Brief comment provided to Daily Mirror newspaper, Sri Lanka, on 20 January 2017:
‘Eyes in the Sky’ need ethical and careful ‘pilots’
By Nalaka Gunawardene
For some, drones conjure images of death and destruction – military applications have been their most widely reported application. But unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs are increasingly being used for many peaceful purposes. That poses a host of ethical and legal challenges we must confront to get the best of this new technology while minimizing potential harms.
In the past few years, the cost of drones came down (an entry level unit sells for around LKR 35,000 in Colombo) as their versatility increased. This spurred many uses from newsgathering and post-disaster assessments to goods delivery and smart farming.
In Sri Lanka, surveyors, photographers, TV journalists and political parties were among the early civilian users of drones. They all grasped the value of the ‘bigger picture’ perspective such aerial photos or videos can provide. Until recently, accessing that vantage point was possible only through helicopters or fixed wing aircraft – a facility few could afford.
Having the bird’s eye view helps journalists and their audiences to make sense of complex situations like climate change impacts, conflicts over resources or political agitations. We certainly need more field-based and investigative reporting that goes beyond press releases and press conferences. Drones are fast joining the journalists’ toolkit — but what matters is their imaginative and responsible use.
Here, we have both good news and bad news. On the positive side, over two dozen journalists and photojournalists have been trained in drone-assisted journalism during 2016 by drone journalism enthusiast (and drone pilot) Sanjana Hattotuwa and journalist Amantha Perera. Some trainees have since done good stories with drone-gathered images. Examples include probing the drought’s impacts in the dry zone, rising garbage crisis in Kattankudy on the east coast, and taking a close look at land use patterns in Hambantota.
Internews Sri Lanka: Drone gathered footage supporting journalism
The downside is that some news organisations are deploying drones without due regard for public safety or existing codes of media ethics. A drone hovered over the Colombo general cemetery as slain editor Lasantha Wickremetunge’s body was exhumed in September 2016. That disregarded a family request for privacy.
The end never justifies the means in good journalism. If some media groups continue to operate drones in such reckless manner, they risk discrediting the new technology and attracting excessive regulations.
Drones or any other new technologies need to be anchored in the basic ethics of journalism. Each new tool would also bring along its own layer of ethics. Where drone use is concerned, respecting privacy and considering the safety of others is far more important than, say, when using a handheld camera.
In February 2016, the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) published regulations for drone operation which apply to all users including journalists. This has been updated in January 2017. The Information Department, in a recent release, says it is working with CAASL to simplify these rules and streamline approval processes. That is a welcome move.
Text of my column written for Echelon monthly business magazine, Sri Lanka, August 2015 issue
Media Reforms: The Unfinished Agenda
By Nalaka Gunawardene
When I was growing up in the 1970s, Sri Lanka’s media landscape was very different. We had only one radio station (state-owned SLBC) and three newspaper houses (Lake House, Times of Ceylon and Independent Newspapers). There was no TV, and the web wasn’t even invented.
At that time, most discussions on media freedom and reforms centred around how to contain the overbearing state – which was a key publisher, as well as the sole broadcaster, dominant advertiser and media regulator, all rolled into one.
Four decades on, the state still looms large on our media landscape, but there are many more players. The number of media companies, organisations and products has steadily increased, especially after private sector participation in broadcasting was allowed in 1992.
More does not necessarily mean better, however. Media researchers and advocacy groups lament that broadcast diversification has not led to a corresponding rise in media pluralism – not just in terms of media ownership and content, but also in how the media reflects diversity of public opinion, particularly of those living on the margins of society.
As the late Tilak Jayaratne and Sarath Kellapotha, two experienced broadcasters, noted in a recent book, “There exists a huge imbalance in both media coverage and media education as regards minorities and the marginalised. This does not come as a surprise, as it is known that media in Sri Lanka, both print and broadcast, cater mainly to the elite, irrespective of racial differences.”
