Shape South Asia 2016 & ‘Corridors of Power’

I was invited by the WEF GlobalShapers Colombo Hub (see Facebook page here) to showcase the ‘Corridors of Power‘ exhibition again and also to speak on it.

The exhibition, first held in 2015 at the JDA Perera Gallery, was unlike any other project combining design, architecture and constitutional theory. It occupied a very large floor space, which wasn’t available at the GlobalShaper’s venue this year. I had to then compress the entire floor plan and as much as I could of the background into two high-definition, which ran on a loop on very large LCD screens. The four models representing the ’72 and ’78 constitution as well as the 13th and 18th Amendments, were displayed at the venue.

The first video went into the background of the exhibition.

The second was anchored to the 3D renderings of each of the models.

My note on the concept, research and evolution of the project can be read below.

Asanga Welikala’s background research into and overview of the project can be read below.

Channa Daswatte’s take on the project can be read below.

Asia Foundation LankaCorps Fellows Presentation

The Asia Foundation’s LankaCorps Fellowship programme is one I’ve been associated with and supported from its inception. It’s described on the TAF website site,

…a unique opportunity for young leaders of Sri Lankan heritage to professionally engage in social, cultural, and economic development activities in Sri Lanka. The program aims to foster the involvement and understanding of young members of the expatriate Sri Lankan community who have limited in-depth experience with the country of their heritage. Each year, The Asia Foundation selects an outstanding group of LankaCorps Fellows to live and work for six months in Sri Lanka, granting them the unique chance to “explore their roots while giving back.

Every year and for each cohort, I am invited by TAF to give an overview of Sri Lanka’s political, social and media landscape as well as to cover in some detail the work of Groundviews in particular, and civic media in general.

In this year’s presentation done earlier this month, I looked at the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government a year on, with the euphoria and expectations from 2015 markedly changed. I looked at the mega-development projects, a quick scorecard of governance, undergraduate tensions from around the country with racial overtones, the passage of the Right to Information Act, the passage of the Office for Missing Persons Act, more generally the issue of transitional justice and the work of the Consultation Task Force (plus the plethora of other entities involved in reconciliation), the politics and optics of memorialization and the tryst with a new constitution, which most in Sri Lanka are completely in the dark about. I also talked about the dire macro-economic situation Sri Lanka finds itself in.

I then talked about the work I’ve spearheaded with Groundviews, and the media terrain in Sri Lanka post-8th January 2015 in particular.

Flipside of smart cities

My column last week touched on the extremely problematic Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of Sri Lanka and a well-known Chinese telecommunications company, known to have sold sophisticated surveillance equipment to the Rajapaksa regime. Despite disturbing recent revelations in the mainstream media that have gone unquestioned in Parliament, a high-profile visit by Sri Lanka’s PM to the company’s Shenzhen headquarters resulted in an MoU that invited the company, inter alia, “to participate in ICT planning and infrastructure construction for Smart Colombo”.

Arguably, companies are interested in profit, and governments are often good customers. Why the present government continues to deal with – without any due diligence or scrutiny of past business practices –the same enterprises that had a direct role in seeking to undermine the democratic fabric in Sri Lanka is what is more outrageous. Clearly, money is at stake and with more zeroes than can be easily comprehended. As clearly, politics and optics are at play – an early, expedient distancing from China during elections, now facing near complete reversal in light of dire macro-economic circumstances, which the US for all its visiting warships, aircraft and diplomats, can’t provide an alternative to. Effusive tweets from State Department don’t FDI make. With projects like the much touted Google Loon lost somewhere in the stratospheric promises our politicians and their apparatchiks make, the Government needs high-profile technical partners with appropriate technology solutions to undergird its vision for the Western Province make-over, including the Port City project. Transactional diplomacy with Chinese companies is thus a no-brainer for a government already hostage to the Chinese government through monumental debt. And so we will be saddled with network infrastructure, from China, of indeterminable quality and standards, from the very companies that sought to undermine our civil liberties, and without any safeguards around data integrity or privacy integrated into systems that will impact all our lives, no matter what we do, or where we live.

