ආපදා අවස්ථාවල මානුෂික ආධාර එකතු කිරීම හා බෙදීම මාධ්‍යවලට සුදුසුද? එසේ කළත් ඒ ගැන පම්පෝරි ගැසීම හරිද?

Disaster reporting, Sri Lanka TV style! Cartoon by Dasa Hapuwalana, Lankadeepa

Disaster reporting, Sri Lanka TV style! Cartoon by Dasa Hapuwalana, Lankadeepa

ආපදා අවස්ථාවල මාධ්‍යවලට ලොකු වගකීම් සමුදායක් හා තීරණාත්මක කාර්යභාරයක් හිමි වනවා. ඉතාම වැදගත් හා ප්‍රමුඛ වන්නේ සිදුවීම් නිවැරදිව හා නිරවුල්ව වාර්තා කිරීම. වුණේ මොකක්ද, වෙමින් පවතින්නේ කුමක්ද යන්න සරලව රටට තේරුම් කර දීම. එයට රාජ්‍ය, විද්වත් හා ස්වේච්ඡා ආයතනවල තොරතුරු හා විග්‍රහයන් යොදා ගත හැකියි.

ඉන් පසු වැදගත්ම කාරිය ආපදා ප්‍රතිචාරයට හැකි උපරිම ආවරණය සැපයීම. මෙයට බේරා ගැනීම්, තාවකාලික රැකවරණ, ආධාර බෙදා හරින ක්‍රම හා තැන්, ලෙඩරෝග පැතිරයාම ගැන අනතුරු ඇගවීම් ආදිය ඇතුළත්.

ආපදා කළමනාකරණය හා සමාජසේවා ගැන නිල වගකීම් ලත් රාජ්‍ය ආයතන මෙන්ම හමුදාවත්, රතු කුරුසය හා සර්වෝදය වැනි මහා පරිමාන ස්වේච්ඡා ආයතනත් පශ්චාත් ආපදා වකවානුවල ඉමහත් සේවයක් කරනවා. මාධ්‍යවලට කළ හැකි ලොකුම මෙහෙවර මේ සැවොම කරන කියන දේ උපරිම ලෙස සමාජගත් කිරීමයි. ඊට අමතරව අඩුපාඩු හා කිසියම් දූෂණ ඇත්නම් තහවුරු කරගත් තොරතුරු මත ඒවා වාර්තා කිරීමයි.

මේ සියල්ල කළ පසු මාධ්‍ය තමන් ආධාර එකතු කොට බෙදීමට යොමු වුණාට කමක් නැතැයි මා සිතනවා. එතැනදීත් තම වාර්තාකරණය සමස්ත ආපදා ප්‍රතිචාරය ගැන මිස තමන්ගේම සමාජ සත්කාරය හුවා දැක්වීමට නොකළ යුතුයි.

මාධ්‍ය සන්නාම ප්‍රවර්ධනයට ආපදා අවස්ථා යොදා ගැනීම නීති විරෝධී නොවූවත් සදාචාර විරෝධීයි. රාජ්‍ය මාධ්‍ය කළත්, පුද්ගලික මාධ්‍ය කළත් වැඩේ වැරදියි.

[Op-ed] Investigative Journalists uncover Asia, one story at a time

Op-ed written for Sri Lanka’s Weekend Express newspaper, 23 September 2016

Investigative Journalists uncover Asia, one story at a time

By Nalaka Gunawardene

Second Asian Investigative Journalism Conference: Kathmandu, Nepal, 23-25 September 2016

Second Asian Investigative Journalism Conference: Kathmandu, Nepal, 23-25 September 2016

The second Asian Investigative Journalism Conference in opens in Kathmandu, Nepal, on September 23.

Themed as ‘Uncovering Asia’ it is organized jointly by the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), Centre for Investigative Journalism in Nepal, and the German foundation Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (2016.uncoveringasia.org).

