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

Advertisements

Media in Sri Lanka

For over three years, I have discussed media and conflict resolution at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) in Colombo in classes with high-ranking officers in active service from the intelligence community, Police, Army, Navy and Air Force as well as staff from NGOs, university students and ordinary citizens. My fundamental emphasis in these classes was to suggest that all citizens in Sri Lanka today own or have access to tools and technologies that allow them to produce, disseminate and consume news and information beyond traditional media coverage. Few disagreed with this thesis.

This is not a technocratic argument, or one based on and reflective of some privileged social or political class, an elite not unlike those who control the media we consume today. We already see how mobiles have changed the way we get and transmit news – from tsunami warnings and road closures to the latest cricket scores. As research by the Colombo based telecommunications policy think tank Lirneasia highlighted recently, there are already more phones in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Thailand than radios at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) – the largest and poorest socio-economic group in these countries. In Sri Lanka, over 70% of BOP households have a telephone, either fixed or as is increasingly the case, mobile. We are looking at what I call an addressable humanity in less than a decade. Everyone, wherever they are, will own or have access to a number that connects them to the rest of the world. In many cases, this will be a mobile phone. Think about it – affordable, ubiquitous voice and data connectivity for everyone. How will the use of and access to communications at this scale impact human rights and governance? Will this level of borderless addressability realise Francis Fukuyama’s end of the nation-state, or conversely, will it strengthen movements for internal self-determination? Do we embrace this future or do we seek to violently stymie its realisation? Essentially, why are these developments and questions so important for professional journalism?

One reason is because these new tools and technologies are re-organising the power around, the perception of and respect towards traditional media. Strip away all the highfalutin hype and well-known pitfalls over the practice of citizen journalism and examples of new media and you still have historic changes in content creation, by and for citizens, unprecedented since Gutenberg’s movable type 560 years ago. This is not content that necessarily needs, or uses, the enabling architecture of traditional media to get read, seen or heard. And this is precisely what bothers our senior journalists. As renowned BBC journalist Nik Gowing recently noted in The Guardian,

Too often, the knee-jerk institutional response continues to be one of denial as if this new broader, fragmented, redefined media landscape does not exist. Yet within minutes the new, almost infinite media dynamic of images, video, texts and social media mean the public rapidly has vivid, accurate impressions of what is unravelling. Overall, the time lines of their institutional power and the new media realities are increasingly out of sync. This creates what a few enlightened officials or executives concede is the new fragility of their power in a crisis. Institutional assumptions of commanding the information high ground in a crisis are from a different era. The instant scrutiny created by the new digital media landscape subverts their effectiveness and leaves reputations more vulnerable than ever in a crisis. It usually does so with breathtaking speed.

Emphasis mine. For my sins as a scholar, I have been forced to interact with opinionated journalists who are overwhelmingly less knowledgeable about new media than most students I have encountered my classroom, including many from our defence establishment. There is perhaps a simple explanation. Senior journalists, much like our government today, think they alone know the truth and thus over time come to believe their own fiction as fact. As a result, many see no reason to engage with alternative viewpoints and facts emerging from citizen produced content. Readers remain consumers, journalists remain producers and the news flows out from the newsroom. It’s a simple worldview. My students, on the other hand, are interested in ways they can manipulate existing media and create their own. Both groups, perhaps unequally, are fascinated and frustrated by new media. Fascinated because they find that media production for a global audience is now as simple as a few strokes on a mobile device. Frustrated because with this knowledge comes the realisation that it is no longer possible to control information flows opposed to, or that question, one’s own opinion.

