I have written about disaster early warnings on many occasions during the past decade (see 2014 example). I have likened it to running a relay race. In a relay, several runners have to carry the baton and the last runner needs to complete the course. Likewise, in disaster early warnings, several entities – ranging from scientific to administrative ones – need to be involved and the message needs to be identified, clarified and disseminated fast.
Good communications form the life blood of this kind of ‘relay’. Warnings require rapid evaluation of disaster situation, quick decision making upon assessing the risks involved, followed by rapid dissemination of the decision made. Disaster warning is both a science and an art: those involved have to work with imperfect information, many variables and yet use their best judgement. Mistakes can and do happen at times, leading to occasional false alarms.
In the aftermath of the heavy monsoonal rains in late May 2017, southern Sri Lanka experienced the worst floods in 14 years. The floods and landslides affected 15 districts (out of 25), killed at least 208 and left a further 78 people missing. As of 3 June 2017, some 698,289 people were affected, 2,093 houses completely destroyed, and 11,056 houses were partially damaged.
Did the Department of Meteorology and Disaster Management Centre (DMC) fail to give adequate warnings of the impending hydro-meteorological hazard? There has been much public discussion about this. Lankadeepa daily newspaper asked me for a comment, which they published in their issue of 7 June 2017.
I was asked to focus on the use of ICTs in delivering disaster early warnings.
Now, as we enter 2017, civil society faces the twin challenges of holding the current government to account, and preventing yaha-palanaya ideal from being discredited by expedient politicians. At the same time, civil society must also become more professionalised and accountable.
‘Civil society’ is a basket term: it covers a variety of entities outside the government and corporate sectors. These include not only non-governmental organisations (NGOs) but also trade unions, student unions, professional associations (and federations), and community based or grassroots groups. Their specific mandates differ, but on the whole civil society strives for a better, safer and healthier society for everyone.
The path to such a society lies inevitably through a political process, which civil society cannot and should not avoid. Some argue that civil society’s role is limited to service delivery. In reality, worthy tasks like tree planting, vaccine promoting and microcredit distributing are all necessary, but not all sufficient if fundamentals are not in place. For lasting change to happen, civil society must engage with the core issues of governance, rights and social justice.
Ideally, however, civil society groups should not allow themselves to be used or subsumed by political parties. I would argue that responsible civil society groups now set the standards for our bickering and hesitant politicians to aspire to.
Over the weekend of September 25 – 27, the United Nations headquarters in New York hosted the Sustainable Development Summit 2015. It was a high-level segment of the 70th UN General Assembly that was attended by many world leaders including Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena.
The UN, which turns 70 this year, is once again rallying its member governments to a lofty vision and ambitious goal: to embark on new paths to improve the lives of people everywhere.
For this, the Summit adopted a new and improved global task-list called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Prepared after two years of worldwide consultations, the SDGs offer a blueprint for development until 2030.
There are 17 SDGs tackling long-standing problems like ending poverty and reducing inequality to relatively newer challenges like creating more liveable cities and tackling climate change. These are broken down into 169 specific targets. Their implementation will formally begin on 1 January 2016.
The SDGs are to take over from the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, that have guided the development sector for 15 years. Sri Lanka was among the 189 countries that adopted the MDGs at the Millennium Summit the UN hosted in New York in September 2000. On that occasion, the country was represented by Lakshman Kadirgamar as Minister of Foreign Affairs.
The eight MDGs covered a broad spectrum of goals, from eradicating absolute poverty and hunger to combating HIV, and from ensuring all children attend primary school to saving mothers from dying during pregnancy and childbirth.
Much has happened in the nearly 5,500 days separating the adoption of the original MDGs and now, the successor SDGs. This month, as the world commits to ‘leaving no one behind’ (as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said), it is useful to look back, briefly.
Good ‘Report Card’
How has Sri Lanka pursued the MDGs while the country coped with a long drawn civil war, political change, and the fall-out of a global economic recession?
