[op-ed] Sri Lanka’s RTI Law: Will the Government ‘Walk the Talk’?

First published in International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) South Asia blog on 3 March 2017.

Sri Lanka’s RTI Law: Will the Government ‘Walk the Talk’?

by Nalaka Gunawardene

Taking stock of the first month of implementation of Sri Lanka's Right to Information (RTI) law - by Nalaka Gunawardene

Taking stock of the first month of implementation of Sri Lanka’s Right to Information (RTI) law – by Nalaka Gunawardene

Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) Law, adopted through a rare Parliamentary consensus in June 2016, became fully operational on 3 February 2017.

From that day, the island nation’s 21 million citizens can exercise their legal right to public information held by various layers and arms of government.

One month is too soon to know how this law is changing a society that has never been able to question their rulers – monarchs, colonials or elected governments – for 25 centuries. But early signs are encouraging.

Sri Lanka’s 22-year advocacy for RTI was led by journalists, lawyers, civil society activists and a few progressive politicians. If it wasn’t a very grassroots campaign, ordinary citizens are beginning to seize the opportunity now.

RTI can be assessed from its ‘supply side’ as well as the ‘demand side’. States are primarily responsible for supplying it, i.e. ensuring that all public authorities are prepared and able to respond to information requests. The demand side is left for citizens, who may act as individuals or in groups.

In Sri Lanka, both these sides are getting into speed, but it still is a bumpy road.

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror

During February, we noticed uneven levels of RTI preparedness across the 52 government ministries, 82 departments, 386 state corporations and hundreds of other ‘public authorities’ covered by the RTI Act. After a six month preparatory phase, some institutions were ready to process citizen requests from Day One.  But many were still confused, and a few even turned away early applicants.

One such violator of the law was the Ministry of Health that refused to accept an RTI application for information on numbers affected by Chronic Kidney Disease and treatment being given.

Such teething problems are not surprising — turning the big ship of government takes time and effort. We can only hope that all public authorities, across central, provincial and local government, will soon be ready to deal with citizen information requests efficiently and courteously.

Some, like the independent Election Commission, have already set a standard for this by processing an early request for audited financial reports of all registered political parties for the past five years.

On the demand side, citizens from all walks of life have shown considerable enthusiasm. By late February, according to Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, Director General of the Department of Information, more than 1,500 citizen RTI requests had been received. How many of these requests will ultimately succeed, we have to wait and see.

Reports in the media and social media indicate that the early RTI requests cover a wide range of matters linked to private grievances or public interest.

Citizens are turning to RTI law for answers that have eluded them for years. One request filed by a group of women in Batticaloa sought information on loved ones who disappeared during the 26-year-long civil war, a question shared by thousands of others. A youth group is helping people in the former conflict areas of the North to ask much land is still being occupied by the military, and how much of it is state-owned and privately-owned. Everywhere, poor people want clarity on how to access various state subsidies.

Under the RTI law, public authorities can’t play hide and seek with citizens. They must provide written answers in 14 days, or seek an extension of another 21 days.

To improve their chances and avoid hassle, citizens should ask their questions as precisely as possible, and know the right public authority to lodge their requests. Civil society groups can train citizens on this, even as they file RTI requests of their own.

That too is happening, with trade unions, professional bodies and other NGOs making RTI requests in the public interest. Some of these ask inconvenient yet necessary questions, for example on key political leaders’ asset declarations, and an official assessment of the civil war’s human and property damage (done in 2013).

Politicians and officials are used to dodging such queries under various pretexts, but the right use of RTI law by determined citizens can press them to open up – or else.

President Maithripala Sirisena was irked that a civil society group wanted to see his asset declaration. His government’s willingness to obey its own law will be a litmus test for yahapalana (good governance) pledges he made to voters in 2015.

The Right to Information Commission will play a decisive role in ensuring the law’s proper implementation. “These are early days for the Commission which is still operating in an interim capacity with a skeletal staff from temporary premises,” it said in a media statement on February 10.

The real proof of RTI – also a fundamental right added to Constitution in 2015 – will be in how much citizens use it to hold government accountable and to solve their pressing problems. Watch this space.