Founded in 2003, GIJN is the world’s leading international association of investigative reporters’ and their organizations. Its membership includes more than 100 non-profits and NGOs in 45 countries. They are committed to expanding and supporting quality investigative journalism worldwide. This is done through sponsoring global and regional conferences, including the every-two-year Global Investigative Journalism Conference. GIJN also does training, links journalists together worldwide, and promotes best practices in investigative and data journalism.

For three days in Kathmandu, reporters from across Asia and beyond – including several from Sri Lanka – will swap stories, cheer each other, and take stock of their particular craft.

It is true that all good journalism should be investigative as well as reflective. Journalism urges its practitioners to follow the money and power — two factors that often lead to excesses and abuses.

At the same time, investigative journalism (IJ) is actually a specialized genre of the profession of journalism. It is where reporters deeply investigate a single topic of public interest — such as serious crimes, political corruption, or corporate wrongdoing. In recent years, probing environmental crimes, human smuggling, and sporting match fixing have joined IJ’s traditional topics.

Investigative journalists may spend months or years researching and preparing a report (or documentary). They would consult eye witnesses, subject experts and lawyers to get their story exactly right. In some cases, they would also have to withstand extreme pressures exerted by the party being probed.

This process is illustrated in the Academy award winning Hollywood movie ‘Spotlight’ (2015). It is based on The Boston Globe‘s investigative coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The movie reconstructs how a small team systematically amassed and analyzed evidence for months before going public.

Spotlight: investigative journalism at work

Spotlight: investigative journalism at work

Nosing Not Easy

Investigative journalism is not for the faint-hearted. But it epitomizes, perhaps more than anything else, the public interest value of an independent media.

The many challenges investigative journalists face was a key topic at the recent International Media Conference of the Hawaii-based East-West Center, held in New Delhi, India, from 8 to 11 September 2016.

In mature democracies, freedom of expression and media freedoms are constitutionally guaranteed and respected in practice (well, most of the time). That creates an enabling environment for whistle-blowers and journalists to probe various stories in the public interest.

Many Asian investigative journalists don’t have that luxury. They persist amidst uncaring (or repressive) governments, intimidating wielders of authority, unpredictable judicial mechanisms and unsupportive publishers. They often risk their jobs, and sometimes life and limb, in going after investigative stories.

Yet, as participants and speakers in Delhi confirmed, and those converging in Kathmandu this week will no doubt demonstrate, investigative journalism prevails. It even thrives when indefatigable journalists are backed by exceptionally courageous publishers.

Delhi conference panel: investigative journalists share experiences on how they probed Panama Papers

Delhi conference panel: investigative journalists share experiences on how they probed Panama Papers

Cross-border Probing

 As capital and information flows have become globalized, so has investigative journalism. Today, illicit money, narcotics, exotic animals and illegal immigrants crisscross political borders all the time. Journalists following such stories simply have to step beyond their own territories to get the bigger picture.

Here, international networking helps like-nosed journalists. The Delhi conference showcased the Panama Papers experience as reaffirming the value of cross-border collaboration.

Panama Papers involved a giant “leak” of more than 11.5 million financial and legal records exposing an intricate system that enables crime, corruption and wrongdoing, all hidden behind secretive offshore companies.

This biggest act of whistle blowing in history contained information on some 214,488 offshore entities. The documents had all been created by Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider Mossack-Fonseca since the 1970s.

A German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, originally received the leaked data. Because of its massive volume, it turned to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a Washington-anchored but globally distributed network of journalists from over 60 countries who collaborate in probing cross-border crimes, corruption and the accountability of power.

Coordinated by ICIJ, journalists from 107 media organizations in 80 countries analyzed the Panama Papers. They were sworn to secrecy and worked on a collective embargo. Within that framework, each one was free to pursue local angles on their own.

After more than one year of analysis and verifications, the news stories were first published on 3 April 2016 simultaneously in participating newspapers worldwide. At the same time, ICIJ also released on its website 150 documents themselves (the rest being released progressively).

