media output from both Private and State media chose to ignore the violence. This is excused by some who point out the awful political context at the time. Yet, how can we understand the hesitation to take on a leading multi-national soft-drink corporation after it polluted Colombo’s drinking water supply? Why is it that heads of mainstream media, summoned to the Prime Minister’s or President’s office, fail to disclose what was discussed?

In early January 2015, a leading media rights group – the Free Media Movement – approached a candidate standing for the Presidential election to uphold a five-point agenda on media pluralism. Maithripala Siresena was that candidate. As President, the change promised is more symbolic than systemic. Outmoded, outdated institutional structures and cultures remain intact across the media.

And so it continues. Instead of media that engages, helps imagine, sees laterally, visualises complexity, discloses, with reasons, its location on the political spectrum, innovates and really inspires, we pay for unadulterated gossip, atrocious design, poor writing, bad journalism and advertorials. Journalism as a start-up, married to civic media models – encouraging young, raw talent to write or produce what they want through digital tools, finding space for them to be featured in the mainstream – offers a way forward from the suffocating banality of the mainstream. In Sinhala, Tamil and English, creative productions and writing is blossoming. Careful curation and aggregation can help expand audiences. Digital tools are democratising the production of compelling stories. Old media is investing heavily in new technologies. Young voices are going back to long-form journalism, which is seeing a global revival. Data driven journalism is not just for economists anymore.

It is harder to hide ambulances at night carrying the dead and injured today, than it was in the 80’s. Much remains to be done.  It’s our media now. Let’s write its future together.

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Published in The Sunday Island, 17 January 2016.

Wicked Problems

“We cannot solve the problems we have created with the same thinking we used in creating them.”

Albert Einstein

A few readers may be familiar with the term ‘wicked problem’. Though tempting to assume it is, this is not a reference to the Rajapaksa family’s fetid legacy in governance. The man who coined the term, Horst Rittel, was an urban planner and designer, who found traditional planning methods inadequate for the complex problems he encountered.

A wicked problem is best understood as a very complex, multi-dimensional challenge – difficult to grasp, always in flux and onerous to solve. Rittel identified key characteristics of a wicked problem, which may sound annoyingly counter-intuitive to some readers who may be experts in their subject domains. Bear with me.

First, you can’t understand a wicked problem until you’ve developed a solution – different perspectives, from different people, lead to a problem that isn’t ever precisely defined, making it impossible to see what can work as a solution until one is actually tried. There is no one solution to a wicked problem, and there is no perfect solution. Wicked problems can most often be best addressed by solutions that are good enough, given the circumstances and context. There is no right or wrong solution – they can be better, on one side of a scale, or not good enough, on the other. How a particular solution is viewed depends on, amongst other things, gender, age, subjective bias, interests, location and identity – different people will see a solution’s relative merits differently. Every wicked problem is new. Reducing urban congestion by allowing access to odd and even number plates into the city on alternating days may work in Delhi, but around the same challenge, may not work in Colombo, where more efficient public transport could be a better solution. There could be similarities in wicked problems, but the solutions are rooted in specific cultures and contexts. Solutions to wicked problems may result in the multiplication of other wicked problems, largely through unintended consequences and likely over the long-term. This is often a Catch-22 situation – you can’t address a wicked problem without trying solutions, but each solution tried brings with it the risk of more wicked problems and indeed, the burden of having to underwrite solutions which may not be as effective as first imagined. For government, this essentially means experimenting with public coffers, not something to be taken lightly in light of future electoral prospects. Finally, and perhaps the hardest to entertain, is that wicked problems may in fact have, at present, bad or no solutions, and that better solutions only come about as a result of new advances in R&D, out-of-the-box thinking, iterative design, sandboxing, incubation or some other process through which non-traditional problem solving approaches are tried and tested. This last point underscores the need to come up with imaginative, creative solutions, going outside traditional wisdom, the usual echo chamber of experts and ossified theory.

How can an appreciation of wicked problems be used to strengthen government and governance post-Rajapaksa? Under the Rajapaksa regime, it can be argued that wicked problems were seen and addressed as tame problems – challenges to which pre-defined solutions were retro-fitted, with scant regard for consequences. Highways, ports and airports, at eye-watering costs to the public, built without any discernible logic or justification, are key examples in this regard. The Rajapaksa’s are now gone. The challenges – all of them wicked – endure.