This matters because what appears to be a really technical or technological challenge, best debated by experts, is really something that will impact – in a very real way – our lives in and entry to cities, and well-beyond. There has been much written about smart cities – about the millions of dollars of saving accrued per annum on account of more efficient and effective service delivery, more streamlined governance and the icing on the cake, local government that is more responsive and citizen centric. These buzzwords find their way into advertorials, press releases, academic papers and even official government policies. This is the promise. What is the reality? The underlying infrastructure around a smart city is digital. What that means is that our negotiation of city life – from travel and transport to a myriad of transactions – will be mediated through services linked to personal identity. How a digital personal identity is created and managed is up for grabs – it could be through a smart-chip, a social security single number or by the conversion of current laminated, hand-written NIC to an electronic version (e-NIC). A smart city is also about the aggregation of what are now disparate systems. For example, a bus pass linked to a debit card, which in turn is linked to a mobile phone based payment system, that can be topped up online or through a telco with one’s identity verified by a unique e-NIC number. Smart cities are about other things as well – traffic light and driving lane management that is dynamically adjusted on the volume of traffic, and historical data around traffic flows in a particular area. Real time updates on public transportation. Simple, single portal based access for citizens to engage with government services. Dashboards that showcase report card based feedback on things like garbage disposal. Free parking around a city that shows up in real time on a mobile. Hospitals and accredited doctors who securely share medical records.

What the smart city promises, ultimately, is a better quality of life. Underlying this, and often unquestioned, is what one has to give up in order to enjoy la dolce vita. And here we must consider a 17-year old’s successful attempts to hack our President’s website. The connection is a simple one. A smart city is actually anchored to giving up some privacy in return for mostly the promise, and hopefully, also the delivery of material and mental well-being. Identity management – what each citizen does, who they are, where they are, what they need and various other transactional records from transport to tax, need a high degree of security to manage and oversee. Else, simply put, everything from impersonations to crime, extortion, blackmail, data loss and surveillance stand a chance of increasing exponentially if records aren’t securely managed. And importantly, the risk to records is not just from juvenile or criminal elements of society. It is from within government itself. If our intelligence services have ready access to the back-end data around a smart city with scant or weak judicial oversight, or worse, through gateways we may not even know exist, foreign powers gain access to sensitive information that even in the aggregate can yield insights into social, political and economic trends, our civil liberties are compromised in very real and dangerous ways. And even if you resist by non-registration or compliance, you are still at risk – just as much cybercrime today directly impacts even those who bank in person and using real money.

Which brings us back to the now infamous 17-year old. The JO wants to give him a job as an IT consultant, perhaps one of the better ideas they’ve had since it resonates with many others who question more than the young gentleman’s actions, the ineptitude of those in charge of security around official web properties. And while this teenager was caught and is in custody, there has not been a single line of reporting and no official response from government around how or to what degree officials in charge of network security for the President’s Office have been held accountable for what was clearly a grossly over-paid hack job. This isn’t the first time official government websites have been hacked. A simple Google search brings up at least one serious disruption or deletion of a high-profile official government website every year, for the past several years. And this is just what’s reported in the media – the cover-up of many more incidents, perhaps far more serious, is more than likely.

So it takes a 17-year old hacker to bring to light the serious concerns around not just over an MoU with a Chinese company, but around the government’s e-NIC project and its entire vision for a digital Sri Lanka. A glittering promise is what’s sold, and it is a compelling fiction. Citizens willingly buy into it. Telcos see profit. Governments see control. Cities see positive returns on investments. Private enterprise sees more consumers. Largely hidden though are serious concerns around the commercialisation of essential services, the nature of command and control architectures, access to information even under RTI, information management practices by public agencies and above all, oversight mechanisms. Smart cities, especially where there is or has recently been a huge democratic deficit, run the risk of turning inquiring citizens to obedient consumers, where dangerous new inequalities – between say those who can afford to secure their privacy vs. those who cannot – are created even as older class differentiations are torn down.