Registering offshore business entities per se is not illegal in some countries. Yet, reporters sifting through the records found that some offshore companies have been used for illegal purposes like fraud, tax evasion and stashing away money looted by dictators and their cronies.

Strange Silence

 In Delhi, reporters from India, Indonesia and Malaysia described how they went after Panama leaks information connected to their countries. For example, Ritu Sarin, Executive Editor (News and Investigation) of the Indian Express said she and two dozen colleagues worked for eight months before publishing a series of exposes linking some politicians and celebrities to offshore companies.

Listening to them, I once again wondered why ICIJ’s sole contact in Sri Lanka (and his respected newspaper) never carried a single word about Panama Leaks. That, despite nearly two dozen Lankan names coming to light.

Some of our other mainstream media splashed the Lankan names associated with Panama Papers (often mixing it up with earlier Offshore Leaks), but there has been little follow-up. In this vacuum, it was left to civic media platforms like Groundviews.org and data-savvy bloggers like Yudhanjaya Wijeratne (http://icaruswept.com) to do some intelligent probing. Their efforts are salutary but inadequate.

Now, Panama Leaks have just been followed up by Bahamas Leaks on September 22. The data is available online, for any nosy professional or citizen journalist to follow up. How many will go after it?

Given Sri Lanka’s alarming journalism deficit, investigative reporting can no longer be left to those trained in the craft and their outlets.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene blogs at http://nalakagunawardene.com, and is on Twitter as @NalakaG.

One Sri Lanka Journalism Fellowship: Rebuilding Lankan Media, one journalist at a time…

In May 2016, the major new study on the media sector I edited titled Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka, noted:

“The new government faces the daunting task of healing the wounds of a civil war which lasted over a quarter of a century and left a deep rift in the Lankan media that is now highly polarised along ethnic, religious and political lines. At the same time, the country’s media industry and profession face their own internal crises arising from an overbearing state, unpredictable market forces, rapid technological advancements and a gradual erosion of public trust.”

The report quoted Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, who worked in the print media (Sinhala and English) and later served as Director General of Sri Lanka Press Institute, as saying:

“The ethnically non-diverse newsrooms of both sides have further fuelled the polarisation of society on ethnic lines, and this phenomenon has led the media in serving its own clientele with ‘what it wants to know’ than ‘what it needs to know’.”

This is precisely what the One Sri Lanka Journalism Fellowship Program (OSLJF) has addressed, in its own small way. An initiative of InterNews, an international media development organisation, OSLJF was a platform which has brought together Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim working journalists from across the country to conceptualize and produce stories that explored issues affecting all ordinary Lankans.

From December 2015 to September 2016, some 30 full-time or freelance journalists reporting for the country’s mainstream media were supported to engage in field-based, multi-sourced stories on social, economic and political topics of public interest. They worked in multi-ethnic teams, mentored by senior Lankan journalists drawn from the media industry who gave training sessions to strengthen the skills and broaden the horizons of this group of early and mid-career journalists.

As the project ends, the participating journalists, mentors and administrators came together at an event in Colombo on 20 September 2016 to share experiences and impressions. This was more than a mere award ceremony – it also sought to explore how the learnings can be institutionalized within the country’s mainstream and new media outlets.

I was asked to host the event, and also to moderate a panel of key media stakeholders. As a former journalist who remains a columnist, blogger and media researcher, I was happy to accept this as I am committed to building a BETTER MEDIA in Sri Lanka.

Panel on Future of Sri Lankan Journalism in the Digital Age. L to R – Nalaka Gunawardene (moderator); Deepanjali Abeywardena; Dr Ranga Kalansooriya; Dr Harini Amarasuriya; and Gazala Anver

Panel on Future of Sri Lankan Journalism in the Digital Age. L to R – Nalaka Gunawardene (moderator); Deepanjali Abeywardena; Dr Ranga Kalansooriya; Dr Harini Amarasuriya; and Gazala Anver

Here are my opening remarks for the panel:

“If you don’t like the news … go out and make some of your own!” So said Wes (‘Scoop’) Nisker, the US author, radio commentator and comedian who used that line as the title of a 1994 book.

