Raisa Wickrematunge is Co-Editor of Groundviews. In this interview with Women Talk, Raisa talks about her journey into journalism, her current work in an alternative online media platform that includes engaging with diverse creative and technological mediums, the significance of ethical reporting, and the media’s role in strengthening Sri Lanka’s transitional justice and reconciliation processes.
Even as a child, I really loved to read everything I could get my hands on. I had this natural love of stories. It was really my uncle who noticed my love of reading and who encouraged me to get into writing. He asked me to join the newspaper, (and coaxed my parents into allowing me to join). I was lucky to briefly be trained by him as well. Journalism was something I had not considered until that point. Once I did, I really loved it. I found almost immediately that it was something that I enjoyed doing and that I had a passion for it. I have mostly him to thank for that.
You joined The Sunday Leader in 2009, which was a very difficult period in Sri Lanka for freedom of expression. We were considered the most dangerous country for journalists around this time. What was it like to have joined a newspaper as a journalist at the climax of the conflict?
I was very young, and did not have any training as a journalist. I joined almost fresh out of school, and did not necessarily realise all the nuances of what was going on at that time. I got to observe and be around those who were reporting towards the end of the conflict, and of course, I was there when there were threats to the paper itself. In fact, that was something that I actually grew up with.
I cannot say that I was really afraid [because I never personally had to face danger]. Several of my colleagues would get death threats. It was something that I never personally had to experience. We all kind of had this camaraderie and laughed about it [when we received threats]. That was our way of coping with the pressures of working in that kind of environment.
A few years ago, I was at a photo exhibition, looking at a photo of the Central Bank bombing. It suddenly hit me that this was something we had all taken for granted as normal. It is only now that we are realising how abnormal and violent it was. But at the time, once you go into reporting you do not necessarily realise it at first. You are focused perhaps on getting the story. It becomes about facts, about numbers. It took a little time, training and maturity to realise that it needs to be more than just about that. There needs to be context and sensitivity. In those early days, as a journalist, it was quite an interesting and a challenging time.
Because you have also held editorial positions, is there a different way that women journalists are attacked, as they can be targeted for their bodies or sexualities? You yourself received an anonymous phone call for having reported a particular leadership crisis in a political party.
Leaving aside editorial positions, at times even just being a woman and working in a field like journalism could lead into certain situations. When I was starting out and when we travelled people did look at us differently and questioned why we were there. I had to cover a lot of stories from police brutality to suspected drug trafficking to urban poverty. To walk into those situations as a woman can be challenging.
There have been people I’ve been interviewing who have said, upon meeting me, ‘you are just a small girl’. They sometimes tend to underestimate you and talk down to you. That is something that I have experienced. It is not just restricted to me but is a common occurrence, I think, to many women.
When it comes to editorial experience, I would say the same kinds of pressures can sometimes occur as well. You will also sometimes have people who will shut down your opinions.
Like you said, you worked on many projects at The Sunday Leader. What were some of the key stories that you remember as highlights of your time there?
The Sunday Leader was a very small team. So, we worked together and it was all hands on. I would cover everything from the environment to human interest stories, and news to features. The ones that I found the most satisfaction in were the human-interest stories; in particular, the work that I did around poverty and people who were displaced due to development.
I felt that I could make a small difference in some way by highlighting these stories and bringing them to the forefront. In some cases, there were people who wrote in, asking how they could help.
The story I always point to is the one I wrote on children who were living in Mullaitivu where the last stretch of the war was fought. Many of these children had lost their parents and they all had to walk a very long distance to school. Some of them did not have electricity. I wrote about them as a feature story for The Sunday Leader. After my story, one of the children got a scholarship to continue her education. My contact for the story said that this happened after my piece. That makes me really happy and it makes me think that highlighting these kinds of stories can actually make a difference.
Journalism is also very writing-based. Do you have a particular connection with writing?
With my new role at Groundviews, I would say it is not just writing. There is also a lot of photography, video, using social media, but at the core of all that I would agree it is all about story-telling and a love of language. I have always loved to express myself through writing. These days I would say that I use Instagram mostly to marry words and picture, and to express myself that way.
In general, I do love writing. I also write short stories, and would love to write a book at some point in the future. But the struggle with doing work like this is that you need to kind of balance your personal beliefs and your need to remain removed; but not impartial. It is about taking your personal experiences and your connection to the story, including your emotion, and channeling it in a positive way. I don’t think any of us can really remain completely impartial but what we can do is to report the story in the best possible way.
Groundviews was initiated in 2006, as a citizen journalism website, again at a time of heightened censorship around expression in Sri Lanka. You joined the organisation in 2015. How did you become involved with Groundviews?
After I had been at The Sunday Leader for a couple of years I felt it was time for a change and I actually left journalism for a little while. But I am glad for those experiences. I definitely learned a lot from them. As I said though, my first love has always been writing, journalism, and storytelling. After a couple of years, I decided that I wanted to get back into the field. I saw a vacancy and thought why not?
As you said, stories on Groundviews involve the use of technology, photography, and videos. When you say citizen journalism, can you contexualise that to Sri Lanka and what happens through Groundviews?
These days everyone who has a smart phone is able to report a story, as it breaks. And that is the reality that we see today. There will be a news story and almost inevitably it will break on social media before mainstream media.
But sometimes, perhaps because people are not conversant enough about standards and the responsibility that they have in disseminating information, these stories could create panic. Sometimes individuals may share information without cross-checking or necessarily thinking about the impact of it. So, the term citizen journalist is somewhat misunderstood and sometimes even treated with disdain.
That is not what we aim to do. We have always aimed to set a different standard. We aim to report things which might not necessarily be reported in the mainstream media. This is me speaking from personal experience. There will be a breaking news story and every one runs to that scene. We report, write about it, and then forget about that story. At Groundviews, we do things a little differently. We contextualize. We try to go back and see what the situation is a few years later. We also aim to be responsible when we are reporting.
What is the readership on the type of alternative, web-based news that you deal with?
I would say that more people are accessing news on the internet. There was a recent media usage survey done by the Centre for Policy Alternatives by the Social Indicator Unit. It found that in the Western Province among the top three sources of news, behind print and television, is the internet. Internet penetration is increasing. More and more people are accessing the internet for their news. More people are also using smart phones to access news, although, of course, print is still very strong outside of that.
Groundviews’s readership is relatively a younger audience, although we have readers ranging from 18-60 years of age. Primarily, 18-40 age group is our audience. We do have readers from areas like Kurunegala and Kandy, all across the island, although a lot of them are from Colombo.
To be Co-Editor of Groundviews, what does that role entail?
It essentially amounts to assisting with the curation of things like social media; from Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook to Instagram. We are active on social media and reporting on certain issues, from the drought to ongoing constitutional reform. I still write as well – I enjoy long-form journalism. But this role is also about embracing new online platforms and innovation, which is something that Groundviews has always been a frontrunner in, thanks to Founding Editor Sanjana Hattotuwa, who built and drove the site to where it is today. There are a lot of different storytelling platforms that can be used to tell stories in visual ways using video, photography, and audio that I’ve learned to use in this new role. It’s about learning how we can tell a story in a way that is interesting and engaging, even about an issue that may not be something that the mainstream media will pick up on because it is not perhaps the most newsworthy because it is not a breaking story.
Speaking from your experience in the mainstream print media and in an alternative online platform, is there a difference in the way the two operate?
Definitely. It was a big learning experience for me because print media is somewhat old school in the sense that there are a lot of structures in place. For instance, as a sub-editor, I had to first write all the articles and wait for the pages to be laid out before making corrections to the stories. It is a very slow process and sometimes archaic.
Whereas, here is much more different. It is a flatter organisation. As Co-Editor, I have more input into the content. It is also about standing for what you believe in. That is different. Whereas, as a journalist, we are taught to aim for impartiality and just report hard facts. In reality though, that impartiality is almost never achieved, thanks to political or business interests. Now I have the space to do that kind of reporting at Groundviews. I would say that it is a really positive difference.
Where are we in terms of, if you generally look at, ethics and journalism?
