When citizens turn on journalists

Nalaka Gunawardene describes the disturbing trend of vigilantism against professional and citizen journalists

By Nalaka Gunawardene
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Friday, February 29, 2008

Colombo --- For over two decades, Sri Lanka's state-owned radio and television stations -- located next to each other in residential Colombo -- have been heavily guarded by police and army. This fortress-like arrangement is due to their being high on the list of targets for Tamil Tigers engaged in a bitter separatist war for a quarter century.

The joke is that the stations are just as likely to be attacked by outraged listeners or viewers. Considering the endless state propaganda they dish out day and night, that's not as far-fetched as it sounds.

But shooting the messenger never solves any problem, as Sri Lanka's deeply divided combatants -- and their die hard supporters -- need to be constantly reminded. Attacks on journalists and media organisations have increased several fold in the past two years, and the World Association of Newspapers ranked Sri Lanka as the third deadliest place for journalists (six killed in 2007) -- behind only Iraq and Somalia.

As if this was not depressing enough, we have seen another disturbing trend emerge: authorities and citizens alike turning on reporters and photojournalists in public places, suspecting them to be agents of mayhem and terror.

A couple weeks ago, a leading Sri Lankan photojournalist was detained, questioned and released by police for taking photographs near a well-known Colombo school. According to news reports, Gemunu Amarasingha -- a photographer for the Associated Press news agency -- was apprehended by a group of parents who formed the school's civil defense committee. They handed him over to soldiers on duty nearby, and he was briefly detained by the police.

It is not clear exactly why the experienced and well-credentialed photojournalist was mobbed on a public road. This might seem a minor incident in a country where journalists risk life and limb on a daily basis in the line of duty. But it is significant for two reasons.

Firstly, it is the result of some citizens turning vigilantes, challenging and apprehending journalists lawfully practicing their profession in the public interest. Battered and traumatised by a quarter century of conflict, many Sri Lankans have become paranoid. Everything seems to be "high S:" practically every city corner a high security place, every unknown person deemed highly suspicious, and everybody highly strung.

Secondly, far from being isolated, this seems to be part of a disturbing trend. Anyone with a still or video camera in public is immediately suspected as a "trouble-maker." This endangers our right to click and shoot for personal or professional purposes.

It especially hampers the work of photojournalists and videographers who must cover unfolding events wherever they happen. Last Christmas Eve, two French journalists from France 24 news channel were detained for filming a road block in southern Sri Lanka. A Tamil family whom they were taping, as well as the driver and assistant of their mini-bus, were also arrested.

"Videoing a road block is not a crime to keep whole family and two journalists overnight in a police station," protested the Free Media Movement of Sri Lanka, at the time. "There are so many instances that road blocks are filmed for various purposes including news reporting. Making a film on a family is not a crime either."

While journalists working for mainstream local and foreign media organizations -- who carry government-issued accreditation -- face these difficulties, Sri Lanka's growing breed of citizen journalists finds it even harder to bear witness in the public interest. They have nothing to shield themselves from the increasing public -- and official -- suspicion of anyone sporting a camera in public.

Public interest blogging in Sri Lanka has been growing slowly but steadily since the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, which marked a turning point for citizen journalism. According to researcher and new media activist Sanjana Hattotuwa, citizen journalists are increasingly playing a major role in meaningfully reporting deaths, the humanitarian fallout and hidden social costs of violent conflict that are often glossed over or sensationalised by the mainstream media.

Hattotuwa acknowledges, however, that the ready availability of information and communication technologies (ICTs) does not guarantee public-spirited citizen journalism.

"In Sri Lanka, the significant deterioration of democracy in 2006-2007 has resulted in a country where anxiety and fear overwhelm a sense of civic duty to bear witness to so much of what is wrong. No amount of mobile phones and PCs is going to magically erase this deep rooted fear of harm for speaking one’s mind out," says Hattotuwa.

This makes the courage and persistence of the few citizen journalists even more remarkable. Unlike mainstream journalists, they lack official accreditation, trade unions and pressure groups to safeguard their interests. The state does not recognize bloggers as journalists; despite their growing influence online, most local news websites don't enjoy any formal status either.

For now, the citizen journalist in Sri Lanka is very much a loner -- and very vulnerable.

In recent months, pedestrians who filmed public events -- such as bomb attacks -- on their mobile phones have been confronted by the police. One citizen who passed on such footage to an independent TV channel was later vilified as a "traitor." Everyday information tools such as laptops, handicams and digital cameras have suddenly come to be seen as a threat to public security.

Using a camera in public is not illegal, but it sure has become hazardous in Sri Lanka today. Forget about political demonstrations or bomb attacks that naturally attract most media attention. Covering even the most innocuous aspects of daily life can be misconstrued as a "security threat."

A fellow blogger recently wrote a moving piece about a 65-year-old woman who sells fruits and vegetables at her local market in Colombo. The story behind the story was how the blogger had been surrounded and questioned by four men and the police, who demanded to know whether she had "permission from the municipality to photograph."

Luckily, the vegetable sellers came to her rescue. "They... said they asked me to come with the camera to take some photographs of them," she wrote.

But she posed the question: "Do we have to have a camera license like a gun license of yesteryear?"

If that were to happen, not only civil liberties and media freedoms, but also our progress to an information society, would suffer a serious setback. ICT activists who cry themselves hoarse about Internet connectivity issues have been strangely silent on all this.

The point is: exactly whose security is being endangered? What additional information can a camera-toting individual possibly gather that the much sharper "eyes in the sky" don't? Google Earth offers fairly detailed satellite images of every nook and cranny of Sri Lanka, which anyone can access with a few mouse clicks online. (Hilariously, the lead story in Sri Lanka's largest circulating Sinhala newspaper some months ago suggested that Google Earth was a major security threat to the beleaguered nation.)

Sri Lanka's situation is not unique, but it is depressing all the same. Less than three decades ago in Romania, the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu made it illegal to own even a typewriter without an official licence. Other regimes before and since have tried to over-regulate citizens' access to information -- and now, some try to curtail their opportunity to generate and distribute content.

Information and media freedoms can never be taken for granted, even in more liberal democracies -- bureaucrats everywhere love to impose restrictions. Last year New York City proposed regulations that would require photo-taking tourists and filmmakers to obtain permits and $1 million in liability insurance, but the plans were shelved in the face of strong public protests, spearheaded by an Internet campaign that included an online petition signed by over 31,000 and a rap video.

Wisely, New York -- scene of one of the worst terrorist attacks in history -- did not allow bitter memories or paranoia to limit civil liberties.

"F8 and Be There!" is an old expression among photojournalists. The point being that the technical aspects of a photo are less important than being there when things happen!

Who will F8 for our right to click and shoot in Sri Lanka's public places?

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.