Instead of just grumbling about imperfections in the media, more and more people are using digital technologies and the web to become their own reporters, commentators and publishers.

Rise of citizen journalism and digital media start-ups are evidence of this.

BUT we cannot ignore mainstream media (MSM) in our part of the world. MSM – especially and radio broadcasters — still have vast reach and they influence public perceptions and opinions. It is VITAL to improve their professionalism and ethical conduct.

In discussing the Future of Journalism in the Digital Age today, we want to look at BOTH the mainstream media AND new media initiatives using web/digital technologies.

BOTTOMLINE: How to uphold timeless values in journalism: Accuracy, Balance, Credibility and promotion of PUBLIC INTEREST?

I posed five broad questions to get our panelists thinking:

  • What can be done to revitalize declining quality and outreach of mainstream media?
  • Why do we have so little innovation in our media? What are the limiting factors?
  • What is the ideal mix and balance of mainstream and new media for Lanka?
  • Can media with accuracy, balance and ethics survive in our limited market? If so, how?
  • What can government, professionals and civil society to do to nurture a better media?

 The panel comprised:

  • Dr Harini Amarasuriya, Senior Lecturer, Social Studies Department, Open University
  • Deepanjali Abeywardena, Head of Information and Intelligence Services at Verité Research. Coordinator of Ethics Eye media monitoring project.
  • Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, Director General, Department of Information. Former Director General, Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI).
  • Gazala Anver, editor, Roar.lk a new media platform for all things Sri Lanka
Panel on Future of Sri Lankan Journalism in the Digital Age. L to R – Nalaka Gunawardene (moderator); Deepanjali Abeywardena; Dr Ranga Kalansooriya; Dr Harini Amarasuriya; and Gazala Anver

Panel on Future of Sri Lankan Journalism in the Digital Age. L to R – Nalaka Gunawardene (moderator); Deepanjali Abeywardena; Dr Ranga Kalansooriya; Dr Harini Amarasuriya; and Gazala Anver

Media innovation in Sri Lanka: Responding then to tyranny, and now to opportunity

East-West Center 2016 International Media Conference in New Delhi, India, from September 8 to 11, 2016

East-West Center 2016 International Media Conference in New Delhi, India, from September 8 to 11, 2016

The Hawaii-based East-West Center held its 2016 International Media Conference in New Delhi, India, from September 8 to 11, 2016. Themed “South Asia Looking East”, it drew over 350 participants from across Asia and the United States.

On September 11, I took part in a breakout session that discussed media innovation in Asia and the United States. While my fellow panelists spoke mainly about digital media innovation of their media outlet or media sector, I opted to survey the bigger picture: what does innovation really mean when media is under siege, and how can the media sector switch from such ‘innovation under duress’ to regular market or product innovation?

Here are my remarks, cleaned up and somewhat expanded:

Panel on Media innovation at East-West Center Media Conference, Delhi, 11 Sep 2016: L to R - Philippa McDonald, Nalaka Gunawardene, LEE Doo Won, Fernando (Jun) SEPE, Jr. and ZHONG Xin

Panel on Media innovation at East-West Center Media Conference, Delhi, 11 Sep 2016: L to R – Philippa McDonald, Nalaka Gunawardene, LEE Doo Won, Fernando (Jun) SEPE, Jr. and ZHONG Xin

Innovation has been going on in media from the beginning. Faced with major challenges from advancing technologies and changing demography, innovation is now an imperative for market survival.

We can discuss this at different levels: product innovation, process innovation and systemic innovation. I like to add another kind for our discussion: innovation for physical survival.

With forces social and market Darwinism constantly at work, you might ask, shouldn’t the most adaptable and nimble players survive – while others perish?