How do we develop cities and urban centres to accommodate projected population inflows? How do we encourage the use of non-polluting, zero or low emission vehicles and at the same time reduce urban congestion? How can our infrastructure accommodate the growth of industry and commerce? How can a new constitution capture the aspirations of all our peoples? How can youth unemployment be tackled? How can the government tackle graft and reduce transactional corruption? How can tertiary education be revamped? How can militarisation in the North and East in particular be reduced? How can strict lane enforcement on roads work with traffic congestion, poor signage and bottleneck junctions? How can greater awareness around the significant health risks of cigarette smoking be raised, given the ten-fold increase in revenue from cigarettes and tobacco excise taxes between 1990 and 2012? How can State media be transformed into public service media? What are the implications of first year school entrance for those who have been evicted under the beautification projects in Colombo? How can the inheritance of wicked problems like the Colombo Port City, Lotus Tower and Mattala Airport be best addressed?

Though the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, in comparison to the previous regime, may be outwardly more consultative, there is no discernible evidence those in power today, their associates and the architecture of governance is better able to address these problems. Einstein’s quote captures this succinctly – the same systems, thinking and indeed, individuals that gave rise to the problems we face today, cannot realistically be entrusted with solving them.

What needs to be done? The Australian Government’s public policy guidance around wicked problems, published in 2007, offers some insights. Three key strategies are championed – authoritative strategies, that “give the problem to some group (or an individual), who take on the problem-solving process while others agree to abide by its decisions”. Secondly, competitive strategies, that pit stakeholders against each other, usually with a prize anchored to greater power or influence. Thirdly, and stated as the most effective, collaborative strategies, that get disparate groups working together towards a common interest.

How to nurture a mind-set in government, and our public life, better able to embrace wicked problems is, no surprise here, itself a wicked problem. Shouldn’t we start at primary school, teaching our children the value of questioning everything? Shouldn’t our media impart the value of critical reflection over mindless repetition? Should our tertiary education devalue rote learning and instead nurture creative thinking? These are the essential ingredients of collective intelligence – seeking solutions to entrenched problems by opening it up to the wider public. Think of it like a Wikipedia approach to governance – we all contribute to something in order to make it better, and government becomes a platform for informed debate, as opposed to a mindless driver of anachronistic, parochial or downright disastrous solutions.

Yahapalanaya promised a reboot in governance. It would be a pity if the change was merely cosmetic, instead of systemic.

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Published in The Sunday Island newspaper on 20 December 2015.

Curator’s note | Corridors of power: Drawing and modelling Sri Lanka’s tryst with democracy

 

Poster

What is a constitution? What place and relevance, if any, does it have in the popular imagination? Do citizens really care about an abstract document most would never have seen or read, when more pressing existential concerns continue to bedevil their lives and livelihoods, even post-war?

My struggle through curation has always been to explore the inconvenient and marginal through new or alternative ways of observing. Through visual art, theatre, sculpture, music, photography, literature, video and information visualisations, I have creatively leveraged unusual pairings and strange juxtapositions to shift complacency and apathy to critical reflection and engagement.

‘Corridors of power’ is my most ambitious curatorial attempt yet.

When, years ago, I studied the process through which South Africa negotiated the transition out of apartheid rule – which involved a paradigm shift in their constitutional frameworks – I registered the use of a wide range of media at the time (before the days of social media, smartphones and the Internet as we know it today) to critically support debates amongst civil society that were as rooted in locale as they were widespread over geography. It occurred to me – with all the technological tools and platforms in use by so many today, why are constitutional reform and related debates still so alien to and removed from society in Sri Lanka – a country seven times smaller in size than South Africa, with far less identity groups and just three instead of eleven official languages?

Connected to this was an interest in the constitution as an enabling (or in the case of Sri Lanka, enervating) idea. The process through which the heinous 18th Amendment came to pass was deeply instructive in how through the manipulation of discursive spaces, the spread of misinformation, the shrill drowning out voices of caution and reason and in a context of fear, with mainstream media controlled by partisan and market driven interests, expedient parochialism was seen as somehow benevolent and necessary.

