සිවුමංසල කොලු ගැටයා #286: ආපදා අවස්ථාවල මාධ්‍ය වගකීම හා ප්‍රමුඛතාව කුමක් විය යුතු ද?

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

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

What is the role of mass media in times of disaster? I have written on this for many years, and once edited a regional book on the subject (Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book, 2007).

The question has come up again after Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, Director General of the Lankan government’s Department of Information, wanted the media to give preeminence to its watchdog function and pull back from supplying relief in the aftermath of disasters.

As Dr Rohan Samarajiva, who was present at the event, noted, “Some of his comments could even be interpreted as suggestive of a need to prohibit aid caravans being organized by the media. But I do not think this will happen. The risks of being seen as stifling the natural charitable urges of the people and delaying supplies to those who need help are too high…”

Ranga raised a valid concern. In the aftermath of recent disasters in Sri Lanka, private broadcast media houses have been competing with each other to raise and deliver disaster relief. All well and good – except that coverage for their own relief work often eclipsed the journalistic coverage of the disaster response in general. In such a situation, where does corporate social responsibility and charity work end and opportunistic brand promotion begin?

For simply raising this concern in public, some broadcast houses have started attacking Ranga personally. In my latest Ravaya column (in Sinhala, appearing in the print issue of 2 October 2016), I discuss the role and priorities of media at times of disaster. I also remind Sirasa TV (the most vocal critic of Ranga Kalansooriya) that ‘shooting the messenger’ carrying unpalatable truths is not in anybody’s interest.

Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, journalist turned government official, still speaks his mind

Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, journalist turned government official, still speaks his mind

ප්‍රවෘත්ති දෙපාර්තමේන්තුවේ අධ්‍යක්ෂ ජනරාල් ආචාර්ය රංග කලන්සූරිය අද මෙරට මාධ්‍ය ක්ෂේත්‍රයේ දැනුම මෙන්ම අත්දැකීම් ද බහුල විද්වතෙක්.

කිසි දිනෙක නිවුස් රූම් එකක් දැකලාවත් නැති පොතේ ගුරුන් මාධ්‍ය විශේෂඥයන් යයි කියා ගන්නා රටක ප්‍රවෘත්ති කලාවේ සිද්ධාන්ත මෙන්ම ප්‍රායෝගිකත්වය ද එක් තැන් කරන රංග වැනි අය දුර්ලභයි.

මෑතදී ආපදා කළමනාකරණ කේන‍ද්‍රය (DMC) සංවිධානය කළ මාධ්‍ය වැඩමුළුවකදී රංග කළ ප්‍රකාශයක් ආන්දෝලනයට තුඩු දී තිබෙනවා.(එම වැඩමුළුවට මටද ඇරැයුම් කර තිබුණත් ප්‍රතිපත්තිමය හේතුවක් මත මා එහි ගියේ නැහැ. ඒනිසා ඔහුගේ ප්‍රකාශය මා දැනගත්තේ මාධ්‍ය වාර්තාවලින් හා එතැන සිටි මහාචාර්ය රොහාන් සමරජීව හරහා.)

ආපදාවක් සිදු වූ විටෙක මාධ්‍යවල කාර්ය භාරය කුමක්දැයි සාකච්ඡා කරන විට රංග විවෘත අදහස් දැක්වීමක් කළා. ආපදාව පිළිබඳ තොරතුරු වාර්තාකරණයෙන් හා විග්‍රහයෙන් ඔබ්බට ගොස් විපතට පත් වූවන්ට ආධාර එකතු කිරීම හා බෙදා හැරීම වැනි ක්‍රියාවල මාධ්‍ය නිරත විය යුතු දැයි ඔහු ප්‍රශ්න කළා.

මෙයට පසුබිම වන්නේ මෑත වසරවල කුණාටු, ගංවතුර, නායයෑම් ආදී ආපදා සිදු වූ පසුව සමාජ සත්කාරයන් ලෙස ආධාර එකතු කොට බෙදා දීමට විද්‍යුත් මාධ්‍ය ආයතන කිහිපයක් යොමු වීමයි.

රංග කළ ප්‍රකාශය සංවාදයකට නිමිත්තක් වී තිබෙනවා. මාධ්‍ය ප්‍රතිව්‍යුහකරණය ගැන අවධාන යොමු වී ඇති මේ කාලයේ මෙබඳු සංවාද අවශ්‍යයි.

Communicating Disasters - 2007 book co-edited by Nalaka Gunawardene & Frederick Noronha

Communicating Disasters – 2007 book co-edited by Nalaka Gunawardene & Frederick Noronha

ආපදා අරභයා මාධ්‍ය කාර්යභාරය කුමක්ද? මේ ගැන මා දේශීයව හා ජාත්‍යන්තරව වසර 20කට වඩා සංවාද කොට තිබෙනවා. 2004 සුනාමියෙන් මාස 18ක් ඉක්ම ගිය පසු මේ ගැන එක්සත් ජාතීන්ගේ ආසියානු කලාපීය සන්නිවේදක රැස්වීමක් මෙහෙවීමෙන් හා කලාපීය ග්‍රන්ථයක් (Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book, 2007) සංස්කරණයෙන් ලත් අත්දැකීම් මා සතුයි.

ආපදා පෙර සූදානම හා කඩිනමින් මතු වන ආපදා ගැන නිල අනතුරු ඇඟවීම් බෙදා හැරීම සදහා මාධ්‍ය දායකත්වය ගැන මීට පෙර අප කථා කොට තිබෙනවා.