Science writer and media researcher Nalaka Gunawardene is active on Twitter as @NalakaG. Views in this post are his own.

One by one, Sri Lanka public agencies are displaying their RTI officer details as required by law. Example: http://www.pucsl.gov.lk saved on 24 Feb 2017

One by one, Sri Lanka public agencies are displaying their RTI officer details as required by law. Example: http://www.pucsl.gov.lk saved on 24 Feb 2017

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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

 

Siyatha TV CIVIL show: Discussing Sri Lanka’s Right to Information (RTI)

Siyatha TV CIVIL show: Dr Ranga Kalansooriya (left) and Nalaka Gunawardene (right) discuss Sri Lanka's Right to Information law with host Prasanna Jayanththi: 27 Sep 2016

Siyatha TV CIVIL show: Dr Ranga Kalansooriya (left) and Nalaka Gunawardene (right) discuss Sri Lanka’s Right to Information law with host Prasanna Jayanththi: 27 Sep 2016

Back in 2009-2010, I used to host a half hour show on Siyatha TV, a private television channel in Sri Lanka, on inventions and innovation.

So it was good to return to Siyatha on 27 September 2016 — this time as a guest on their weekly talk show CIVIL, to talk about  Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) law.

Joining me was Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, experienced and versatile journalist who has recently become Director General of the Government Department of Information. Our amiable host was Prasanna Jayaneththi.

We discussed aspects of Sri Lanka’s Right to Information Act No 12 of 2016, adopted in late June 2016, with all political parties in Parliament supporting it. Certified by the Speaker on 4 August 2016, we are now in a preparatory period of six months during which all public institutions get ready for processing citizen request for information.

I emphasized on the vital DEMAND side of RTI: citizens and their various associations and groups need to know enough about their new right to demand and receive information from public officials — and then be motivated to exercise that right.

I argued that making RTI a fundamental right (through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in April 2015), passing the RTI Act in June 2016 and re-orienting the entire public sector for information disclosure represent the SUPPLY side. It needs to be matched by inspiring and catalysing the DEMAND side, without which this people’s law cannot benefit people.

In the final part, Ranga and I also discussed aspects of Sri Lanka’s media sector reforms, which are stemming from a major new study that he and I were both associated with: Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka (May 2016).

 

Part 1:

 

Part 2:

 

Part 3:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are my opening remarks for the panel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I posed five broad questions to get our panelists thinking:

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

 The panel comprised:

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

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

[Op-ed] Major Reforms Needed to Rebuild Public Trust in Sri Lanka’s Media

Text of an op-ed essay published in the Sunday Observer on 10 July 2016:

Major Reforms Needed to Rebuild Public Trust

in Sri Lanka’s Media

 By Nalaka Gunawardene

Sri Lanka’s government and its media industry need to embark on wide-ranging media sector reforms, says a major new study released recently.

Such reforms are needed at different levels – in government policies, laws and regulations, as well as within the media industry and profession. Media educators and trainers also have a key role to play in raising professional standards in our media, the study says.

Recent political changes have opened a window of opportunity which needs to be seized urgently by everyone who desires a better media in Sri Lanka, urges the study report, titled Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka.

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

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

The report was released on World Press Freedom Day (May 3) at a Colombo meeting attended by the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and Minister of Mass Media.

The report is the outcome of a 14-month-long research and consultative process. Facilitated by the Secretariat for Media Reforms, it engaged over 500 media professionals, owners, managers, academics, relevant government officials and members of various media associations and trade unions. It offers a timely analysis, accompanied by policy directions and practical recommendations. I served as is overall editor.

“The country stands at a crossroads where political change has paved the way for strengthening safeguards for freedom of expression (FOE) and media freedom while enhancing the media’s own professionalism and accountability,” the report notes.

Politicians present at the launch could only agree.

“The government is willing to do its part for media freedom and media reforms. But are you going to do yours?” he asked the dozens of editors, journalists and media managers present. There were no immediate answers.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks at the launch of 'Rebuilding Public Trust' report in Colombo, 3 May 2016 (Photo courtesy SLPI)

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks at the launch of ‘Rebuilding Public Trust’ report in Colombo, 3 May 2016 (Photo courtesy SLPI)

Whither Media Professionalism?