In their preface, co-editors William Crawley, David Page and Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena say: “Media liberalisation from the 1990s onwards had extended the range of choice for viewers and listeners and created a more diverse media landscape. But the war in the north and insurrections in the south had taken their toll of media freedoms. The island had lived under a permanent state of emergency for nearly three decades. The balance of power between government, judiciary, the media and the public had been put under immense strain.”
The book, to which I have contributed a chapter on new media, traces the evolution mass media in post-colonial Sri Lanka, with focus on the relevant policies and laws, and on journalism education. It discusses how the civil war continues to cast “a long shadow” on our media. Breaking free from that legacy is one of many challenges confronting the media industry today.
Some progress has been made since the Presidential election. The new government has taken steps to end threats against media organisations and journalists, and started or resumed criminal investigations on some past atrocities. Political websites that were arbitrarily blocked from are once again accessible. Journalists who went into exile to save their lives have started returning.
On the law-making front, meanwhile, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution recognized the right to information as a fundamental right. But the long-awaited Right to Information Bill could not be adopted before Parliament’s dissolution.
Thus much more remains to be done. For this, a clear set of priorities has been identified through recent consultative processes that involved media owners, practitioners, researchers, advocacy groups and trainers. These discussions culminated with the National Summit on Media Reforms organised by the Ministry of Media, the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) and International Media Support (IMS), and held in Colombo on 13 and 14 May.
We can only hope that the next Parliament, to be elected at the August 17 general election, would take up the policy and law related aspects of the media reform agenda (while the media industry and profession tackles issues like capacity building and greater professionalism, and the education system works to enhance media literacy of everyone).
Pursuing these reforms needs both political commitment and persistent advocacy efforts.
Right to Information: The new Parliament should pass, on a priority basis, the Right to Information Bill that was finalised in May 2015 with inputs from media and civil society groups.
Media Self-Regulation: The Press Council Act 5 of 1973, which created a quasi-judicial entity called the Press Council with draconian powers to punish journalists, should be abolished. Instead, the self-regulatory body established in 2003, known as the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL), should be strengthened. Ideally its scope should expand to cover the broadcast media as well.
Law Review and Revision: Some civil and criminal laws pose various restrictions to media freedom. These include the Official Secrets Act and sedition laws (both relics of the colonial era) and the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act that has outlived the civil war. There are also needlessly rigid laws covering contempt of court and Parliamentary privileges, which don’t suit a mature democracy. All these need review and revision to bring them into line with international standards regarding freedom of expression.
Broadcast regulation: Our radio and TV industries have expanded many times during the past quarter century within an ad hoc legal framework. This has led to various anomalies and the gross mismanagement of the electromagnetic spectrum, a finite public property. Sri Lanka urgently needs a comprehensive law on broadcasting. Among other things, it should provide for an independent body to regulate broadcasting in the public interest, more equitable and efficient allocation of frequencies, and a three-tier system of broadcasting which recognises public, commercial and community broadcasters. All broadcasters – riding on the public owned airwaves — should have a legal obligation be balanced and impartial in coverage of politics and other matters of public concern.
Restructuring State Broadcasters: The three state broadcasters – the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) and the Independent Television Network (ITN) – should be transformed into independent public service broadcasters. There should be legal provisions to ensure their editorial independence, and a clear mandate to serve the public (and not the political parties in office). To make them less dependent on the market, they should be given some public funding but in ways that don’t make them beholden to politicians or officials.
Reforming Lake House: Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited or Lake House was nationalised in 1973 to ‘broadbase’ its ownership. Instead, it has remained as a propaganda mill of successive ruling parties. Democratic governments committed to good governance should not be running newspaper houses. To redeem Lake House after more than four decades of state abuse, it needs to operate independently of government and regain editorial freedom. A public consultation should determine the most appropriate way forward and the best business model.
Preventing Censorship: No prior censorship should be imposed on the media. Where necessary, courts may review media content for their legality after publication (on an urgent basis). Laws and regulations that permit censorship should be reviewed and amended. We must revisit the Public Performance Ordinance, which empowers a state body to pre-approve all feature films and drama productions.
Blocking of Websites: Ensuring internet freedoms is far more important than setting up free public WiFi services. There should be no attempts to limit online content and social media activities contravening fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and international conventions. Restrictions on any illegal content may be imposed only through the courts (and not via unwritten orders given by the telecom regulator). There should be a public list of all websites blocked through such judicial sanction.
Privacy and Surveillance: The state should protect the privacy of all citizens. There should be strict limits to the state’s surveillance of private individuals’ and private entities’ telephone conversations, emails and other electronic communications. In exceptional situations (e.g. crime investigations), such surveillance should only be permitted with judicial oversight and according to a clear set of guidelines.
Dealing with Past Demons
While all these are forward looking steps, the media industry as a whole also needs state assistance to exorcise demons of the recent past — when against journalists and ‘censorship by murder’ reached unprecedented levels. Not a single perpetrator has been punished by law todate.
This is why media rights groups advocate an independent Commission of Inquiry should be created with a mandate and adequate powers to investigate killings and disappearances of journalists and attacks on media organisations. Ideally, it should cover the entire duration of the war, as well as the post-war years.
The National Summit for Media Reform in Sri Lanka was organised by the Ministry of Mass Media and Information, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) and International Media Support (IMS) and held on 13 – 14 May 2015 at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, Colombo 7.
Its aim was “to maximise the contribution of all stakeholders in initiating and sustaining the process facilitating media structural reforms that will foster democracy, good governance and sustainable development in Sri Lanka”. It brought together high level reps from government, media industry, academia and civil society groups concerned with the state of our media.
Ahead of this, I was commissioned by the organisers to carry out a rapid assessment of the state of media in Sri Lanka using UNESCO’s Media Development Indicator framework – a globally used methodology adopted by the inter-governmental body in 2009. At the Summit opening plenary, I presented highlights of this study which was based on literature review and interviews.
To capture the diversity and disparities in the media sector,I used a well-loved Russian children’s story that was known in Sinhala translation as නොගැලපෙන රෝද — the story of one vehicle with different sized wheels, and how animal friends tried to make it move and when it proved impossible, how they put each wheel to a unique use…
This week’s Ravaya column (published on 17 May 2015) captures some of these highlights. I plan to write another one, with specific focus on the broadcast sector, in the coming weeks.
One is the indulgence — and even perverse ‘celebration’ — of insularity, conflating it for distinctiveness and cultural identity. This is found among certain academics, artistes and social activists.
The other is obsessive nostalgia for, and romanticising of, history – at least, a certain interpretation of historical events and processes. Never mind whatever problems of development and governance of today, these nostalgists seem to contend, we were once a great nation (or the greatest of all).
In my column (published in Ravaya newspaper, 5 October 2014), I discuss how best to counter insularity and unhealthy obsession with history. I also lament, as does Udan, the gradual decline of Lankans with bilingual or trilingual skills which enabled them to connect with each other and the wide world outside their island.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I pay tribute to South African writer and social activist Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014). I focus on how she never hesitated to speak out for justice, fairness and equality even when that elicited ridicule and harassment from her own government that quickly labeled her a ‘traitor’.
I also recall how I once listened to her speak, during the recording of a TV debate in Johannesburg in mid 2002, and how she later marched the streets with activists from all over the world demanding land rights for the poor.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala, published on 15 June 2014), I turn the spotlight on the world of media itself. In particular, how the Lankan print and broadcast media exploits freelance writers and other creative professionals who are paid extremely low rates even by highly profitable media companies.
I cite my own experiences with the world of print and broadcasting, where editors and staff journalists have no hesitation in getting outsiders to work for practically free. Is this fair or right, I ask, when the same media stands for social justice in their editorial positions.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I explore the formidable policy dilemmas posed by tobacco control in Sri Lanka. I argue that it isn’t a simple or simplistic battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as anti-tobacco activists would make us believe.
There is no doubt that tobacco kills many smokers — and some non-smokers, too. Yet starting, continuing or quitting smoking is a personal lifestyle choice which, at least in democracies, governments can’t legislate. As long as tobacco remains a legitimate trade, education and persuasion must complement legal regulation.
The first eyes donated from Sri Lanka were dispatched overseas, to Singapore, on 25 May 1964. In the half century that followed, over 66,500 eye corneas have been donated from Sri Lanka to a total of 117 cities in 54 countries worldwide (by end April 2014). This is one of the greatest humanitarian gifts in modern times, which has earned Sri Lanka unparalleled gratitude and goodwill around the world.
In this week’s Ravaya column, in Sinhala, I trace the origins of eye donation in Sri Lanka. I have just written up the same information in English at:
When I was invited to speak at World Conference on Youth 2014, being held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, this week, I accepted on one condition: that I don’t have to ‘clear’ my remarks with anyone before delivering. (This precaution was necessary as the host government of Sri Lanka is not known for its capacity to accommodate divergent or dissenting points of view.)
The organisers — Ministry of Youth Affairs & Skills Development — kept their word, and I just spoke at a session on Realising Peace, Reconciliation and Ending Violence. The theme is apt, especially in view of forthcoming fifth anniversary of the end of Sri Lank‘s civil war.
Alas, we had no opportunity to discuss any of the speeches due to sessions starting late. But I was able to engage several youth delegates, both from Sri Lanka and around the world, who apparently shared my idealism.
Here then is the text of my remarks (slightly ad-libbed during delivery):
Theme: Realising Peace, Reconciliation and Ending Violence
Remarks by Nalaka Gunawardene
Science writer, columnist and blogger
I thank the organisers for this opportunity.
Participating today reminds me of the IDEALISM, HOPE & PASSION with which I took part in similar events in my own youth – which was not that long ago!
In particular, I remember two instances:
A quarter century ago, as an undergraduate, I took part in an Asian regional Model United Nations conference held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The topic assigned to our group was VIOLENCE WITHIN AND BETWEEN SOCIETIES.
In all eagerness, we explored big questions such as:
Do we humans have an evolutionary inclination for aggression and violence?
What socio-economic factors trigger youth unrest and insurrection?
How does culture aggravate or mitigate conflicts?
For several days, a few dozen of us from across Asia discussed and debated this and other key concerns.
Five years later, as a young journalist, I had the opportunity to attend the World Youth Leadership Summit, held at the UN headquarters in New York. In the fall of 1995, around 200 of us from around the world came together to discuss the state of the world – and our role in shaping its future!
Again, a key topic that occupied our minds was the RISING VIOLENCE WITHIN OUR SOCIETIES. Not just civil wars and crime — but also INSTITUTIONALISED DISCRIMINATION and STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE.
These discussions enhanced my understanding of violence, which has become more SOPHISTICATED and INSIDIOUS in today’s world.
STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE as a concept was introduced in 1969 by the Norwegian sociologist and peace researcher Johan Galtung. He defined it as: “any form of violence where some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs”.
There are many examples of STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE in our societies. Among them:
STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE affects people differently in various social structures, and is closely linked to SOCIAL INJUSTICE.
So, in a broad sense, campaigns for HUMAN RIGHTS & SOCIAL JUSTICE are attempts to resist – and ideally, reduce – structural violence. These mass movements include:
the CIVIL RIGHTS movement in the US;
WOMEN’S RIGHTS movement worldwide;
ANTI-APARTHEID struggles in South Africa;
current global efforts to reduce absolute POVERTY; and
the on-going struggle for recognizing rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups.
While fewer people are dying today in conflicts between nations, or even those within nations, we cannot rejoice: we still have many faces of STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE and SYSTEMIC VIOLENCE.
So did we save the world in the Fall of 1995 through all our eager and idealistic discussions at the UN Headquarters?
