Nigel V. Nugawela is the co-editor of Groundviews (@Groundviews on Twitter), an award winning citizen journalism initiative from Sri Lanka. He is also one of the many wonderful speakers at the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit 2010 to be held in Santiago, Chile, on May 6-7. In this interview, Nugawela, a researcher for the Conflict and Peace Analysis Unit at the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Sri Lanka, talks about citizen media in Sri Lanka, the role of the Internet and social media tools, and the current situation of mainstream media in Sri Lanka.
Global Voices- What is the current situation of citizen media in Sri Lanka? In terms of quantity, quality, participation in the public sphere and public discourse, of offering alternative and different perspectives and a space for other voices.
Nigel V. Nugawela (NN)- Citizen media is in a steady process of proliferation throughout Sri Lanka. There are hundreds of blogs in Sinhala, Tamil and English, and several blog aggregators. 835 are currently featured on the popular blog aggregator kottu.org and nearly 800 others in Sinhala alone aggregated on the Sinhala Blogger’s Union site. There are a few alternate news sites and websites that complement mainstream media, such as Perambera or Transcurrents. Some of the blogs have some fantastic content, raging from creative writing, news analysis, art, photography, literature and culture.
Let me be candid and state that one true success story of citizen media in Sri Lanka has been Groundviews in terms readership and popularity. With regard to quantity, Groundviews has a large archive of content comprised of articles, video interviews and photography. We have over 200 authors, over 1,200 original articles and over 16,200 comments that formulate some of the most thought provoking debates on religion, society, philosophy and politics. The comments alone total well over one and a half million words of critique, dissent and alternative viewpoints, from the height of war to enduring challenges facing Sri Lanka after its end.
These are voices or opinions that would otherwise never have been heard or read. This is what citizen journalism has accomplished in Sri Lanka- relaying conversations and bearing witness, whilst encouraging local and global participation. In what was a milestone for the site, Groundviews had 118,671 page views in January 2010 and hundreds of substantive comments in response to some of the most compelling content as well as discussions on the 2010 Presidential Election in Sri Lanka. Because of this content, Groundviews was one of a few select sites in Sri Lanka archived by the US Library of Congress for posterity. In terms of quality, our contributors range from academics; mainstream media journalists; politicians; diplomats; constitutional experts; senior civil servants; human rights and media activists as well as both local and foreign students. No other citizen media initiative has such a variety of contributors. It is worth noting that the discussions and debates on articles are an opportunity for citizens to express their opinions and exchange information.
GV- To what extent has citizen media in Sri Lanka been able to disrupt the established mediascape?
NN- I would not necessarily argue that citizen media has ‘disrupted’ the established mediascape, but rather complemented it as a popular alternative provider of content that interrogates critical issues in Sri Lanka. There have been recorded instances of content from the blogosphere, as well as other citizen generated content on the Internet and web (including photos), used without attribution in mainstream media. This clearly suggests a plethora of online content worthy of republication and reproduction in mainstream media. However, it also flags an enduring challenge of raising awareness over online sourcing and licensing schemes such as Creative Commons.
Articles on Groundviews are regularly republished on not only the leading local mainstream media, but also on international media, including, inter alia, websites such as InfoLanka News, Tamil Canadian, New York Times and the BBC. Often they run with attribution, but there are a number of instances where even leading newspapers in Sri Lanka have republished content without attributing the site. These articles have exposed rights abuses, the absence of ethics in traditional media and the growing democratic deficit in Sri Lanka. Leading journalists and civil society activists choose to send their content to be published on the site, instead of mainstream print media. The respect for and recognition of for insightful, sui generis and courageous content on the site is well established amongst key stakeholders in media, polity and society in Sri Lanka. For example, in one of the most under-reported yet compelling humanitarian news in post-war Sri Lanka, Groundviews was the first and only media site to report on the flooding in IDP camps in August 2009. We also published the first images, taken secretively from a mobile phone, of the devastation on account of the flooding in the IDP camps – images the government of Sri Lanka did not want the world to see.
This groundbreaking content was republished in the New York Times and the BBC, as well as other local and international media sites. Furthermore, in the above examples, one of the key witnesses on the ground was sending in updates via a mobile to Twitter, a stream that only Groundviews picked up on and flagged in its reportage.
GV- How important are the Internet and online social media tools as platforms for citizen media in Sri Lanka?
NN- The global information revolution has obviously had some benefit for Sri Lanka and the Internet as well as online social media tools are vital for citizen media initiatives. Where funding is not readily available to create and sustain new, independent print or broadcast based journalism initiatives, online social media tools offer, for little or no money, vital avenues for content generation, proliferation and models of citizen participation. Weblogs, as a communicative social media tool, are most popularly used for information and knowledge exchange. In addition, social networking sites like Facebook have been increasingly used to promote and upload content by citizen media initiatives.
For example, Groundviews was the first Sri Lankan media initiative to create a Facebook fan page, with new content on the site now accessible to over 1,300 fans on the social networking platform. The micro-blogging application, Twitter is also being used quite extensively by citizens in Sri Lanka and by citizen media initiatives in order to promote content as well as relay news as it happens. This, of course, complements the ideal of citizen journalists as witnesses, content producers and agents of information. For example, Groundviews used mobiles and Twitter to capture the explosive aftermath of the Sri Lankan presidential election in January 2010. In the course of publishing these updates, Groundviews mirrored key news items from the Daily Mirror website whenever we got access to it, because an unsurprisingly high volume of traffic rendered this well read traditional media website inaccessible for most of the 26th. Along with other information, Groundviews provided one of the first eye witness accounts of the tense situation around the hotel Sarath Fonseka was in at around 3am on the 26th, re-tweeted key updates from other bloggers and journalists with access to new information throughout the day, dispelled rumours such as the arrest of the Elections Commissioner, pointed to one of the first video interviews with Sarath Fonseka on the web and gave links to streaming web broadcasts of state television with live coverage of election results. Frustrated with the archaic website of the Department of Elections, Groundviews also asked our followers for better visualisations of election results as they were coming in, and within minutes, got a link to a website, done by the Upali Newspapers.
