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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.

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We’ve been searching the internet for blog and newsletter activity on Kashmir to see what conversation, blogging, and chat is like regarding an intractable conflict.

I visited Indian-administered Kashmir in 2003, and worked in Pakistani-administered Kashmir in 2005, after the earthquake. In both places, media were highly biased and polarized, and journalists felt isolated and under threat of violence from all sides, and pressured to either stay silent or to align themselves with dominant positions. My overwhelming impression was that media as a tool for informing citizenry was subverted; instead it was used as a tool for promoting policy, and became an accelerator of conflict.

Even powerful media had little ability to affect change in the face of violent conflict. Those individuals who took on the responsibility of playing the role of impartial reporters were isolated, with little institutional support.

More recently, while there’s been little movement in the peace process beyond confidence-building measures, there’s also a marked diminishing of violence in Indian-administered Kashmir. A recent story on ABC’s website states that killings in Kashmir now average two per day, down from a high of 10 per day in 2001.

ICG says that “progress [on Kashmir] has been limited to peripheral issues. While both sides have reiterated commitments to sustain the dialogue, it is unrealistic to expect radical change in the near term.”

In our search, we’ve found little new for the last two years, either locally or internationally. ICG’s last report was in June 2006. Amnesty International wrote more recently about unmarked graves in Kashmir; an important issue, but not one that directly addresses the conflict. Specialized organizations focused on the conflict have produced some reporting, but mostly on peripheral issues.

While news outlets report statements by key political figures on Kashmir, the tone is nearly resigned. Recent statements by Pakistani prime minister Gillani signal a return to pre-Musharraf rhetoric regarding Kashmir, specifically on the need for self-determination, but this is likely posturing for Pakistani domestic politics.

Online news sites focused on Kashmir – the Kashmir Herald and Greater Kashmir, both pro-Indian, and the Kashmir Media Service, an anti-Indian site, continue to cover issues from their perspectives. The Kashmir Observer may be the most neutral online news site available at present; it is the online version of a paper by the same name.

Kashland is a new site that focuses on Kashmiri culture, history, and dialogue, and uses neutral language with regard to political issues. Its authors claim that

there has been enough written and enough said by all kinds of commentators on the “vexed Kashmir problem”. We want to instead provide a forum where Kashmiris and Kashmir-lovers can let down their hair and focus on our common history, cultural heritage and what creative responses can be made to the contemporary world.

Kashmir the blog in a February 2008 post analyzes insurgency numbers in Kashmir, quoting an Indian police source, who says there are no more than 250 trained militants in Indian Kashmir, and asks why hundreds of thousands of Indian troops are required to managed such a small number of insurgents.

A roundup of other Kashmiri bloggers in English shows little activity focused on the conflict, including several formerly active sites, now dormant. The blogging community maybe most easily accessed through the campkashit site – a barcamp movement for Kashmiri bloggers.

Our short answer – in the absence of either progress on the peace process, or overt violence, the the blogging community is largely dormant on core political issues. In other words, its instincts have been similar to the mainstream media – seeking conflict and change, and inconsistent in covering processes, especially over a period of years. That may change with a more organized community, and it’s a positive sign that campkashit is taking place, and looks set to continue.

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I’ve been spending some time looking into different political movements that are seeking a change in status, to see how digital media tools are being used to advance political agendas, communications, and news and information around that issue. I’m working with Anand Varghese, a grad student at Georgetown, who also blogs at The Democratic Piece, and together we’ve begun mapping and analyzing information sources around several South Asian conflicts – namely the Baloch autonomy movement, the Kashmir independence movement, and the Sri Lankan war.

Why these conflicts? We’ve been working on a number of hypotheses regarding how digital media affect communication and information in and around conflict, and the functional relationship these tools have to the course of conflict. These particular conflicts have several features that make them valuable for analysis:

On the technology side, they have rapidly spreading Internet and cellphone infrastructure, and relatively low costs and barriers to entry. India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka all have booming Internet and cell phone information and communications economies and cultures, and a core elite of technologists.

Politically, they are long-running conflicts that revolve around issues of identity, nationalism, language, and resource access, and threaten established state sovereignty.

In terms of media, the states involved have a checkered history with censorship, state control of mass media infrastructure, and intermittently, a history of violence attacks against journalists and other media workers. See the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) for reporting on these attacks.

Finally, these conflicts get minimal attention in the international press. Reporting from local media outlets is frequently partisan, biased, and censored. Individual attacks and events rarely get substantial coverage, with murky motives and little research. These conflict zones are also restricted in access to journalists and researchers by the parties to conflict. In short, they are long-running conflicts with established narrative frames, little prospect of resolution, and sketchy information sources.

