When I spoke out on social media recently for the rights of sexual minorities in Sri Lanka, some wanted to know why I cared for these ‘deviants’ – one even asked if I was ‘also one of them’.
I didn’t want to dignify such questions with an immediate answer. However, in my mind, it is quite clear why I stand for the rights of the LGBTQ community and other minorities – who are marginalised, in some cases persecuted, for simply being different.
I stand with all left-handed persons, or ‘lefties’, not because I am one of them but because I support their right to be the way they were born.
I share the cause of the disabled, not because I am currently living with a disability, but because I support their right to accessibility and full productive lives.
I call for governmental and societal protection of all displaced persons – from wars, disasters or other causes – not because I am currently displaced, but because I believe in their right to such support with dignity.
I march with women from all walks of life not because I am a woman, but because I fully share their cause for equality and justice. In their case, they are not a minority but the majority – and yet, very often, oppressed.
Similarly, I raise my voice for all sexual minorities in the LGBTQ community not because I am one of them, but because I am outraged by the institutionalised discrimination against them in Sri Lanka. I uphold their right to equality and to lead normal lives with their own sexual orientations and identities.
How much longer do we have to wait for a Lankan state that treats ALL its citizens as equal?
How much further must we wait for a Lankan society that does not discriminate against some of its own members who just happen to be differently inclined or differently-abled?
In June 2016, Sri Lanka became the 108th country in the world to pass a law allowing citizens to demand information from the government. After a preparatory period of six months, citizens were allowed to exercise their newly granted Right to Information (RTI) by filing information applications from February 2017 onward.
Just over a year later, the results are a mixed bag of successes, challenges and frustrations. There have been formidable teething problems – some sorted out by now, while others continue to slow down the new law’s smooth operation.
On the ‘supply side’ of RTI, several thousand ‘public authorities’ at central, provincial and local government level had to get ready to practise the notion of ‘open government’. This includes the all government ministries, departments, state corporations, other stator bodies and companies that are wholly or majority state owned. Despite training programmes and administrative circulars, there remain some gaps in officials’ attitudes, capacity and readiness to process citizens’ RTI applications.
To be sure, we should not expect miracles in one year after we have had 25 centuries of closed government under all the Lankan monarchs, colonial rulers and post-independence governments. RTI is a major conceptual and operational ‘leap’ for some public authorities and officials who have hidden or denied information rather than disclosed or shared it with the public.
Owing to this mindset, some officials have been trying to play hide-and-seek with RTI applications. Others are grudgingly abiding by the letter of the law — but not its spirit. These challenges place a greater responsibility on active citizens to pursue their RTI applications indefatigably.
During the first year of operation, the independent RTI Commission had received a little over 400 appeals from persistent citizens who refused to take ‘No’ for an answer. In a clear majority of cases heard so far, the Commission has ordered disclosure of information that was initially declined. These rulings are sending a clear message to all public authorities: RTI is not a choice, but a legal imperative. Fall in line, or else…
To ensure all public authorities comply with this law, it is vital to sustain citizen pressure. This is where the ‘demand side’ of RTI needs a lot more work. Unlike most other laws of the land that government uses, RTI is a rare law that citizens have to exercise – government only responds. Experience across Asia and elsewhere shows that the more RTI is used by people, the sharper and stronger it becomes.
It is hard to assess current public awareness levels on RTI without doing a large sample survey (one is being planned). However, there is growing anecdotal evidence to indicate that more Lankans have heard about RTI even if they are not yet clear on specifics.
But we still have plenty to do on the demand side: citizens need to see RTI as a tool for solving their local level problems – both private and public grievances – and be motivated to file more RTI applications. For this, they must overcome a historical deference towards government, and start demanding answers more vociferously.
Citizens who have been denied clear or any answers to their pressing problems – on missing persons, land rights, subsidies or public spending – are using RTI as an additional tool. We need to sustain momentum. RTI is a marathon, not a sprint.