Two years after the 18th Amendment, my first attempt to interrogate the constitution through architecture was in 2012 with ‘Mediated’ – an exhibition that focussed on research driven art – and was anchored to the depicting the power-sharing in pre-British Sri Lanka as a viable model for devolution of power, post-war. The output was a collaboration between architect Sunela Jayawardene and Asanga Welikala, a constitutional lawyer and close friend from the halcyon days of S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. My second attempt was in 2013, and involved Sunela agin. As part of the ‘30 Years Ago’ exhibition, a triptych by her portrayed key developments and individuals three decades after the events of ‘Black July’, using Google Maps imagery on Jaffna, Colombo and elsewhere as the base layer.

Though compelling and critically acclaimed in their own right, I yearned for a more finely matched interrogation of Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution through architecture. Architecture is for me a dark art – making small spaces seem larger than they are, harnessing the chiaroscuro within a building to influence the mood of inhabitants, enabling access to spaces, barring access to others, creating secret pathways, chambers and shortcuts purposefully or inadvertently, giving the illusion of openness, when in fact inhabitants are boxed in, or conversely, freeing up a claustrophobic space with just slivers of open sky.

If architects were the gods of spaces they created, I wondered, could the same be said of those who drafted our constitution?

A constitution is essentially a blueprint of power relations. Architecture – drawing, rendering and modelling – provides a blueprint of spatial relationships. This exhibition is not a study in how and to what degree (State or authoritarian) power influences the design of edifices. It is rather an attempt to use the visual and spatial expression of architecture to visually depict as well as deconstruct loci of power as enshrined in our constitution.

What, I imagined, would a corridor that connected a central hall to a room far in the periphery look like? How many people could fit into these corridors? What would the President’s room look like? Would it be large and grandiose with thick walls and few windows? How would someone access the Supreme Court? What would Parliament look like? What would the rooms and offices within it be like – porous walls that allowed conversations from adjacent spaces to seep in, a catacomb of doors, some mysteriously locked, to access what was otherwise a stone’s throw away? How large would the main halls be, and how cramped would be the periphery’s accommodation?

Approaching Asanga again, I invited him to capture in writing what he thought were crucial stages in Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution since 1972. I then approached Channa Daswatta. Asanga’s research became the site, and I, his client. Regular face to face interactions with Channa in his office, lasting hours, and the exchange of ideas with Asanga led to this exhibition. It is the riveting accomplishment, through Asanga’s and Channa’s genius, of a vision I have harboured for years.

The exhibition clearly demonstrates the futility of even more amendments to a constitution that since conception 1978 was deeply flawed. It highlights the outgrowth of authoritarianism, and the illusion of stability. It gives life to the phrase, “the centre cannot hold”. Through errors thrown up by the architectural programme Autodesk Revit, significant flaws of our present constitution are clearly flagged. The models will collapse over time. The drawings are increasingly grotesque.

The architectural output makes abundantly clear the failure of our constitutional vision.

All this, we countenanced. All this, we could have opposed. All this, we voted in, defended or were silent about.

‘Corridors of power’, as with all my exhibitions previously, is an invitation to reflect on what we have been hostage to in the past in order to imagine a more just, inclusive, open future. Spaces to meet, reflect and react need expansion. The checks and balances of power need firmer foundations. Centripetal tendencies in design must be eschewed in favour of centrifugal development. We need open spaces instead of closed sites, grass to walk and play on instead of just to admire. Easy access to key locations. Light, more than shadow and shade too, where needed.

In sum, we need to be the architects of the change we want to see. It is the essence of citizenship. It is what gives life to a constitution worth having. Worth knowing.

Worth defending.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, 4 September 2015

Curators Note | Watch this space: Framing the past, untying the future

Watch this space: Framing the past, untying the future’ – an exhibition featuring Sri Lankan art and work from the Artraker “Art of Peace” series, theatre and public discussions – was an attempt to interrogate how we see the past in order to envision a better future.

Full programme here.

Facebook event page has all the updates.