All of this is to not say that smart cities aren’t needed here, or indeed, long overdue. But we must ask how with successive governments so inept at digital security, and the present government in bed with Chinese companies which have had no qualms undermining our civil liberties, a smart city can actually protect the dignity, liberty and freedom of all those who subscribe to and live in it, and indeed, all those outside, in the margins, risking death through deletion.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 4 September 2016.

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

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

Technology in constitutional reform: Central or peripheral to substance and process?

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.

The backdrop

Media reports just before the Parliamentary Election held on 17th August 2015 indicated that the Government of Sri Lanka had entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Google to bring around 14 high-altitude balloons above Sri Lanka to provide more seamless Internet access. Sri Lanka will be the first country in the world to employ these balloons, called Project Loon[1], commercially and at this scale. Though the MoU wasn’t made public and many questions around cost of access and coverage remain, one of Google’s avowed goals under Project Loon is to to connect people in rural and remote areas and help fill coverage gaps. Along with more traditional investments around telecommunications infrastructure and market imperatives, it can be expected that in under five years – the term of the new government – Sri Lanka will enjoy coast to coast wireless broadband coverage, with a population that is connected through at least one platform or one device, to the Internet, web and social media.

The trend is unmistakable.

Central Bank statistics reveal Sri Lanka has 107 phones for every 100 citizens[2]. 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[3]. Upwards of 2.7 million Sri Lankans are on Facebook alone. According to data by market research company TNS[4] 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”[5].

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. The effects of these online conversations will also deeply resonate with social networks and communities that aren’t as well connected to online media.

Deliberative structures

Public engagement through these ubiquitous, multi-media and multi-lingual networks will for Government, and indeed, it’s vocal opponents, undergird new and hopefully innovative mechanisms for public confidence building, perceptions management and strengthening electoral support around policymaking, governance and constitutional reform. As importantly, tools, techniques and social networks to win votes around elections that go on to be under-utilised at best once elected to power is not a viable model. A government, out of enlightened self-interest at least, should seriously consider the importance of public engagement through technology after it is elected and especially when it is under siege. The central challenge here is not one of technology, it is one of political leadership.

Agility, responsiveness, transparency. Failing fast (not waiting until the final stages to acknowledge failure, but recognising it early on and addressing it) and failing forward (not being scared to admit failure and using it as a lesson to improve product and process in the future). Iterative design (learning to design better at every stage based on user feedback and interaction). These are some core principles of product development and design in the world of technology today. Though deeply relevant and replicable, they remain largely unknown as a basis for a government to think, operate, react or plan, or indeed, the blueprint of a constitutional reform process to be anchored to. This is especially relevant in a context where citizens think as consumers and expect levels of service delivery and engagements with government, and governmental services or processes, on par with that which they enjoy from trans-national corporations that manage (all social media operations on) the Internet. An obdurate, rude or unresponsive government risks irreparable reputational damage over a very short time and across geographies and communities. By not embracing participatory and responsive mechanisms to plan for and execute policy making as well as constitutional reform, governments risk the best of intentions to radically reform polity and society. The conversations over social media around the legislative drafting of the 19th Amendment – the delays in translation, the inability for the public to engage in structured debates or input, the multiple versions circulating in the public domain through non-official sources, the lack of direct, public engagement by government to demystify clauses – flag reservoirs of frustration, not all by spoilers, around the non-use of existing technology around a vital reform initiative.

Much more can and should be done. The examples that follow aren’t prescriptive. Each offers a way of thinking, seeing, or responding to a challenge that is integral to constitutional change or reform writ large. Each offers a template worthy of adoption and adaptation, given the innovation and skills that reside within Sri Lanka especially in the tech community and civil society. With strategic deployment and careful curation, each offers the promise of a public more aware of and by extension, responsive towards key issues around constitutional reform.

