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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the most challenging instances of reporting in conflict zones, especially when looking at whether and how participatory media projects and digital media technologies could be useful in filling information gaps. Paul Currion’s been writing about the importance of recognizing that early warning, monitoring and human rights organizations have valuable expertise. He says that participatory media projects should tread carefully when they approach the same questions, and demonstrate that they have systems for verifying information, in addition to their cool interfaces and quick response times.

With that in mind, I took a look through the literature on disappearances and abductions in the Sri Lankan wars to see whether participatory media projects are engaging the subject in a useful way. Human Rights Watch, among others, has done extensive research on the subject. From an HR watch report summary:

Hundreds of enforced disappearances committed since 2006 have already placed Sri Lanka among the countries with the highest number of new cases in the world. The victims are primarily young ethnic Tamil men who “disappear”—often after being picked up by government security forces in the country’s embattled north and east, but also in the capital Colombo. Some may be members or supporters of the LTTE, but this does not justify their detention in secret or without due process. Most are feared dead.

Here’s a BBC story on the Sri Lankan goverment’s response, denying HRWatch’s claims. HRWatch based its research on over 100 interviews with family members of the disappeared, field work, and dozens of interviews with aid and activist organizations, over the course of a year.

What stands out about coverage of abductions and assults in the Sri Lankan case is that journalists have also frequently been targets. Journalists and human rights advocates aren’t just monitoring attacks against civilians, they are documenting attacks against their own communities. In a sense, they are the story they are covering – an increasingly typical scenario in modern conflict, when perception of and information about events are often important elements in military tactics.

Because of this, both media and media support groups such as the Free Media Movement have been very involved in documenting, disseminating, and tracking incidents. FMM and others have over the past few years built strong links to regional and international freedom of expression groups. This creates a flow of information and advocacy that starts with local expertise and contacts and extends to global dissemination. The relationships also ensure more rigorous research methodology, accountability, and often access to some security and resources for local groups – whether by virtue of their increasingly international profile, or access to safe havens for those in trouble.

How are participatory media projects, blogs, and other nontraditional media tied into coverage of abductions, and what do they add? How are more traditional human rights organizations using digital media to get their messages out?

Among Sri Lankan media, the online news service TamilNet has timely coverage of events as they occur, as do Lankaenews and Lankadissent. TamilNet is one of the earliest online newspapers in Asia, and while it has a controversial profile, it is also widely read both in Sri Lanka and abroad, and helps shape the Sri Lanka news frame.

Among participatory media projects in Sri Lanka, Groundviews, Jasmine News Wires, and PACT are the most prominent examples. Each takes a different approach. Groundviews focuses on quality citizen reporting and analysis; Jasime on SMS news bulletins of events and a public SMS blog, and PACT on creating an accurate timeline of events. Each has a significant participatory element, together with a transparent process that states when and how editorial controls are applied.

Among blogs, the aggregator Kottu nets individual blog posts, participatory media links, and stories coming out of the advocacy and journalism communities. A search for “abduction” (July 11, 08) comes up with 20 links, about half of which are from advocacy organizations. Among blog posts, most are commentary, such as indi.ca.

While these efforts might have started out without the rigor of a Human Rights Watch, by virtue of their focus on human rights issues, they have rapidly gained the skills, profile, and relationships to be effective. They now have institutional homes, resources, and usually, some staff. They professionalize in response to pressures on them, as well as through links with other advocacy organizations – locally, regionally, and internationally, and attract resources accordingly.

At the same time, more evidence that human rights organizations recognize they are now media. Returning to the Human Rights Watch report on abuction, we see that their summary page is written like a news article, and disseminated as such on humanitarian news sites such as Reliefweb. Additionally, HRWatch has created a video of their staff discussing the report, available on their YouTube channel.

Behind all this activity, there’s the question of audience penetration and effect. The HRWatch video has less than 2000 views; Sri Lankan participatory media projects do not yet have mass audiences. They do, however, have the attention of the policy world, and of elites in and diaspora from Sri Lanka. Increasingly, they have strategies to get their work into mass media outlets, whether as columns in newspapers, or as reports about their work. Cumulatively, they have managed to both raise the profile of the issue of abductions, and to help direct resources and energy into better research and monitoring. It remains a question as to whether they’ve managed to affect the political landscape. HRWatch’s call for UN monitors is unlikely to be heeded by the Sri Lankan government.

Links to other reports on abduction, for those interested:

International Crisis Group

Asian Human Rights Commission

UN

Benetech

Amnesty

Asian Centre for Human Rights

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