Yes and No. Sometimes the odds against independent and progressive media organisations are disproportionately high – they should not be left to fend for themselves. This is where media consumers and public spirited groups need to step in.

Let me explain with a couple of examples from South Asia.

They say necessity is the mother of invention or innovation. I would argue that tyranny – from the state and/or extremist groups – provides another strong impetus for innovation in the media.

In Nepal, all media came under strict control when King Gyanendra assumed total control in February 2005. Among other draconian measures, he suspended press freedom, imposing a blanket ban on private or community broadcasters carrying news, thus making it a monopoly of state broadcasters.

The army told broadcasters that the stations were free to carry music, but not news or current affairs. Soldiers were sent to radio and TV stations to ensure compliance.

When the king’s siege of democracy continued for weeks and months, some media started defying censorship – they joined human rights activists and civil society groups in a mass movement for political reforms, including the restoration of parliamentary democracy.

Some of Nepal’s many community radio stations found creative ways of defying censorship. One station started singing the news – after all, there was no state control over music and entertainment! Another one in central Nepal went outside their studio, set up an impromptu news desk on the roadside, and read the news to passers-by every evening at 6 pm.

The unwavering resolve of these and other media groups and pro-democracy activists led to the restoration of parliamentary democracy in April 2006 and the subsequent abolition of the Nepali monarchy.

My second example is from Sri Lanka where I live and work.

We are recovering from almost a decade of authoritarian rule that we ended in January 2015 by changing that government in an election. The years preceding that change were the darkest for freedom of expression and media freedom in Sri Lanka – the country, then nominally a democracy, was ranked 165th among 183 countries in the World Press Freedom Index for 2014.

In June 2012, Sri Lanka was one of 16 countries named by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression for “attacks against journalists during coverage of street protests and demonstrations, such as arbitrary arrests and detention, verbal and physical attacks, confiscation or destruction of equipment, as well as killings.”

Threats of attacks and actual incidents of physical violence in recent years led to a climate of fear and widespread self-censorship among journalists in Sri Lanka. This is slowly changing now, but old habits die hard.

At the height of media repression by the former regime, we saw some of our media innovating simply for physical survival. One strategy was using satire and parody – which became important forms of political commentary, sometimes the only ones that were possible without evoking violent reprisals.

Three years ago, I wrote a column about this phenomenon which I titled ‘When making fun is no laughing matter (Ceylon Today, 5 May 2013).

What I wrote then, while still in the thick of crackdown, is worth recalling:

“For sure, serious journalism can’t be fully outsourced to satirists and stand-up comics. But comedy and political satire can play a key role in critiquing politicians, businessmen and others whose actions impact the public.

“There is another dimension to political satire and caricature that isn’t widely appreciated in liberal democracies where freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed.

“In immature democracies and autocracies, critical journalists and their editors take many risks in the line of work. When direct criticism becomes highly hazardous, satire and parody become important — and sometimes the only – ways for journalists get around draconian laws, stifling media regulations or trigger-happy goon squads…

“Little wonder, then, that some of Sri Lanka’s sharpest commentary is found in satire columns and cartoons. Much of what passes for political analysis is actually gossip.”

For years, cartoonists and political satirists fulfilled a deeply felt need in Sri Lanka for the media to check the various concentrations of power — in political, military, corporate and religious domains.

They still continue to perform an important role, but there is more space today for journalists and editors to report things as they are, and to comment on the key stories of the day.

During the past decade, we have also seen the rise of citizen journalism and vibrant blogospheres in the local languages of Sinhala and Tamil. Their advantage during the dark years was that they were too numerous and scattered for the repressive state to go after each one (We do know, however, that electronic surveillance was attempted with Chinese technical assistance.)

Of course, Sri Lanka’s media still face formidable challenges that threaten their market survival.

Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka (May 2016)

Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka (May 2016)

A new assessment of Sri Lanka’s media, which I edited earlier this year, noted: “The economic sustainability of media houses and businesses remains a major challenge. The mainstream media as a whole is struggling to retain its consumer base. Several factors have contributed to this. Many media houses have been slow in integrating digital tools and web-based platforms. As a result, there is a growing gulf between media’s production models and their audiences’ consumption patterns.”

