The past decade produced two critical moments of transition in Sri Lanka. On 19 May 2009, a 30-year war came to a brutal end with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). On 9 January 2015, the regime responsible for ending the war was ousted from power after ten years of autocratic rule. The media is often expected to play a pivotal role in these moments of transition. Yet the past decade witnessed one of the darkest eras in the history of Sri Lanka’s mainstream media. During this period, it was reduced to self-censorship, self-doubt and servility. Meanwhile, an unpredictable yet dynamic alternative emerged outside the mainstream. By 2014, this alternative media blossomed into a radical force capable of influencing and consolidating opinion.
This article reflects on the evolution of media freedom over the past decade and analyses the two faces of the Sri Lankan media during this period. It explores the survivalist character of the mainstream media alongside the irrepressible character of the alternative media. It also examines the distinct role social media and digital activism played in the democratic transition of January 2015. This article accordingly argues that the desire for information and expression endures even under the most difficult circumstances; where the mainstream fails to create the necessary space, an alternative eventually emerges. For this reason alone – and despite its chaos, indeterminacy and potential for harm – that alternative must be preserved.
The Mainstream Media: From Suppression to Self-censorship
During Sri Lanka’s civil war, journalists working in the war zone endured a major share of the state’s repression. Editors of a number of newspapers based in the Northern and Eastern provinces were instructed to regularly report to military camps, while unidentified armed men often raided their offices.[i] A pattern of persecution emerged throughout the country, with journalists including Poddala Jayantha,[ii] Nadesapillai Vithyatharan[iii] and J.S. Tissainayagam[iv] targeted for their activism, editorial decisions and writing. The assassination of the chief editor of The Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickrematunge on 8 January 2009 thereafter devastated the media industry. His death reflected the total disintegration of media freedom and marked the unabashed impunity with which the state acted.
Apart from physical violence, state actors used financial strategies to undermine the media – first through litigation, and then by prompting allies to takeover the management of independent media institutions. For example, even after Wickrematunge’s death, Gotabaya Rajapaksa pursued defamation litigation against The Sunday Leader for publishing details about his Ministry’s corrupt arms deals. Such litigation was abandoned only after a party reportedly sympathetic to the government bought a majority stake in the newspaper.[v] The hostile takeover of independent media institutions by political actors removed any semblance of impartiality left in an already politicised industry. The beleaguered mainstream media, decimated by the loss of prominent journalists, motivated by political and economic interests, and engulfed in a culture of fear, eventually surrendered to the state.
Once the culture of fear became entrenched, media reportage on human rights abuses rapidly declined. In fact, the reporting of human rights abuses in the local press came to a near standstill during the first three years of the post-war period. For instance, the media failed to report on the widespread enforced disappearances that took place during this period.[vi] It also failed to offer much coverage to post-war attacks on journalists such as Prageeth Eknaligoda, who disappeared on 24 January 2010 while working for the anti-government news website Lanka e-News.[vii]
Of course journalists such as Eknaligoda belonged to a new breed of journalists who worked predominantly in the digital domain. The state had succeeded in immersing the mainstream in a culture of fear and self-censorship. However, as discussed in the next section, it became apparent that this culture was yet to take hold of a new and more vibrant space propelled by social media and digital activism.
Social Media and Digital Activism: From Chaos to Catalyst
Social media usage and activism via the Internet (i.e. ‘digital activism’) in Sri Lanka has risen during the last decade.[viii] By 2015, mobile phone penetration had risen to above 100 percent.[ix] The low costs and easy accessibility of smartphones in this context have increased social media usage. The number of Facebook users alone was recently estimated to exceed 4.2 million in Sri Lanka.[x] This important development has had a significant impact on the media landscape in the country.
Social media is defined as online technologies that people use for the ‘creation and exchange of user-generated content.’[xi] It is thus definitively interactive and user-driven. Certain digital platforms outside the mainstream, such as curated websites, do not neatly fit into this definition. These are better described as ‘alternative media’.[xii] However, these platforms often become part of the broader domain of digital activism. Therefore, curated platforms, such as Groundviews, need to be included when discussing digital activism. Bearing these definitional limitations in mind, two major factors appear to have contributed to the rise in social media usage and digital activism in Sri Lanka.