Technology platforms, apps and services

Democracy OS[6] is a citizen engagement platform for democracy at its most distilled – getting citizens to vote on an idea, and through this, getting them involved in processes of deliberation and debate around core issues. As noted on the Democracy OS website, with 4 million+ citizens, Buenos Aires became the first city to have a Digital Democracy in place with each of the 16 parties in Congress agreeing to present one bill to be debated along with every citizen of the city online. DemocracyOS has been used for, inter alia, policymaking, electoral reform, citizen participation and accountability in India, Chile, France, Mexico, Peru, Brazil and Colombia.

The usual example on deliberative democracy over digital platforms is to study President Obama’s campaigns and use of the media, including social media, as both candidate and incumbent. A Washington Post article from May this year[7] is an easy to access and understand blueprint on how Obama and his team strategically designed the message to fit the medium, and importantly saw engagement over media as inextricably entwined with and central to Obama’s political projects. Though important, of particular resonance here is not so much the use of social media but the imaginative mind-set behind the adaptation, adoption and appropriation of new and existing media for political ends. For example, after the debacle of Obama’s healthcare website[8], the President, instead of going on the defensive, acknowledged the problem and furthermore, appropriated comedy and comedians, including by spoofing himself, to push the same message. Millions engaged, and the project was ultimately – technically as well as politically – a success. The perception of issues is managed today not necessarily by those with the widest reach or largest readership, but by those able to generate the most viral content. To be shared and liked is a new social currency that extends well beyond elections and shapes public discourse, even offline. If interest in constitutional reform and its more substantive points are to reach the masses, along with imaginatively produced content, arguably the best way on Facebook alone would be by leveraging the reach of a popular female model and the near universal love for cricket![9]

This shift from the strongly didactic to a more deliberative and engaging approach, from constitutional reform as entirely exclusive to a process that engaged the public was most pronounced in the (failed) experiment in Iceland to create a “crowdsourced constitution”. As noted in Slate[10],

… 25 constitutional drafters [used] social media to open up the process to the rest of the citizenry and gather feedback on 12 successive drafts. Anyone interested in the process was able to comment on the text using social media like Facebook and Twitter, or using regular email and mail. In total, the crowdsourcing moment generated about 3,600 comments for a total of 360 suggestions. While the crowd did not ultimately “write” the constitution, it contributed valuable input. Among them was the Facebook proposal to entrench a constitutional right to the Internet, which resulted in Article 14 of the final proposal.

The failure to pass the new constitution wasn’t linked to the means of soliciting input from the general public. Lessons around the exercise in fact urge that in the future, more planning and consideration has to go into the process of constitutional reform, including more human and financial resources around the use of technology. In a much smaller way, but quite significant because of the violence surrounding discursive and critical spaces in Sri Lanka under the previous government, the growth of memes of Facebook is another instructive lesson in how popular culture over the Internet can strengthen (or seriously undermine) public appreciation of key issues. As noted by me three years ago[11],

The growth of the Sri Lankan meme on the web is a relatively recent phenomenon. It now has its own Facebook presence, with more fans than the Daily Mirror page (19,000+ vs. 16,000). There are historical antecedents. “Me kawuda? Monawada karanne?” (Who is he? What is he doing?) posters during Premedasa’s government was a meme – two sentences plastered on public spaces creating a questioning so subversive that it led to violent ends for producer and playwright… [Now] memes are shared on individual profiles, which are then ‘liked’ by others, downloaded, emailed, embedded on websites and flagged on Twitter. It reaches, quite literally, hundreds of thousands effortlessly… memes essentially critique the mainstream and change the story. In changing the story, memes can contribute to changing the status quo. Something for governments, including our own, to keep in mind the more censorious they get, and want to be.

The use of memes by a constitutional reform project can be seen as the modern day equivalent of, for example, South African cartoonist Zapiro’s interrogation of constitutional reform in the mid-90’s, albeit over social media and generated digitally, without confirmed authorship. With the focus of policymakers and constitutional reformers usually on mainstream media’s reach and effectiveness at shaping public opinion (which to date, in so far as metrics around the influence of TV talk shows in Sri Lanka go, is valid) the use of social media in particular, and Internet, web and mobile platforms in general around a reform process remains nascent, even as the diversity of content, its reach and spread grows.