Innovation and imagination are essential for our media to break out of 20th century mindsets and evolve new ways of content generation and consumption. There are some promising new initiatives to watch, even as much of the mainstream continues business as usual – albeit with diminishing circulations and shrinking audience shares.

Innovate or perish still applies to our media. We are glad, however, that we no longer have to innovate just to stay safe from goon squads.

 

Right to Information (RTI) in South Asia: Staying the Course on a Bumpy Road

East-West Center 2016 International Media Conference in New Delhi, India, from September 8 to 11, 2016

East-West Center 2016 International Media Conference in New Delhi, India, from September 8 to 11, 2016

The Hawaii-based East-West Center held its 2016 International Media Conference in New Delhi, India, from September 8 to 11, 2016. Themed “South Asia Looking East”, it drew over 350 participants from across Asia and the United States.

On September 11, I moderated a plenary session on Right to Information (RTI) in South Asia: Staying the Course on a Bumpy Road.

It tried to distill key lessons in RTI implementation from India and Pakistan, especially for the benefit of Sri Lanka that has recently adopted its RTI law. Such lessons could also benefit other countries currently advocating their own RTI laws.

Panel on Right to Information in South Asia, 11 Sep 2016 in New Delhi. L to R - Venkatesh Nayak, Ranga Kalansooriya, Nalaka Gunawardene & Maleeha Hamid Siddiqui

Panel on Right to Information in South Asia, 11 Sep 2016 in New Delhi. L to R – Venkatesh Nayak, Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, Nalaka Gunawardene & Maleeha Hamid Siddiqui

Here is the synopsis I wrote for the panel:

Right to Information (RTI) in South Asia:

Staying the Course on a Bumpy Road

In June 2016, Sri Lanka’s Parliament unanimously passed a Right to Information (RTI) Act, making the island nation the 108th country to have a RTI or freedom of information (FOI) law. That leaves only Bhutan in South Asia without such a law, according to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) in New Delhi.

Sri Lanka’s RTI law was preceded by over two decades of sustained advocacy by journalists, social activists and progressive lawyers. But the struggle is far from over. The island nation now faces the daunting task of ‘walking the talk’ on RTI, which involves a total reorientation of government and active engagement by citizens. As other South Asian countries know only too well, proper RTI implementation requires political will, administrative support and sufficient funds.

This panel is an attempt to address the following key questions:

  • How do India and Pakistan fare in terms of implementing their RTI laws?
  • What challenges did they face in the early days of RTI implementation?
  • What roles did government, civil society and media play in RTI process?
  • What key lessons and cautions can their experiences offer to Sri Lanka?
  • Can South Asia’s RTI experience offer hope for other countries pursuing RTI laws of their own?

In this session, experienced RTI activists from India and Pakistan will join a Sri Lankan policymaker in surveying the challenges of openness and transparency through RTI.

Panel:

  • Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, Director General, Department of Information, Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media, Government of Sri Lanka
  • Mr Venkatesh Nayak, RTI activist; Programme Coordinator, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), New Delhi
  • Ms Maleeha Hamid SIDDIQUI, Senior Sub-Editor and Reporter, Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan

Moderator: Mr Nalaka Gunawardene, Science writer and media researcher who is secretary of the RTI Advisory Task Force of Ministry of Mass Media, Sri Lanka

L to R - Ranga Kalansooriya, Nalaka Gunawardene & Maleeha Hamid Siddiqui

L to R – Ranga Kalansooriya, Nalaka Gunawardene & Maleeha Hamid Siddiqui

Social Media in Sri Lanka: Do Science and Reason Stand a Chance?