Podcasts of all the panels and keynote addresses here.

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If and when asked, many would say they are interested in finding the truth. Truth seeking, whether through faith, a political process, debate, research, investigation, introspection or whatever other means, is not on the face of it a process many will oppose. And yet, counter-intuitively, few are really interested in truth. Asking questions that seek to contest what novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls the ‘single narrative’ risks upsetting partial and partisan history, beliefs and powerful myths ingrained in a group, community or nation. Accordingly, there are ‘truths’ we hold on to, knowing they are untrue. There are ‘truths’ we believe in because we haven’t questioned enough, and don’t know how to. There are other ‘truths’ that even just to question marks one out as a traitor or a terrorist supporter, and out of fear and fatigue, we just allow the lie to take flight.

And therein lies the rub. Largely as a result of an education system and pedagogy in Sri Lanka anchored to rote learning and mindless regurgitation, many of us do not have the capacity to critically question what we are told or consume. As a result, the worst lies and distortions are blithely accepted, indeed even vehemently championed. The inclination to question is seen as deeply subversive – an entirely unnecessary aberration, best quashed quickly. The willing suspension of disbelief, a phrase from Coleridge, becomes the socio-political norm, with truth seeking as a fringe lunacy that only seeks to open wounds, memories and histories best left untouched or at the margins.

Post-war Sri Lanka is defined by an enduring struggle between memory and moving on, between recalling the inconvenient and violent erasure, between those who seek to probe and those who want to cover up. Working at the intersection of politics, art, theatre, media, technology, memory and subjectivity to create a space for reflection, ‘Watch this space’ looks at a country in transition, where a just peace remains elusive and the space(s) to remember the inconvenient – the ‘Other’ – still results in hostility and violent pushback. The art frames conversations in response to violence and the conversations allow perspectives on the art that would otherwise not have been generated or acknowledged. The emotive, complex, divisive, challenging issues the art responds to, is framed by or is a product of are what discussants, speakers, actors and panellists will robustly interrogate over a week. The questions are provocative, the art will unsettle and the theatre will jar with what many consider the truth. This is deliberate.

No greater truth was ever arrived at by sloth or servility. ‘Watch this space’ is an invitation to ask questions. Rude questions. Hard questions. It is an invitation to reflect, a space to not just passively hear, but actively listen and respond. It is platform that brings perspectives on violent conflict from outside of Sri Lanka and juxtaposes this art with work located and produced in the country. I am indebted to Saskia Fernando for first introducing me to Artraker and their amazing collection. I am deeply thankful to all the speakers and the Floating Space theatre company for respectively agreeing to speak and perform at the exhibition. The curation of this exhibition benefitted hugely from the intellect, experience, courage and insight of those who are associated with it. I can only hope the selection and pairing of speakers on the panels, the keynotes, original theatre, art and resulting discussions will help us all question more, and more deeply, what kind of country we really want Sri Lanka to be post-war.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, 30 July 2015

Poster

Technology in Parliament: Opening Pandora’s Box or enabling citizens?

Paper prepared at the invitation of Dr. Asanga Welikala for a preparatory advisory roundtable on a new constitution for Sri Lanka, hosted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), the Constitution Building Programme of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), and the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law (ECCL) inn collaboration with the Government of Sri Lanka.

“With a few exceptions, politicians are pretty lame when it comes to social media. In fairness, they have to walk a fine line: they need to be interesting, but they have to do that without setting off (too much) controversy in a medium that thrives on silliness and hyperbole.” – ‘Members of Congress on social media: they just really want us to ‘like’ them’, The Guardian[1]

State of play: Members of Parliament

At the time of writing, over 400 have liked a post by UNP MP Harsha de Silva on Facebook, accompanied by two photos of an official document, that he took oaths as a Member of the 8th Parliament on the morning of the 1st of September [2]. A question posted by the author around the languages used in official documents generated a response from the MP in under one hour[3]. On a related note, the official Facebook account of MP Ranjan Ramanayake noted he had checked-in at Parliament, along with an emoticon that noted the MP was “feeling happy”. Nearly 900, in just over an hour, had liked this post[4]. Just before noon, another MP, Eran Wickramaratne, tweeted “We took our oath as MPs, so did Mahinda Rajapakse. The struggle for democracy and decency must continue” along with a photo, to over 2,100 of his followers[5]. On 29th August, MP Namal Rajapaksa posted on to Facebook again the fact that he had over 4,000 followers on Viber – a mobile based telephony and chat application – that allows him to communicate directly with each of these followers as well as broadcast information and updates to the group. At the time of writing, nearly 6,500 had liked this update on Facebook[6]. Close to 178,000 like MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s Facebook page[7], and his first speech in the new Parliament, posted to his Facebook page, was viewed close to 13,000 times in under an hour[8].

