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2011 TED Fellow Battles Wartime Censorship in Sri Lanka With Community-Based Website

Sanjana Hattotuwa is the founder of Groundviews, one of the region's most outspoken publications.

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Sanjana Hattotuwa doesn't see his citizen-journalism website, Groundviews, as just another place for information about what's happening in Sri Lanka.

"It's a treasure trove for historians and students," he tells Fast Company. Groundviews is one of the few community-powered media sites to launch during Sri Lanka's 25-year bloody civil war, rather than post-conflict.

Hattotuwa was recently named a 2011 TED Fellow and will head to Long Beach next February to keep spreading his message of the importance of critical citizen-powered media. This is a guy who advises human rights activists around the world on how to keep communications secure amidst oppressive regimes, so he has a thing or two to say about innovation in the face of oppression.

Hattotuwa was born and raised in Sri Lanka, studied in India and Australia, and then returned to Sri Lanka to help speak out about what was happening in his country. "We discussed issues that no other media outlet addressed," says Hattotuwa. "Our purpose was to bear witness to violent war."

In the late 1990s, he says, "Computers were changing everything." And specifically, the world of South Asian matrimonials—usually arranged marriages and matchmaking taking place online—was really catching on, he says.

But in 2005 he was inspired by citizen journalism initiatives outside of Sri Lanka to use new media for peacebuilding and reconciliation purposes in his homeland.

"There were no citizen journalism outlets during the war. That's why I set up Groundviews. My interest was in bearing witness to people and processes other media would not report on. I'm really interested in amplifying those voices and issues."

Through his persistence, to date Groundviews has over 2.5 million words in comments from viewers and approximately another 3 million words of textual content, in addition to the photos, audio interviews, and videos on the site.

Hattotuwa now serves as Special Advisor to the Geneva-based ICT4Peace Foundation affiliated with the United Nations to leverage his real-world experience in new media and citizen journalism to help with crisis response, early warning and disaster mitigation. In that role, Hattotuwa designed and developed the Crisis Information Management wikis of the Foundation and was hailed by the UN for that effort.

Sanjana Hattotuwa

In a region that is generally considered unsafe for journalists, Groundviews is viewed as one of the most outspoken publications and Hattotuwa continues to collaborate with journalists and crisis response professionals in Pakistan, Nepal, and throughout South Asia. And when governments attempt to silence dissident voices or their electronic communications get tapped, Hattotuwa advises journalists and human rights activists on remedial measures that can be taken.

Hattotuwa’s hope is that his involvement with TED will open more doors and help him and others like him push forward more citizen-powered media ideas. And in the meantime he continues to teach local Sri Lankan student journalists about the power of their voices captured through new media, with the hope that the country's current peace remains intact.

"New media is no panacea," says Hattotuwa. "But with digital storytelling tools, new media helps capture vital narratives—in words, photos, video and audio—that are important for a fuller historical record of war, its human cost, and aftermath."

Follow me, Jenara Nerenberg, on Twitter.

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  • sittingnut

    pity that this kind of superficial writing is termed journalism these days
    jenara herenberg should be prepared to question the claims made subject of article and get independent confirmations, instead of parroting self promoting spin wholesale.

    here are some of the most obvious among many-

    "citizen-journalism website, Groundviews"

    groundviews is 'citizen journalist' in name only. it has specific agenda and anything different is censored.
    for example, in spite claiming to be a sri lankan citizen journalist site during whole of tamil tiger terrorists' existence it never allowed the rational fact based case for defeating terrorists to be made and discussed there (in a blog posts or in comments). this in spite of the fact that not only was this option widely accepted and popular in sri lanka but discussed everywhere. by censoring rational case for defeating tigers and sometimes allowing few references to racist case, editors at groundviews deliberately implied that only an irrational racist case for defeating the murderous tigers who killed and maimed our children can be made. check for yourself.
    groundviews pushed its agenda of 'peace at any cost' even if such a peace with tiger murderers (who had a history of breaking peace agreements) resulted in continous bloodshed (and countless number of our children killed and maimed) as happened for 30 years.

    groundviews and its earlier incarnation 'moju' both published factually incorrect terrorist propaganda based posts and in some cases direct propaganda from tiger front organizations like tro (since acknowledged as a front of tigers by even fbi). comments, emails, and phone calls, pointing out inaccuracies and propagandist nature of articles were censored.

    large percentage of articles at groundviews were in fact recycled columns from sri lankan newspapers published with writers' permission. .

    in addition there has been several instances of plagiarism at groundviews.

    "...studied in India and Australia"
    sanjana hattotuwa has in the past claimed to be harvard educated, though not recently. maybe he should have been asked why he made the false claim in the past? remnants of this claim can still be found online.

    " That's why I set up Groundviews"
    why is there no reference to groundnview's predecessor 'moju" in this revisionist history? is that bc sanjana deleted it due to embarrassing accumulation of tamil tiger terrorist propaganda content there?

    btw why is there no concrete proof of his actions ever benefiting anyone or anything in vague ill defined fields of 'ict4peace', 'crisis management', 'journalism and human rights' etc, etc,. what has he actually done? what solutions has he offered ? who has he helped ? be specific. he certainly does spend a lot of donar money with nothing to show for it. if he has succeeded in any of his endeavors, would it be that hard to get some confirmation quotes from anyone who is not a direct collaborator of his?

    btw do double check the stats, bc groundviews when sending out spam emails to readers exaggerated its visitor numbers in the past . (maybe you did check and prefered to go with word counts instead of vistors numbers? if so good, but then you should have said it.)

    finally as someone, who has quite the opposite political opinions from mine, said above, if there is such 'oppression in the region' why is sanjana completely free to do his thing unimpeded?

    it seems the writer of this article is a well trained parrot totally incapable of questioning self promotion and spin.

    sorry if feelings were hurt by my being so direct about shortcomings of this article but there was no choice. and i hope there is enough respect for truth here to leave it uncensored.

  • Post DJBS Scenario

    Congratulations Sanjana, a TED fellowship is a huge accolade and a well deserved recognition of your outstanding work.

    I have turned to Groundviews for years in order to understand different perspectives on the ethnic conflict (genocide).

    One thing I haven't been able to figure out is why Groundsviews editors were never (physically) attacked by the Government of Sri Lanka?

    The government has gone after the minority Tamils (of course) and the few Singhalese media who have voiced even a passing concern as to what was taking place but somehow Groundviews was never targeted.

    Regardless, I am looking forward to hearing you speak at Long Beach.