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks on "Using Social Media for Discussing Science" at the Science, Technology & Society Forum in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 9 Sep 2016. Photo by Smriti Daniel

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks on “Using Social Media for Discussing Science” at the Science, Technology & Society Forum in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 9 Sep 2016. Photo by Smriti Daniel

Sri Lanka’s first Science and Technology for Society (STS) Forum took place from 7 to 10 September in Colombo. Organized by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Research, it was one of the largest gatherings of its kind to be hosted by Sri Lanka.

Modelled on Japan’s well known annual STS forums, the event was attended by over 750 participants coming from 24 countries – among them local and foreign scientists, inventors, science managers, science communicators and students.

I was keynote speaker during the session on ‘Using Social Media for Discussing Science Topics’. I used it to highlight how social media have become both a boon and bane for scientific information and thinking in Sri Lanka. This is due to peddlers of pseudo-science, anti-science and superstition being faster and better to adopt social media platforms than actual scientists, science educators and science communicators.

Social Media in #LKA:Do Science & Reason stand a chance? Asks Nalaka Gunawardene

Social Media in #LKA:Do Science & Reason stand a chance? Asks Nalaka Gunawardene

Sri Lanka takes justified pride in its high literacy levels and equally high coverage of vaccination against infectious diseases. But we cannot claim to have a high level of scientific literacy. If we did, it would not be so easy for far-fetched conspiracy theories to spread rapidly even among educated persons. Social media tools have ‘turbo-charged’ the spread of associated myths, superstitions and conspiracy theories!

I cautioned: “Unless we make scientific literacy an integral part of everyone’s lives, ambitious state policies and programmes to modernize the nation could well be jeopardized. Progress can be undermined — or even reversed — by extremist forces of tribalism, feudalism and ultra-nationalism that thrive in a society that lacks the ability to think critically.”

It is not a case of all doom and gloom. I cited examples of private individuals creatively using social media to bust myths and critique all ‘sacred cows’ in Lankan society – including religions and military. These voluntary efforts contrast with much of the mainstream media cynically making money from substantial advertising from black magic industries that hoodwink and swindle the public.

My PowerPoint presentation:

 

Video recording of our full session:

 

The scoping note I wrote for our session:

Sri Lanka STS Forum panel on Using Social Media for Discussing Science Topics. 9 Sep 2016. L to R - Asanga Abeygunasekera, Nalaka Gunawardene, Dr Piyal Ariyananda, Dr Ananda Galappatti & Smriti Daniel

Sri Lanka STS Forum panel on Using Social Media for Discussing Science Topics. 9 Sep 2016.
L to R – Asanga Abeygunasekera, Nalaka Gunawardene, Dr Piyal Ariyananda, Dr Ananda Galappatti &
Smriti Daniel

Session: Using Social Media for Discussing Science Topics

With 30 per cent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people regularly using the Internet, web-based social media platforms have become an important part of the public sphere where myriad conversations are unfolding on all sorts of topics and issues. Facebook is the most popular social media outlet in Sri Lanka, with 3.5 million users, but other niche platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Instagram are also gaining ground. Meanwhile, the Sinhala and Tamil blogospheres continue to provide space for discussions ranging from prosaic to profound. Marketers, political parties and activist groups have discovered that being active in social media is to their advantage.

Some science and technology related topics also get discussed in this cacophony, but given the scattered nature of conversations, it is impossible to grasp the full, bigger picture. For example, some individuals or entities involved in water management, climate advocacy, mental health support groups and data-driven development (SDG framework) are active in Sri Lanka’s social media platforms. But who is listening, and what influence – if any – are these often fleeting conservations having on individual lifestyles or public policies?

Is there a danger that self-selecting thematic groups using social media are creating for themselves ‘echo chambers’ – a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are dismissed, disallowed, or under-represented?

Even if this is sometimes the case, can scientists and science communicators afford to ignore social media altogether? For now, it appears that pseudo-science and anti-science sentiments – some of it rooted in ultra-nationalism or conspiracy theories — dominate many Lankan social media exchanges. The keynote speaker once described this as Lankan society permanently suspending disbelief. How and where can the counter-narratives be promoted on behalf of evidenced based, rational discussions? Is this a hopeless task in the face of irrationality engulfing wider Lankan society? Or can progressive and creative use of social media help turn the tide in favour of reason?