In fact, it has done reasonably well. In its human development efforts, Sri Lanka has quietly achieved a great deal. However, there are gaps that need attention, and some goals not yet met.
We might sum it up with a phrase that teachers are fond of using, even on good students: “You’re doing well – but can do better! Try harder!”
For the past 15 years, the MDGs have provided a framework for Sri Lanka’s national development programmes. Progress has been assessed every few years: the most recent ‘report card’ came out in March 2015.
The MDG Country Report 2014, prepared by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), is a joint publication by the Government of Sri Lanka and the United Nations in Sri Lanka. Data from the 2012 census and Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2012/13 have generated plenty of data to assess MDG situation across the country, including the war affected areas.
“Sri Lanka has already achieved the targets of 13 important MDG indicators out of 44 indicators relevant to Sri Lanka. Most of the other indicators are either ‘On Track’ or progressing well,” says IPS Executive Director Dr Saman Kelegama in his foreword to the report.
The report offers insights into how Sri Lanka’s ‘soft infrastructure’ — all the systems and institutions required to maintain the economic, health, cultural and social standards of a country – are faring.
Consider these highlights:
Sri Lanka’s overall income poverty rates, when measured using accepted statistical benchmarks, have come down from 2% in 2006/7 to 6.7% in 2012.
Unemployment rate has declined from 8% in 1993 to 3.9% in 2012. However, unemployment rate among women is twice as high as among men.
While food production keeps up with population growth, malnutrition is a concern. A fifth of all children under five are underweight. And half of all people still consume less than the minimum requirement of daily dietary energy.
Nearly all (99%) school going children enter primary school. At that stage, the numbers of boys and girls are equal. In secondary school and beyond (university), in fact, there now are more girls than boys.
More babies now survive their first year of life than ever before: infant mortality rate has come down to 9.4 among 1,000 live births (from 17.7 in 1991). Deaths among children under five have also been nearly halved (down from 2 in 1991 to 11.3 in 2009).
Fewer women die needlessly of complications arising from pregnancy and childbirth. The maternal mortality rate, which stood at 92 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990, plummeted to 33 by 2010. Doctors or skilled health workers are now present during almost all births.
Sri Lanka’s HIV infection levels have remained now, even though the number of cases is slowly increasing. Meanwhile, in a major public health triumph, the country has all but eradicated malaria: there have been no indigenous malaria cases since November 2012, and no malaria-related deaths since 2007.
More Lankans now have access to safe drinking water (up from 68% in 1990 to almost 90% in 2012-2013.)
These and other social development outcomes are the result of progressive policies that have been sustained for decades.
“Sri Lanka’s long history of investment in health, education and poverty alleviation programmes has translated into robust performance against the MDGs, and Sri Lanka has many lessons to share,” said Sri Lanka’s UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, Subinay Nandy, at the report’s launch in March 2015.
Mind the Gaps!
Despite these results, many gaps and challenges remain that need closer attention and action in the coming years.
One key concern is how some impressive national level statistics can eclipse disparities at provincial and district levels. The MDG data analysis clearly shows that all parts of Sri Lanka have not progressed equally well.
For example, while most districts have already cut income poverty rates in half, there are some exceptions. These include eight districts in the Northern and Eastern provinces, for which reliable data are not available to compare with earlier years, and the Monaragala District in Uva Province – where poverty has, in fact, increased in the past few years.
Likewise, many human development indicators are lower in the plantation estate sector, where 4.4% of the population lives. An example: while at least 90% of people in urban and rural areas can access safe drinking water, the rate in the estate sector is 46.3%.
Another major concern: the gap between rich and poor remains despite economic growth. “Income inequality has not changed, although many poor people managed to move out of poverty and improve their living conditions,” the MDG Progress report says.