Even though some journalists and editors were at the forefront in advocating for RTI in Sri Lanka for over two decades, the Lankan media as a whole is yet to grasp RTI’s potential.
Promisingly, some younger journalists have been producing impressive public interest stories – on topics as varied as disaster responses, waste management and human rights abuses – based on what they uncovered with their RTI applications. One of them, working for a Sinhala language daily, has filed over 40 RTI applications and experienced a success rate of around 70 per cent.
Meanwhile, some civil society groups are helping ordinary citizens to file RTI applications. A good example is the Vavuniya-based youth group, the Association for Friendship and Love (AFRIEL), that spearheads a campaign to submit RTI applications across Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, seeking information on private land that has been occupied by the military during the civil war and beyond. Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest development organisation, is running RTI clinics in different parts of the country with Transparency International Sri Lanka to equip citizens to exercise this new right.
The road to open government is a bumpy one, but there is no turning back on this journey. RTI in Sri Lanka may not yet have opened the floodgates of public information, but the dams are slowly but surely breached. Watch this space.
Disclosure: The writer works with both government and civil society groups intraining and promoting RTI. These views are his own.
Each time I see a Finance Minister struggling to deliver annual budget speeches, I remember Ronnie de Mel.
President J R Jayewardene’s Finance Minister from 1977 to 1988 was one of the most colourful and articulate persons to have held that portfolio. Ronnie was instrumental in creating the free market economy, ending years of socialist misadventures in the early 1970s.
Ronnie, now a nonagenarian, still keeps an eye on the transformative reforms he initiated. In a recent media interview (The Nation, 24 Sep 2016), he recalled the big challenges his government had faced in explaining to the people about the benefits of an open economy.
“The whole country…had all got so used to a closed economy that it was rather difficult to convince them that an open economy with certain restrictions would be better for Sri Lanka than the closed economy which had been in existence for a long period and was strongly supported by the leftist parties and by a powerful section of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party,” he said.
The hardest part, according to Ronnie, had been to get the media to support those reforms. “In fact, it took a long time to convince the press that the open economy would be better for Sri Lanka than the closed economy. As has always to be emphasized, it had to be an open economy which would safeguard the poor.”
JR and Ronnie set in motion economic reforms that have since been sustained by successive governments, sometimes with minor modifications. We will soon be completing four full decades under free market policies.
Yet the market still seems a dirty word for some Lankans, especially those in their middle or advanced ages. Their mistrust of the country’s economic system occasionally rubs off on the younger generation too, as evidenced by university students’ political slogans.
There is a pervasive notion in our society that businesses are intrinsically damaging and exploitative. I attribute this to ‘residual socialism’: we have plenty of frustrated socialists who grudge the current system, even though they often benefit from it personally.
So we pursue free market economics only half-heartedly. We were never a communist state but we seem to be more ‘red’ than Marx, Lenin and Mao combined.
In other words, many among us have closed their minds about the open economy.
Yes, it’s a free country and everyone is entitled to own myths, beliefs and nostalgic fantasies. But collectively harking back to the bad old days – and romanticising them – does not help anyone, and can distort policy choices. Protectionism and monopolies can thrive in such a setting.
Anti-market attitudes also feed public apprehensions about entrepreneurship in general, and against certain economic sectors in particular.
Take, for example, the tourist industry. Half a century has passed since Sri Lanka adopted policies of tourism development and promotion, but large sections of society still harbour misgivings about it.
A few years ago, I helped organise an environmental education programme for school children in the Negombo area. A leading hotel chain which originated from that city provided the venue and catering for free. Yet some accompanying teachers were rather uneasy over our venue choice: for them, all tourist hotels seemed to be ‘dens of vice’.
This perception, reinforced by prejudiced commentary in Sinhala language newspapers, extends to other sections of the leisure industry such as spas. I recently heard how a Lankan spa chain struggles to recruit female therapists. Because spas are demonised by media and society, few women apply despite the competitive salaries.