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, a respected blogger and data wonk, published a study of Twitter as well as Facebook around the parliamentary election conducted on 17th August[9]. In this study, a few politicians including former President and now MP Mahinda Rajapaksa emerge as the most engaged users of Facebook[10]. These accounts engaged with, over just the duration of the study, around 1.9 million others collectively.

 

State of play: Communications landscape

Central Bank statistics reveal Sri Lanka has 107 phones for every 100 citizens[11]. Year on year, mobile based Internet subscriptions rose 85.8% and Internet penetration stands at around 16.4%, both according to the Central Bank which itself admits the actual numbers of those connected could be much higher[12]. Upwards of 2.7 million Sri Lankans are on Facebook alone. According to data by market research company TNS[13] Jaffna shows the highest per capita Internet penetration in Sri Lanka. Video (i.e. TV) consumption is already shifting online, from terrestrial broadcast (which means that citizens are watching content when they want, sometimes more than once, and socially sharing what they view, along with opinions on it). Information in the public domain increasingly suggests the 18-24 demographic in Sri Lanka, vital to engage with around transitional justice and reconciliation, don’t meaningfully engage with mainstream media (MSM) as newspapers, radio or TV. Wherever they are, they engage with MSM content primarily through smartphones, Facebook and chat apps and also produce content of their own, contesting and complementing mainstream media. Senior journalist and media critic Ranga Kalansuriya’s social survey based research in early 2015, notes that “The primary results shows that the internet, mainly the social media, is becoming game changer within the paradigm threatening the conventional media in a considerable way” and in particular that “almost half of the sample feels that the media content impacted on their decisions to some extent at the elections while, interestingly one thirds feel there had been no impact at all. The most impacted media was the television for almost 60 percent and then it was the internet for a group closer to 25 percent. The newspaper impact for less than 10 percent and radio impacted on only 5 percent”[14].

A poll done by Social Indicator (SI), the social polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in late June and early July this year in the Western Province – as the most developed in the country – paints a picture of digital life other Provinces will mirror and may even leapfrog a few years hence. Asked if web usage if more content/sites were available in Sinhala or Tamil, 57.1% said yes. 79.1% accessed the Internet through their smartphone. Facebook was used by 73.3%. 60.2% said compared to a year ago, they spent more time online. 42.2% said Ministers in government should use social media to engage with the public. Along with this snapshot of access and use comes also insights into Sri Lanka’s discursive frameworks. 50% said that over the past year, they had decided to learn more about a political or social issue because they had read it online. Interestingly, 61.5% said the action they took was to create awareness amongst family and friends. In the Western Province today and in a few years throughout the island, primarily through smartphones and tablets, citizens will produce, disseminate and discuss issues anchored to entertainment and gossip as well as news and current affairs via social media platforms and apps, increasingly in Tamil and Sinhala.

 

Parliament today: Use of ICTs

In sharp contrast to these developments stands the Parliament of Sri Lanka. Just as much as it is removed in its physical form from society, it’s virtual presence is also poor, at best. There is in fact no social media presence at all for Parliament. There is no live feed of proceedings. The little video of proceedings available on the website is delivered via wholly outdated technology that is incompatible with modern web browsers on the desktop and mobile. The search capabilities on the site are dysfunctional. Descriptions of MPs are rudimentary. The independent website Manthri.lk’s politician rankings and comparison tools[15], based on the Hansard, to produce compelling public dashboards that hold MPs accountable for their interaction in Parliament, remains alien to those in Parliament itself responsible for similar initiatives. The Parliament has no link to or record of social media accounts and interactions of MPs. By extension, there is no archiving whatsoever of these interactions and vital output in the public domain. Key officials connected to Parliament, such as the Secretary General and the Parliamentary Secretariat writ large, have no social media presence and thus, no way for citizens to engage in the manner they now engage with some MPs directly.

