13 Jan 2010

Is democracy a new pillar for Telecenter Development ?

Use of ICTs in Sri Lanka Democracy

It's Very interesting to see impact of ICT in Sri Lanka Democracy. Compared to 2000 and 2005 presidential Election, we see enlarged usage of alternative media like social networks, powered by ICTs and web 2.0. From the very start of the presidential race the major Two candidates President Mahinda Rajapaksa and General (Rtd) Sarath Fonseka have used ICTs for their campaign.

In one way we could say that e version of the campaign is providing more information from both sides with regards to Candidate suitability to be president 2010. There are official and un-official activities can be seen happening online and off line.

An Election Meeting - the usual Non ICT methods

Some examples
Both candidates have their official websites
http://www.mahinda2010.lk/ and http://www.sarathfonseka.com.

Use of local languages has taken importance and allows rural people to use Telecenters for obtaining election information. However we find that there is a lack of standards local languages use in e campaign. The development of local language technologies have been benefited the campaigning. We can find lankatruth.com, www.lankadeepa.lk, dinamina.lk, divaina.com like news sources using Sinhala Unicode effectively.

There are also un-official sites with content that provide inside information as well as exaggerated or false information with less reliability. Most of them are centered around election gossip, more like UK tabloids, sometimes more extreme in content; However an another reflection of people thoughts to have media freedom. Although questions media ethics, good for people to have access to all the views to make a decision.

http://www.sinhalablogs.com accumulates over 500 local language blogs and number of them involved with current election campaign. Number of them are anonymous. There are number of polls each one telling that the campaign is tough.

Youtube had been a very useful for candidates who who don't receive media coverage. As an example an Exclusive 2 hour interview of General Sarath Fonseka aired on Sirasa TV. I missed it but heard about this interview which had a quite an effect on his campaign. Next day the interview appeared in youtube as a volunteer had captured and posted it online, so many people could watch this interesting interview, including me. That makes a big difference to obtain media freedom from alternatives.

The facebook has become a major communication vehicles for General Sarath Fonseka campaign. Currently recording over 45000 fans. President Mahinda Rajpaksa supporters also use facebook heavily using several groups formed. We can see there is great deal of involvement of online election workers, where most of them work anonymous or false name basis. However there is a person or group behind every true or false message. so has some importance when bits and pieces are matched. For some people it's like a festival time.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa campaign used mobiles effectively, sending a January 1st early morning new year wish to all mobile users, for which some people offended saying there was no reply facility. Sartah fonseka campaign uses IVR response system where phone users can can dial a number and listen to his message. Mobile phone news, specially from facebook have become effective in the campaign of General Sarath Fonseka. http://www.lanka4sf.com is mobile enabled website which takes election campaigning to another dimension.

We can observe that President Rajapaksa started advertising in many community portals, facebook and google ads early stages. All major online news papers carry his campaign advertisement. www.lankatruth.com, www.news.lk (government) and many political parties like unp.lk, www.jvpsrilanka.com, www.sandanaya.lk are some examples. However with web 2.0 facebook, ning sites are more popular among people.

Referral SMS created by fans and election news seems to pass between friends and networks, can be seen as a strong medium used by supporters who are afraid to come out. Many people I talked in this research supporters of both major condidates. Most of the connected people used online information to make their decision.

The Manifistos of condidates are delivered online Gen. Sarath Fonseka was to fist to present his 10 principles\. President Mahinda Rajapaksa Manifesto will be available here I was able to read the e version before I even see the printed, which actually I will not need. Usually manifestos are not found after 1 years of an election. But president Mahinda Rajapaksa still maintains it in his personal website.
If ICT access is increased we can save large amount of paper and trees wasted in democratic processes.

The state and private media have taken up internet as an important vehicles for their campaign. Some TV and radio programs of state media also have been banned by election commissioner. The refferel emails, spams and direct emails, discussion forums as usual has increased tremendously. More than old days where people can listen to candidates, watch news live, but now ICTs are changing democracy space in Sri Lanka. ICTs have shown that they are superior over other media in impact and reach. ICTs have an increased capacity of campaign with the involvement of volunteer forces. Therefore it can be said that ICT can strengthen the democracy.

With more than 4 million voters living in rural communities are unconnected, in the presidential election the battle is really at village levels where 70% people live. Those who have access to ICTs are benefited with availability of information. The unconnected really at a disadvantage as they lack access to important decision that will change their lives. So telecenters need to come forward as independent media center for the rural societies to improve local level democracy. As the connected groups are mainly intellectuals, they help create fusion for change. Hence an important community, which includes Telecenters and their workers. The e-ASIA, Nenasala 2010 like events with the participation of the president is an indication of ICT4D in political processes. Hence what ever the outcome of Sri Lanka President election, ICTs for it's superior ability to reach contribute immensely in a swing of change.

For us, as researchers It's a question how this experiences can be made a new avenue of democracy facilitation and help Telecenter to improve life in rural societies ? How Telecenters are able to capitalize on emerging democracy needs of people at grass roots? What role Telecenters can play in helping to ensure democracy ? How can Telecenters use ICTs effectively to facilitate information freedom? What tools, methodologies and practices to be developed? Finally, How telecenters can can lead their local communities to help improve transparency, good governance and accountability and democratic processes of the governance?

Democracy leadership is a new pillar for Telecenter development to make a fair and just society.

How much people strive for democracy ?