Societal prejudices might also be one reason why the country’s 12 industrial zones, administered by the Board of Investment (BOI), are struggling to fill some 200,000 vacancies from the domestic labour market. Many youth would much rather drive three-wheelers instead of working in factories. There are no sociological insights as yet on why they frown upon such work.
To be sure, there are unscrupulous businessmen who cynically exploit our country’s poor governance and weak regulation. There are also some schemers and confidence tricksters. But our anti-biz media would make us believe that all entrepreneurs are corrupt and untrustworthy.
Study any Sinhala daily for about a week, and we are bound to find several headlines or news reports using the phrase Kotipathi Viyaparikaya (multi-millionaire businessman). In the peculiar worldview of Sinhala journalists, every businessman is a kotipathiya, and is usually presumed guilty until proven innocent! Often a Roomath Kanthawa (pretty woman) is linked to the businessman, suggesting some scandal.
Tele drama makers love to portray businessmen as villains. Newspaper editorials frequently highlight unethical biz practices, condemning all businesspersons in the process. Bankers and telecom operators get more than their fair share of bashing in letters to the editor.
And even our usually perceptive cartoonists caricaturise entrepreneurs almost always negatively – either as pot-bellied black market mudalalis, or as bulging men in black suits and dark glasses, complete with a sinister smile. These images influence how society thinks of business.
So what is to be done?
Teaching business and commerce in schools is useful — but totally insufficient to create a nation of entrepreneurs and a business friendly public. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities can help soften society’s harsh judgement of business and enterprise. But that too needs a careful balancing act, as a lot of CSR is self-serving or guilt-assuaging and not particularly addressing the real community needs.
More ethically driven businesses and less ostentatious biz conduct would go a long way in winning public trust. As would more sensitive and thoughtful brand promotion.
The biggest challenge now, as it was to Ronnie a generation ago, is to nurture a media that appreciates and critically cheers entrepreneurship.
Paradoxically, media’s own revenues rely critically on advertising from other businesses. No, we are not asking media to compromise their editorial independence under advertiser pressure. But simply toning down media’s rampant and ill-founded prejudices against entrepreneurship would be progress.
The open economy’s legacy must be rigorously debated, and the policy framework needs periodic review. Let’s hope that it can be done with more open minds.
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.
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:
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.
The South-East Asia Region of the World Health Organization (WHO-SEARO) held its 69th Regional Committee meeting in Colombo from 5 to 9 September 2016. The meeting of 15 ministers of health from the region took a close look at Sri Lanka’s public health system – which has been able to provide substantial value over the decades.
Yet, the public health system rares gets the credit it deserves: the media and citizens alike often highlight its shortcomings without acknowledging what it delivers, year after year.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala, appearing in the print issue of 4 Sep 2016), I salute the public health system of Sri Lanka that has accomplished much amidst various challenges.
Sri Lanka’s public hospitals and related field programmes – like public health inspectors, family health workers and specific disease control efforts — provide a broad range of preventive and curative services. In most cases, these are provided free to recipients, irrespective of their ability to pay.
This is sustained by taxes: Sri Lanka’s public health sector annually receives allocations equal to around 2% of the country’s GDP.
I quote from the recently released Sri Lanka National Health Accounts (2013) report. Its data analysis shows that the Government of Sri Lanka accounts for 55% of the total health care provision of the country. Considering all financial sources (public and private), the per capita current health expenditure of Sri Lanka in 2013 amounted to LKR 12,636 (97.2 US$).
Drawing from my recent interactions with the IGF Academy, as well as several academic and civil society groups, I position the current public debates on web’s socio-cultural impacts in the context of freedom of expression.
With 30 per cent of our population now using the Internet, it is no longer a peripheral pursuit. Neither is it limited to cities or rich people. So we urgently need more accurate insights into how society and economy are being transformed by these modern tools.
My basic premise: many well-meaning persons who urge for greater regulation of the web and social media overlook that governments in Sri Lanka have a terrible track record in stifling dissent in the name of safeguarding the public.