First, a global trend in digital journalism has emerged,[xiii] whereby the digital domain has been transformed into a space for discourse and activism. Digital activism demonstrated its potential to bring about tangible change during the ‘Arab Spring’ – a series of regime changes experienced in the Middle East and North Africa. The role played by social media networks and digital activism in the uprising in Egypt is well documented. David Faris, for example, in his seminal book Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt,[xiv] explains the manner in which social media networks succeeded in altering power dynamics. Through such networks, citizens were able to share information about issues despite strict state control over the mainstream media,[xv] and eventually mobilise for protests and demonstrations.[xvi]
This global phenomenon has influenced Sri Lanka’s social media usage and has arguably contributed to an increase in digital activism in Sri Lanka. This contribution could be explained through the theory of ‘diffusion’, which refers to the phenomenon through which innovations over time are communicated across a social system.[xvii] Social media networks are good examples of diffusion theory at work. They not only function as a ‘means’ to diffuse ideas, but also promote themselves as mediums of change. Hence digital activism is now globally accepted as ‘a vital driver of change around the world, particularly in societies that lack political rights and press freedom.’[xviii] According to Freedom House’s 2015 report on the ‘Freedom on the Net’, this global recognition of digital activism has penetrated thinking in Sri Lanka, and has resulted in ‘robust digital activism and engagement on political issues’.[xix]
Second, local dynamics involving the suppression of the mainstream media in Sri Lanka prompted users to opt for alternative sources of credible information, news and analysis. As state induced self-censorship rendered the mainstream media less reliable as a source of truth, Sri Lankans began to use alternative media and social media platforms to trade information and ideas. Many turned to Groundviews, which invited independent public commentary on governance, policy and rights issues. For example, following the conclusion of the war, there was no public conversation via the mainstream media on the crimes that allegedly took place during the war. Despite such absence in the mainstream, vibrant debates on the subject took place on Groundviews.
The influence of the digital domain steadily grew during Sri Lanka’s post-war years. Its true potency, however, was observed during the Aluthgama riots that took place on 15 June 2014. The state’s inaction during the riots is widely accepted, as law enforcement officials simply failed to contain the violence.[xx] Some claim the state had actually instigated the violence.[xxi] The mainstream media meanwhile failed to report the details of the riots. It instead presented a distorted version that was in line with the state’s position. On 17 June 2014, the editorial of the Daily News claimed that ‘saboteurs’ who wished to damage the reputation of the country were exaggerating the significance of the riots.[xxii] Meanwhile, private newspapers including The Island presented the riots as minor clashes and provided no further details.[xxiii]
Yet an alternative channel of information via social media emerged in response to the riots and the mainstream’s silence. A number of independent journalists visited the scene of the riots and began to report events in real time via social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. It became apparent that the control that the government exercised over the mainstream media did not extend to these platforms. Independent journalists and social media activists freely shared information and updates with no editorial oversight or control. This free flow of information produced an unadulterated version of the riots, which shocked the public conscience. Public opinion began to shift sharply, as independent journalists such as Dharisha Bastians[xxiv] openly criticised the government’s inaction and drew the connection between the state and violent groups.
The state soon realised that it no longer monopolised the flow of information and that social media-propelled independent journalism posed a genuine threat to the regime. The defence establishment accordingly began a campaign to intimidate independent journalists, characterise social media as a threat to national security, and prevent the training of journalists in digital activism.[xxv] In August 2014, a statement by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was widely circulated over state media.[xxvi] Rajapaksa argued: ‘The final threat to Sri Lanka’s national security is the emergence of new technology-driven media, including social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and other websites…’[xxvii] The Defence Ministry also issued a circular instructing civil society organisations to refrain from holding press conferences and conducting training workshops for journalists.[xxviii] Despite this campaign, the digital space in Sri Lanka proved to be irrepressible.