ආපදා සිදු වූ පසුත් මාධ්‍යවලට ලොකු වගකීම් සමුදායක් හා තීරණාත්මක කාර්යභාරයක් හිමි වනවා. ඉතා 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 සැපයීමයි. මෙයට බේරා ගැනීම්, තාවකාලික රැකවරණ, ආධාර බෙදා හරින ක්‍රම හා තැන්, ලෙඩරෝග පැතිරයාම ගැන අනතුරු ඇඟවීම්  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 සමාජගත කිරීමයි. ඊට අමතරව අඩුපාඩු හා කිසියම් දූෂණ ඇත්නම් තහවුරු කර ගත් තොරතුරු මත ඒවා වාර්තා කිරීමයි.

මේ සියල්ල කළ පසු මාධ්‍ය තමන් ආධාර එකතු කොට බෙදීමට යොමු වුණාට කමක් නැතැයි මා සිතනවා. කැමති මාධ්‍යවලට එයට නිදහස තිබිය යුතුයි. මාධ්‍ය පර්යේෂකයෙක් හා විචාරකයෙක් හැටියට මා එහිදී විමසන්නේ එබඳු සුබසාධන ක්‍රියා මාධ්‍යයේ ප්‍රධාන සමාජ වගකීම්වලට සමානුපාතිකව කෙතරම් ප්‍රමුඛතාවක් ගනීද යන්නයි.

උදාහරණයක් ගනිමු. 2016 මැයි මස මැදදී රෝනු සුළිසුළඟ (Cyclone Roanu) සමග පැමිණි මහ වැසි නිසා මහා කොළඹ ඇතුළු තවත් ප්‍රදේශ රැසක ජලගැලීම්, ගංවතුර හට ගත්තා. නායයාමට ඉඩ ඇති සමහර ප්‍රදේශවල බරපතළ නායයෑම් සිදු වුණා.

Satellite image of storm clouds over Sri Lanka and India, 15 May 2016

Satellite image of storm clouds over Sri Lanka and India, 15 May 2016

මේ ආපදා හමුවේ DMC දැක් වූ ප්‍රතිචාරය රජය තුළින්මත්, විපත පත් මහජනතාව අතරත් දැඩි විවේචනයට ලක් වුණා. නිසි සූදානමක් හා සම්බන්ධීකරණයක් නොතිබූ බව පැහැදිලියි.

ආපදා ප්‍රතිචාරයේ නිල වගකීම දරණ රාජ්‍ය තන්ත්‍රය දුර්මුඛව, අකර්මන්‍යව සිටින අතරේ ඒ හිදැස පිරවීමට ඉදිරිපත් වූයේ හමුදාව, ස්වේච්ඡා ආයතන මෙන්ම එවේලේ ස්වකැමැත්තෙන් (spontaneously) එක් වූ පුරවැසි කණ්ඩායම්.

විපතට පත් වූවන් බේරා ගන්නට, ආධාර බෙදන්නට හා වෙනත් සහනසේවා සපයන්නට මේ පිරිස් නොමසුරුව පෙරට ආවා. මේ අතර මාධ්‍ය ආයතන ගණනාවක් ද සිටියා.

පුළුල් පෙදෙසක් හරහා පැතිරී මහා පරිමානයක හානි සිදුව තිබුණා. DMC වඩාත් සූදානම්ව හා කාර්යක්ෂමව සිටියා යැයි මොහොතකට උපකල්පනය කළත් මෙම ආපදාවට සියලු ප්‍රතිචාර ලබා දෙන්නට එයට හැකි වන්නේ නැහැ.

ආපදා ප්‍රතිචාරය  හා කළමනාකරණය රාජ්‍ය ආයතනයක ඒකාධිකාරයක් නොවිය යුතුයි. රාජ්‍ය මැදිහත්වීම හා නිල තීරණ ගැනීම අත්‍යවශ්‍ය තැන්හිදී (උදා: අන්තරාදායක තැන්වලින් ජනයාට තාවකාලීකව ඉවත් වන්නට යයි කීම) ඔවුන් මුල් තැන ගන්නා අතර අන් අවස්ථාවල පහසුකම් සළසන්නා (Facilitator) වීමයි වැදගත්.

Sri Lankans wade through a road submerged in flood waters in Colombo, 18 May 2016 (Photo by Eranga Jayawardena, AP)

Sri Lankans wade through a road submerged in flood waters in Colombo, 18 May 2016 (Photo by Eranga Jayawardena, AP)

අකාර්යක්ෂම, අසංවේදී හා අධිනිලධාරීවාදී රාජ්‍ය ආපදා ප්‍රතිචාර හමුවේ විපතට පත් පුරවැසියන්ට පිහිට වීමට පෙරට ආ සියලු රාජ්‍ය නොවන පාර්ශවයන්ට අපේ ප්‍රණාමය හිමි වනවා. මේ අතර මාධ්‍ය ආයතනද සිටිනවා.

ආපදා පිළිබඳ මෙරට මාධ්‍යකරණයේ අඩුපාඩු තිබෙනවා. ප්‍රධාන දුර්වලකමක් නම් සිදුවීම් ගැන බහුලව වාර්තා කළත් ඒවාට තුඩු දෙන සමාජ-ආර්ථීක හා පාරිසරික ප්‍රවාහයන් ගැන ඇති තරම් විමර්ශන නොකිරීමයි.