The report acknowledges how, since January 2015, the new government has taken several positive steps. These include: reopening investigations into some past attacks on journalists; ending the arbitrary and illegal blocking of political websites done by the previous regime; and recognising access to information as a fundamental right in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (after the report was released, the Right to Information Act has been passed by Parliament, which enables citizens to exercise this right).

These and other measures have helped improve Sri Lanka’s global ranking by 24 points in the World Press Freedom Index (https://rsf.org/en/ranking). It went up from a dismal 165 in 2015 index (which reflected conditions that prevailed in 2014) to a slightly better 141 in the latest index.

Compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a global media rights advocacy group, the Index reflects the degree of freedom that journalists, news organisations and netizens (citizens using the web) enjoy in a country, and the efforts made by its government to respect and nurture this freedom.

Sri Lanka, with a score of 44.96, has now become 141st out of 180 countries assessed. While we have moved a bit further away from the bottom, we are still in the company of Burma (143), Bangladesh (144) and South Sudan (140) – not exactly models of media freedom.

Clearly, much more needs be done to improve FOE and media freedom in Sri Lanka – and not just by the government. Media owners and managers also bear a major responsibility to create better working conditions for journalists and other media workers. For example, by paying better wages to journalists, and allowing trade union rights (currently denied in many private media groups, though enjoyed in all state media institutions).

Rebuilding Public Trust acknowledges these complexities and nuances: freedom from state interference is necessary, but not sufficient, for a better and pluralistic media.

It also points out that gradual improvement in media freedom must now to be matched by an overall upping of media’s standards and ethical conduct.

By saying so, the report turns the spotlight on the media itself — an uncommon practice in our media. It says that only a concerted effort by the entire media industry and all its personnel can raise professional standards and ethical conduct of Sri Lanka’s media.

A similar sentiment is expressed by Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, an experienced journalist turned media trainer who was part of the report’s editorial team (and has since become the Director General of the Department of Information). “Sri Lanka’s media freedom has gone up since January 2015, but can we honestly say there has been much (or any) improvement in our media’s level of professionalism?” he asks.

Media in Crisis

Tackling the dismally low professionalism on a priority basis is decisive for the survival of our media which points fingers at all other sections of society but rarely engages in self reflection.

Rebuilding Public Trust comes out at a time when Sri Lanka’s media industry and profession face many crises stemming from an overbearing state, unpredictable market forces and rapid technological advancements. Balancing the public interest and commercial viability is one of the media sector’s biggest challenges today.

The report says: “As the existing business models no longer generate sufficient income, some media have turned to peddling gossip and excessive sensationalism in the place of quality journalism. At another level, most journalists and other media workers are paid low wages which leaves them open to coercion and manipulation by persons of authority or power with an interest in swaying media coverage.”

Notwithstanding these negative trends, the report notes that there still are editors and journalists who produce professional content in the public interest while also abiding by media ethics.

Unfortunately, their good work is eclipsed by media content that is politically partisan and/or ethnically divisive.

For example, much of what passes for political commentary in national newspapers is nothing more than gossip. Indeed, some newspapers now openly brand content as such!

Similarly, research for this study found how most Sinhala and Tamil language newspapers cater to the nationalism of their respective readerships instead of promoting national integrity.

Such drum beating and peddling of cheap thrills might temporarily boost market share, but these practices ultimately erode public trust in the media as a whole. Surveys show fewer media consumers actually believing that they read, hear or watch.

One result: younger Lankans are increasingly turning to entirely web-based media products and social media platforms for obtaining their information as well as for speaking their minds. Newspaper circulations are known to be in decline, even though there are no independently audited figures.

If the mainstream media is to reverse these trends and salvage itself, a major overhaul of media’s professional standards and ethics is needed, and fast. Newspaper, radio and TV companies also need clarity and a sense of purpose on how to integrate digital platforms into their operations (and not as mere add-ons).