How does this impact on media production and consumption in Sri Lanka? The re-activation of the Press Council is a good example. The government’s decision to reactivate it was ostensibly on the basis that salaries and rent were still being paid to maintain its membership and offices respectively, even though it was dissolved a few years ago. The manic lunacy of the Rajapakse government sadly survived the war. My observation however was that not a single press release or media report on the reactivation of the Press Council acknowledged the elephant in the room – deep and enduring divisions within traditional media in Sri Lanka that undermines media freedom. But we already know this. Just recently, a prominent member of the Editors Guild itself, commenting online, supported the reactivation of the Press Council and bringing to book producers of content that, in this instance, highlighted clear examples of the defamatory use of online sources and plagiarism in a leading newspaper. While media freedom remains under severe threat from government, the defence establishment and armed parastatals, the significance of senior journalists themselves undermining the professionalism, independence and impartiality of their profession is a topic that is simply not talked about openly.

Why is this important for us, the consumers of media? For starters, we now can talk back to journalists and comment on their content, even if they refuse to feature or publish us in their own media. This makes many senior journalists feel deeply insecure and vaunt to respond to new media in the same manner as the Pope would if you asked him when he last had sex. This is unfortunate. All that really differentiates traditional and new media today is their ability to create or strengthen value. Progressive newspapers like the Guardian in the UK show how value can be added to traditional journalism by engaging readers as participants in news-making through the web. In opening up an investigation into the expenses of UK MPs, the Guardian recently invited readers to categorize 700,000 pages of information, transcribing the handwritten expenses details into an online form and alert the newspaper if any claims merit further investigation. Professional journalists who bring to bear their experience, training and impartiality to investigate claims made by the general public greatly enhance the value of news. This is a participatory culture of news-making radically different to old models of production and consumption.

Value creation also works the other way around. Given the flagrant violation of codes of conduct and ethics drawn up by media organisations and senior journalists in Sri Lanka, citizen themselves will increasingly hold media accountable to a higher standard. In Tamil, Sinhala and English, citizens – from youth to a number of progressive and well-known journalists who blog anonymously – are using new media to produce content that interrogates government, governance, private enterprise and increasingly, traditional media. They are also producing content that reveals war casualties, IDP camp conditions and alternatives to what the government and pliant traditional media would have us believe is the only truth. Senior editors in Sri Lanka may rant and rave about awards won and copies sold, but the hard reality – whether they choose to accept it or not – is that their reputation and integrity competes against and is scrutinised by a media model beyond their control.

How must students of journalism and activists committed to the freedom of expression respond to this new weltanschauung of media production and consumption? I would argue for engagement and innovation, but here again we face a significant problem. Many of the institutions, free media movements and colleges of journalism today are hostage to a close association with and coloured by the parochialism, unprofessionalism, essential dishonesty and bias of senior journalists, including many leading Editors and owners of news organisations. This is a systemic problem. How then can we construct a more progressive movement towards professionalism in a context of continuing violence against independent media? Again, I see no other option but mutually strengthening symbiosis – of traditional media embracing the potential of new technologies and citizen journalism embracing the values of professional media as it should be, not as it is.

As I was writing this column, the death of Michael Jackson was first communicated and then confirmed – before AP, CNN and the BBC – via my friends on Facebook. I passed on the message through Twitter and Facebook itself, potentially reaching, through the friends of friends and so on, thousands around the world in a matter of minutes. This is news production today. The visceral video of Neda Soltani dying on the streets of Tehran at the hands of a regime our own government calls a friend is another example. You may have seen this haunting video, shot on a mobile and now online where Neda – a young girl who was not even part of the demonstrations against Ahmadinejad – is shot and locks eyes with the camera as she bleeds to death. How can trained, professional journalists use these same new technologies and methods to help us understand and shape the world we share? How can civic minded citizens create media of their own to cover issues and places traditional media are not interested in, choose to ignore, or cannot cover because of rising costs? These are challenges and questions central to post-war media development in particular and the restoration of democracy in general. A bastion of ageing, and worse, pompous journalists commanding what Nik Gowing calls news regimes from a different era pose a challenge to media freedom equal to the government’s censorship and repression.

Conversely, voters unable or unwilling to realise and leverage the potential of mobiles, PCs, the web and Internet to strengthen democracy will get the media and government they deserve.

