Sanchia Brown is a journalist and is part of the Women and Media Collective in Sri Lanka. In this interview, Sanchia discusses the significance of internet governance, the importance of online spaces for women, the connection between online and offline spaces, and the need to improve access to the many benefits that the internet and new media has to offer. She also talks about her engagements with radio, television, and alternative media, as well as her love for photography.
How did you get interested in a line of work related to the media?
From the time I was in school, I remember, I had an interest in journalism. After my Ordinary Level examination, I took a class in journalism during our three-month vacation. This got me to start writing a bit for newspapers. When I left school, I wanted to pursue journalism as a career so I joined the college of journalism in Sri Lanka. It was here that I was able to learn more about television and radio production and this is what led me into media.
What was it like to have had one of your earliest engagements with the media in the field of radio, at TNL?
TNL radio was what I listened to when I was in school. So, how awesome was it to work at your favourite radio station? This was my first experience of working in a newsroom. We produced hourly news bulletins, which was hard work but exciting because you have to be on your feet all the time just to make sure that the news story is ready for broadcast. I worked with a great group of people there. The English and Sinhala newsrooms had to work as a team to make this happen.
What made you switch to television from radio?
I think it was my curiosity. I wanted to know what television was like because I loved visual media. Also I had heard so much about Young Asia Television.
You got exposure to working with issues relating to the conflict, gender, and peace. What was it like to be working in this area?
I think at the time we were the only television station that was specifically working on conflict related issues. For one, within the organisation we had to work with three different teams. I was part of the English team and there was the Sinhala and Tamil as well. Generally, when we go on shoots it was a big group of people that we had to work with because we had to bring it different perspectives. We learned a lot within this team.
Part of my job as a producer was to talk to people for the story. Due to the issues in itself being sensitive we had to work on the story without causing any conflict for those involved. At YATV, we traveled to war-torn areas where many people couldn’t go to. For instance, we had to visit a place which was once covered in landmines and speak to people who were still living in those areas. We did magazine-style documentary programmes which compelled us to dig deep into the story. We had to investigate. We focused on conflict resolution and peace building and this was what was brought out through our stories.
Then, you join the Women and Media Collective (WMC) in 2010. What drew you towards an organisation working with women, gender, and media in Sri Lanka?
I left YATV only because I wanted to study further. I went to Chennai to do my Post-Graduate studies in Journalism. I specialized in new media there. Once I came back, the Women and Media Collective was looking for someone to work with them to increase nominations and votes for women in Local Government. So I undertook the new media component of this project.
You are currently the Program Officer – New Media at WMC. What is your involvement with new media and digital media platforms within and outside this role?
At the Women and Media Collective, one of the activities that we engage in are capacity building programmes, such as workshops for women’s rights activists and for women who are interested in learning more about using internet platforms through their phones or computers. We have developed a tri-lingual publication on how to ‘get online’. It’s a detailed module on how to open a Gmail account, open a WordPress blog, Twitter or Facebook account, and to know aspects of digital security. Apart from this we call to attention on the issues that we work on through our website, blogs and social media platforms. More recently we have begun to work on the concept of internet rights and with this we have developed a research study that looks at gender and the internet.
You are also an avid user of new media platforms.
I try to engage through my own platforms as well. I have a blog and a Twitter account but sometimes I tend to forgo these accounts and pay more attention to WMC’s online platforms. But I do share some of my photography through my Instagram account.
When did this love for photography begin?
Since I was little I’ve been taking photographs with a small camera that I had. My grandfather was very much into his photography. There was this fancy camera. I was wondering what this was about and wanted to take pictures from it. It was all film back then.
Being at YATV helped me to learn and understand more about visuals. This is how I gradually developed an eye for photography. Whenever I went out on shoots I would take my camera with me. At WMC too we are all encouraged to take photographs. WMC has a women’s photography exhibition every year for amateur and professional women photographers and this encourages us to be more creative with our work.
In the recent Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum you spoke at a panel on Queering the internet: gender, sexual expression, and censorship based on EROTICS Sri Lanka research. What were some of the key findings of this study in terms of access to information, expression, the safety of devices/content, and online adversity?
EROTICS is about looking at internet rights and gender. We did a research on how the LGBT community in Sri Lanka access internet platforms, their use of it, and what their limitations and the drawbacks were. We wanted to know how the community moved in the online space. In one of the case studies, a gay man talks about the time before the internet when he felt an attraction to another man and he thought that this was not normal, until he went to a library and he read up on homosexuality. This goes to show that because of the internet the LGBT community has access to information. It has also become a resource for people to build relationships, express themselves and even share information.
But on the other hand there is also online harassment and violence which people encounter. Most of the respondents in the survey said that there is a lot of online harassment that they have had to face and this is something that we can’t ignore. It happens to not just those in the community but to women too. But I think due to the current legal framework in the country the LGBT community is much more vulnerable and susceptible to online violence.
