Photo courtesy of Sri Lanka Brief

Today is World Press Freedom Day

Generations of Sri Lankans have experienced many curfews and states of emergency and also experienced the bloody harm suffered by curfew violators. But successive insurgencies spanning all parts of the country also demonstrated to successive post-colonial generations that, if armed, citizens could successfully defy curfews.

At this time last year, the nation was being rocked in its very heart: Janadhipathi Mandiraya, to be precise. President Rajapaksa the Second – digitally speaking, version 2.0 – was yet several weeks away from his ignominious backdoor escape to lurk off shore in the safety of a Navy ship.

But in early May last year the citizenry was still reacting to the shock and political delight of ordinary citizens who had, for the first time, violated curfew en masse and without anyone injured, leave aside dead, and not a shot fired from any side.

In the past curfews imposed by the rebels, North and South, were as much, if not more, respected as the state curfews. The armed rebels were there to carry on with their rebellion ignoring curfews. Whereas rebels declare their curfews only in those small areas remote from state control and in those areas the citizens had no capacity to resist, if they wanted to.

That wholesale collective defiance of the state curfew by unarmed citizenry that began in April last year is not just historic for its momentous final political outcomes; it is even more historic for the new deployment of citizen-operated communications, namely the internet-based social media in rapidly and suddenly mobilizing that countrywide defiance of what is normally one of the most repressive state actions.

Previous impositions of curfews could only be systematically defied by armed groups whose military capacities were a countervailing force to the state military. But the curfew defiance last year, which was  the broadest ever mass curfew violation, was entirely done without any countervailing military capacity at all.

Did smart phone technology provide a substitute countervailing force? Such an assumption is simply delusionary.

The social media made Sri Lankan political history in those few days leading up to April 3, 2022, by providing a hitherto un-imagined, immensely powerful, communications and therefore also ideological capability to ensure the countrywide mobilization on that Sunday. But smart phones cannot be the equalizer against lethal weapons.

The equalizing force that enabled the mass defiance on April 3 and the ensuing months of sustained similar mass defiance, often in front of troops and police, was simply political. It was a question of who was doing the mass protesting and why they were protesting.

Observers noted the fact that these mass protests and public defiance by the public were led by crowds who continuously and proudly declared their credentials to protest as being their membership of that exclusive club: the Sinhala-Buddhist community that made up the Rajapaksa and SLPP vote bank. Indeed, explicit reference was often made by those chanting crowds last year to that 69 lakhs vote bloc that brought Gotabaya Rajapaksa the presidency and the other Rajapaksa siblings and kin other high positions of power.

Thus the 2022 Aragalaya was essentially the expression of public anger by the very constituency of the Rajapaksas and the SLPP. In the act of assuming the presidency, Gotabaya Rajapaksa explicitly attributed his electoral victory to the Sinhala Buddhist bloc vote. Any sensible regime would naturally handle their political loyalists with kid gloves.

The remarkable restraint, for months on end, of the authorities in responding to this sustained and massive scale defiance of law and order is largely due to this privileged nature of the protesters and their obvious uninterest in raising the hard-specific, systemic fundamentals. The restraint in repression was due to the lack of any structural change intentions by the Aragalaya. The principal aim of the protestors did not directly and explicitly threaten the structures and institutions – structures and institutions all colored with that same ethnic dominance which this same Sinhala-Buddhist vote bank desires and upholds.

The aim of the protests was largely to express disenchantment purely with the political leadership and personalities – the protesters’ own original political leadership. The protest was against currency collapse, and loss of utility services and supplies, food scarcity and costs, internet services, fuel, gas, medicines and electricity. Most of the protesters were not even clear about how they would remove those newly hated political personalities other than calling for resignation.

The Rajapaksa-SLPP regime wisely made no attempt to use military lethal force to crush the revolt by their citizen loyalists. Certainly not in the way successive regimes, including the SLPP regimes, have lethally crushed trade union protests, ethnic rights protests and economic rights protests. When the brutal suppression of those civilian protests resulted in both class insurgency and ethnic insurgency, the state simply responded with clinically military, mass scale suppression and murder. Even today, environmental activists demanding agricultural safety and a host of other life essentials cannot hope to pitch a protest campsite on Galle Face Green, leave aside peacefully invading President’s House.

All the explanation above of the soft political nature of the Aragalaya is to draw attention to the communicational dynamics rather than any political issues. The new digital Information and Communication Technology (ICT) did play a role during the Aragalaya but it is a communicational role and not a direct political tool to enforce political change in the way weapons are direct political tools.

The focus of this essay is the fundamental changes in humanity’s communicational and informational universe that are being brought about by digital ICT.

The sudden nature of last year’s April 3 countrywide protests and the wholesale nature of that public mobilization as well as the utterly non-violent nature of the massive mobilization purely by social media messaging were all enabled by digital ICT. It had never happened before in Sri Lanka; that is why that April 3 was a historic day.

A year later, the nation is yet slow in absorbing way in which digital ICT has already transformed and subtly continues to transform our lives.

That subtlety itself is in the very nature of this technology; it is virtual and not physically tangible other than on screen, through audio speakers  of in the hardware containing the electronics. Most of the hardware is not even in public view. They are located in processing hub sites (e.g. server locations).

Whether we want food or drink or medicines delivered home, we simply pick up our smartphone. One tool and no places to go or things to do for procurement. Some food delivery ventures have colorful and elaborate websites but have no restaurant. The website, with all its flamboyance and audiovisual gimmicks, is a new kind of restaurant in cyberspace.

Digital ICT is transforming our own imagination and the meanings we attribute to concepts and even tangible things. A gourmet restaurant online performs its role perfectly in providing food choices and descriptions, quickly serving to table and digitally receives payment instantly. It could be a five star service depending on one’s credit capacity.

This transformation of everyday things in our lives is happening to almost everything.

The profession of journalism, too, is changing; what we knew of as journalism is barely extant today in terms of the conventional mass media-based profession. This does not mean an end to journalism as a practice.

With the advent of digital ICT, the ease of access to this technology resulted in a kind of universalization of the technology. But we must learn a new set of tools while trying to practice the same function. It is not enough to simply possess and use a smartphone. That does not make a user a mobile journalist.

Just as much as the term press has new meanings today as we read newspapers more online than in hard print, we must also learn the new meanings being ascribed to freedom.

The concept and practice of  freedom in cyber civilization is vastly different from its meaning before digital ICT.

Today with a smartphone and a net link, anyone free to record and transmit. That is a freedom of communication. But that is not press freedom even in the digital practice of the press.

The press today embodies entirely new technology but can remain true to its original meaning through the continuation of the professional nature of its practice. The average citizen user of cyber technology, however adept with hardware and software she/he may be, cannot be treated as a journalist. Only a practitioner of professional journalism should be treated as a journalist. Otherwise we may undermine that basic professionalism which is the value of journalism.

Thus, press freedom is all about the recognition of the function of the profession and the facilitation of that profession’s practice.

However, the ability of the rest of non-journalist society to record and transmit means that the professional journalist’s output is mediated by the public’s awareness of the world even if that awareness itself is different from that of a professional journalist. It becomes a useful challenge to maintain professional standards in order to retain credibility and communicational impact.

The concept of privacy is almost not valid today given the availability of surveillance technology including hidden, constant, surveillance through transactional software. In fact the younger generations of the cyber civilization no longer think in terms of privacy. Of course, they are aware of the need for security of information whether personal of professional.

We have to prepare ourselves for the shock of learning how drastically our understanding of these once familiar phenomena like the press, news and journalism, must change.