In Gender Equality, Sri Lanka’s performance is mixed. There is no male-female disparity in education, and in fact, there are more literate women in the 15 to 24 age than men. But “these achievements have not helped in increasing the share of women in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector,” notes the report.
Disappointingly, women’s political participation is also very low. The last Parliament had 13 women members out of 225. That was 5.8% compared to the South Asian rate of 17.8% and global rate of 21.1%. The report has urged for “measures to encourage a substantial increase in the number of women in political offices”.
Of course, MDGs and human development are not just a numbers game. While measurable progress is important, quality matters too.
The MDG report highlights the urgent need to improve the quality and relevance of our public education. Among the policy measures needed are increasing opportunities for tertiary education, bridging the gap between education and employment, and reducing the skills mismatch in the labour market.
On the health front, too, there is unfinished – and never ending — business. Surveillance for infectious diseases cannot be relaxed. Even as malaria fades away, dengue has been spreading. Old diseases like tuberculosis (8,000 cases per year) stubbornly persist. A rise in non-communicable diseases – like heart attacks, stroke, cancers and asthma – poses a whole new set of public health challenges.
So the ‘well-performing’ nation of Sri Lanka still has plenty to do. It is just as important to sustain progress already achieved.
The new and broader SDGs will provide guidance in this process, but each country must set its own priorities and have its own monitoring systems. The spread of information and communications technologies (ICTs) has created new sources of real-time data that can help keep track of progress, or lack of it, more easily and faster.
Whereas MDGs covered mostly “safe” themes like poverty, primary education and child deaths, the SDGs take on topics such as governance, institutions, human rights, inequality, ageing and peace. This reflects how much international debates have changed since the late 1990s when the MDGs were developed mostly by diplomats and technocrats.
This time around, not only governments and academics but advocacy groups and activists have also been involved in hundreds of physical and virtual consultations to agree on SDGs. In total, more than seven million people have contributed their views.
As the government of Sri Lanka pursues the SDGs that it has just committed to in New York, we the people expect a similar consultative process.
Goodbye, closed development. Welcome, Open Development!
Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene wrote an earlier version of this for UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Sri Lanka’s new blog Kiyanna.lk. The views are his own, based on 25 years of development communication experience.
Text of my column written for Echelon monthly business magazine, Sri Lanka, August 2015 issue
Media Reforms: The Unfinished Agenda
By Nalaka Gunawardene
When I was growing up in the 1970s, Sri Lanka’s media landscape was very different. We had only one radio station (state-owned SLBC) and three newspaper houses (Lake House, Times of Ceylon and Independent Newspapers). There was no TV, and the web wasn’t even invented.
At that time, most discussions on media freedom and reforms centred around how to contain the overbearing state – which was a key publisher, as well as the sole broadcaster, dominant advertiser and media regulator, all rolled into one.
Four decades on, the state still looms large on our media landscape, but there are many more players. The number of media companies, organisations and products has steadily increased, especially after private sector participation in broadcasting was allowed in 1992.
More does not necessarily mean better, however. Media researchers and advocacy groups lament that broadcast diversification has not led to a corresponding rise in media pluralism – not just in terms of media ownership and content, but also in how the media reflects diversity of public opinion, particularly of those living on the margins of society.
As the late Tilak Jayaratne and Sarath Kellapotha, two experienced broadcasters, noted in a recent book, “There exists a huge imbalance in both media coverage and media education as regards minorities and the marginalised. This does not come as a surprise, as it is known that media in Sri Lanka, both print and broadcast, cater mainly to the elite, irrespective of racial differences.”
In their preface, co-editors William Crawley, David Page and Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena say: “Media liberalisation from the 1990s onwards had extended the range of choice for viewers and listeners and created a more diverse media landscape. But the war in the north and insurrections in the south had taken their toll of media freedoms. The island had lived under a permanent state of emergency for nearly three decades. The balance of power between government, judiciary, the media and the public had been put under immense strain.”