This panel would explore these questions with local examples drawn from various fields of science and skeptical enquiry.

 

 

Changing Climate and Changing Minds: Challenges of Communicating Climate Change

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at national conference on Sri Lanka's readiness for implementing the Paris Agreement. BMICH Colombo, 8 September 2016

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at national conference on Sri Lanka’s readiness for implementing the Paris Agreement. BMICH Colombo, 8 September 2016

Climate change COP21 in December 2015 adopted the Paris Agreement to avoid, mitigate and adapt to climate change. Among many other solutions, Sri Lanka’s “intended nationally determined contribution” (INDC) has agreed to reduce 7% emissions from energy and transport and 23% conditional reductions by 2030.

Sri Lanka’s Centre for Environmental Justice in collaboration with the government’s Climate Change Secretariat, UNDP and Janathakshan held a national conference on “SRI LANKA’S READINESS FOR IMPLEMENTING PARIS CLIMATE AGREEMENT” on 7 and 8 September 2016 in Colombo. It was attended by over 200 representatives from government, civil society and corporate sectors.

I was asked to speak in Session 5: Climate Solutions, on “Climate communication and Behaviour changes”. This is a summary of what I said, and the PowerPoint presentation used.

L to R: Nalaka Gunawardene; Nalin Munasinghe, National Programme Manager at Sri Lanka UN-REDD Programme, and Uchita de Zoysa

L to R: Nalaka Gunawardene; Nalin Munasinghe, National Programme Manager at Sri Lanka UN-REDD Programme, and Uchita de Zoysa

As climate change impacts are felt more widely, the imperative for action is greater than ever. Telling the climate story in accurate and accessible ways should be an essential part of our climate response.

That response is currently organised around two ‘planks’: mitigation and adaptation. Climate communication can be the ‘third plank’ that strengthens the first two.

Encouragingly, more journalists, broadcasters, researchers and advocacy groups are taking up this challenge. They urgently need more media and public spaces — as well as greater resources — to sustain public engagement.

Sri Lanka’s Information, Education and Communication (IEC) Strategy for Climate Change Adaptation, which I was principally involved in preparing in 2010-11, has recognized how “IEC action can lead to better informed decisions and enlightened choices in both climate change mitigation and adaptation”.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which Sri Lanka has signed and ratified, recognizes the importance of IEC. It calls for “improving awareness and understanding of climate change, and creating solutions to facilitate access to information on a changing climate” to winning public support for climate related policies.

The UNFCCC, through its Article 6, and its Kyoto Protocol, through its Article 10 (e), call on governments “to educate, empower and engage all stakeholders and major groups on policies relating to climate change”.

When strategically carried out, IEC can be a powerful force for change on both the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ sides of climate adaptation and climate related public information. In this analogy:

  • ‘supply’ involves providing authentic, relevant and timely information to all those who need it, in languages and formats they can readily use; and
  • ‘demand’ means inspiring more individuals and entities to look for specific knowledge and skills that can help make themselves more climate resilient.

These two sides of the equation can positively reinforce each other, contributing significantly to Sri Lanka’s fight against climate change.

To be effective, climate communication also needs to strike a balance between alarmism and complacence. We have to place climate concerns within wider development and social justice debates. We must also localise and personalise as much as possible.

Dr M Sanjayan, vice president of development and communications strategy at Conservation International, a leading advocacy group, says environmentalists and scientists have failed to build sufficient urgency for action on climate change. He feels we need new communication approaches.

The Lankan-born science communicator wrote in 2013: “By focusing on strong narratives about peoples’ lives in the present rather than the future; by keeping stories local and action-oriented (solvable); and by harnessing the power of narrative and emotion, we have a better chance to build widespread public support for solutions.”