Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 20 June 2014
What is the best way to manage public information in times of national crises – whether disasters, epidemics or conflict?
All governments face this question from time to time and respond with varying degrees of success. It has become especially challenging today due to multiple, instant modes of communications. Suppressing the flow of information is much harder and ultimately counterproductive.
This point was driven home once again in the aftermath of serious communal riots in Aluthgama, Beruwala and Dharga Town this week. At the time of writing (Wednesday afternoon), all right-minded people were hoping the clashes would not spread elsewhere.
The proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has introduced a new dimension to such crisis situations. The multiplicity of info sources, channels and access devices is certainly better than their absence (remember how the tsunami caught us by surprise in 2004?). But relating to this reality requires a very different mindset.
Information blackouts are simply not viable on an island of 20.5 million people where practically all adults use mobile phones (or have easy access to one), the airwaves are crowded by dozens of FM radio and TV channels, and an estimated 25% of population regularly gets online.
Information control was possible (albeit with great effort) two generations ago. An anecdote I heard directly from the key protagonist illustrates those simpler times.
When Sinhala-Tamil ethnic riots erupted in May 1958, Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke assumed direct control, and appointed then Director of Public Works H R Premaratne as Competent Authority in charge of all relief operations.
Shortly afterwards, Sir Oliver tasked Premaratne with another, top secret mission: to restore the Nagadeepa temple, off the Jaffna peninsula, that was damaged during riots. If this news spread, Sir Oliver realised, it could provoke another wave of violence in the South.
Premaratne worked with a handpicked his team and completed the restoration in six weeks. During that time, Sir Oliver kept denying ‘rumours’ of Nagadeepa being damaged. He then organised a special pooja so anyone could ‘go see the intact Nagadeepa temple’!
The real story didn’t come out until decades later. Some believe that Sir Oliver took newspaper editors into confidence. Either way, the story never leaked – everyone involved realised the implications of loose talk.
A quarter century later, during the infamous Black July of 1983, news still spread fairly slowly. The distinguished civil servant Bradman Weerakoon (secretary to several Prime Ministers) has noted the pattern communal riots spread from Colombo to the provinces.
As Rajan Hoole, human rights activist and co-founder of University Teachers for Human Rights, wrote last year in his reminiscences, “Bradman pointed to the violence engulfing Colombo on Monday, Kandy on Tuesday, Badulla on Wednesday and Passara on Thursday — the delay roughly corresponding with distance from Colombo, and offered his own explanation. He associated it with news passed on by travellers, say someone going from Kandy to Badulla and instigating others…”
At the time, telephones were a still rarity while broadcasting was a state monopoly. Such a situation is inconceivable today.
I’m not suggesting that the riots of 1958, 1983 and the latest ones are comparable. But the altered ICT dimension is worth serious reflection. As Voltaire (and Spiderman’s Uncle Ben) said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Last year, when Groundviews.org brought together thinkers, artistes and activists to reflect on the lasting legacy of Black July, its editor Sanjana Hattotuwa asked: “30 years on, does Sri Lanka’s coast-to-coast connectivity help or hinder that which gave rise to Black July?”
Like it or not, we must face the 21st century info-reality: controlled release of information is no longer an option in the networked Global Village. When will our government’s information mandarins accept this and adapt accordingly?
The government promotes IT literacy and wants to raise it to 70% of population by 2016. We want to be a ‘knowledge hub’ of Asia. These efforts will inevitably lead to a further profusion of digital conversations.
A myriad of narratives will rise. For official ones to stand out, they must be timely, authentic and credible. Even in the cyber cacophony, trustworthy voices still get heard, shared and amplified.
For reasons best known to themselves, however, most sections of Sri Lanka’s mainstream media chose not to cover the riots in any detail for more than 48 hours. For a society accustomed to 24/7 news coverage, that is like an eternity. Even afterwards, many reports were patchy.
An honourable exception was Daily FT, which in my view has carried the best reporting on these incidents, such as: The Agony of Aluthgama (17 June 2014) and “What was our Crime?” (19 June 2014). As I asked in a tweet: if they could do this, why can’t our other media — who are facing the SAME pressures (whatever those might be)?
‘Social media breaks Sri Lankan media’s shameful silence’ ran the headline of an op-ed published in India’s widely read First Post website on June 17.
It quoted Sanjana Hattotuwa, the editor of Groundviews, as saying: “…Whatever the reason it suggests media is under a regime of censorship through fear, and journalists who have shared with me updates they haven’t made public are also self censoring themselves for fear of being identified later on as those who stoked violence by giving accurate and real time situation reports.”
This gap was partly filled by social media and international media reports – but only to the extent they have outreach in the island. Those who rely on local newspapers, radio and TV had to settle for ‘radio silence’ while media gatekeepers hesitated and held back.
No one can monitor everything that goes on in social media. But most of the hundreds of tweets I read over the past few days have been linked to verified journalistic sources or trusted names.
Amantha Perera, who reports for several international media outlets including TIME magazine, noted in a tweet: “Social media became main platform for info during Sri Lanka communal clashes when mainstream media abdicated, akin to during Thai Coup.”
A number of journalists and photojournalists with news gathering experience kept sharing verified situation updates from the field. These included @tingilye, @AmanthaP, @dinidu, @Althaf_4u and @Dinoukc, some of who also quoted the police spokesman. The hashtag #Aluthgama soon started trending on Twitter.
Even the mainstream media used social media platforms to quickly share their field reports and images. The Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Sri Lanka, for example, posted on Facebook a series of photographs by its members who visited the affected locations as accredited journalists.
“What was interesting to see was how many journalists were tweeting through their personal accounts that their media outlets were completely blank on,” says Hattotuwa.
Indeed, the divide between mainstream and citizen media blurred as committed individuals rose above institutions to keep vital information flowing. Not just news, but also timely appeals for racial harmony, relief supplies, etc.
Other tweeps with wide following expressed their dismay and fears. @InduNan spoke for many when she tweeted: “I’m confused and not sure of whom or what to believe anymore. Nevertheless, extremely sad how things have turned out to be.”
When I tweeted brilliant cartoons by Awantha Artigala and Gihan De Chickera, for example, these were widely re-tweeted. Clearly, they struck a chord.
While Twitter was the social media platform of choice for many (citizen and mainstream) journalists to share news, views and images, public sentiments also poured out elsewhere – on Facebook and blogs.
Memes – such as the palm sign with ‘Stand Against Racism’ – are in wide circulation, rallying networked Lankans around on calls for racial harmony, compassion for the affected and restraint all around.
But the same digital tools and web platforms are also being used for spreading hate speech against racial minorities, and to defend violence. Can the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ moderate these excesses, and help soothe the restive nation’s nerves? We can only hope so!
Nearly a decade ago, the tsunami marked a turning point in Sri Lanka’s citizen journalism. It’s too early to be certain, but Aluthgama aftermath can mark a watershed in social media serving the public interest under duress.
“With great power comes great responsibility.”