The book, to which I have contributed a chapter on new media, traces the evolution mass media in post-colonial Sri Lanka, with focus on the relevant policies and laws, and on journalism education. It discusses how the civil war continues to cast “a long shadow” on our media. Breaking free from that legacy is one of many challenges confronting the media industry today.
Some progress has been made since the Presidential election. The new government has taken steps to end threats against media organisations and journalists, and started or resumed criminal investigations on some past atrocities. Political websites that were arbitrarily blocked from are once again accessible. Journalists who went into exile to save their lives have started returning.
On the law-making front, meanwhile, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution recognized the right to information as a fundamental right. But the long-awaited Right to Information Bill could not be adopted before Parliament’s dissolution.
Thus much more remains to be done. For this, a clear set of priorities has been identified through recent consultative processes that involved media owners, practitioners, researchers, advocacy groups and trainers. These discussions culminated with the National Summit on Media Reforms organised by the Ministry of Media, the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) and International Media Support (IMS), and held in Colombo on 13 and 14 May.
We can only hope that the next Parliament, to be elected at the August 17 general election, would take up the policy and law related aspects of the media reform agenda (while the media industry and profession tackles issues like capacity building and greater professionalism, and the education system works to enhance media literacy of everyone).
Pursuing these reforms needs both political commitment and persistent advocacy efforts.
Right to Information: The new Parliament should pass, on a priority basis, the Right to Information Bill that was finalised in May 2015 with inputs from media and civil society groups.
Media Self-Regulation: The Press Council Act 5 of 1973, which created a quasi-judicial entity called the Press Council with draconian powers to punish journalists, should be abolished. Instead, the self-regulatory body established in 2003, known as the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL), should be strengthened. Ideally its scope should expand to cover the broadcast media as well.
Law Review and Revision: Some civil and criminal laws pose various restrictions to media freedom. These include the Official Secrets Act and sedition laws (both relics of the colonial era) and the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act that has outlived the civil war. There are also needlessly rigid laws covering contempt of court and Parliamentary privileges, which don’t suit a mature democracy. All these need review and revision to bring them into line with international standards regarding freedom of expression.
Broadcast regulation: Our radio and TV industries have expanded many times during the past quarter century within an ad hoc legal framework. This has led to various anomalies and the gross mismanagement of the electromagnetic spectrum, a finite public property. Sri Lanka urgently needs a comprehensive law on broadcasting. Among other things, it should provide for an independent body to regulate broadcasting in the public interest, more equitable and efficient allocation of frequencies, and a three-tier system of broadcasting which recognises public, commercial and community broadcasters. All broadcasters – riding on the public owned airwaves — should have a legal obligation be balanced and impartial in coverage of politics and other matters of public concern.
Restructuring State Broadcasters: The three state broadcasters – the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) and the Independent Television Network (ITN) – should be transformed into independent public service broadcasters. There should be legal provisions to ensure their editorial independence, and a clear mandate to serve the public (and not the political parties in office). To make them less dependent on the market, they should be given some public funding but in ways that don’t make them beholden to politicians or officials.
Reforming Lake House: Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited or Lake House was nationalised in 1973 to ‘broadbase’ its ownership. Instead, it has remained as a propaganda mill of successive ruling parties. Democratic governments committed to good governance should not be running newspaper houses. To redeem Lake House after more than four decades of state abuse, it needs to operate independently of government and regain editorial freedom. A public consultation should determine the most appropriate way forward and the best business model.
Preventing Censorship: No prior censorship should be imposed on the media. Where necessary, courts may review media content for their legality after publication (on an urgent basis). Laws and regulations that permit censorship should be reviewed and amended. We must revisit the Public Performance Ordinance, which empowers a state body to pre-approve all feature films and drama productions.