So today, Balochistan. We’ve been watching Balochistan because the PPP has promised that long-running grievances regarding political status within the Pakistani state may finally find some relief. This is due in part to the rise of Asif Ali Zardari – co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – to power. Zardari, who is from a Baloch tribe in Sindh, recently apologized to the Balochistan for Pakistan’s “excesses,” and pledged “maximum” autonomy for the province.

Previously, the Pakistan government has censored Baloch autonomy movement websites, both around specific events, such as the August 2006 killing of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti by a Pakistani military attack, and increasingly, as part of a more systematic effort on the part of the Musharraf government to restrict information about political autonomy movements at the provincial level.

This information gap is probably largest in regard to the disappearance of thousands of Pakistanis in the past few years, hundreds of whom are from Balochistan. See Balochvoice for a list from 2007. It’s also one of the key issues that Chief Justice Chaudhry was investigating when he was dismissed by Musharraff in 2007, which sparked the national protests that have in part led to the ouster of Mush’s party in the February 2008 parliamentary elections. Chaudry, of course, is also from Balochistan.

With the shift in power in Pakistan, where are the sources of information on Balochistan now, and to what degree are digital media being used by Baloch automony/nationalist movements? Has there been any change?

We looked at some 60 websites that deal with Balochistan. Our working assumption is that traditional news outlets are only one source of information for this conflict – journalists have restricted access to the region, and the story is expensive to cover and not a high priority. Further, there are few local news sources. Pakistan is one of the few stories frequently covered in the international press (the Taliban are reported to use Quetta as a base), but Balochistan autonomy is rarely the subject. Humanitarian organizations, human rights and civil society groups, research institutes, bloggers, participatory media websites, and news aggregators are a growing and important source of information about the conflict.

So our question – are these non-news sites actually expanding information and bringing depth of understanding about the conflict, albeit with different objectives and evidentiary standards?

Our preliminary findings:

– only a few websites, mostly separatist sympathizers, keep regular track of news from the area, and publish it. Examples include balochwarna.org, balochvoice.com, thebaluch.com, and balochunity.org. These sites mix professional news sources such as the BBC and The Dawn with information from themselves, frequently quoting one another, as well as partisan bloggers, also presented as news.

– Most other websites focused on Baloch issues are irregularly updated, or no longer exist. Dozens of such sites are practically defunct.

– We found few bloggers with extensive coverage of Balochistan, such as The Glasshouse, Regaining Baloch Sovereignty. Many others are defunct, such as The Government of Balochistan in Exile and Baloch Freedom Movement. Some of these sites were serious efforts lasting years. It’s possible we’re seeing a retraction of Baloch-focused blogs (perhaps linked to a waning of the separatist movement – many ended in 2006 after Bugti’s death). These blogs are all highly partisan, and present mostly analysis and commentary, with almost no new information.

– While humanitarian groups, human rights and civil society groups provide occasional extensive research reports and policy recommendations, their output does not cover daily news, or on mapping the progress of the autonomy issue, but the analysis is generally much deeper and more sophisticated than news reports. See the Terrorism Monitor from the Jamestown Foundation as an example.

– Key news gathering organizations, including the AP, BBC, Reuters, and the national PK newspapers are still the predominant sources of news, although rather less so of in-depth analysis of the conflict. The wire services may have stringers in Baluchistan, but infrequently send correspondents. Regional Baloch newspapers are struggling with government censorship, advertising, and attracting readership.

– As for the recent political statements about maximum autonomy, the reaction within the Baloch nationalist movements have not yet been expressed publicly. Statements made by the PPP have mostly been interpreted as a push for a political coalition for the PPP within Balochistan (the PPP lost to PML-Q in Balochistan). It has yet to spark optimism regarding real autonomy. At the same time, the conflict continues. Muhammad Tahir reports that a “ten-week period in 2008 saw 76 insurgent-linked incidents reported, claiming the lives of 14 people and wounding 123.” See also the South Asia Terrorism Portal timeline. Tellingly, we were unable to find any news source with a similar frame for its coverage, while the Baloch nationalist websites linked to the timeline.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that most of the online information about Balochistan is in English, with some in Urdu. The status of Balochi language is an issue of great concern for Baloch nationalists, as its use is waning in favor of English and Urdu, and because of unresolved issues about orthography – arabic v. latin script. Blogging in Baloch appears minimal. The nationalist rhetoric often centers on the suppression of Balochi culture and language by the Pakistani state.

There may be other sources in the mass media on Baloch autonomy – especially radio and cable TV, and also possibly information via cell phone, but we’re not able to track those sources from afar. That’s the subject of another post.

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