The idea that news or expressing an opinion should now be a dialogue instead of a monologue will be aided by the use of the Internet and online social media tools. I hope that such a trend will continue to grow in Sri Lanka, which will not only have positive benefits for the freedom of expression but that of the freedom of information and hopefully one day the right to information.
GV- What are some of the differences between citizen and mainstream media in Sri Lanka?
NN- The contemporary history of mainstream journalism in Sri Lanka has been tragic with the killing of around 18 journalists since 1992 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Sans Frontieres ranks Sri Lanka 162nd out of 175 countries for press freedom. There is an environment of fear, self-censorship and unwillingness by many journalists to cover topics that might upset the status quo. Therefore, citizen journalism initiatives; such as Groundviews stimulate dissenting views by providing a space for pithy and provocative content written by citizens for citizens. In addition to the example of the expose on IDP camp conditions I noted above, in March 2009, the widow of Lasantha Wickremetunge (the most senior journalist to be assassinated in Sri Lanka in January 2008) wrote in desperation to Groundviews to publish a letter to the Inspector General of Police on the death of her husband. Groundviews was told by her that no newspaper in Sri Lanka was willing to carry this letter in full. The site has continued to publish articles that the mainstream media cannot and will not cover. If anything, this is the most explicit example of democratic journalism in Sri Lanka. So, citizen media initiatives have provided critical alternate social and political narratives that are absent in mainstream media.
GV- How does Groundviews work? What kind of stories do you publish? How do you select the citizens who can publish?
NN- The central idea was to use a blog to publish compelling content in the form of text, audio, video and photos in English, Sinhala and Tamil. The strategy was to raise awareness of the blog virally. Key authors were asked to contribute pithy and provocative articles that pushed the boundaries of polity and traditional media and forced readers to think outside their comfort zones. Measures were taken to register the site outside of Sri Lanka in light of the repressive regime in the country that could take steps to block the website that represents a dissenting point of view.
Fortnightly, email updates on new content are sent to over 10,000 email addresses of key local and international civil society organisations, human rights activists and journalists. Detailed guidelines governing the expression and publication of content on the site, the first on any online media website in Sri Lanka, were drawn up at the time of the site’s launch. These guidelines allowed for progressive communication on highly contentious and emotional issues. Given the huge erosion of human rights and the culture of abductions and murder, the safety of contributors was secured to the extent possible by anonymous postings that are editorially vetted.
The site has a plethora of articles and essays that analyse critical political, economic and social issues in Sri Lanka. For example, over the last four years much of the content that has been published has focused on the war, human rights, constitutional reform, religion, minority politics, ethnicity, post-war Sri Lanka, political solutions (13th Amendment), democracy, and the politics of elections and media freedom. Groundviews also featured significant commentary on the humanitarian emergency that emerged immediately after the end of the war with regard to the internment of around 300,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). We have never ‘selected’ citizens who want to publish articles and very rarely rejected articles. The articles that are sent to Groundviews for publication are always of a very high quality. As I stated previously, we receive articles from journalists, civil servants, human rights activists, diaspora commentators, civil servants, foreign and local students, lawyers, the diplomatic corps, political parties and NGO workers.
GV- To what extent has Groundviews been able to participate in the Sri Lankan public discourse?
NN- We, at Groundviews, feel that we are bearing witness to what happens in Sri Lanka and by publishing the variety of content that we do; by upholding the values of democratic journalism; by promoting dissent and interrogating critical issues, we’re also shaping peace in Sri Lanka. I highlighted the most prominent issues that Groundviews has and continues to feature through articles that have been written by citizens as well as video productions done by Sanjana and myself. These issues are the most critical and widely discussed in public discourse, with Groundviews, more often than not, as a reference point. The sui generis content provides ideas and viewpoints that are unique to Groundviews and the engagement of citizens on the site has meant that Groundviews has not only been able to participate in public discourse, but has actually been able shape it by providing the space necessary in order for citizens to analyse and debate critical issues in Sri Lanka.
GV- How is Groundviews internally organized?
NN- From 2006 to 2009, Sanjana Hattotuwa, the founding Editor of Groundviews, maintained the site. In October of 2009, I joined as Co-Editor. In short, it’s a two man-team working around 16-18 hours a day on content generation, video editing and comment moderation in addition to our other responsibilities.
GV- How is Groundviews funded?
NN- Groundviews currently runs with support from the Ford Foundation. The site is inherently sustainable because it does not rely on paid submissions (even though a paid submission model can complement that which is sent in to the site), has almost zero overheads and is already well-established as a reputable source of analysis and commentary.
GV- Who is Groundviews’ audience?
NN- The target audience of the site were identified as Sri Lankan policymakers based in Colombo, traditional media and journalists, civil society actors, human rights activists as well as 2nd and 3rd generation diaspora (youth). The content of Groundviews interrogates governance, human rights and democracy to an extent, and in a manner, mainstream media in Sri Lanka are hard-pressed to follow on account of severe restrictions on independent and investigative journalism during and even post-war. Thus, this makes the site appealing to a broad constituency ranging from government to NGOs, from domestic voices to those in the diaspora, from youth to elder states persons and diplomats and importantly, those from every community and ethnic group in Sri Lanka.