Welsh academic, novelist and critic Raymond Williams wrote about a “structure of feeling”, the culture of a particular historical moment. The phrase suggests a common set of perceptions and values shared by a particular generation, and is most clearly articulated in particular and artistic forms and conventions[16]. As Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California avers,

“Often, we think about democracy as grounded in a rationalist discourse and shaped by structures of information, but democracy also has strong cultural roots and is shaped by what Raymond Williams would call “a structure of feeling.” We may ask in the first instance what citizens need to know in order to make wise decisions and, in the second, what it feels like to be an empowered citizen capable of making a difference and sharing common interests with others…”

Though Williams and Jenkins don’t mention social media, the web or the mobile Internet directly, the severe disconnect between what Sri Lankan Parliament fundamentally is as a physical model or idea, and the discursive spaces and conventions of engagement, primarily over social media for so many Parliamentarians today, could not be more stark. In sum and sadly, the Sri Lankan Parliament, as an institution, is peripheral to thriving debates around policies, bills and other matters related to governance taking place across the media landscapes, especially amongst voters between 18 and 34 – the primary users and interlocutors of social media.

This needs to change, and urgently. The 8th Parliament has, to an unprecedented degree, a unique opportunity to give life to Parliamentary proceedings in much the same way that individual MPs engage with their respective constituencies. Ironically, this isn’t a new idea in our Parliament. As far back as March 2008, the Department of Information Systems and Management of Parliament noted[17],

The development of ICT will transform the ways in which Parliament operates together with its representative function. The potential of transforming Parliament to an “e-Parliament” centres on three main areas:

  • Increased administrative efficiency & effectiveness 􏰀
  • Improved information access and dissemination
  • Enhanced interaction with citizens

At the same time technology must be employed creatively; otherwise it merely becomes a more modern way of doing the work of the legislature, perhaps more efficiently but not necessarily more effectively.

Emphasis is mine. The full report has a section on enhancing dialog between Parliament and the public worth reproducing in full (Page 41[18]).

In addition to improving existing practices, there is a growing concern in many legislatures that unless effective channels of communication are established between the institution and their citizens, as well as among legislators and their constituencies, there could be a risk of further erosion of public’s trust in the legislative body.

 The growth of ICT and the newest web applications that allow user generated content have already started to alter the traditional relationship between citizens and their elected officials. In order to respond to these developments, parliaments must define new strategies to avoid marginalization in today’s public sphere. When developing an e-Parliament vision some see the potential to add new means for informing and interacting with citizens in order to re- engage the electorate in parliamentary affairs, in the hope that the negative trends in public satisfaction and participation in elections can be reversed.

While the use of interactive technologies alone is not enough to rebuild political trust, it may be an important instrument for addressing this problem (World e-Parliament report 2008).

Several techniques are now available that can be effectively deployed for this purpose.

E-mail

As e-mail has become a more universally available and widely used form of communication, Parliament can provide public e-mail addresses on the web site to allow direct contact with MPP and the officers. E-mail provides the potential for good two-way communication, enabling citizens to establish a dialogue with their MP without necessarily going through conventional channels.

Online discussions and Blogs

Online discussion groups/forums and Blogs can be effectively used for soliciting comments and suggestions from the public on specific proposals or general topics etc. This feedback could be easily moderated too if needed.

Emphasis is mine again. The report pre-figures opening remarks made by Secretary General Anders Johnsson at the World e-Parliament Conference 2009[19], noting that “today’s experiences show that the young population does engage and it does so by using ICT tools” and that “constituents are increasingly interested in learning how their representatives have voted on key issues before parliament, and interrogating them about their actions. For members to have their voting record published, and to be able to give a reasoned defence of their record, is of the essence of political accountability.”