එසේම ආපදාවක ප්‍රවෘත්තිමය උණුසුම දින කිහිපයකින් පහව ගිය පසු බොහෝ මාධ්‍යවලට එය අමතක වනවා. ආපදාවෙන් බැට කෑ ජනයාගේ නොවිසඳුණු ප්‍රශ්න හා ආපදාවට පසුබිම් වූ සාධක තව දුරටත් පැවතීම ගැන මාධ්‍ය පසුවිපරමක් කරන්නේ  කලාතුරකින්. පුවත්පත් මෙය යම් පමණකට කළත් විද්‍යුත් මාධ්‍ය නොතකා හරිනවා.

මාධ්‍යකරණයේ මේ මූලික අඩුපාඩු හදා ගන්නේ නැතිව මාධ්‍ය ආයතන සිය පිරිස් බලය හා මූල්‍යමය හැකියාවන් ආපදා ආශ්‍රිත සමාජ සුබසාධන ක්‍රියාවලට යොමු කරනවා නම් ඔවුන්ගේ ප්‍රමුඛතා කොතැනදැයි අප ප්‍රශ්න කළ යුතුයි.

එසේම සමාජ සුබසාධනයට යොමු වන මාධ්‍යල එතැනදී තම වාර්තාකරණය සමස්ත ආපදා ප්‍රතිචාරය ගැන මිස තමන්ගේම සමාජ සත්කාරය හුවා දැක්වීමට භාවිත නොකළ යුතුයි. මාධ්‍ය සන්නාම ප්‍රවර්ධනයට ආපදා අවස්ථා යොදා ගැනීම නීති විරෝධී නොවූවත් සදාචාර විරෝධීයි.

”මේවා කරන්නේ අපේ ගුවන් කාලයෙන්, අපේ පරිශ්‍රමයෙන් හා සම්පත්වලින්. ඒ ගැන කාටවත් කැක්කුමක් ඇයි?” සමහර මාධ්‍ය ආයතන ප්‍රශ්න කළ හැකියි.

රාජ්‍ය හා පෞද්ගලික රේඩියෝ ටෙලිවිෂන් නාලිකා සියල්ල භාවිතා කරන්නේ මහජන දේපළක් වන විද්‍යුත් තරංග සංඛ්‍යාතයි. මේ නිසා හිතුමතේ තම සන්නාම ප්‍රවර්ධනය කරමින් වටිනා ගුවන්කාලය එයට වෙන් කිරීම, ආපදා මාධ්‍යකරණය වඩාත් ප්‍රශස්තව කිරීමට තිබෙන වගකීම යම් තරමකට පැහැර හැරීමක් යැයි තර්ක කළ හැකියි.

තවත් මානයක් මා මෙහිදී දකිනවා. මාධ්‍යවලට සමාජයක පෙර ගමන්කරුවා විය හැකියි. අහිතකර ප්‍රවණතා අන්ධානුකරණය කරනු වෙනුවට අභීතව සමාජය හරි මගට යොමු කළ හැකියි.

අපේ දේශපාලකයන් හැම පොදු කටයුත්තක්ම අතිශයෝක්තිමය සංදර්ශනාත්මක වැඩක් බවට පත් කර ගන්නවා. හැමදේම “අහවල්තුමාගේ උතුම් සංකල්පයක් මත, සිදු කරනවා”ලු…

මහජන මුදලින් පාරක්, පාලමක්, ගොඩනැගිල්ලක් තනන විට මුල්ගලේ සිට විවෘත කිරීම දක්වා තමන්ගේ නම් හා රූප යොදා ගනිමින් පාරම් බානවා. රාජපක්ෂ රෙජීමය මහජනතාවට තිත්ත වීමට එක් හේතුවක් වූයේත් මේ සංදර්ශනකාමයයි.

හොඳ වැඩක් කොට නිහඬව හා නිහතමානීව එහි ප්‍රතිඵල අත් විඳීමට හැකි සමාජයක් කරා යා හැකි නම් කෙතරම් අපූරුද? එහෙත් ආපදා වැනි කණගාටුදායක අවස්ථාවල පවා සමාජ සුබසාධනය වටා සංදර්ශනාත්මක පම්පෝරියක් ද මුදා හැරීම නිර්ලජ්ජිත දේශපාලකයන් කරනවා. එහෙත් මාධ්‍ය ආයතන එම රැල්ලටම හසු විය යුතුද?

මෙලොව හා එලොව හිත සුව පිණිස පුද්ගලිකව සමාජ සුබසාධනයේ නියැලෙන මාධ්‍යවේදීන් ද සිටිනවා. ගිය සතියේ මා සහභාගී වූ වැඩමුලුවකට ආ ප්‍රාදේශීය මාධ්‍යවේදියෙක් ආඩම්බරයෙන් කීවේ තම ප්‍රදේශයේ නැති බැරි අයට තමා මේ දක්වා නිවාස 48ක් සාදා දී ඇති බවයි. මෙය යහපත් වැඩක් වුවත්, මාධ්‍යවේදියාගේ කාර්යභාරයට අයත් වේදැයි එහි සිටි අනෙක් මාධ්‍යවේදීන් වාදවිවාද කළා.

