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While poking around on Sri Lankan mass media sites, I stumbled over LakVision, an online news service and satellite TV station of indeterminate political affiliation and partial financing from Singapore Telecom. Their superbly mangled tagline, “Feel the Deference,” perfectly captures the sycophancy of dominant Sri Lankan mass media toward the government.

With that in mind, I set out to look for alternatives.

While Sri Lanka’s digital, participatory media projects are innovative and often well-designed, I’m looking more closely at how they affect information access, and for whom. I’m also interested in their choice of news frame, their standards of evidence, and the source of their reporting. I’m wondering if they blur the line between impartial information gathering and activism, and if so, whether they acknowledge it. Finally, I’m curious to see what effects the fact of available information has upon political processes, and the formal avenues of governance.

I’ve been watching the reporting and monitoring of the May 10, 2008 eastern provincial council elections in Ampara, Trincomolee, and Batticaloa. This is the first council election to take place in the region since the de-merger of the eastern and northern provinces in 2006. At stake in the media framing of the election is the legitimacy of President Rajapaksa’s strategy to regain control of the East and to escalate the war in the North. The elections pitted Rajapaksa’s UPFA and the TMVP, a party of former LTTE fighters who switched allegiances in March 2004, against the UNP and local Muslim parties.

Sites that these political parties established in the past have disappeared. I assume they don’t find the online portal useful – perhaps their constituents don’t access information online, or perhaps their relations to their political networks don’t require the kind of bottom-up support typical of an active web presence. Are their patronage networks authoritarian? It’s likely. UNP, which also contested the elections and protested the results, does have an active web presence – but then it’s a party that supports liberal capitalism and a more technocratic approach to governance.

Digital media activists have focused on reporting and documentation of events surrounding the election. These projects have been specifically designed as events by participatory media and activist groups.

They include:

The Vikalpa Twitter page, an experiment in citizen reporting. Vikalpa is a Centre for Policy Alternatives project that focuses on citizen journalism, mostly in Sinhalese and Tamil. The project provides a platform for citizens to provide reports via SMS. Vikalpa says it’s working with a network of citizen journalists for reporting, but is not independently verifying each post prior to publication:

While we cannot check the veracity of each SMS we receive in a timely manner, we hope and expect that citizens themselves will actively engage with reports posted on our micro-site and alert us with clarifications, updates and alternative perspectives of their own.

The Twitter page lists 62 updates, and was active leading up to and during the elections. It may have been considerably hampered by the Sri Lankan government’s shut-down of cellular networks in the East – a common tactic in the past, usually around large-scale fighting in the East over the past three years.

This kind of participatory reporting – crowdsourcing in new media geek parlance – may gain audience and participation as people become more accustomed to the technology. For now, it’s interesting to see it attempted, and what still remains to be worked out. Sanjana Hattotuwa, who runs Groundviews, Vikalpa, and blogs at ICT4Peace, comments that he’s had some technical glitches in getting the FrontlineSMS software running properly. It’ll be interesting to hear his take on what’s next for this kind of participatory journalism in Sri Lanka.

The Center for Monitoring Election Violence is an organization linked to CPA, the Free Media Movement, and the Coalition Against Political Violence. They are a hybrid activist/monitoring/reporting organization. For the eastern elections, they fielded a team of election monitors, tracked violations, violence, and harassment, and provided a steady stream of reports about those violations on their blog. CMEV’s methodology and standards are transparent.

CMEV also set up a Google Map application to track the progress of elections, including podcasts, video, results by district, and violations.

CMEV was one of four formal election monitoring efforts, and the most critical:

CAFFE was critical, but only monitored the pre-election. PAFFREL monitored the entire election cycle, cited violations but gave qualified approval, and AAEA rubberstamped the government’s position on the elections as a mandate to rule.

Unlike CMEV, these monitoring efforts were more traditional in their approach to information. CAFFE issued a PDF report, PAFFREL an online report but without public commentary or dialogue. AAEA is an intergovernmental organization of Asian election commissions disguised as an independent monitoring agency, and the Sri Lanka Department of Elections is a member. I couldn’t find their report online.

It’s worth noting that CPA-related projects have come in for substantial criticism from some corners of the Sri Lankan mass media and blogosphere, often replete with hate speech, and usually coming from the pro-Sinhalese patriot camp. See the ICT4Peace post here, as well as recent posts on blogs such as the volatile Lanka Libertarian – who says: “several racist peacenik criminals and their ngos are supposedly “monitoring” the election under the label center for monitoring election violence (cmev).”

Lanka Rising is another pro-government site playing up the information war – with posts such as this, comparing the Sri Lankan governments’ website defence.lk with Tamilnet. Defence.lk appropriates the legitimacy of wire service news, with links to Reuters and AP stories, but also links to Sri Lankan military services, and a degrading parody site of Tamilnet at Tamilnet.tv. Most have comments about the elections. It’s difficult to find analytical, moderate political blogs on Sri Lanka – Dennam Betey might be one – unbiased in its cynical outlook.

Jasmine News Wires is an SMS news service that has significant participatory media elements, including an SMS blog, but has taken a more traditional journalistic approach to covering the election. On election day, they primarily cited from secondary sources, but provided a steady stream of well-composed, clearly sourced factoids.

Online news services such as Lankaenews, and Lanka Dissent, sometimes take a broader view. Lanka Dissent was hacked in May 2008, and Lankaenews was raided by the police in January 2008. LankaTruth is another online news site that seems reasonably neutral.

In conclusion:

Participatory media projects succeed in finding new information.

They do not directly reach a mass audience. They do reach a core elite, and their perspectives are reported by sympathetic mass media, as well as by opposed bloggers, but infrequently government media. The information is available on Internet and on advanced mobile phone networks.

The distinction between information and activism in participatory media projects is blurry, but the projects make an effort to make their biases, funding sources, and methodology clear.

The information/activism has a limited effect on the process it’s covering. In this case, while knowledge of election violations is available in the public sphere, it did not fundamentally change the outcome of the election, or the process by which civil society and media engage with more formal institutions of power and governance.

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For the sake of comparison, here’s a brief overview of mass media coverage of the election. The Christian Science Monitor review of the election relies heavily on wire service reporting, with summations of stories from Reuters, Bloomberg, and AFP, and AP reporting. Bloomberg reported from Sydney, Reuters from Colombo, AP from Batticaloa, and AFP from Trincomolee. Wire services are increasingly shifting their staffing mix from international reporters to local correspondents, both a costs measure and a reflection of the globalization of news production, and the decline of the foreign correspondent. AP and Reuters both gave the election reasonably thorough coverage, perhaps a reflection of the fact that they now have a global market for their news.

Coverage of the elections in Sri Lankan media was considerably more extensive. Sources include both the Sri Lanka broadcast media, the news media, such as the Daily Mirror, the Nation, the Island, and the Sunday Times.

Two contradictory narratives arise from the reporting streams; first is that the elections were peaceful and legitimate, and give the Rajapaksa administration a “mandate” to rule in the East; second is that the elections were accompanied by propaganda, harassment, incidents of political violence, and vote-rigging, and reflect a corrupt and biased process.

The international coverage, as indicated by the CSM story was broad, and strives for ‘objective’ coverage, giving nearly equal weight to both narratives. The Sri Lankan media, on the other hand, mostly chose to emphasize one or the other narrative. Much of the reporting that reached the East would have been sanitized and pro-government, as evidenced by SLBC reporting.

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