Published in The Sunday Leader, 28th June 2009

Dissent online

“… Thus while the government is trying to position Singapore as a Media Hub for the fast-growing new media technology and development, home grown talent often face harsh official harassment. Singapore’s netizens are moving to redefine the terms of the island state’s political discourse – whether the government welcome them or not”.

Kalinga Seneviratne, Asia Media Report 2009

Kalinga’s sentiments are resonant in Sri Lanka as well, in this our official year of ICT and English. Over the course of 2009 alone, I have been informed of and visited over two dozen websites and web based social networking initiatives that highlight facets of the war and humanitarian concerns in Sri Lanka. They are all very well designed and most of them are compelling narratives that, at first, do not at all appear to be what they essentially are – partial narratives serving parochial ends. A select few are show signs of emerging as effective platforms for engaging the unlike-minded online. For example, a few readers may know Pissu Poona, an anonymous identity on Facebook – one of the world’s best known and most used online social networks – that has befriended nearly 200 individuals at the time of writing and regularly points to content on the web that critiques and analyses the Sri Lankan conflict. Pissu Poona is a site for some interesting debate and as a post which generated a lot of responses noted,

“just a reminder that this space is our space for debate and discussion. it is to challenge you (and me) to think about issues and perhaps question our own beliefs and prejudices. Let us not lose sight of the fact that our communities are polarized now more than ever and unless and until the dialogue is started again the mistrust and suspicion will continue to grow. Pissu Poona is an attempt to re-initiate the dialogue that war has cost us.”

On the other hand, as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Dayan Jayatilleke recently noted,


“Pro-Tiger Tamil students, mainly from Canadian campuses are walking from Toronto to Chicago in order to get on the Oprah Winfrey show. Now that’s a pretty neat gimmick. They have a well designed website. The Sinhala students who have the sophistication to pull something like this off are uninvolved in the struggle because they are alienated by the elements that tend to dominate equivalent networks, while those who are heavily involved in the “patriotic” struggle do not make the most Oprah-friendly material.”

Given that the peaceful negotiation of conflict and amplification of critical dissent on and through the web is an area of significant personal interest, I found Dayan’s encapsulation of the current growth spurt of web based pro-LTTE advocacy very interesting. Ironically however, for the pedestrian apparatchiks of the Rajapakse regime as much as the trade unionist fighting for her rights, the human rights defender, the traditional journalist and the Tamil nationalist vehemently opposed to the LTTE yet unequivocally committed to the equal treatment of all Tamil peoples – the web poses a real challenge. Equally and for all of these types, the web is alien terrain. Its unfamiliarity breeds hubris, which in turn leads to the gross under estimation of the web’s potential for transforming polity and society, for better or worse.

The diaspora – particularly Tamil but also Sinhala – has long known this. Evidence is found in how today, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) captures global eyeballs on the situation in the Vanni today through YouTube and Flickr. From the superbly designed Tamils Against Genocide website and well crafted interventions in the Genocide Intervention Network, to engaging, well-edited videos on YouTube of young North American students explaining why they are fasting in protest of the humanitarian crisis in the Vanni, recent pro-LTTE online narratives through text, audio, video and photography captivates attention on a hidden war. Understanding how this growing base of online opinion increasingly foments global and local action is important.

I believe that the LTTE is far from ideologically decimated because its violent, exclusive and illiberal definition of Tamil nationalism struggle will exist and evolve quite easily, in its most virulent form, on the web and Internet. Importantly, a new wave of pro-LTTE content will be designed, deployed and sustained in the West for and amongst the fourth and fifth generation Tamil diaspora. These Canadian, Australian, American, French, Swiss, Indian Tamil youth will leverage tools, techniques and services on the web and Internet that for example worked very well for Obama in his Presidential campaign to highlight, with great sophistication and finesse, aspects of a war they find convenient, such as the egregious human rights abuses by the State. How they will evolve and what they will transform into in the future is an open debate. Some initiatives may greatly aid, through new funding and propaganda networks, the resurgence of secessionist armed conflict in Sri Lanka especially in a context where we know that the Rajapakse regime to date demonstrates little or no capacity to meaningfully address legitimate Tamil grievances. Other web initiatives may fizzle out over time in a post-LTTE / ‘post-war’ scenario if Tamil aspirations are seen to be accommodated, or as their instigators move on in life. There is however a parallel challenge to the emergence and influence of these pro-LTTE websites. Unsurprisingly, it comes in the form of its mirror image – intemperate Sinhala Buddhist nationalism online. This fringe lunacy through the frequency and extent of violent expression dominates many web fora, comprehensively firewalling progressive discussions and fresh thinking on critical issues. This is on the one hand a global phenomenon and challenge. Renowned New York Times technology columnist David Pogue noted around three years ago that,

The real shame, though, is that the kneejerk “everyone else is an idiot” tenor is poisoning the potential the Internet once had. People used to dream of a global village, where maybe we can work out our differences, where direct communication might make us realize that we have a lot in common after all, no matter where we live or what our beliefs. But instead of finding common ground, we’re finding new ways to spit on the other guy, to push them away. The Internet is making it easier to attack, not to embrace.

On the other hand, the problem of creating and sustaining progressive dialogues and dissent particularly under a repressive regime is a pressing challenge, and for not just ‘Sinhala students’ as Amb. Jayatilleke points out. Our challenge is to respond to two markedly similar strains of delusion and deception – one by the LTTE and its supporters, the other by the Rajapakse regime and its supporters.

A post-LTTE Sri Lanka that does not address that which gave rise to violent secessionist movements is an octane boost for that which fuels LTTE propaganda online. A post-LTTE context that, as fully expected, clamps down on dissent will severely undermine the ability to respond to this pro-LTTE propaganda. When voices of critical dissent, vital to democracy, are branded terrorists, abducted, killed, tortured, incarcerated and forced into silence through fear, a hidden cost with accrues. Murdering dissent permanently erases those best able to envision, create, sustain and promote spaces for progressive debate in a post-LTTE Sri Lanka – in the real world and online. Combined, these spaces and initiatives would be the best counter for LTTE propaganda. Sadly though, the Rajapakse regime in its infinite ignorance seeks to kill and maim many of these visionaries who are today equally opposed to the violence by the State and the LTTE.

For the student of online activism contributing to real world change, this will be an interesting case study. Online activism and information online we already know substantially galvanises international and domestic opinion. Knowing this, the LTTE’s remnants in Sri Lanka, its supporters in the diaspora and Tamils whose sudden and heightened identity consciousness has demanded acts as extreme as self-immolation will use the web and Internet as a means to promote and sustain propaganda on State violence, leading to powerful transnational lobby groups, funding and critical eyeballs on the Sri Lankan government. Equally blinkered and far less effective will be the Rajapakse regime’s understanding of and response to such online strategies. It will see the heightened online activism by pro-LTTE diaspora as a passing fad, that it can control much in the same way it has contained the International Community, India, donors, the UN and local NGOs. It will place those who are critical of the regime in the same mould as pro-LTTE supporters, a facile excuse even today used to harm and silence them.

Lost in this madness will be voices who recognize and speak out that the LTTE itself, in a slow genocide of its own peoples over three decades, killed more Tamils than those who have been lost since January 2009 (the cause of all recent agitation). Lost too will be voices such as the Editor of this newspaper, who fearlessly and repeatedly noted that the Rajapakse regime’s success in fighting the LTTE came at great cost – that the regime today is the LTTE incarnate.

Pissu Poona and some other select bloggers in Sri Lanka – in Tamil as well as Sinhala and English – are creating, at great risk and cost to self, family and friends engaging online spaces that may in the future expand as sites which include a range of voices contesting violent extremism in all forms. These spaces will feature vital debates on issues of identity, governance and celebrate a Sri Lanka so much more than the violence it is hostage to. How they can be supported and how dissent, free expression and a free media is the best defence against what will be the inevitable resurgence of violent secessionism in the future should be the regime’s top priority.

I doubt it is, or ever will be.

Published in Sunday Leader, 29 March 2009.