Sri Lanka's floods in Colombo suburbs, May 2016 - Photo by Uchinda Padmaperuma, from Facebook

Sri Lanka’s floods in Colombo suburbs, May 2016 – Photo by Uchinda Padmaperuma, from Facebook

මේ සියල්ල මෙසේ වෙනත්, සමාජ සුබසාධන කටයුතුවල යෙදීමට මාධ්‍යවේදීන්ට ඇති අයිතිය මා පිළිගන්නවා. අවශ්‍ය වන්නේ ප්‍රමුඛතා හා වගකීම් හරිහැටි තෝරා බේරා ගෙන කළමනාකරණය කිරීම පමණයි. එසේම එකතු කරන මහජන ආධාර සියල්ලට වග විය යුතුයි.

ඒ අතර කාලීනව හා සමාජයීයව වැදගත් ප්‍රශ්නයක් ඇසූ රංග කලන්සූරිය ඉලක්ක කර ගෙන පෞද්ගලිකව ඔහුට වාග් ප්‍රහාර එල්ල කිරීම නම් පිළිගත නොහැකියි. ඔහුගේ මතයට විකල්ප මත හූවා දැක්වීමෙන් නතර නොවී ඔහුගේ මානසික සෞඛ්‍යය පවා ප්‍රශ්න කරන තැනකට සිරස මාධ්‍ය ආයතනය යොමු වීම කණගාටුදායකයි.

සිරස පන්න පන්නා රංග කලන්සූරියට පහරදීම මා දකින්නේ තමන් අසන්නට නොකැමති විග්‍රහයක් ගෙනා අයකු ගැන කිපී, ඔහුට සියලු වැර දමා ප්‍රහාරයක් දියත් කිරීමක් ලෙසයි.

‘Don’t shoot the messenger’ හෙවත් අමිහිරි පුවතක් රැගෙන එන පණිවුඩකරුවාට වෙඩි නොතබන්න යයි ප්‍රකට ඉංග්‍රීසි කියමනක් තිබෙනවා.

2009 ජනවාරියේ පන්නිපිටියේ සිරස මැදිරි සංකීර්ණයට සංවිධානාත්මක මැර ප්‍රහාරයක් එල්ල වූ අවස්ථාවේ ඔවුන්ගේ ප්‍රකාශන අයිතිය වෙනුවෙන් ප්‍රසිද්ධ අවකාශයේ පෙනී සිටිමින් මා හුවා දැක්වූයේත් මෙයයි.

ගෙවී ගිය ගනඳුරු දශකයේ (2005-2014) අධිකතම ඝනාන්ධකාරය පැවති 2009 වසරේ එබඳු ප්‍රසිද්ධ ස්ථාවරයක් ගැනීම පවා අවදානම් සහගත වූවා. එහෙත් ඒ අවදානම ගනිමින්, සිරසට එල්ල වූ ප්‍රහාරය සමස්ත මාධ්‍ය නිදහසට එරෙහි ප්‍රහාරයක් බව 2009 ජනවාරි 7 වනදා මගේ බ්ලොග් එක හරහා කියා සිටියා.

7 January 2009: Attack on Sirasa TV: Who wants to create a headless Sri Lankan nation?

”දකුණු ආසියාව පුරා පැතිර යන ඉතා අහිතකර ප්‍රවණතාවක් නම් දිරවා ගන්නට නොහැකි පුවත් හා මතයන් ගෙන එන මාධ්‍යවලට පහර දී ඔවුන් නිහඬ කිරීමට තැත් කිරීමයි. ඒ හරහා සෙසු මාධ්‍යවලටද හීලෑවීමට බරපතළ අනතුරු ඇඟවීමක් කිරීමයි.”

මා ඉංග්‍රීසියෙන් පමණක් ලියු යුගයේ කළ එම ප්‍රකාශය පසුව ප්‍රකාශන නිදහස ගැන ක්‍රියාත්මක වන විදෙස් ආයතන පවා උපුටා දක්වා තිබුණා.

එදා සිරසට ප්‍රහාර එල්ල කළ විට කී වැකියම අද සිරස රංගට (වාග්) ප්‍රහාර දෙන විටත් කීමට මට සිදු වනවා. ඔබට දිරවා ගත නොහැකි යමක් රංග කීවා නම් එහි හරය මෙනෙහි කරන්න. එසේ නැතිව එය ප්‍රකාශ කළ පුද්ගලයා ඉලක්ක නොකරන්න.

පොදු අවකාශයේ අප කරන කියන සියල්ල සංවාදයට විවෘතයි. එහෙත් එම සංවාද සංයමයෙන්, තර්කානුකූලව හා බුද්ධිගෝචරව කිරීමේ වගකීම අප කාටත් තිබෙනවා.

Nalaka Gunawardene blog post condemning  military style attack on Sirasa TV complex in Jan 2009

Nalaka Gunawardene blog post condemning
military style attack on Sirasa TV complex in Jan 2009

 

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Crying Wolf in the Global Village? Managing Disaster Early Warnings in the Age of Social Media

Participants of SHER (Science, Health, Environment & Risk) Communication - Role of S&T Communication in Disaster Management and Community Preparedness held in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 8-9 Dec 2015

Participants of SHER (Science, Health, Environment & Risk) Communication – Role of S&T Communication in Disaster Management and Community Preparedness held in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 8-9 Dec 2015

On 8 – 9 December 2015, I attended and spoke at the Asian Regional Workshop on “SHER (Science, Health, Environment & Risk) Communication: Role of S&T Communication in Disaster Management and Community Preparedness” held in Jakarta, Indonesia.

It was organised by the Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia (AASSA) in collaboration with the Indonesian Academy of Sciences (AIPI), Korean Academy of Science and Technology (KAST) and the Agency for Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) in Indonesia.

