June 24, 2023
Good Morning. I am delighted to join you today to open the MoJo Lanka Festival, a celebration and showcase of the power of mobile journalism in Sri Lanka.
As the United States and Sri Lanka celebrate 75 years of bilateral relations in 2023, we are at a historic moment in which information is more democratized than ever before. Everyone here with a smartphone in their pocket or purse has the potential to tell a story, present an idea, or express an opinion and reach an audience. I know that’s true for me, as someone almost “addicted” to my cell phone, and as an active social media user!
Such technology was not imaginable 20 years ago. Yet, today, there are more active mobile cellular connections in Sri Lanka than the total population, which demonstrates the explosion of technology.
Technology has changed journalism as well. Stories can be more well-rounded and offer different perspectives, increasing the power to fully inform people and affect positive change.
Engaging in reporting—professionally or as a citizen journalist—requires the courage of your convictions to discover the truth and share it clearly. I remember my own days as a student reporter at my California high school. Sources told me about bias in the student council’s selection for a prestigious Student of the Month Award. I conducted interviews and dug into research, publishing an exposé. As a result, I faced bullying and harassment. But my work led to a more transparent, inclusive and diverse process. And that experience has stayed with me over the ensuing years.
That time sparked my passion in defending the freedom of press. As I recount that time, I wonder how much more richly and powerfully I could have told that story if I’d had the technology available today.
One thing hasn’t changed about journalism, however. It remains a cornerstone of a healthy democracy. Unfortunately, the 2023 World Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters Without Borders rates Sri Lanka 135th out of 180 countries. The situation is assessed as “difficult.” Meanwhile, Freedom House, in its 2023 “Freedom in the World” Index, rates Sri Lanka only as “Partially Free.”
In such an environment, the role of mobile journalism is more important than ever. This type of reporting, often conducted by ordinary citizens armed only with their mobile phones, is independent of many of the constraints the mainstream media faces. Events can be recorded and disseminated in real time and sent out to the world unfiltered.
Overall, that is a benefit, but it is important to remember a thousand individual cell phone videos also can tell a distorted story. It is one of the reasons USAID’s Media Empowerment for a Democratic Sri Lanka activity offers mobile journalism training.
Mobile journalism has revolutionized the way we consume information. It has disrupted the media landscape, creating competition and giving rise to citizen journalism.
The world witnessed the incredible power of citizen journalism in 2020. George Floyd, an African American man arrested in the United States for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill, died in police custody. A 17-year-old student filmed the entire, excruciating nine minutes of his death on her mobile phone. The video went viral, drawing attention to racial disparities and inspiring sustained citizen activism to seek police reforms.
Here in Sri Lanka, USAID’s CitizenConnect platform has been a catalyst for change, highlighting stories of resilience and innovation. This platform has given a voice to the marginalized covering stories often ignored by mainstream media. MEND has forged a network of 60 citizen journalists from across Sri Lanka. The CitizenConnect Facebook platform reaches more than five million viewers every month, with hundreds of thousands of engagements.
This is only the beginning for mobile journalism: the use of new and powerful technologies will only increase, bringing as yet unimagined possibilities, and, yes, new challenges as well. Mobile journalists must communicate their stories with the highest standards of journalism and ethics while activities such as MEND engage in media and digital literacy to counter the spread of mis- and dis- information.
Journalists must be free to ply their trade. Access to truth, transparency, and accountability must remain unfettered by legal restrictions or self-censorship. At the same time, the burden is on content creators — whether professional or ordinary citizens — to use the medium responsibly.
Today is another milestone in the 75 years of partnership between the United States and Sri Lanka as we proudly launch this mobile journalism festival. Let us keep in mind both the tremendous power and awesome responsibility this technology brings in its wake.
Mobile journalism can open up the world. Practiced ethically and skillfully, it can bring the voices of the marginalized to the fore, hold those in power to account, and celebrate the lives and achievements of people all too often ignored by the mainstream.
That is what this festival is all about: the brave new world of mobile journalism, and the infinite possibilities it brings.
I wish you all a successful event. Thank you!