6 years ago, social media apps, services and platforms like Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook weren’t as ubiquitous as they are today, and other platforms like Vine, Instagram and live-broadcasting apps like Periscope hadn’t been invented. The emphasis on email then arguably is diminished today given the blossoming of discursive spaces over social media. On the other hand, the emphasis on blogs and online discussion fora retains a certain validity, if only for a critical appreciation of the direction the Parliament’s own development with regard to citizen interaction has gone. Instead of becoming a more responsive institution open to participatory mechanisms and open frameworks of citizen engagement, our Parliament – in physical as well as virtual forms – became increasingly closed-off and almost an adjunct in policymaking conducted entirely outside and independent of its chambers.

Parliament tomorrow: Use of ICTs

The self-organisation of citizens into geo-spatial, values based or ideas driven communities has taken root with the spread of the Internet and web. Platforms like CivilHub[20] build on this, allowing rich, real time and multi-pronged interactions to take place between citizens in a virtual space that results in real world action and change. Parliaments as the central loci of key socio-economic, political, cultural and even religious debates is no longer the case, and yet, the legislature does have an important role to play around law-making and policy guidance. Aside from Manthri.lk’s dashboards as the pulse of Parliament, citizens will increasingly engage their MPs directly through social media. This engagement aside, Parliament itself needs a more responsive website – both in the sense of a website that is geared to meet the needs of citizens, and technically speaking, a website that is accessible over any device or browser, from desktop to smartphone. This is not just a question of aesthetics and design – a responsive website requires an underlying information architecture and a comprehensive document management system.

Without relying on purely textual information and responding to social media’s tendency to generate virality over video and photographic content, Parliament must also look at technologies like live-streaming proceedings over the web using YouTube or Twitter’s Periscope app. Structured dialogues via Google Hangouts, automatically archived on the web, can be employed with MPs around key issues or during key policy debates. Twitter Q&A sessions, introduced to Sri Lanka by the erstwhile President and subsequently conducted with several members of his staff and government, can also be more widely and frequently used. Similar interactions can occur on Facebook. For example, Facebook can be used, not unlike the European Parliament, to give a comprehensive historical record of the institution as well as provide up to date information and other services[21]. At the very minimum, our Parliament’s website should mirror the British Parliament’s comprehensive indexing of MPs, including official social media accounts[22]. Questions over one medium (e.g. Twitter) can be answered over another (e.g. answers over YouTube). The Hansard can be visualised through word clouds[23]. All MPs can be made to fill out comprehensive LinkedIn profiles, that are aggregated on the Parliament’s website. Members can be given entry level to advanced lessons in the use of social media so that variance amongst MPs on this score can be reduced and a harmonised approach to the use of social media adopted through consensus. Using annotated photography platforms like ThingLink, official photographs can be augmented with links to bio’s, bills, Parliamentary proceedings and other information. Innovative platforms like Google’s Moderator platform, though relatively unknown, can be powerful mechanisms to really engage public opinion around policy debates, as has been used by Groundviews to elicit ideas around how to democracy post-war[24].  Wikis, not unlike the most famous of them – Wikipedia – can be created around key policy debates, committee based reports and other parliamentary processes that occur over time and get input from a range of internal and external sources.

All of these mediums can accommodate interactions in Sinhala, Tamil and English.

In considering the plethora of easily adoptable and extremely adaptable technology options above, Parliament also needs to consider what information will be made available to citizens, when, how and why. This is brought out clearly in Information and Communication Technologies in Parliament: Tools for Democracy by the Office for Promotion of Parliamentary Democracy (OPPD)[25],

  • Is the goal to make all authoritative legislative documents publicly available or will some be limited to internal distribution?
  • What are the boundaries between what should be made publicly available versus restricted to parliamentary use?
  • Will the public have access to verbatim accounts of all plenary sessions? Of all committee meetings?
  • Are all agendas for both plenary sessions and committee meetings publicly posted?
  • Will recorded votes be readily available to the public?
  • Is there a time delay between information being made available internally compared to its release to the public?
  • Do members want to provide information on their own activities, in addition to the actions of the parliament, directly to citizens?
  • Is the internal budget of the parliament and its distribution a matter of public record?
  • Are there rules for constraining outside influences and is the implementation of them made publicly available?
  • Do members have to disclose their financial interests and is this information easily accessible?