The workshop brought together around 25 participants, most of them scientists researching or engaged in publication communication of science, technology and health related topics. I was one of two journalists in that gathering, having been nominated by the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka (NAASL).

I drew on over 25 years of journalistic and science communication experience, during which time I have worked with disaster managers and researchers, and also co-edited a book, Communicating Disasters: An Asian Regional Handbook (2007).

Nalaka Gunawardene speaking at Science, Health, Environment & Risk Communication Asian regional workshop held in Jakarta, Indonesia, 8-9 Dec 2015

Nalaka Gunawardene speaking at Science, Health, Environment & Risk Communication Asian regional workshop held in Jakarta, Indonesia, 8-9 Dec 2015

The challenge in disaster early warnings is to make the best possible decisions quickly using imperfect information. With lives and livelihoods at stake, there is much pressure to get it right. But one can’t be timely and perfectly accurate at the same time.

We have come a long way since the devastating Boxing Day tsunami of December 2004 caught Indian Ocean countries by surprise. Many of the over 230,000 people killed that day could have been saved by timely coastal evacuations.

The good news is that advances in science and communications technology, greater international cooperation, and revamped national systems have vastly improved tsunami early warnings during the past decade. However, some critical gaps and challenges remain.

The Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (IOTWS) was set up in 2005 under UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. Over USD 400 million has been invested in state of the art equipment for rapid detection and assessment. However, the system’s overall effectiveness is limited by poor local infrastructure and lack of preparedness. Some countries also lack efficient decision-making for issuing national level warnings based on regionally provided rapid assessments.

Warnings must reach communities at risk early enough for action. False warnings can cause major economic losses and reduce compliance with future evacuation orders. Only governments can balance these factors. It is important that there be clearer protocols within governments to consider the best available information and make the necessary decisions quickly.

Now, the proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) is making this delicate balance even more difficult. To remain effective in the always-connected and chattering Global Village, disaster managers have to rethink their engagement strategies.

Controlled release of information is no longer an option for governments. In the age of 24/7 news channels and social media, many people will learn of breaking disasters independently of official sources. Some social media users will also express their views instantly – and not always accurately.

How can this multiplicity of information sources and peddlers be harnessed in the best public interest? What are the policy options for governments, and responsibilities for technical experts? How to nurture public trust, the ‘lubricant’ that helps move the wheels of law and order – as well as public safety – in the right direction?

As a case study, I looked at what happened on 11 April 2012, when an 8.6-magnitude quake occurred beneath the ocean floor southwest of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Several Asian countries issued quick warnings and some also ordered coastal evacuations. For example, Thai authorities shut down the Phuket International Airport, while Chennai port in southern India was closed for a few hours. In Sri Lanka, panic and chaos ensued.

In the end, the quake did not generate a tsunami (not all such quakes do) – but it highlighted weaknesses in the covering the ‘last mile’ in disseminating early warnings clearly and efficiently.

Speakers on ‘ICT Applications for Disaster Prevention and Treatment’ in Jakarta, Indonesia, 8-9 Dec 2015

Speakers on ‘ICT Applications for Disaster Prevention and Treatment’ in Jakarta, Indonesia, 8-9 Dec 2015

See also: Nurturing Public Trust in Times of Crisis: Reflections on April 11 Tsunami Warning. Groundviews.org 26 April 2012

I concluded: Unless governments communicate in a timely and authoritative manner during crises, that vacuum will be filled by multiple voices. Some of these may be speculative, or mischievously false, causing confusion and panic.

My full PowerPoint:

 

Your Disaster is Not My Disaster: Ceylon Today op-ed essay

Meteosat 7 weather satellite image of the Indian Ocean – 30 Oct 2012 at 6 UTC



As Hurricane Sandy hammered the US East Coast earlier this week, we had our own meteorological worries. A tropical cyclone — belatedly named Neelam — swept past parts of Sri Lanka’s North and East. It then headed to southern India.

The two atmospheric turbulences were not comparable. Sandy was far more ferocious. But Neelam caused enough disruption as well — it wasn’t just a passing gust of wind.

As I followed the two disasters through print, TV and web media reporting, I wondered: how come we had more about Sandy in our own media than on Neelam?

Is it because, as some argue, the global media were so preoccupied with Sandy, and provided saturation coverage? Or are our own media outlets unable, or unwilling, to cover a local weather anomaly with depth and clarity?

This is the opening of my latest op-ed essay, Your Disaster is Not My Disaster, published in Ceylon Today newspaper, 1 Nov 2012.

Another excerpt:

“In today’s networked society, commercially operating news media are no longer the sole gatherers or distributors of news. Some members of their (formerly passive) audience are now mini news operations on their own.

“What does this mean for communicating in disaster situations that requires understanding and sensitivity? In which ways can we find synergy between mainstream and new/social media, so together they can better serve the public interest? What value-additions can the mainstream media still bring to the coverage of disasters? And what to do about ‘Chicken Little’ reporters who try to link everything to a looming climate catastrophe? I don’t have all the answers, but keep asking these necessary questions.”

Here’s the full text, saved from the e-paper:

Your Disaster is not My Disaster – by Nalaka Gunawardene, Ceylon Today 1 Nov 2012

See also my March 2011 blogpost: Drowning in Media Indifference: Who cares for the backwoods?

Asian Tsunami+5: Are we sure there won’t be a surprise next time?

A monumental failure in communication...

This is one of the most memorable cartoons about the Asian Tsunami of December 2004. It was drawn by Jim Morin, the Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist of the Miami Herald.

It summed up, brilliantly, one of the biggest shocks associated with that mega-disaster. As I wrote in my op ed essay to mark the fifth anniversary: “It took a while for the tsunami waves, traversing the Indian Ocean at the speed of a jetliner, to reach India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Yet, in this age of instantaneous telecom and media messaging, coastal residents and holiday makers were caught completely unawares — there was no public warning in most locations. Institutional, technological and systemic bottlenecks combined to produce this monumental failure in communication.”

Chanuka Wattegama

My friend Chanuka Wattegama, trained as an engineer and now working as a senior research manager at LIRNEasia, has studied this vital aspect of early warnings. He contributed a whole chapter on the subject to Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book that I co-edited with Frederick Noronha two years ago.

After doing a dispassionate analysis of what went wrong in Sri Lanka in the crucial hours just before and during the 2004 tsunami, he asked: “So what remedies one can suggest so that when the next disaster happens — which may or may not be a tsunami — we do not see the same series of events repeated? What exactly is the role that the media can play?”

He outlined five action areas, all of which can be read in his chapter available for free online access (as is the rest of the book).

Here’s an excerpt:

Disaster warning is everyone’s business: Life for most of us would have been easier had the government taken full charge of disaster warnings. Unfortunately, the things do not work that way. These are some of key stakeholders and they have specific roles that they can play:

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...

• The scientific community: Develop the early warning systems based on their expertise, support the design of scientific and systematic monitoring and warning services and translate technical information to layman’s language.
• National governments: Adopt policies and frameworks that facilitate early warning, operate Early Warning Systems, issue warnings for their country in a timely and effective manner.
• Local governments: Analyse and store critical knowledge of the hazards to which the communities are exposed. Provide this information to the national governments
• International bodies: Provide financial and technical support for national early warning activities and foster the exchange of data and knowledge between individual countries.
• Regional institutions and organizations: Provide specialized knowledge and advice in support of national efforts, to develop or sustain operational capabilities experienced by countries that share a common geographical environment.
• Non-governmental organizations: Play a critical role in raising awareness among individuals and organizations involved in early warning and in the implementation of early warning systems, particularly at the community level.
• The private sector: Play an essential role in implementing the solutions, using their know-how or donations (in-kind or cash) of goods or services, especially for the communication, dissemination and response elements of early warning.
• The media: It has to play an important role in improving the disaster consciousness of the general population, and disseminating early warnings. This can be the critical link between the agency that offer the warning and the recipients.
• Communities: These are central to people-oriented early warning systems. Their input to system-design and their ability to respond ultimately determines the extent of risk associated with natural hazards.

And here’s his conclusion:
“Technology is important. The sole reason behind the seemingly incredible advancements that have happened in the field of human development is the spurt in the growth of new technology. However without people to handle it properly, the technology per se can achieve little. What we can expect a sophisticate earthquake detecting device to do, if there are no human beings to take note what it indicates? So, while giving technology its due position, let us focus on the people-side of the problems. “

Spoken like an uncommon engineer, for sure.

Read full chapter: Nobody told us to run, by Chanuka Wattegama

No full-stops (periods) in good journalism, only commas…

A S Panneerselvan

In any meeting, we can count on Indian journalist A S Panneerselvan to liven up the discussion. He didn’t let us down when a two dozen South Asians came together last weekend in New Delhi at a Symposium on Science, Environment and Media: Discussing Experiences in South Asia.

“There are no full-stops in good journalism, only commas,” he declared. He was referring to two of the most commonly used punctuation marks in modern writing.

This metaphor neatly sums up the nature of journalism, whose coverage of public affairs and society is often on-going, unfinished and open-ended. This prompted Phil Graham, the former publisher of the Washington Post, to describe journalism as the “first rough draft of history”. The reason is that journalists, in the performance of their duty often record important events, producing hurried written reports (in text, sound or pictures) often generated on short deadlines.

Panneer, who likes to call himself ‘a failed physicist and a failed journalist’, added that the intrinsic value of a journalist as one who tries to bring back the idea of commons — resources that are collectively owned, which can range from physical goods to artistic or creative products.

Panneer was speaking to the journalists, broadcasters, academics and activists brought together by Panos South Asia, IIT Delhi, and Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, for the two-day symposium on 15 – 16 November 2009.

I always welcome occasions when his and my paths cross as we move in overlapping South Asian circles. Listening to him this time around, I recalled his clear, emphatic words on a previous occasion, at an Asian regional brainstorming on ‘Communicating Disasters: Building on the tsunami experience and responding to future challenges’ that I convened in December 2006 in Bangkok, Thailand.

He said the media is plural term, not a singular one. This implies that the media are not a monolith. Some are excellent; many are mediocre; some are downright bad. Some in the media are also indifferent to some issues but may be outstanding in addressing other issues.

He added that media is also very much a contested and contentious space where arguments rage on. Not everything is moderate, balanced or ‘evidence-based’.

Panneer’s day job is as the executive director of Panos South Asia. He was formerly the managing editor of Sun TV and bureau chief for Outlook magazine in India. Having been with the mainstream media for 20 years, he is now moving in that interesting overlap between media and development sectors. This gives him both insight and perspective.

Contributing a chapter to Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book in 2007, Panneer wrote: “Development agencies rarely bring journalists into their universe at a stage which can be called ‘work-in-progress’. They usually just come to the media with a finished product. There is hardly any joint exploration. When presented with a finished product, there is just one alternative for a reporter — that is, to review the product that is already done.