Is the internet and social media also becoming increasingly threatening, in particular for women, where their bodies, identities, and privacy are being violated, as many recent examples of hate messages, revenge porn, and cyber bullying have shown?
As more people access the internet the incidents of online violence are increasing in tandem. Is it becoming a bad space? The online sphere is a reflection of what is taking place offline. The type of violence women face offline is also seen online. And sometimes the violence is a result of an incident offline or online. This is why women’s organizations and other groups are trying to curtail these violations by introducing or strengthening cyber laws.
At the Internet Governance Forum, this is what we talk about. The types of violence we face, how we should go about it, should we introduce laws, should certain platforms be restricted, should the freedom of speech be restricted at a certain level due to hate speech that spreads online. We are in constant discussion about this at these forums. As women’s organisations, we are trying our best to recognise such violence and also recognise that women should have the freedom to use these platforms the way they want to without being silenced. Unfortunately, most often than not, online violence reaches a stage where it causes a lot of harm to the individual and the community and this why we need to bring it to everyone’s attention.
The Women’s Internet Governance Forum was also held this year for the second time in Sri Lanka. Something you have said, reflecting on this forum is, ‘… the Internet Governance Forum ascertained that the internet in fact enables and enhances women’s choices in a local context.’ Can the internet also be used as a feminist platform and a space to increase women’s participation?
Everyone, feminists included, have a right to access and use the internet in ways that would empower themselves and the communities they are part of. The internet should be an inclusive space. Women should have affordable and easy access to the internet so that they are able to express themselves and be able to mobilize as a result. We should have more content available in local languages. And we need to be aware of the content that women specifically need. Whether it be on a woman’s autonomy and bodily integrity or whether it be on economic empowerment the internet should be a space where women are able to talk about their rights and be a catalyst for taking action.
A common occurrence in households is when there is one device available to access the internet. Usually, it is the men who would have access to it first and then later the women. Here again you see how the woman is being overlooked. So such instances must be thought of a little bit more. How do we get more women online? How do we make it affordable and accessible for women? So many women have set up their own businesses online, through Facebook even. They are able to earn an income because of this. If the woman is empowered they are able to improve the lives of their children as well. If you see the bigger picture, the internet is actually a valuable resource for us all.
What is the significance of having held a Women’s Internet Governance Forum in Sri Lanka?
It was a first for Sri Lanka to have a women’s IGF. We were able to collectively talk about the issues faced by women in relation to accessing the internet and also issues pertaining to gender. We were able to discuss aspects of internet governance with government actors and just talk to them about areas that needed to be looked at closely. We had a discussion on the ICT policy that is being currently formulated by the government and the dire need for women’s voices in this process. Unfortunately, I did not see any private organisations at the Women IGF. It would have been great to maybe hear from some of the internet service providers on how they go about their work. It was a good forum all together.
Can social media platforms also be used successfully for advocacy and campaigning in Sri Lanka?
The last general elections were the first time we saw how people in Sri Lanka said that they ‘voted’ online which was tagged with the hashtag ‘Ivotedsl’. That was very encouraging. Statistics show that people are getting on Facebook more often than before and the number of internet users in the country is in fact rising. Women use social media more often than men do as women enjoy communicating through social media platforms. Because of that it is a great space to actually talk about issues and raise awareness. You can even find government representatives on these platforms. This enables us to connect with them on issues that we are concerned about and make them aware of it by bringing these issues to their attention. In that sense, I think it has proven to be very effective for raising awareness and for advocacy.
You also have experience working in travel-related television programs, both in local and foreign productions. Is travel and interest of yours?
I have worked on the Amazing Race shows that are being aired in multiple countries. They would come down to Sri Lanka to produce certain episodes. I was fortunate enough to work on these teams. It was wonderful to see how people work so hard to make good television. The Amazing Race is a program that is very fast paced. They are always moving from one place to another in haste. You have to be efficient.
I also worked with the Central Cultural Fund’s television unit. We were given an opportunity to make documentary films on the heritage sites of the country. And most of them are UNESCO world heritage sites. We were given access to heritage sites that I had not heard about. Some of the places we visited were not accessible to the public because these sites were being conserved for various purposes such as for excavations, preservation and posterity. We had to travel a great deal and produce informative documentaries on Sri Lanka’s heritage sites.
You have also represented Sri Lanka, as a swimmer.
I trained as a swimmer for quite a while. I did competitive swimming in school for about 9-10 years. I love swimming and the water. As a sport, swimming builds so much character in you. There is so much to learn through the sport. Apart from it being a good option for exercise and staying healthy, I am able to apply a lot of its lessons to everyday life.
Follow Sanchia on Twitter: @sanchiabrown
Date of Interview: 12 August 2017
Interviewer and main photo: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage