Diverse Challenges to A2K Activism: A Southern Perspective
When we participated the virtual round table more than a year and a half ago A2K was not a theme rallying those who worked on issues connected to access to knowledge in Sri Lanka. We, however, identified
The Foss movement
The Seeds movement and
The Anti-globalisation movement,
as active movements that had the potential for providing leadership to an A2K movement in Sri Lanka along with us, the Access to Knowledge Study Group at the Open University of Sri Lanka and to take the initiative to introduce and popularize the concept “access to knowledge”. Though we were in favour of defining A2K in the broadest possible sense to incorporate A2K issues that have nothing to do with IPR (still the main barrier to A2K within the context of Sri Lanka and the context of a majority of developing countries) for instance, questioning the marginalisation of informal knowledge in the face of formal knowledge and power at play in knowledge production, we confined ourselves to discuss A2K against the restrictions posed by IPR when we identified the above 3 movements as the potential partners of the A2K movement in Sri Lanka.
It is important to note very briefly what has happened during this last one and half years because that discussion itself would shed more light on A2K issues on the ground, and issues that would influence the emergence of an A2K movement. The seeds movement and anti-globalisation movements (to the extent that one can identify them as movements as we discussed at the virtual round table) have not been particularly active; this is not because the IPR related A2K issues have been resolved but because a diversion of funding that supported such movements to other countries after the conclusion of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers and also to other thematic areas such as climate change, postwar reconstruction, debt , social and cultural rights, etc. A few of the prominent Colombo-based NGOs that were active in seeds and anti-globalisation activism and there NGO/CBO network Island wide are struggling for survival. In contrast to that we see the expansion of FOSS initiatives in universities, the public sector and the private sector. The stricter implementation of the IPR law is the reason behind this. Software piracy is represented as a criminal activity and regular raids are conducted on software and VCD/DVD vendors and private institutions. A special unit has now being established at the Criminal Investigation Department to conduct these raids.
We, the A2K study group of the Open University was successful to a certain extent to take the idea of A2K to the society. The annual National Conference on Library and Information Science was held in 2009 under the special theme “Access to Knowledge through Information Management”. The Sri Lankan FOSS Community that was not very aware of the A2K and IPR discourse was informed on A2K when Software Freedom Day was celebrated at the Open University premises in 2010. We anticipate that the launching of policy briefs based on the report of the A2K Study Group during the coming months will be an important step towards the popularization of the theme of A2K in Sri Lanka. The event got delayed as a result of the anti-west, anti-NGO, anti-UN sentiments of the ruling regime which forced the organizers of the function to leave the country.
Victory over the Tamil Tigers has made the current regime powerful to a level that has never seen in the history of Sri Lanka. Violations of all rights of citizens is a regular day-to-day occurrence. This in fact has created a situation where we see new A2K issues emerging. Privatization of education seems a top priority of the governing regime and that has created student unrest throughout the university system. Advocacy for “Right to Information” legislation is another related development. The availability of foreign funding for RTI as well as its urgent necessity plays an important role in the emergence of RTI.
The dominant development model that is being pushed by the ruling regime is one of economic growth and infrastructure development. The slogan is that Sri Lanka is to be showcased as the ‘miracle’ of South Asia. ICT and education are seen as important to development; however, the ideology behind the dominant model of development is market driven. Thus, issues that the A2K movement in Sri Lanka raised such as equality of access, questioning the power relationships in the production of knowledge, critiquing the IPR regime for encouraging the private ownership of knowledge and creation are very much antithetical to the current regime. It is a time when the regime is wooing foreign investors and selling public property and spaces for ‘investment’ and ‘development’. Notions such as ‘public ownership’, the ‘commons’ are severely threatened not only with regard to A2K but in all other areas of life. For instance, low-income groups residing in the capital Colombo are being evicted to make way for ‘development’.
Within such a context, the challenges as well as opportunities for the development of A2K movement are many. At the same time, it makes the issues that we raised even more urgent. Particularly, within the broader definition of A2K, our work in Sri Lanka remains a high priority even though the development of such movements, the mobilization of people are groups is highly threatening to the current regime.