I think there is a lot of work to be done. There is a lot that needs to change. For instance, when looking at reporting on suicide, some news sites even have a separate tab for this. I question why that needs to be done. Some of them will show photos of the scene, sometimes it is blurred and sometimes not. Sometimes they show photos of the victim and share personal details. That is very problematic. Most recently, of course, there was a celebrity who committed suicide and the coverage around that was deeply problematic too. It highlights how long we all have to go to push for more ethical reporting.
On a separate note, there is of course all the problematic reporting around gender issues, even in the English media. Recently, one English newspaper devoted column space to an article about a “voluptuous woman”. It was essentially about a sex worker who had gone to a clinic and it was found that one of her clients was apparently a politician. It was written in such a judgmental way. I understand that it was in their satirical section but the way it was written and phrased was so problematic.
Sometimes even the cartoons accompanying news articles are cause for concern.
These are also things that I have raised on Groundviews. This isn’t restricted to English media, but is sadly apparent in Sinhala and Tamil media, in different ways. Mainstream and civic media will sometimes report on stories of rape calling the victims “beautiful flowers”, things like that. Organisations such as Ethics Eye are particularly dedicated at flagging these issues. All this shows that there is a long way that we need to all go in order to move towards better reporting.
What does it mean when a piece that you have worked very hard for gets published?
To be very honest, it is actually a strange feeling. For me, personally, writing is cathartic. Especially if I am writing about an issue I am passionate about, it is more about how can I channel the story in a way that can hopefully help someone, at the end of the day.
When I first started out, seeing my name and work did give me a certain sense of pride, I will admit. But as time went on, I began feeling that I was writing into a void. I think in some ways it was because it was a coping mechanism, simply writing about the difficult issues that I chose to write about.
When you are working at a certain sustained level, regarding some stories, there are difficult times when you feel like you are not making much of a difference. So, my feeling about seeing my work has changed over time. That does not mean that I do not still feel a certain sense of accomplishment. But, for me, now, I would say it is more about whether I have told a story in the best possible way to help the people that I am writing about.
You did your undergraduates in Law with Management external to the University of London, and you have a MSc in marketing from University of Leicester. How did your education position you within your career in journalism?
I think the law degree in particular has really helped me a lot with my current work. It helps a lot when navigating legal jargon, at least. Constitutional reform and transitional justice are currently topical issues, and it helps to have at least a little bit of a legal background so you can break down what these legal terms mean, which also means you can better communicate such stories. Even the marketing degree has helped me because it teaches you about how to communicate things in ways which are appealing; given that I am right now writing about things that people do not necessarily want to listen to or read about, for instance. It has helped me to examine how to write in a sensitive way, without being exploitative but also in a way that appeals to a younger generation. So, both my degrees have helped me in some way. I have to add that it is also a privilege for me to have been able to receive these degrees, even if as an external student.
You joined The Sunday Leader and you became a journalist, which was in 2009; to use your own words to sum up that time “in the past people would attack us, now they would kill us”. Even with Groundviews, when you joined in 2015, it was a crucial time in Sri Lanka. To be a journalist now in this postwar phase in Sri Lanka, what does it mean to you when you look back from where you are today?
There is a lot more freedom to speak and to air dissenting views. Definitely, when I look back to my earlier days at The Sunday Leader when covering sensitive topics there were times that I self-censored what I wrote. Because I did not want to push any buttons and I did not want to be on the receiving end of any kind of threats. Despite the fact that I on one occasion received an anonymous phone call, I would not say I consider that a threat. However, it is a fact that that was the kind of pushback journalists received, and worse. Right now I feel that the atmosphere is a lot more open.
There are a lot of things that are changing, and it is an interesting space to be in. We are writing a new constitution, we are trying to deal with the past, we are setting up an office to try and give the families of the disappeared some answers. All these processes, what they highlight is that, more than ever, journalists and anyone working in the media have a new responsibility to ensure that those go through in a way that helps people who are marginalised. So, the role of the media is just as, if not more important now than it was back then.
Any future projects to look out for?
At Groundviews, we are currently working on some research around technology-based violence against women or cyberbullying, as it is colloquially known. That is going to be very interesting because as a woman it is something I have often seen and faced. It will be interesting to see how we can work to record that and hopefully do something to combat it.
Date of Interview: 18 October 2017
Interviewer and photos: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage