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.
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.