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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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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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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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