Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera

Today is World Press Freedom Day

The ballads and chants still peal across the windswept Galle Face Green as the protests continue and Gota Go Gama (GGG) flamboyantly, angrily, uproariously flourishes on what was once the marine esplanade of my childhood, where I watched kite flying and sunsets. Unlike that childhood 60 years ago when our home in Wella did not even have a telephone, GGG is both living experience when one goes or, marches, to the Green, as well as a simultaneous virtual experience in our parallel cyber universe.

Notably, the exact physical location of GGG is not so much on the Green itself but at the northern end, in front of, and to the side of, that singular focus of Lankan state power, the Presidential Secretariat, which houses the Office of the President. This is at the end of the country’s longest street, the Galle Road of my childhood. By the time of the Euro-colonial early 19th century, this location would have been directly under the cannon of the towering southern bastion of the Fort of Colombo.

In the pre-democratic and colonial Lankan (in the sick mess we are in, how can we call it Sri?) past, such physical distancing was an essential feature of autocracy/monarchy. What is now called Galle Face was at one time a deliberately maintained, wide open, expanse of the approaches to the Fort, the centre of colonial power. All fortresses or castles had such open approaches to provide an exposed area both for detection of attackers and a field of fire (whether arrows, javelins or bullets). Some four centuries ago, the Green was originally such an expanse and neither the forces of Prince Mayadunne nor King Rajasingha 1 could storm the Colombo Fort due to the exposed approaches and they had to lay siege – neither successfully, although Rajasingha impressed the Portuguese with his tenacity for nearly a year.

That Fort bastion is no more, thankfully.

The protest camp site is, physically, even closer to the postmodern bastion of centralised state power, the Office of the President, than the medieval Lankan siege forces ever were to the colonial centre.

What is important to remember is that the citizens’ practise of political power in a modern republic – unlike in the ancient Greek or Indian republics – rests not with the collective mass of the (recognised, pre-ordained) community but with the elected representatives of that community. Depending on population size and cultural emphasis on representation, often a single elected individual must represent tens of thousands of citizens, if not hundreds of thousands.

This real distancing of the practice of people’s power from the actual mass of the community must be acknowledged as a fundamental feature of what most people simplistically call democracy but is actually manifested in either nation-states with competitive liberal democracy or with consensual socialist democracy. Populations of modern nation-states (modern India is even larger than either the Maurya or Moghul empires) are simply too large to enable a closer, truly intimate, representation. This distancing is presumed to be offset by lower levels of elected governance, termed local government and provincial legislatures, both of which have only a very localised, small element of actual legislative power which, itself, is subsidiary to the national legislature. Modern governance, even if republican, yet retains this vertical and hierarchical nature. Indeed the bigger the republic the more hierarchical is this top-down governance structure.

That is why there is a powerful element of drama and spectacle when strongly anti-regime and specifically anti-President protestors not only swarm right up to the boundary railing and gates of the President’s Office but also set up a permanent, sprawling campsite. And the campsite is not just tents with vociferous protesters living in them but also larger shelters for distribution of food, a medical centre, an international media centre, which hosts press conferences by protesting groups, protest music bands playing from parked trucks, garbage collecting points, camp toilets and even a legal aid centre. To President Gotabaya Rajapaksa this GGG agitation (udghoshana) site must be a very bitter irony because it is located in the area his Defence Ministry had once ostentatiously designated as an officially recognised public Agitation Area (name board and all)!

Newspapers and television channels do present snippets of the diverse aspects (from tents to chants to rants) of GGG to the fascinated public for which news has been entertainment of a real life kind for almost a half century of private sector television and radio in this country. The audio-visual experience of television and radio reportage of events, of people’s actions, especially of group or mass actions is, nevertheless, a vicarious pleasure because it is principally messaged by radio and TV channels after the event and reaches the listener-viewer not as direct but as indirect experience.

This pleasure or jouissance dimension of the modern mass media has been extensively explored psychologically and philosophically by numerous modern thinkers: Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes and Slavoj Zizek among others. Within the mass culture of mass media, we also experience the occasional live event/incident dished out to audiences (when advertisers choose to sponsor broadcasts). Nevertheless, this industrialised message production (be it news, features or documentaries) are all made as dramatic as possible in order to be marketed by competing channels. Since the bulk of traditional radio/TV news is of that secondary or articulated nature, the channels compensate by occasionally providing live coverages of all kinds in order to sustain marketability.

But this presentation of events, ongoing social and political history, by traditional news media are merely short video bites in news bulletins or a scattering of feature articles in the newspapers. These are reports necessarily in the past tense even if in the past minutes or hour. When traditional news media was the sole conduit of public knowledge of current affairs, the projection of the protests would have had that inevitable time lapse as well the physical distancing of audience from the GGG campsite. The physical distancing is created by centralised structure of the traditional mass media in which the audience must go to a specific media channel to find news and related information and must also wait for specific times of broadcast or printing.

Thus, in the past, the world and especially the sympathetic public would have remained physically and psychologically distant from GGG. Their enjoyment was/is at second hand. And even if the mass consumption of mass media messaging has a large horizontal dimension, it is also vertical and exclusive because the control of that consumption is not with audiences but with the media industry. Even with such distancing, the mass circulation nature of mass media messaging has, nevertheless, enabled powerful mobilisation of people, whether it is for the purchase of goods or for political action both voting as well as violence.

This enormous power of social mobilisation by the traditional mass media – at that time just newspapers – was recognised and even criticised in the early 19th century, by which time the industry had matured over the previous two hundred years. It was in that recognition that European thinkers, who were experiencing this mobilising power, dubbed the mass media as the Fourth Estate. Indeed, that initial dubbing was actually critical and even hostile in nature because it referred to the medieval estates or centres of different types of power actors in medieval society, namely the nobility, the clergy and the business guilds that represented the commoners.

Fourth Estate thus described a new centre of power in society, the press at that time. Those who originally coined the term actually decried the already notable king-maker behaviour of mass media, which they saw as undemocratic in an era of emerging republicanism. Even if the United States of America, which never had a medieval society, modernised the name by substituting the medieval estate with pillar, the Fourth Pillar of Democracy as a complement to the other three pillars of the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary, a pillar remained a centre of power distinct from the mass of people.

The traditional mass media, therefore, also manifested a distancing within society, as well as a top-down nature, poignantly similar to that of the old colonial Fort of Colombo.

All these vertical, hierarchical and distancing dimensions seem to have been partially sliced through by GGG in Galle Face as well as in many other cities and towns around the country. Significantly, however, the GGGs themselves are in the Sinhala-dominant two-thirds of the island.

This rapid countrywide mass mobilisation that is largely autonomous of political parties has happened partly due to the society wide impact of the regime’s misdeeds and unprecedented mismanagement but also due to the newfound power of cybermedia and digital technology.

Today, thanks to digital technology and instantaneous mass transmission via the internet, there is no time lapse in the presenting of GGG to the world. Furthermore, that previous physical distancing of audience from the campsite has been substituted with a realistic virtual presence of the audience, indeed the world in GGG, right amidst ongoing protest activity and daily, nightly, campsite life. Thanks to instant video phone links via mobile phone communication applications (software such as WhatsApp or Viber or Signal) one can walk through the campsite, mingle with protest groups and enable friends anywhere in the world with such phone links to simultaneously share in one’s lived experience.

One can stop at a tent and, with one’s phone video running, enable a Lankan diaspora friend in Germany or Australia chat directly with protestors living inside. Indeed, this is happening all the time with sympathetic diaspora groups tuning in to GGG 24/7, expressing support, protesting simultaneously at their end wherever they are and offering resource support to the increasingly economically pressured protestors in their motherland. The transnational nature of the protest movement is actually verbalised constantly by protestors. A youth yells into a live social media platform in Balangoda that the youth of the area have no means of escaping abroad and thus must fight to survive here. A young protesting student in Arizona, USA, similarly yells into a live social media webcast that she wants to return to a better governed and economically stable motherland. An older UK-domiciled professional argues to a social media webcast that he cannot bear to see his motherland in crisis and promises all his support for the anti-regime movement. Note also the constant use of motherland.

Thus, we see a coalescing of media audience and protestors. This is entirely due to the specific mass usage nature of digital technology and cybercommunications. There is a horizontal dimension of mass communication as never before. At the same time, the individual control of this technology enables a simultaneous lived experience also as never before. Indeed, to the millennial generations this simultaneity is an already enjoyed communal life of friendships of fluid choice and sharing of emotions and information also of fluid choice. It is a capability already well practised and well understood which they are now putting to very creative political use on behalf of their own lives and of their real and virtual communities.

Digital technology has enabled a blooming of literally billions of flowers of creativity (to paraphrase Mao) – good and bad – that is then transmitted instantly and globally. One hears the kaputu kaak kaak refrain along a street in Urubokka even as one hears, by mobile phone, it chanted in a smalltown square in the US Midwest. And vice versa.

Lankan society has moved from the controlled, centralised, vertical messaging of the Fourth Estate to a horizontal, mass communing in the experience of economic and political hardship and consequent mobilisation in desperate, angry and hopeful social action.

Of course, Lanka is but the latest of such mass mobilisations in the world, with the now infamous (because it mostly failed) Arab Spring another powerful example. There are many examples of such progressive mass spontaneity driven by cybermedia. At the same time, the internet is also an industry although its centralised control dimension is immeasurably less due to its transmission and temporal architecture as well as the usage flexibility sustained by market compulsions.

The ramparts of the Fourth Estate have been breached forever. But analysts of cybercommunications point to a possibly a new form of control that can, perhaps, never be centralised in the manner of the traditional mass media. The fundamental technology of algorithm-based computer programming enables a proliferation of points of control that are widely dispersed horizontally from control by commercial servers, to manipulations by state agencies, to furtive yet large scale incitement by hate groups, sexual exploitation ventures and violent action cells.

The Fourth Estate may be fading, and top-down politics also undermined, but where will mass communing and new forms of political action take us is being decided more and more in the cyber universe. How universal can it become is decided by the new social and political culture of the netizens.