L to R - Lars Bestle of IMS, R Sampanthan, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Paranawithana, Gayantha Karunathilake with copies of new study report on media reforms - Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

L to R – Lars Bestle of IMS, R Sampanthan, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Paranawithana, Gayantha Karunathilake with copies of new study report on media reforms – Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

Recommendations for Reforms

The report offers a total of 101 specific recommendations, which are sorted under five categories. While many are meant for the government, a number of important recommendations are directed at media companies, journalists’ and publishers’ associations, universities, media training institutions, and development funding agencies.

“We need the full engagement of all stakeholders in building a truly free, independent and public interest minded pluralistic media system as a guarantor of a vibrant democracy in Sri Lanka,” says Wijayananda Jayaweera, a former director of UNESCO’s Communication Development Division, who served as overall advisor for our research and editorial process.

In fact, this assessment has used an internationally accepted framework developed by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Known as the Media Development Indicators (MDIs), this helps identify strengths and weaknesses, and propose evidence-based recommendations on how to enhance media freedom and media pluralism in a country. Already, two dozen countries have used this methodology.

The Sri Lanka study was coordinated by the Secretariat for Media Reforms, a multistakeholder alliance comprising the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media; Department of Mass Media at University of Colombo; Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI); Strategic Alliance for Research and Development (SARD); and International Media Support (IMS) of Denmark.

We carried out a consultative process that began in March 2015. Activities included a rapid assessment discussed at the National Summit for Media Reforms in May 2015 (attended by over 200), interviews with over 40 key media stakeholders, a large sample survey, brainstorming sessions, and a peer review process that involved over 250 national stakeholders and several international experts.

Nalaka Gunawardene, Editor of Rebuilding Public Trust in Media Report, presents key findings at launch event in Colombo, 3 May 2016 - (Photo courtesy SLPI)

Nalaka Gunawardene, Editor of Rebuilding Public Trust in Media Report, presents key findings at launch event in Colombo, 3 May 2016 – (Photo courtesy SLPI)

Here is the summary of key recommendations:

  • Law review and revision: The government should review all existing laws which impose restrictions on freedom of expression with a view to amending them as necessary to ensure that they are fully consistent with international human rights laws and norms.
  • Right to Information (RTI): The RTI law should be implemented effectively, leading to greater transparency and openness in the public sector and reorienting how government works.
  • Media ownership: Adopt new regulations making it mandatory for media ownership details to be open, transparent and regularly disclosed to the public.
  • Media regulation: Repeal the Press Council Act 5 of 1973, and abolish the state’s Press Council. Instead, effective self-regulatory arrangements should be made ideally by the industry and covering both print and broadcast media.
  • Broadcast regulation: New laws are needed to ensure transparent broadcast licensing; more rational allocation of frequencies; a three-tier system of public, commercial and community broadcasters; and obligations on all broadcasters to be balanced and impartial in covering politics and elections. An independent Broadcasting Authority should be set up.
  • Digital broadcasting: The government should develop a clear plan and timeline for transitioning from analogue to digital broadcasting in television as soon as possible.
  • Restructuring state media: The three state broadcasters should be transformed into independent public service broadcasters with guaranteed editorial independence. State-owned Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (Lake House) should be operated independently with editorial freedom.
  • Censorship: No prior censorship should be imposed on any media. Where necessary, courts may review media content for legality after publication. Laws and regulations that permit censorship should be reviewed and amended.
  • Blocking of websites: The state should not limit online content or social media activities in ways that contravene freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and international conventions.
  • Privacy and surveillance: Privacy of all citizens and others should be respected by the state and the media. There should be strict limits to the state surveillance of private individuals and entities’ phone and other electronic communications.
  • Media education and literacy: Journalism and mass media education courses at tertiary level should be reviewed and updated to meet current industry needs and consumption patterns. A national policy is needed for improving media literacy and cyber literacy.

Full report in English is available at: https://goo.gl/5DYm9i

Sinhala and Tamil versions are under preparation and will be released shortly.

Science writer and media researcher Nalaka Gunawardene served as overall editor of the new study, and also headed one of the four working groups that guided the process. He tweets as: @NalakaG