I argue: “As a democracy recovering from a decade of authoritarianism, we need to be especially careful how public sentiments based on fear or populism can push policymakers to restrict freedom of expression online. The web has become the last frontier for free speech when it is under pressure elsewhere.
“When our politicians look up to academics and researchers for policy guidance, the advice they often get is control or block these new media. Instead, what we need is more study, deeper reflection and – after that, if really required – some light-touch regulation.”
I acknowledge that there indeed are problems arising from these new technologies – some predictable, and others not. They include cyber-bullying, hate speech, identity theft through account hijacking, trolling (deliberately offensive or provocative online postings) and sexting (sending and receiving sexually explicit messages, primarily via mobile phones).
I cite some research findings from the work done by non-profit groups or media activists. These findings are not pretty, and some of them outright damning. But bans, blocks and penalties alone cannot deal with these or other abuses, I argue.
I end with these words: “We can and must shape the new cyber frontier to be safer and more inclusive. But a safer web experience would lose its meaning if the heavy hand of government or social orthodoxy tries to make it a sanitized, lame or sycophantic environment at the same time. We sure don’t need a cyber nanny state.”
I posed this question some weeks ago at Sri Lanka Innovation Summit 2013 organised by Echelon and News 1st. We were talking about how to harness the web’s potential for spurring innovation.
We cannot innovate much as a society when our broadband is stymied by narrow minds. How many among the (at least) 3.5 million Lankans who regularly access the web have the right mindset for making the best use of the medium, I asked.
We didn’t get to discuss it much there, but this bothers me. Sri Lanka has now had 19 years of commercial Internet connectivity (the first ISP, Lanka Internet Services, started in April 1995). That’s a long time online: we have gone past toddler years and childhood (remember dial-up, anyone?) and been through turbulent ‘teen years’ as well.
Technology and regulation have moved on, imperfect though the latter maybe. But psychologically, as a nation we have yet to find our comfort level with the not-so-new medium.
There are various indicators for this. Consider, for example, the widespread societal apprehensions about social media, frequent web-bashing by editorialists in the mainstream media, and the apparent lack of public trust in e-commerce services. These and other trends are worth further study by social scientists and anthropologists.
Another barometer of cyber maturity is how we engage each other online, i.e. the tone of comments and interactions. This phenomenon is increasingly common on news and commentary websites; it forms the very basis of social media.
Agree to disagree?
‘Facts are sacred, comment is free’ is a cherished tenet in journalism and public debates. But expressing unfashionable opinions or questioning the status quo in Lankan cyber discussions can attract unpleasant reactions. Agreeing to disagree rarely seems an option.
Over the years, I have had my share of online engagement – some rewarding, others neutral and a few decidedly depressing. These have come mostly at the multi-author opinion platforms where I contribute, but sometimes also through my own blogs and twitterfeed.
One trend seems clear. In many discussions, the ‘singer’ is probed more than the ‘song’. I have been called unkind names, my credentials and patriotism questioned, my publishers’ bona fides doubted, and my (usually moderate) positions attributed to personality disorders or genetic defects! There have been a few threats too (“You just wait – we’ll deal with traitors soon!”).
I know those who comment on mainstream political issues receive far more invective. Most of this is done under the cover of anonymity or pseudonymity. These useful web facilities – which protect those criticising the state or other powerful interests – are widely abused in Lankan cyberspace to malign individuals expressing uncommon views.
There are some practical reasons, too, why our readers may misunderstand what we write, or take offence needlessly.
Poor English comprehension must account for a good share of web arguments. Many fail to grasp (or appreciate) subtlety, intentional rhetoric and certain metaphors. Increasingly, readers react to a few key words or phrases in longer piece — without absorbing its totality.
A recent example is my reflective essay ‘Who Really Killed Mel Gunasekera?’. I wrote it in early February shortly after a highly respected journalist friend was murdered in her suburban home by a burglar.