Three technologies present themselves immediately in this regard – Facebook, Twitter and a platform that is not often talked of in the same breath as social media, WhatsApp. Facebook and Twitter growth in Sri Lanka is widespread and shows explosive growth. Groundviews recently archived tweets around the recently concluded Parliamentary Election[12]. The archive, spanning eight weeks and including two official hashtags used by the majority of users around the election (#SLGE15 and #GenElecSL), captured 174,663 tweets. Tweets using variations of these two hashtags, as well as not using either were also in the tens of thousands – far too much in fact to archive without industrial grade technical architectures. Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, a respected blogger and data wonk, published a study of Facebook around the election[13]. What was evident through this study was that the Mahinda Rajapaksa camp was the most strategic in their use of Facebook to engage, not just publish. Whereas one lesson is that in a less controlled, contained and censorious context, propaganda by any one camp has far less traction and unchallenged reach, this nuanced and strategic use of Facebook alone can and should be adapted to support wider deliberation and awareness raising around constitutional reform, amongst the same demographics. Examples from Libya[14] and Liberia[15] are also instructive in this regard.

Chat apps in general, and WhatsApp in particular lie outside the scope of many social media discussions and studies, and this is a pity. The hugely popular mobile instant messaging app, bought by Facebook for $22 billion in 2014, saw unprecedented use by the BBC in India’s 2014 General Election to engage voters around key issues[16]. In Sri Lanka, the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) used WhatsApp as a platform to publish, to hundreds of subscribers, information around election violence at both the Presidential and Parliamentary elections. The reason for doing so was to create a platform, in January particularly, largely impervious to censorship (WhatsApp is distributed and has no central server – shutting it down requires data across all mobile networks to be shut off). The BBC’s use is more instructive, and as noted on its website,

There are certainly valid editorial arguments about whether BBC News should really be treating news stories in this way, and whether [it was right] to test out emoticons… However, subscribers really seemed to like the item – it had by far the biggest engagement, in terms of responses, of any item we posted on WhatsApp, with hundreds of people sending back their emoticon faces.

How the BBC has now built on the experience of WhatsApp in India during the election to use chat apps more broadly[17] is a lesson in how these apps can also be employed to create targeted, interactive, engaging deliberative networks, across key demographics, to complement strategies to use content via other media targeted at an older demographic around constitutional reform. Another key example here is the possible use of Viber – an app described by the New York Times as one that helped install the current President in power[18] – to create public chats with select individuals in government around key policy issues. Again, it is the Rajapaksa camp that shows the way others must go[19], if public opinion is to be captured and support for reforms retained.

Technology for the drafters

Aside from all this, projects like Google Constitute[20] help those at the helm of drafting a (new) constitution access comparative examples and information from other countries. The use of data and data visualisation (dataviz) by the Comparative Constitutions Project[21] is also instructive in how specialist platforms, coding and information design can help constitution making. Legislation Lab[22] provides platforms for constitution making process that benefit citizens by making it easy to participate, and for drafters, provides a ‘dashboard’ of information around key policies or points that can help, in or close to real time, with course correction, editing, political buy in, negotiations and other strategic imperatives. A live example in this regard is how it is being used in Chile to discuss its constitution[23]. And if perusing information on that site is a problem (it’s all in Spanish) enter Google Translate. Constitution makers no longer need to rely on time consuming human translations to avail themselves of content or cutting-edge debates in another language – as of now, Google Translate covers 90 languages in total (for text translation). Merely copy a URL into Google Chrome, say yes to a prompt and a translation offering – depending on the complexity of the legal document – a gist of the original, opens instantly.