Social media is a chaotic realm of much frivolity. Although it has the potential for substantive opinion formation, the rate and extent of contradictions, contestation and vitriol often undermines the value of this space. Hence it is important not to romanticise the value of social media. Its potential to resist control and advance critical voices is often tempered by its potential to inflict tremendous harm. Despite these contradictions, social media in Sri Lanka has reached its potential as a means to resist the state’s monopoly over information and promote civic engagement. In this context, digital activism has seriously undermined the state’s agenda to control information and expression. While the agents of the state attempted to convince the public that they needed Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government to maintain security and stability, social media voices counterclaimed that it was his government that created the insecurity and instability in the first place. As discussed in the final section of this article, it was the chaotic and uncontrollable force of social media that became instrumental in catalysing this shift.
Sri Lanka’s post-war years have shown social media to be irrepressible in the face of suppression and effective in influencing political outcomes. This article concludes by briefly analysing an extraordinary illustration of such resilience and influence: the democratic transition of January 2015.
Two important factors featured in this transition, both of which are closely related to social media and digital activism. First, the Aluthgama riots highlighted the nexus between the state and certain forces of instability such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Digital activism was instrumental in highlighting this nexus. It is thus plausible that moderate voters who were previously grateful to the Rajapaksa administration for defeating the LTTE no longer perceived it as genuinely committed to peace and stability. Meanwhile, the Muslim and Christian communities that bore the brunt of ethno-nationalist violence abandoned the Rajapaksas. Thus, by the time the election in January 2015 took place, Mahinda Rajapaksa had alienated a large portion of his previous voter base.
Second, social media had reached a ‘critical mass’ and had become capable of genuinely influencing political outcomes. Nalaka Gunawardene accordingly called the 2015 presidential election Sri Lanka’s first ‘cyber election’.[xxix] He argued that ‘information and communications technologies…[were] no longer the exclusive domain of a privileged class.’[xxx] Digital activism was now ‘transformative if not revolutionary’,[xxxi] as it resonated with ordinary Sri Lankans who desired an end to repression, corruption and impunity. In this context, social media and digital activism played an important role in Rajapaksa’s defeat.
Throughout the period of the war and during its aftermath, the media was seen as a major threat to the state’s agendas of power retention and self-enrichment. The state thus embarked on a project to decimate, subdue and eventually enslave the media. During this project, the media revealed two sides. On the one hand, the mainstream media, which suffered tremendously during the first part of the state’s repressive project, reluctantly relinquished its autonomy in exchange for survival. This is the survivalist side to the Sri Lankan media that some might ridicule, while others sympathise with. On the other hand, an alternative force emerged to defy the state and resist its project. Social media thus became a catalyst for change, first as a space for critical discourse, and eventually, as a medium for public mobilisation. This is the irrepressible side to the media that some may celebrate, while others caution against. From the perspective of media freedom, the story of Sri Lanka’s two recent transitions is perhaps a tale of great tribulation eventuating in some measure of triumph. It is a story that teaches us that the human desire for information, expression and dialogue cannot be sustainably suppressed.
The present government has articulated a commitment to restoring and maintaining media freedom. Yet there is no doubt that this government too will look to control the mainstream media. It will also be wary of the power of the alternative media. Statements such as the Justice Minister’s recent announcement of plans to regulate social media betray this government’s continued anxieties over the digital domain. They confirm that the state – whoever is at its helm – will look to control all aspects of the media. And yet, as the transition of 2015 proves, the essence of our democratic freedom hinges on a truly free media. This is precisely why the battle for media freedom in Sri Lanka can never cease.
Gehan Gunatilleke is the Research Director of Verité Research and a contributing author of Embattled Media: Democracy, Governance and Reform in Sri Lanka (Sage Publications: 2015). This article is a condensed version of Gehan Gunatilleke, ‘Two Faces of Sri Lankan Media: Censorship and Resistance’ (forthcoming) in S. Udupa and S. McDowell (eds.) Media as Politics in South Asia (London: Routledge)
[i] Amnesty International, Sri Lanka: Silencing Dissent (2008), at 22.
[iii] See ‘Sudar Oli Editor arrested’, BBC Sinhala.com, 26 Feb 2009, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/news/story/2009/02/090226_sudaroli.shtml [Last accessed 12 March 2016].
[iv] Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, Jayantha de Almeida Gunaratne & Gehan Gunatilleke, The Judicial Mind: Responding to the Protection of Minority Rights (Law & Society Trust: 2014), at 243.