Blocking of Websites: Ensuring internet freedoms is far more important than setting up free public WiFi services. There should be no attempts to limit online content and social media activities contravening fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and international conventions. Restrictions on any illegal content may be imposed only through the courts (and not via unwritten orders given by the telecom regulator). There should be a public list of all websites blocked through such judicial sanction.
Privacy and Surveillance: The state should protect the privacy of all citizens. There should be strict limits to the state’s surveillance of private individuals’ and private entities’ telephone conversations, emails and other electronic communications. In exceptional situations (e.g. crime investigations), such surveillance should only be permitted with judicial oversight and according to a clear set of guidelines.
Dealing with Past Demons
While all these are forward looking steps, the media industry as a whole also needs state assistance to exorcise demons of the recent past — when against journalists and ‘censorship by murder’ reached unprecedented levels. Not a single perpetrator has been punished by law todate.
This is why media rights groups advocate an independent Commission of Inquiry should be created with a mandate and adequate powers to investigate killings and disappearances of journalists and attacks on media organisations. Ideally, it should cover the entire duration of the war, as well as the post-war years.
Speech of the President Maithripala Sirisena – 14 July 2015 (in Sinhala)
Sirisena’s speech outlined his key actions and accomplishments since being elected less than 200 days ago in one of the biggest election surprises in Lankan political history. He was mildly defensive of his low-key style of governance, which includes extended periods of silence.
I’ll leave it for political scientists and activists to analyse the substance of the President’s Bastille Day speech. My concern here is why he waited this long.
If a week is a long time in politics, 10 days is close to an eon in today’s information society driven by 24/7 broadcast news and social media. An issue can evolve fast, and a person can get judged and written off in half that time.
For sure, there is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak – and the President must have had some good reasons keep mum. But in this instance, he paid a heavy price for it: he was questioned, ridiculed and maligned by many of us who had heartily cheered him only six months ago. (Full disclosure: I joined this chorus, creating several easy-to-share ‘memes’ and introducing an unkind twitter hashtag: #අයියෝසිරිසේන.)
Sri Lanka’s democratic recovery can’t afford too much of this uncertainty and distraction created by strategic presidential silences. Zen-like long pauses don’t sit well with impatient citizen expectations.
And the President himself must reconsider this strategy (if it is indeed one) — his political opponents are hyperactive in both mainstream and social media, spinning an endless array of stories that discredit him.
Until a generation ago, we used to say that a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes. In today’s networked society, when information travels at the speed of light, fabrications and half-truths spread faster than ever.
Public trust in leaders and institutions is also being redefined. Transparent governance needs political leaders to keep talking with their citizens, ideally in ways that enrich public conversations.
President Sirisena is not the only Lankan leader who needs to catch up with this new communications reality. When a controversy erupted over how the Central Bank of Sri Lanka handled Treasury Bond issue on February 27, the government took more than two weeks to respond properly.
In a strict legalistic or technocratic sense, Wickremesinghe was probably right (as he usually is). But in the meantime, too many speculations had circulated, some questioning the new administration’s commitment to transparency and accountability. Political detractors had had a field day.
Could it have been handled differently? Should the government spokespersons have turned more defensive or even combative?
More generically, is maintaining a stoic silence until full clarity emerges realistic when governments no longer have a monopoly over information dissemination? Is it ever wise, in today’s context, to stay quiet hoping things would eventually blow away? How does this lack of engagement affect public trust in governments and governance?
These are serious questions that modern day politicians and elected officials must address. In my view, we need a President and Prime Minister who are engaged with citizens — so that we are not left guessing wildly or speculating endlessly on what is going on.
No, this is not a call for political propaganda, which has also been sidelined by the increasingly vocal social media voices and debates.
What we need is what I outlined in an open letter to President Sirisena in January: “As head of state, we expect you to strive for accuracy, balance and credibility in all communications. The last government relied so heavily on spin doctors and costly lobbyists both at home and abroad. Instead, we want you to be honest with us and the outside world. Please don’t airbrush the truth.”
Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene has been chronicling and analysing the rise of new media in Sri Lanka since the early 1990s. He is active on Twitter @NalakaG and blogs at http://nalakagunawardene.com
I’m a story teller at heart. I sometimes moonlight as a media researcher or commentator but have no pretensions of being academic. I always try to make my points as interesting as possible — using analogies, metaphors, examples, etc.
This is the approach I used when asked to talk to the working group on Sri Lanka Media Reforms, convened by the Media Ministry, Sri Lanka Press Institute, International Media Support (IMS) and the University of Colombo.
I used a well-loved Russian children’s story that was known in Sinhala translation as නොගැලපෙන රෝද — the story of one vehicle with different sized wheels, and how animal friends tried to make it move and when it proved impossible, how they put each wheel to a unique use…
Well, in the case of media reforms, we can’t go off in different directions. We must make the vehicle work, somehow.
According to its publishers, Sage Publications in India and the UK, the book is an ‘authoritative guide to the state of the news media in Sri Lanka, and the effects of insurgency and civil war on the media’s role in a developing country’.
This is the first book to look comprehensively at the evolution of news media in post-colonial Sri Lanka, with a focus on media policy, law and education. The book reviews the role of new media platforms in widening the scope for public debate.
Further, it provides a detailed analysis of the existing media laws and policies and of campaigns to reform them. It also focuses on the role of institutions in media education by providing a comprehensive analysis of existing media curricula and underlining the importance of improved media literacy and introduction of Right to Information Act for a healthy democracy.
The book is dedicated to the memory of the late Tilak Jayaratne (1943-2013), who ‘ably represented a generation of honourable and committed broadcasters’. Having contributed significantly to the book, he did not live to see its publication.
In their preface to the book, the co-editors write: “Media liberalisation from the 1990s onwards had extended the range of choice for viewers and listeners and created a more diverse media landscape. But the war in the north and insurrections in the south had taken their toll of media freedoms. The island had lived under a permanent state of emergency for nearly three decades. The balance of power between government, judiciary, the media and the public had been put under immense strain.
“In 2009, with the end of the war in the north, all this seemed about to change, increasing the relevance of our enquiries and raising hopes of media reform and greater freedom of expression. But progress towards a different sort of normality has been slow. The war and its aftermath have continued to cast a long shadow, which has limited the scope of our research…
“Over the past few years, universities have been closed for long periods. University teachers have been engaged in disputes with the government, which has affected their teaching and their research. The NGO sector has been heavily criticised by the government for pursuing foreign-funded agendas and finds itself under fire and on the defensive. Many media proprietors and journalists have maintained their long-established habit of self-censorship, for fear of inviting reprisals of one sort or another. Though not on the same scale as previously, there have been killings and disappearances of journalists since 2009 and the memory of past abuses still affects people’s thinking. All this has made the study more challenging.”
The book also contains a glossary of media related terms; a bibliography and an index.
Emerging Digital Democracy? Social Media and Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election 2015
This was the topic of a public talk I gave at the University of London on 12 Feb 2015.
It was organised and hosted by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London in collaboration with the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association (CJA).
They lined up the University’s Senate Room for the talk, which was attended by a South Asian audience who engaged me in a lively discussion.
Synopsis of the talk:
A record 81.5% of registered voters took part in Sri Lanka’s presidential election on 8 January 2015 in which incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated by his former health minister Maithripala Sirisena. The peaceful regime change has been widely acclaimed as a triumph of democracy and a mandate for political reform, improved governance and national reconciliation.
The election saw unprecedented use of social media by both candidates as well as by politically charged yet unaffiliated youth. How much of this citizen awakening can be attributed to the fast spread of smartphones and broadband? Did it really influence how people voted? What does this mean for future politics and governance in Sri Lanka?
In this illustrated talk, science journalist and new media watcher (and practitioner) Nalaka Gunawardene shares his insights and views.