No, we didn’t. Our world is still an UNJUST, UNFAIR and UNSAFE place for too many human beings.
But experiences and exposure like that probably SAVED ME – from becoming an uncritical and unquestioning peddler of the dominant narrative. It opened my mind – to question rhetoric and spin, coming from governments, UN agencies and even civil society.
That is probably the greatest benefit of conferences like this:
opening of our minds;
deepening of our understanding & empathy; and
broadening of our perspectives.
I wish I could tell you that Sri Lanka offers a fine example of post-war RECONCILIATION. But our reality is actually more complex and complicated.
Five years ago this month, we witnessed the end of Sri Lanka’s CIVIL WAR which last for over 25 years. As a diverse nation and a pluralistic society, our people felt many different emotions about that defining moment.
One sentiment most of us shared was a HUGE SENSE OF RELIEF. And some of us also felt a huge sense of RESPONSIBILITY –
for HOW the war was ended; and
the enormous rebuilding and healing that had to be done.
Five Years later…
The factors that led to the violent conflict still remain largely unaddressed. These include concerns about governance, political power sharing, and economic benefit sharing – issues that youth feel strongly about.
In the past 40 years – in my lifetime – similar concerns have triggered two other youth insurrections in Sri Lanka — in 1971 and in the late 1980s. Both were suppressed violently by the state in the name of law and order. The scars of those wounds have not yet healed either.
In this sense, many of us have three layers of scars from recent violence. And we realise, belatedly, how HEALING involves more our HEARTS than our MINDS.
We know that PEACE is much more than the simple absence of hostility. Likewise, RECONCILIATION entails much more than a mere co-existence of groups who were once engaged in a conflict.
RECONCILIATION cannot be decreed by leaders……or legislated by governments. Technocratic solutions are helpful — but not sufficient — to achieve RECONCILIATION.
Progressive state policies can nurture RECONCILIATION — but in the end, TRUE HEALING must spring from all of us… individually and collectively.
It’s not EASY, and it’s not always POPULAR. But it’s a worthy goal to aspire to!
Building SUSTAINABLE PEACE requires time, effort – as well as a switch in our mindset. We must face HARD TRUTHS, acknowledge them, and hopefully, FORGIVE…
There is cultural conditioning that stands in the way. Historically, many societies have glorified war, weaponry and combat. AGGRESSION is often seen as a sign of strength…and of masculinity.
With this inertia of history and culture…can we replace confrontation and conflict with cooperation and collaboration?
The religious case for this is well known. But I hesitate to invoke religions as they have inspired so much hatred and violence.
In recent years, we have seen a growing body of scientific evidence and theories that argue that COLLABORATION HAS A GREATER SURVIVAL VALUE than aggression.
This is contrary to the long held Darwinian notion of the ‘survival of the fittest’. It now appears that virtues like KINDNESS, GENEROSITY and SHARING are more than just moral choices: they are useful EVOLUTIONARY TRAITS too!
The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello has been studying the EVOLUTION OF TOLERANCE & TRUST among human beings and the role it plays in today’s societies. He and other researchers have drawn attention to the evolutionary benefits of COLLABORATION and ALTRUISM.
There is no consensus yet among experts. Anthropologists, evolutionary biologists and sociologists keep debating about:
individual selection vs. group selection in evolution; and
whether aggression or collaboration has key survival value.
As Harvard biologist Edward O Wilson summed it up in his recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth:
“The human condition is an endemic turmoil rooted in the evolution processes that created us. The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be.”
So our big challenge is: How to tame our worst evolutionary baggage, and instead bring out our best as a species?
I don’t have any quick answer. But this is among the questions we must all keep asking – and keep looking for practical, thoughtful answers.
It’s easier to have abundant IDEALISM, HOPE & PASSION when you’re 18 or 25 or even 30. It’s harder to retain these values when you’re approaching 50 — as I am, now. But I keep trying!
I wish you stimulating conversations. I hope you’ll find enough common ground — while not forcing any artificial consensus!