 

Conclusion

Why do any of this at all? Why does it matter? There is some comfort in the known and business as usual, especially around constitutional reform which has always been led by elites through exclusive, top-down processes that at best only episodically solicit public input, and that too with great suspicion. After over two centuries, the revered Encyclopaedia Britannica went out of print in 2012[24]. As of August 24, 2015 there are 4,951,563 articles on Wikipedia, with over 780 million edits across these articles, an average of around 21. 26 million users are registered with Wikipedia. 2.4 billion visited the site in July 2015 alone[25]. The demise of Encyclopaedia Britannica in our digital age and the astonishing rise and use of Wikipedia is a lesson for constitution making as well – a few experts no longer command complete authority, attention and agency. Recognition there are many experts in the commons, and embracing their feedback and input in a process of constitutional reform is the basic starting point for a process serious about engendering public support around key, contentious issues. Wikipedia is so successful because it is plugged into so many devices, platforms, apps and services seamlessly, and for free. It is accessible in many languages, including in Sinhala and Tamil, and encourages participatory approaches to content curation and creation. Wikipedia (and wikis as a web platform more generally) isn’t perfect, and no one technology is or will be. What information and communications technologies (ICTs) in general offer constitutional reform processes are a menu of adaptable, responsive, scalable, multi-lingual, creative and engaging tools to produce, discuss, disseminate, visualise and archive complex ideas.

The mere introduction of technology into a constitution reform process doesn’t guarantee its success. What is now evident though is that the non-introduction, in a strategic manner, of relevant ICTs in a reform process is almost a guarantee of its failure, or capture by spoilers who are (usually) more adept with new media. As noted by Christian Christensen at the Department of Informatics and Media, Uppsala University in Sweden[26],

… while techno-utopians overstate the affordances of new technologies (what these technologies can give us) and understate the material conditions of their use (e.g., how factors such as gender or economics can affect access), techno-dystopians do the reverse, misinterpreting a lack of results… with the impotence of technology; and, also, forgetting how shifts within the realm of mediated political communication can be incremental rather than seismic in nature.

Constitutional reformers cannot afford to be techno-dystopians, and those from the technology community and media sector, even in support of the most radical reform, cannot afford to be techno-utopians. Careful, measured and sober evaluations around embracing technology can undergird reform processes more resilient to spoiler dynamics, with greater traction in public consciousness, taking root in communities, giving a wider public a sense of ownership in the ultimate document and other benefits associated with deliberative, participatory mechanisms.

It is within Sri Lanka’s grasp. We should not let the opportunity go.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, 25 August 2015

[1] http://www.google.com/loon/

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

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

[4] Can be produced on request

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

[6] http://democracyos.org

[7] http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2015/05/26/heres-how-the-first-president-of-the-social-media-age-has-chosen-to-connect-with-americans/?tid=sm_tw

[8] http://edition.cnn.com/2013/10/22/politics/obamacare-website-problems/

[9] http://www.socialbakers.com/statistics/facebook/pages/total/sri-lanka/

[10] http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/07/five_lessons_from_iceland_s_failed_crowdsourced_constitution_experiment.html

[11] https://sanjanah.wordpress.com/2012/05/27/the-sri-lankan-meme/

[12] http://groundviews.org/2015/08/20/archives-of-general-election-2015-slge15-genelecsl/

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

[14] https://www.facebook.com/LibyanJustice?fref=ts

[15] https://www.facebook.com/LiberiaConstitutionReviewCommittee?fref=ts

[16] http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/collegeofjournalism/entries/b2b67bf8-13ce-3acb-9a29-c9680cc77c9e

[17] http://digiday.com/publishers/bbc-goes-global-chat-app-strategy/

[18] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/26/world/for-sri-lankan-president-renounced-by-aides-confidence-of-re-election-dims.html?_r=0

[19] https://twitter.com/RajapaksaNamal/status/634648727920078848

[20] https://www.constituteproject.org

[21] http://comparativeconstitutionsproject.org

[22] http://legislationlab.org/en/

[23] http://laconstituciondetodos.cl

[24] http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/13/after-244-years-encyclopaedia-britannica-stops-the-presses/

[25] http://www.similarweb.com/website/wikipedia.org

 

[26] http://eclass.uoa.gr/modules/document/file.php/MEDIA118/political%20participation%20and%20online%20activism%20(βλ%20σχετικά%20με%20social%20media%20στους%20συνδέσμους)/discourses%20of%20technology%20and%20liberation_Twitter%20Revolutions_Communication%20Review2011.pdf

A cartoon’s footprint

The Network of Women in Media, India called it “a new low point for misogyny in the print media”. The Women and Media Collective said that it had allowed “for gross sexism and crudity to override any form of civility in journalistic communication” and that it was “derogatory to women and women politicians”. The focus of this outrage was a cartoon, published a week ago in a leading Sunday newspaper, depicting Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister Jayalalitha with sari hitched up, gesticulating at Sri Lanka. This by itself would have been fine, were it not for the depiction of India’s Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, directly under her hitched sari, looking up with consternation.