[v] Ben Doherty, ‘Australia denies asylum to Sri Lankan editor facing government death threats’, The Age.com, 6 October 2012, at http://www.theage.com.au/world/australia-denies-asylum-to-sri-lankan-editor-facing-government-death-threats-20121005-274n6.html [Last accessed on 15 March 2016].
[vi] According to some estimates, nearly 60 disappearances took place during the ten-month period between October 2011 and August 2012. See ‘A disappearance every five days in post-war Sri Lanka’, Groundviews, 30 August 2012, at:
http://groundviews.org/2012/08/30/a-disappearance-every-five-days-in-post-war-sri-lanka/#_ftn1 [Last accessed on 10 March 2016].
[vii] ‘Concern over missing journalist’, BBC Sinhala, 25 January 2010, available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/news/story/2010/01/100125_prageeth_missing.shtml [Last accessed on 10 March 2016].
[viii] Selvarajah Thuseethan & Shanmuganatha Vasanthapriyan, ‘Social Media as a New Trend in Sri Lankan Digital Journalism: A Surveillance’ (2015) 11(10) Asian Social Science 86, at 92.
[ix] Freedom House, Freedom on the Net 2015: Privatizing Censorship, Eroding Privacy (October 2015), at 729.
[xi] Andreas M. Kaplan & Michael Haenlein, ‘Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media’ (2010) 53 Business Horizons 59, at 61.
[xii] See Chris Atton, Alternative Media (Sage Publications: 2002).
[xiii] Ibid. at 89. Also see Roja Bandari, Sitaram Asur, & Bernardo Huberman, ‘The Pulse of News in Social Media: Forecasting Popularity’ in ICWSM (The AAAI Press: February 2012).
[xiv] See David Faris, Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt (IB Tauris: 2013).
[xv] Marc Lynch, Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today (Columbia University Press: 2007), at 85.
[xvi] Faris, op. cit. See chapter six – ‘We Are All Revolutionaries Now: Social Media Networks and the Egyptian Revolution of 2011’.
[xvii] Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (5th Ed.) (Simon and Schuster: 2003).
[xviii] Freedom House, op. cit. at 13.
[xix] Ibid. at 736.
[xx] Farzana Haniffa, Harini Amarasuriya & Vishakha Wijenayake, Where Have All the Neighbours Gone? Aluthgama Riots and its Aftermath: A Fact Finding Mission to Aluthgama, Dharga Town, Valipanna and Beruwela (Law & Society Trust: 2015), at 1.
[xxi] Ibid. at 31-32.
[xxii] See ‘They Try in Vain’, The Daily News, 17 June 2014, at http://www.dailynews.lk/?q=editorial/they-try-vain [Last accessed on 16 March 2016].
[xxiii] See ‘Police curfew clamped in Alutgama, Beruwala’, The Island, 16 June 2014 http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=105187 [Last accessed on 16 March 2016].
[xxiv] See Dharisha Bastians, ‘Alas Aluthgama!’, The DailyFT, 16 June 2014, at http://www.ft.lk/2014/06/16/alas-aluthgama/ [Last accessed on 16 March 2016]; Dharisha Bastians, ‘Striking the Match’, The DailyFT, 26 June 2014, at http://www.ft.lk/article/313452/Striking-the-match#sthash.kg9F0kFc.dpuf [Last accessed on 16 March 2016].
[xxv] Gehan Gunatilleke, The Chronic and the Acute: Post-War Religious Violence in Sri Lanka (International Centre for Ethnic Studies & Equitas: 2015), at 48.
[xxviii] K. Ratnayake, ‘Sri Lankan government imposes political gag on NGOs’, The World Socialist Website, 10 July 2014, at https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/07/10/sril-j10.html [Last accessed on 16 March 2016].
[xxix] Nalaka Gunawardene, ‘Was #PresPollSL 2015 Sri Lanka’s first Cyber Election?’, Groundviews, 13 January 2015, http://groundviews.org/2015/01/13/was-prespollsl-2015-sri-lankas-first-cyber-election/ [Last accessed on 16 March 2016].