“Imagine a scenario where journalists are brought into the process right from the word go. There would have been a series of stories, and when the final report of the development agencies is realised, that may well serve as the winding-up story tracking the entire trajectory.

“A journalist is expected to report and not just reproduce. Development agencies like their versions to be reproduced to a large extent. This becomes an assault on the journalists’ work-pride. He or she would like to do a field report, taking a cue or two from the work of the development agency. But, to merely reproduce a report is seen only as providing a free plug, an unpaid advertisement, and doing a stenographer’s job.”

Read his full chapter online: Engaging the Media: A Rough Guide by A S Panneerselvan

Reporting disasters: How to keep a cool head when all hell breaks loose

WCSJ London

News by definition looks for the exception. What goes right, and according to plan, is hardly news. Deviations, aberrations and accidents hit the news.

It’s the same with disasters. Reducing a hazard or averting a disaster does not make the news; when that hazard turns into a disaster, that typically tops the news. Yet, as we discussed during a session at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London from June 30 – July 2, 2009, both aspects are important — and both present many challenges to journalists and the media.

The session, titled Covering a disaster from Sichuan to Sri Lanka, saw three science journalists share their own experiences and insights in covering two major disasters in Asia. Richard Stone (Asia News Editor, Science) and Hujun Li (senior science writer with Caijing magazine, China) both spoke about covering the Sichuan earthquake that occurred on 12 May 2008. I spoke on my experiences in covering the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004. The session was chaired by the veteran (and affable) British journalist Tim Radford, who has been The Guardian‘s arts editor, literary editor and science editor.

Covering a disaster from Sichuan to Sri Lanka: L to R: Hujun Li, Nalaka Gunawardene and Richard Stone

Covering a disaster from Sichuan to Sri Lanka: L to R: Hujun Li, Nalaka Gunawardene and Richard Stone

I recalled the post-tsunami media coverage in two phases — breaking news phase (first 7 – 10 days) and the aftermath, which lasted for months. When the news broke on a lazy Sunday morning, ‘Tsunami’ was a completely alien term for most media professionals in Sri Lanka. In newspaper offices, as well as radio and TV studios, journalists suddenly had to explain to their audiences what had happened, where and how. This required journalists to quickly educate themselves, and track down geologists and oceanographers to obtain expert interpretation of the unfolding events. We than had to distill it in non-technical terms for our audiences.

My involvement in this phase was as a regular ‘TV pundit’ and commentator on live TV broadcasts of MTV Channels, Sri Lanka’s largest and most popular broadcast network. Night after night on live TV, we talked about the basics of tsunami and earthquakes, and summed up the latest information on what had taken place. We also acknowledged the limits of science -– for example, despite advances in science and technology, there still was no way of predicting earthquakes in advance.

One question we simply couldn’t answer was frequently raised by thousands of people who lost their loved ones or homes: why did it happen now, here — and to us? Was it an act of God? Was it mass scale karma? As science journalists, we didn’t want to get into these debates — we had to be sensitive when public emotions were running high.

There were enough topics during the breaking news phase that had a scientific angle. Clinically cold as it sounded, the mass deaths required the safe, proper and fast burial of bodies with identities established. The survivors had to be provided shelter, food, safe drinking water and counselling. And when rumours were spreading on the possibility of further tsunamis, both officials and public needed credible information from trusted, competent sources.

Tsunami waves lashing Kalutara beach on western Sri Lanka on 26 December 2004: satellite image courtesy DigitalGlobe Quickbird satellite, http://www.digitalglobe.com

Tsunami waves lashing Kalutara beach on western Sri Lanka on 26 December 2004: satellite image courtesy DigitalGlobe Quickbird satellite, http://www.digitalglobe.com

After the breaking news phase passed, we had more time to pursue specific stories and angles related to the tsunami. As an environmentally sensitive journalist, I was naturally interested in how the killer waves had impacted coastal ecosystems. Then I heard some interesting news reports – on how some elements of Nature had buffered certain locations from Nature’s own fury.

Within days, such news emerged from almost all Tsunami-affected countries. They talked about how coral reefs, mangroves and sand dunes had helped protect some communities or resorts by acting as ‘natural barriers’ against the Tsunami waves. These had not only saved many lives but, in some cases, also reduced property damage. Scientists already knew about this phenomenon, called the ‘greenbelt effect’. Mangroves, coral reefs and sand dunes may not fully block out tsunamis or cyclones, but they can often reduce their impact.

Researching this led to the production of TVE Asia Pacific‘s regional TV series called The Greenbelt Reports, which was filmed at a dozen tsunami impacted locations in South and Southeast Asia. By the time we released the series in December 2006, sufficient time had passed for the affected countries to derive environmental lessons of the tsunami.

The other big story I closely followed was on early warnings for rapid on-set disasters like tsunamis. Some believed that the tsunami caught Indian Ocean rim countries entirely by surprise, but that wasn’t quite true. While the countries of South and Southeast Asia were largely unprepared to act on the tsunami, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) in Hawaii, who had detected the extraordinary seismic activity, did issued a tsunami warning one hour after the undersea quake off western Sumatra. This was received at Sri Lanka’s government-run seismological centre in good time, but went unheeded: no one reacted with the swiftness such information warranted. Had a local warning been issued, timely coastal evacuation could have saved thousands.

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...