Conclusion

As noted by Martin Chungong Secretary General elect of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in May 2014[26], “Technology can help to develop strong parliaments. It can provide new channels for parliaments to connect with citizens. But it will not fix processes that do not work. It is a complement, not a substitute, to the hard questions about what it takes to strengthen parliament as an institution.”

The evisceration of Sri Lanka’s Parliament, and inter alia, the culture of interaction, debate and policymaking within its chambers will take political will and time to fully heal. The fear towards ICTs around making Parliamentary processes more transparent and accountable stems from the residual interest of some Members and bureaucracy to keep things as they are. In a way, all this is moot. MPs are already interacting directly with voters, and first time voters quite simply will not engage with parliamentarians and parliamentary proceedings unless they have access to them over the media they use. Between elections, it is the thumb policymakers need to focus on. If access to vital information is denied or somehow debilitated, citizens will react and possibly even revolt. Authoritarianism’s basic design is to deny, decry or destroy. The growth and use of discursive spaces afforded by the web and Internet contests this, and Parliament must lead the way in providing open, state of the art deliberative architectures for citizens to host their own civic minded conversations as well as provide official information around national level policymaking.

In sum, Parliament must move away from an institution that is governed by a mentality that expects citizens to come to it for services or redress, and instead – with the dignity of office, responsibility towards citizens and rights afforded by being part of the legislature – go to citizens, engage in a language they are used to, in places – both physical and virtual – they frequent, over the apps they use.

Technology is a great enabler, but the real challenge is – and has always been – the requisite political will and imagination. Find, secure and strengthen that, and the technology will fall into place.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, 1 September 2015

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/30/house-social-media-congress-instagram

[2] https://www.facebook.com/harshadesilvaunp/posts/688088481321133

[3] https://www.facebook.com/harshadesilvaunp/posts/688088481321133?comment_id=688097091320272&reply_comment_id=688100221319959&total_comments=2&comment_tracking=%7B%22tn%22%3A%22R9%22%7D

[4] https://www.facebook.com/real.rr/posts/10156659742495377

[5] https://twitter.com/EranWick/status/638596889600876544

[6] https://www.facebook.com/NamalSL/photos/a.10152136897244030.1073742060.68916609029/10153515060799030/?type=1&theater

[7] https://www.facebook.com/anurakumara

[8] https://www.facebook.com/anurakumara/videos/vb.267207983433656/499277246893394/?type=2&theater

[9] http://icaruswept.com/2015/08/19/mapping-election-influence-on-social-media-part-two-facebook/

[10] An important distinction here is that accounts with higher numbers of fans or followers may not be the most tuned into their respective audiences. Metrics around engagement trumps numeric strength of followers and fans as a true measure of how invested a user is in cultivating over time, through active participation, his or her audience around key issues, ideas, policies etc.

[11] https://twitter.com/gopiharan/status/624075215396433920

[12] http://www.news.lk/news/business/item/7557-sri-lanka-s-mobile-internet-usage-grows-85-8-pct-in-2014-cb

[13] Can be produced on request

[14] https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/polls-social-media-during-the-jan-8th-electioneering-process

[15] http://www.manthri.lk/en/politicians

[16] Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory, Michael Payne (Editor), 1997, http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/tocnode?id=g9780631207535_chunk_g978063120753522_ss1-37

[17] http://www.parliament.lk/files/secretariat/ism/docs/cost_benefit_analysis_brief.pdf

[18] http://www.parliament.lk/files/secretariat/ism/docs/cost_benefit_analysis.pdf

[19] http://www.ipu.org/splz-e/eparl09/abj.pdf

[20] https://civilhub.org/brief/

[21] https://www.facebook.com/europeanparliament

[22] For example, http://www.parliament.uk/biographies/commons/heidi-alexander/4038

[23] http://www.wordle.net

[24] http://groundviews.org/2010/03/15/strengthening-democracy-in-sri-lanka-an-open-invitation-to-generate-fresh-ideas/

[25] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/pdf/oppd/Page_8/ICT_FINAL.pdf

[26] http://www.ipu.org/splz-e/eparl14/opening-en.pdf