Last Sunday morning, as I was preparing to report on the swearing in of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister, I received a message that said that media would not be allowed to cover the ceremony. It was in fact, a very apt ending to the impasse that began on October 26 evening. Then too my first indication that something was amiss came via a Whatsapp message.
When media were prevented from attending the swearing in ceremony, the first confirmation that it had taken place came from the Twitter account of UNP MP Dr. Harsha de Silva. He tweeted a picture of the swearing in. Leaving aside the petulant politics of barring the media from the ceremony, the tweet was the perfect finale for the political turbulence. Social media was an inalienable part of the political drama. Whereas five years back, the audience relied heavily on electronic media, now it got a ring side view through social media.
Two days before the swearing in, parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa had used the same platform to confirm rumours that his father Mahinda Rajapaksa was going to resign from the disputed PM post.
As the tweets rolled in and the main media contingent was left in the sun outside the Secretariat some of the members used Facebook live to stream scenes from outside. Whatsapp groups buzzed with rumour as the country waited and held its breath
Dr. de Silva and fellow parliamentarian Mano Ganeshan both used Tweets to show that Wickremesinghe and Co were waiting at the Presidential Secretariat for President MaithripalaSirisena’s arrival. It was a blow by blow, filled with all the tension. As the tweets rolled in and the main media contingent was left in the sun outside the Secretariat some of the members used Facebook live to stream scenes from outside. Whatsapp groups buzzed with rumour as the country waited and held its breath.
While Sri Lanka’s national electronic media has become more and more biased and unashamedly politicised in its coverage, social media has allowed for the balance. Ordinary citizens on social media have been equally scathing in their criticism of the once all-powerful networks. More importantly, social media makes it possible for news, information and rumour that would otherwise be held back to reach public domains. The audience does need to be a bit savvy to take in the information overload, but it can be done.
Even President Sirisena used Facebook to stream the 45-minute scathing speech he made to the UNP group after the swearing-in ceremony. As the speech that was aired several hours after the ceremony, progressed, the reactions of the audience onsite as well as online showed the additional layer of live interaction that social media brings in. Some sense of how the UNP top rung and the nation at large reacted to the speech was clear as it was streamed.
When the impasse began, there were strong fears that social media would be shutdown. The weekend after October 26 rumours intensified that a very high ranking elected official was strongly in favour of a shutdown. That was when at least one gossip site carried the story. However, it never came to be and social media became a vital information channel for citizens expressing their disgust, jubilation and party affiliations in equal measure along with much more politically slanted content and news.
MPs Ganeshan and de Silva would have no platform to tell hundreds of thousands of their wait for the swearing in. Even President Sirisena would have to seek airtime from national television to air his speech, 45 minutes at that
What would be interesting is to contemplate a scenario where a shutdown was in effect. Think of a Sunday without Facebook, without Twitter and the media locked out of the ceremony. Let alone the multiple flies on the wall viewpoints, anyone outside the Presidential Secretariat or not connected to the higher political networks, would not know a thing about what was going on.
MPs Ganeshan and de Silva would have no platform to tell hundreds of thousands of their wait for the swearing in. Even President Sirisena would have to seek airtime from national television to air his speech, 45 minutes at that.
Correction: On the extent of Twitter and Facebook impressions of hashtags (#LetMeVote, #RiseUpSL, #CoupLK) associated with the political turbulence in Sri Lanka quoted in the last column, ongoing research shows it to be much higher than what was quoted.
The author is an Asia-Pacific Coordinator for the DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma - a project of the Columbia Journalism School and can be followed on Twitter - @amanthap