I argued that we were all responsible, collectively, for this and other rising incidents of violence. I saw it as the residual product of Lankan society’s brutalisation during war years, made worse by economic marginalisation. Rather than barricading ourselves and living in constant fear, we should tackle the root causes of this decay, I urged.
The plea resonated well beyond Mel’s many friends and admirers. But some readers were more than miffed. They (wrongly) reduced my 1,100 words to a mere comparison of crime statistics among nations.
I aim to write clearly, and also probe beyond headlines and statistics. But is such nuance a lost art when many online readers merely scan or speed-read what we labour on? In today’s fast-tracked world, can reflective writing draw discerning readers and thoughtful engagement any longer? I wonder.
Then there is the humour factor – or the lack of it. Many among us don’t get textual satire, as Groundviews.org discovered with its sub-brand called Banyan News Reporters (BNR). Their mock news items and spoofs were frequently taken literally – and roundly condemned.
The web is a noisy place, but some stand out in that cacophony because of their one-tracked minds. They are those who perceive and react to everything through a pet topic or peeve. That ‘lens’ may be girls vs boys, or lions vs tigers, or capitalism vs socialism or something else. No matter what the topic, such people will always sing same old tune!
Tribal divisions are among the most entrenched positions, and questioning matters of faith assures a backlash. It seems impossible to discuss secularism in Sri Lanka without seemingly offending all competing brands of salvation! (The last time I tried, they were bickering among themselves long after I quietly left the platform…)
Oh sure, everybody is entitled to a bee or two in her bonnet. But what to do with those harbouring an entire bee colony — which they unleash at the slightest provocation?
I just let them be (well, most of the time). I used to get affected by online abuse from cloaked detractors but have learnt to take it with equanimity. This is what economist and public intellectual W A Wijewardena also recommends.
“You must treat commentators as your own teachers; some make even the most stupid comment in the eyes of an intelligent person, but that comment teaches us more than anything else,” he wrote in a recent Facebook discussion.
He added: “Individual wisdom and opinions are varied and one cannot expect the same type of intervention by all. I always respect even the most damaging comment made by some on what I have written!”
Moderating extreme comments is a thankless and challenging job for those operating opinion platforms. If they are too strict or cautious, they risk diluting worthwhile public debates for which space is shrinking in the mainstream media. At the same time, hate speech peddlers cannot be allowed free license in the name of free speech.
Where to draw the line? Each publisher must evolve own guidelines.
Groundviews.org, whose vision is to “enable civil, progressive and inclusive discussions on democracy, rights, governance and peace in Sri Lanka” encourages “a collegial, non-insulting tone” in all contributors. It also reminds readers that “comments containing hate speech, obscenity and personal attacks will not be approved.”
Colombo Telegraph, another popular opinion and reporting website, “offers a right to reply for any individual or organisation who feels they have been misreported”. Sadly, this courtesy is not available in many online news and commentary websites carrying Lankan content.
In the end, even the most discerning publishers and editors can do only so much. As more Lankans get online and cyber chatter increases, we have to evolve more tolerant and pluralistic ways of engagement.
A popular TV programme genre in Sri Lanka that is being mass produced on the cheap is tele-dramas or television serials. Therein lies a problem: the local tele-drama industry is trapped in a vicious circle of low budgets and low production values. An estimated 5,000 to 6,000 Lankans who earn their living from this industry – as actors, script writers, directors and technical crew – are desperately searching for ways to break free.
So far, many have opted for the protectionist path. The Tele Makers Guild (TeleMG, http://telenisasl.org), an industry alliance, has been lobbying for the taxing of imported tele-dramas. They claim these are flooding the local market and undercutting their business.
In this week’s Ravaya column (appearing in the print issue of 24 April 2016), I discuss problems and challenges facing the tele-drama production industry of Sri Lanka.
As a viewer, I am opposed to cultural protectionism because it reduces my choice. So when TeleMG invited me as keynote speaker at their annual meeting held in early April, I urged them pursue the path of professionalism instead. Their big challenge, I said, is to make better shows with the existing budgets. That requires lots of creativity and resourcefulness.