Sri Lanka’s long-running conflict has had an explosive year. The Sri Lankan government’s decision in January 2008 to pull out of the cease fire signed in 2002 between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE has led to the renewal of open war. The agreement had been in trouble for years, and analysts have argued that it would have collapsed sooner were it not for the tsunami and consequent weakening of the LTTE military, and diversion of resources from the GoSL.
Sri Lanka has a highly educated population with literacy rates exceeding 90%, and an active civil society, a vocal if partisan media, an influential and well-off diaspora, an active ICT sector, and numerous humanitarian organizations, and the UN present to observe both the cease fire and now, the return to war.
Sri Lanka is a great example of the diversification of information sources that coincide with conflict. Specifically, conflict encourages both media and various nonprofit and civil society groups to create new media projects to fill an information gap, or to find solutions to deal with lack of physical access to conflict zones, political violence, surveillance, and censorship. It’s also the case that resources to create such projects are directed to Sri Lanka because of the conflict as well as the savvy and organization of activists. Funding sources include international aid, citizens groups, diaspora, private foundations, and corporate social responsibility efforts.
The idea that conflict has effects on media, and spurs entrepreneurial and technological change has been observed by others. Ted Okada of Microsoft Humanitarian Systems, for instance, describes the work of his unit in complex humanitarian emergencies as a testing ground for new technologies that have applications both in emergencies and everyday contexts. Software tools such as Groove or testing for the smart personal technology watch and collaborations with media outlets to build communications networks, for instance in Afghanistan or earthquake relief in Kashmir, have resulted. Here, Ted is quoted by Jon Udall on Sri Lanka:
“We’ve been working with an NGO that was using Groove to negotiate between the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese government in Sri Lanka. The two parties wouldn’t sit in the same room, but they did agree to use Groove to arbitrate the conflict.”
Sri Lanka’s civil society and media activists are technologically saavy and well connected to technologists around the world, and both work with other local and international initiatives, and create projects as innovative as anywhere else. Sahana, an open software tool for managing disasters created by the Lanka Software Foundation but picked up by the humanitarian community eslewhere, is an example of this.
So Sri Lanka is an example of how information in conflict zones will increasingly function in the 21st century. While much violent conflict occurs out of the public eye, it is becoming more common for wars to be fought in the midst of information access, and even abundance (Iraq and the Lebanese/Israel conflict are other examples). This is the case in Sri Lanka, starting with Tamilnet (see Whitaker’s Learning Politics from Sivaram for a compelling history of Tamil journalism), which began as a listserve in 1995, and became one an early successful online (if partisan) online newspapers in June 1997. It extends to a range of citizen journalism and participatory media projects coming out out of media development, activist, and human rights groups in Sri Lanka.
Increasingly, there is a convergence in the function of information providers, including news outlets, human rights research groups, participatory media projects, political analyses, and humanitarian organizations. Digital media technologies allow all of them to communicate directly with audiences, and thus we find bloggers providing news, humanitarian organizations providing editorials, freedom of expression groups reporting on access restrictions, human rights observers covering the front lines, and Wikipedia as both a news source and an active debate over the war.
This convergence is especially evident in conflict zones because access to the actual conflict is still often highly restricted, and impartial unchaperoned reporting from front lines remains rare – when fighting actually occurs in restricted fields of military activity, rather than in the midst of civilian populations (subject of another post). In the Sri Lanka case, the challenge remains obtaining accurate, reliable, first-hand accounts of the fighting, documentation of disappearances, kidnappings, beatings, and other forms of political violence and harassment.
And the technology to access information is only one part of the story – what constitutes information is itself highly contested. The fight over content, spin, language, and interpretation rages across the information spectrum. From edit wars on Wikipedia to hate speech on blogs, attacks and incitement in newspaper editorials, to physical attacks, intimidation, and murder, Sri Lanka’s war sometimes seem to move seemlessly from information space to the real world.
Following is a rough map of information and communications pertaining to the Sri Lankan war. Following postings will deal with specific questions, including the May 10 eastern province elections, reporting of disappearances, and humanitarian information for IDPs.
Sri Lanka also has a strong government broadcaster, SLBC, and numerous private TV and radio stations and newspapers. Mass media are highly centralized, with most broadcasters based in and producing all programming out of Colombo, including terrestrial and satellite broadcasters. Exceptions include a number of smaller regional state radio broadcasters and government-owned community radio stations, such as Uva community radio, Ruhuna FM in Matara, Pirai FM, in Ampara, and Anoor FM in Puttalam, as well as smaller regional newspapers and regional inserts. Media development projects work with all sectors of the media: prominent local and international groups include Ya-TV, the Sri Lanka Press Institute, CPA, UNESCO, FOJO, and Internews.
Internet access is growing, though still under 3% of the total population. Cell phone subscribers are over 6 million, roughly 30% of the population, and currently growing at 2 million/year. However broadband wireless, 3G cellphone networks, and numerous carriers exist, and Sri Lanka has an active and well-educated ICT sector, both private and the ICTA, a government agency, promoting everything from e-government to rural Internet access points and telecentres.
Sri Lanka has seen the appearance of several interesting new media projects, including Jasmine News Wire, Groundviews, components of the Internews humanitarian information programs, also available on Voice of Reconciliation Radio online. There are also online versions and SMS text news services of newspapers such as Virakasari, online radio and TV stations such as Thaalam FM and others. Digital media are also used to create early warning systems for information delivery in emergencies. The Peace and Conflict Timeline is a new participatory media project that tracks the war’s trajectory.
Additional information and reporting sources in Sri Lanka include active research centers, human rights organizations, and policy analysis organizations. Insight on Conflict/Sri Lanka has a substantial list of these organizations. Notable include the Centre for Policy Alternatives, University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), Berghof Centre for Conflict Transformation, and ICG.
These efforts, both local and international, in sum, constitute extensive, well-conceived, and sometimes well-financed efforts to preserve space for dialogue, and freedom of expression, as well as efforts to accurately document the war.
Sri Lanka has an active blogging community, as well as Facebook and Twitter groups. Bridge blogs include Kottu and Achcharu. Bloggers include both strong supporters of peace processes, freedom of information, and civil society activism, and strong pro-government and military blogs replete with slander and hate speech.
Both the government and the LTTE have been accused of harrassment of journalists and NGOs at various times over the course of the conflict, and over the past two years numerous cases of harrassment have been documented.
Freedom of expression groups closely track censorship, attacks on journalists, and harassment. Sources include Amnesty international’s report titled Silencing Dissent, a stream of statements by the International Federation of Journalists, and continuous tracking by Sri Lanka’s Free Media Movement, as well as International Media Support, ICT4Peace, the citizen journalism website Groundviews, and the Sri Lanka Press Institute, as well as the South Asia Free Media Association, CPJ, and RSF.