Sanjana Hattotuwa created the first community web-based media in Sri Lanka to record egregious failings and violations of democratic governance and civil liberty. By leveraging new media including the internet, cellular phones, and the web, he has created a safe place for citizens to write about war, peace, human rights, and social justice.
The New Idea
Sanjana saw both a lost opportunity and great potential in Sri Lanka’s recent investment in telecommunication infrastructure. While huge sums of money were invested throughout the country, little or no thought was given to how the available content could support social justice, peace, reconciliation, and democratic governance. In response, Sanjana designed tri-lingual Citizen Journals (CJs) as a means for social activists, rights-defenders, youth, Diaspora groups, and average citizens to discuss difficult issues without facing persecution for having differing views. Sanjana has created a safe space for a young group of bloggers to freely express their opinions about the war and to have an open dialogue on the issues they personally face due to on-going ethnic conflict. His use of instant follow-up and links to related web-material keep the internet savvy generation engaged with accessible, action-oriented, and precise information on topics they would otherwise have no forum to discuss publicly. In a country where so many journalists, activists, and citizens face security threats, Sanjana is able to build trust and ensure a free and open flow of information by vehemently protecting the safety and identity of his contributors through technological encryption and the use of pseudonyms among the participants. In addition to providing a forum for citizens to express their views, these Citizen Journals have begun to move the conversation surrounding conflict and social justice away from reactive commentary and towards informed discourse. In doing so, Sanjana hopes to create a new generation of well-informed and socially responsible citizens. Sanjana’s work is recognized both by media and civil society as groundbreaking in Sri Lanka. It is looked upon globally as a potential model of the use of new media to promote peace in violent locales.
The media in Sri Lanka, both private and State-controlled alike, is colored by a marked lack of professionalism. If the potential for conflict transformation depends upon an acceptance of pluralistic opinions, then traditional media outlets in Sri Lanka do not deliver. While there are ongoing initiatives to instil professional journalism practices in the state media in particular, the speed and sustainability of such reforms, especially in the current context of war, is suspect.
With each new government in Sri Lanka comes new parochialism. At the other end of the spectrum, in the private media’s attempts to provide a counterbalance, they often embody equally extreme and monocultural propaganda. To make matters more difficult, all of the different communities in Sri Lanka have their own favorite Tamil or Sinhalese newspaper, TV, and radio channels which often promote one-sided nationalistic views and hostility. There is little incentive for either the state or the private media to engage communities across conflict lines. The result is a lack of understanding between different communities of each other’s grievances which simply feeds divisiveness.
Even within a single community, people of diverse positions are not tolerated and considered dangerous. The space for civil society and a plurality of opinion has been reduced to a minimum, with activists and humanitarian workers labelled traitors and allies of the West. Anyone who disagrees with an ethnic position can be ostracized even within his or her own ethnic community. Punishment is often worse if such persons happen to be from the media, meaning they are killed, or simply disappear.
Further, media outlets in Sri Lanka are heavily politicized, and political parties often compete for influence on the boards of management for television and radio stations. Corrosive relations between partisan politicians and media organizations, coupled with an unstable political context, results in distorted laws and regulations for the operation of media. Journalists often find themselves stranded in a no-man’s land between commercial interests and politically compromised state broadcasting structures and lose almost all respect for impartiality. When a journalist does choose to take on issues in the public interest that were deemed antagonistic to the incumbent political power, there is great fear of backlash.
With the collapse of the ceasefire between the government and the LTTE in January 2008, media censorship is at its peak. There have been reports of at least twelve media workers becoming victims of unlawful killings since the beginning of 2006, with two of these individuals allegedly disappearing in the custody of security forces, while others have been tortured and arbitrarily detained.
Sanjana has used new media and information technologies to open safe channels for meaningful, high quality citizen journalism. His use of the internet to promote discourse across all ethnic, cultural, religious, and communal groups has filled in a gap that resulted from fear and a prolonged tradition of biased reporting and media censorship in Sri Lanka.
Sanjana has designed CJs in such a way as to give the contributors much needed anonymity and security to protect them from government persecution. He has also developed a coding and encryption system and other safety features in an effort to maintain a high level of confidentiality that will keep all contributors safe, and encourage free dialogue and discussion. For example, Groundviews’ editorials are often printed in the mainstream newspapers with “Groundviews” as the by-line rather than the author’s name.
Sanjana disputes the notion that the internet is the exclusive domain of English–speaking elite groups and intelligentsia, thus he supports discussions in Sinhala and Tamil as well. By featuring a range of diverse opinions and viewpoints documented from the field in all three languages, he has expanded his readership considerably. CJs have already generated hundreds of views, with a few generating views in the thousands.
Sanjana’s first citizen journal, Groundviews, received close to 1 million hits from April 2007 to March 2008. Over 60,000 views came from return visitors, and 32 percent of readers were from Sri Lanka. The next highest readership, 17 percent, came from the United States, and 12 percent of readers hailed from the U.K. Groundviews now attracts on average over 700 page views a day and its contents are regularly syndicated in well-known internet news and information aggregation sites such as Tamil Canadian, InfoLanka, and Colombopage. The Sinhala CJ Vikalpa uses unicode fonts so as to enable the widest possible reach on PCs as well as mobile devices.
Sanjana is confident that with the rapid and continuing rise in wired and wireless internet connectivity, cheaper access, and the lowering costs of owning a device, Citizen Journals will emerge as a powerful new mechanism through which progressive social debate can be fostered. Prolonged violent conflict often restricts the mainstream media’s ability to effectively critique war efforts and report impartially and accurately on the larger peace process. Using CJs to address violent conflict in Sri Lanka, Sanjana has broadened the use of new media as a strategic resource in strengthening democratic governance, media freedom, justice, and peace.
Sanjana has lived his whole life in the conflict-ridden Sri Lanka. When he walked home from school during the pogrom in 1983, he often witnessed scenes of savage death and destruction unfold before his very eyes. Growing up next to the military air base near Colombo, he woke up night after night to the endless wails of ambulances rushing to wounded soldiers whenever the government launched an offensive against the LTTE. Come morning he would see headlines heralding victories by government troops and reporting few or no losses, and though he was young, he could recognize a distortion of the truth when he saw it.
The birth of Sanjana’s son in 2006 inspired in him a sense of urgency to address the current political climate and culture of impunity in Sri Lanka. When asked about the subject, he responded: “When my son grows up and asks me ‘what did you do, Dad, to stop the war mongering politics of the South?’ I want to be able to tell him what I did.” Many ask him whether he is afraid for his life and for the security of his family, but Sanjana maintains that silence is not an option, and that for change to take place, those who stand opposed to it must be challenged head-on. According to him, he would rather die for something than live for nothing.
Sanjana’s work on the ground with local and international partners involved in the 2002 peace process in Sri Lanka was strengthened by an Advanced Masters in International Relations and Conflict Resolution from the University of Queensland, Australia in 2005. Sanjana finished his graduate studies in Delhi and during this period he also served as the secretary of the Sri Lanka Students Association. In that capacity he worked closely with the then Sri Lankan Ambassador to India on many student welfare programs. Currently he is working at the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo as a Senior Researcher and heads the ICT and peace-building unit of InfoShare.
Sanjana has written many articles on citizen journalism and new media in support of peace-building, extrapolating from his personal experience the best practices of using information and communication technologies for peace. He is widely recognized for his ability to conceptualize, promote, and consistently develop low-cost multimedia technologies to support peace-building and democratic governance. In recognition of his accomplishments, Groundsviews’ accepted an Award of Excellence in New Communications from the Society for New Communications Research (2007).