By Monday, as such things quickly become in Sri Lanka, the furore had turned into farce. On Sunday night, the official Twitter accounts of the Indian External Affairs Ministry’s spokesperson, the Indian PM as well as some of the most influential activists and leading journalists in India had picked up on the cartoon or were directed to it (and through them, party officials of Jayalalitha’s AIADMK as well). There was unequivocal condemnation. The Acting Editor of the newspaper the cartoon was published in wrote two tweets in its defence, though because of sheer syntactic incompetence, key interlocutors on Twitter didn’t see these tweets at the time. The two tweets were followed up by a longer, more reasoned defence of the cartoon on Monday, published online and in print. The Acting Editor asserted, inter alia, that vulgarity was subjective and that the cartoon only carried a “subtle sexual connotation”. He ended by flagging the jail term meted out to cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in India as a marker of growing intolerance in that country. Perhaps the attempt was to enhance his paper’s artistic credo. It failed to convince, not just many in Sri Lanka, but his own paper’s management. While the staunch defence of the cartoon and inviolable principles of free expression were postulated by the Acting Editor, the newspaper’s management had quickly, and it appears, without informing the Acting Editor, deleted the cartoon off its online edition

To date, the Acting Editor has not explained why his take on the Freedom of Expression isn’t shared with his paymasters, or more generally, why newspaper owners in Sri Lanka, without any Editorial oversight, have near total control over published content.

The cartoon is already a case study for students of journalism. No doubt, a healthy debate will ensue over the merits of the cartoon’s publication in journalism schools and elsewhere. Your columnist, by carefully delineating the initial responses to the cartoon on Twitter in an article published online earlier in the week, observed some remarkable trends.

One, the speed with which information flows on Twitter alone defies critics who suggest new media has no power to influence national, regional and international agendas. There were two key inflection points in the Twitter debate – one when it was first flagged by a leading Indian correspondent, two when outrage over it was re-tweeted by a well-known Indian Tamil activist. The original tweet was from a marginal voice, but re-tweeted by this leading activist to her network, the outrage spread like wildfire.

Two, mainstream media in Sri Lanka and especially our foreign service simply do not understand the nature of social media and how to engage in real time with official accounts of elected officials, diplomats and other influential voices, especially over contentious issues. Social media is, to them, an extension of broadcast media – say whatever to scatter wherever. We are supremely ill-advised and inept to deal with new media’s interactivity, impact and influence. Voices, both in Sri Lanka and abroad that are more agile and shrewd, and not always better informed, distinctly have the upper hand.

Three, the complete absence of the Sri Lanka Press Institute and the Press Complaints Commission from online debates over the cartoon. They are not on, do not follow and do not understand social media. Both are, sadly, institutional anachronisms. Ironically, even Sri Lanka’s censorious government is more acutely aware of the reach and potential of new media. Section 6.3 of Code of Professional Practice (Code of Ethics) adopted by the PCC avers that “a journalist shall not knowingly or willfully (sic) promote communal or religious discord or violence”. The cartoon in question, in print and online, risked precisely this, across two countries. Yet your columnist was informed the PCC, privately, did not find this cartoon in violation of its ethical code. This would be to effectively mandate outright misogyny and sexism as perfectly acceptable in political lampooning.

Four, and importantly, new media erases geography. The cartoon was meant for Sri Lankans. It offended globally. Greater common-sense and media literacy, rather than censorship, is called for.

###

Published in The Nation newspaper, 16th September 2012.