Part of my sustained coverage focused on logistical, technological and socio-cultural challenges in delivering timely, credible and effective early warnings to communities at risk. I did this by writing opinion essays on SciDev.Net and elsewhere, partnering in the HazInfo action research project in Sri Lanka, and leading the Communicating Disasters Asian regional project. A lasting outcome is the multi-author book on Communicating Disasters that I co-edited in December 2007.

All this shows the many and varied science or development stories that journalists can find in the aftermath of disasters. Some of these are obvious and widely covered. Others need to be unearthed and researched involving months of hard work and considerable resources. Revisiting the scenes of disasters, and talking to the affected people weeks or months after the event, often brings up new dimensions and insights.

My own advice to science journalists was that they should leave the strictly political stories to general news reporters, and instead concentrate on the more technical or less self-evident facets in a disaster. During discussion, senior journalist Daniel Nelson suggested that all disaster stories are inherently political as they deal with social disparities and inequalities. I fully agreed that a strict separation of such social issues and science stories wasn’t possible or desirable. However, science journalists are well equipped to sniff out stories that aren’t obviously covered by all members of the media pack that descends on Ground Zero. Someone needs to go beyond body counts and aid appeals to ask the hard questions.

As Hujun Li said recalling the post-Sichuan quake experience, “Politics and science are like twins – we can’t separate the two. What we as science journalists can do is to gather scientific evidence and opinion before we critique official policies or practices.”

Another question we were asked was how journalists can deal with emotions when they are surrounded by so much death and destruction in disaster scenes. Reference was made to trauma that some reporters experience in such situations.

I said: “We are human beings first and journalists next, so it’s entirely normal for us to be affected by what is happening all around us. On more than one occasion in the days following the tsunami, I spoke on live television with a lump in my throat; I know of presenters who broke down on the air when emotions overwhelmed them.”

SciDev.Net blog post: Finding the science in the midst of disaster

And now...the sequels

And now...the sequels

Summing up, Tim Radford emphasized the need for the media to take more interest in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), which basically means preventing disasters or minimising the effects of disasters.

“DRR is perhaps less ‘sexy’ for the media, as it involves lots of policies and practices sustained over time,” he said. “But the potential to do public good through these interventions is enormous.”

As Tim reminded us, disasters already exact a terrible and enduring toll on the poorest countries. This is set to get worse as human numbers increase and climate change causes extreme weather and creates other adverse impacts. Living with climate change would require sustained investments in DRR at every level.

Read Tim Radford on how disasters hit the poor the hardest (The Guardian, 22 May 2009).

The stories are out there to be captured, analysed and communicated. In the coming years, the best stories may well turn out to be on disasters averted or minimised

Communicating disasters on film: Experts, please don’t cross this line!

Global Platform bannerExperts should let film-makers produce professional films in simple terms that are more appropriate for public audiences, instead of trying to produce films that have little chance of being broadcast or distributed in other ways. There is a role for technical experts – but that’s not in the crafting and directing of films, but in providing the knowledge, clarifications and guidance to film-makers and journalists who are professionals in communicating complex issues to non-specialist publics.

Self-evident as it may be, these home truths are well worth reiterating every now and then — especially to experts and officials who keep forgetting them (sometimes with disastrous and expensive results!). So I was very glad to read that these points were emphatically made at a ‘film debate’ held in Geneva last week.

The occasion was a panel discussion, ambitiously titled ‘The role of film-makers in promoting climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction stories’. It was held on 17 June 2009 as part of the Second Session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva.

Moderated by the well known journalist, writer and producer Edward Girardet, from Media21, Geneva, it involved five panelists drawn from media/communication sector and the disaster/humanitarian sectors. Among the panelists was my colleague Robert Lamb, director of One Planet Pictures, UK, and consultant producer with dev.tv, Switzerland.

The debate’s premise was simple: So far much of the thrust of the film industry, NGOs, UN organizations and media in portraying disasters and climate change has focused on outcome – which is more visually stimulating – rather than showcasing vital prevention and adaptation solutions. This is necessary, but not sufficient. What can be done to improve the interaction between the film/news industry and leading organizations dealing with disaster risk management and climate change adaptation on a daily basis?

Interviewing tsunami survivor in Tamil Nadu, India - image from TVEAP

Interviewing tsunami survivor in Tamil Nadu, India - image from TVEAP

This was similar to the approach we had in TVE Asia Pacific’s Communicating Disasters project in Asia (2006-2007). We too explored the common ground for these two sectors, with their distinctive needs, and asked how the two can support each other without stepping on each others’ toes.

The same discussion continued in Geneva. I’ve limited information on what actually transpired during the debate, and am hoping someone will soon write it up. For now, here’s a summary adapted from UN-ISDR daily coverage (the official language is theirs, not mine):

“More than 150 participants attended a thought-provoking film debate. The five panelists discussed how to enhance the interaction between the film/news industry and leading organizations dealing with climate change adaptation (CCA) and disaster management to increase CCA visibility which is very limited today in film productions.

“Eight short films were presented during the session, among them a short trailer of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and a CCA film shot in Burkina Faso produced by Christian Aid. After identifying a number of challenges due to their formats and audiences, film-makers and experts agreed it was important to work more closely to make more films on the solutions offered by CCA.

“Film-makers suggested that experts should let them produce professional films in simple terms that are more appropriate to their audiences and focus on bringing expert knowledge to enrich the content of their current productions instead of producing films that have little chance to be broadcast or distributed.”

All this reminds me of a discussion we had around an earlier blog post where I asked: Anyone can make video film, right? So why do we need professionals?