[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

Advertisements

[Op-ed]: Lankan Civil Society’s Unfinished Business in 2017

Sri Lanka's Prime Minister (left) and President trying to make the yaha-palanaya (good governance) jigsaw: Cartoon by Anjana Indrajith

Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister (left) and President trying to make the yaha-palanaya (good governance) jigsaw: Cartoon by Anjana Indrajith

As 2016 drew to a close, The Sunday Leader newspaper asked me for my views on Lankan civil society’s key challenges in 2017. I had a word limit of 350. Here is what I wrote, published in their edition of 1 January 2017:

Lankan Civil Society’s Unfinished Business in 2017

By Nalaka Gunawardene

Sections of Sri Lanka’s civil society were closely associated with the political changes that happened at the presidential and general elections in 2015. That was only natural as the notion of good governance had been articulated and promoted by civil society for years before Maithri and Ranil embraced it.

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.

Take, for example, two progressive legal measures adopted during 2016: setting aside a 25% mandatory quota for women in local government elections, and legalising the Right to Information. Both these had long been advocated by enlightened civil society groups. They must now stay vigilant to ensure the laws are properly implemented.

Other ideals, like the March 12 Movement for ensuring clean candidates at all elections, need sustained advocacy. So Lankan civil society has plenty of unfinished business in 2017.

Nalaka Gunawardene writes on science, development and governance issues. He tweets from @NalakaG.

Note: Cartoons appearing here did not accompany the article published in The Sunday Leader.

After 18 months in office, Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena seems less keen on his electoral promises of good governance, which he articulated with lots of help from civil society. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror, 24 June 2016.

After 18 months in office, Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena seems less keen on his electoral promises of good governance, which he had articulated with lots of help from civil society. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror, 24 June 2016.

Right to Information (RTI): Sri Lanka can learn much from South Asian Experiences

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at RTI Seminar for Sri Lanka Parliament staff, 16 Aug 2016

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at RTI Seminar for Sri Lanka Parliament staff, 16 Aug 2016

 

On 16 August 2016, I was invited to speak to the entire senior staff of the Parliament of Sri Lanka on Right to Information (RTI) – South Asian experiences.

Sri Lanka’s Parliament passed the Right to Information (RTI) law on 24 June 2016. Over 15 years in the making, the RTI law represents a potential transformation across the whole government by opening up hitherto closed public information (with certain clearly specified exceptions related to national security, trade secrets, privacy and intellectual property, etc.).

This presentation introduces the concept of citizens’ right to demand and access public information held by the government, and traces the evolution of the concept from historical time. In fact, Indian Emperor Ashoka (who reigned from c. 268 to 232 Before Christ) was the first to grant his subjects the Right to Information, according to Indian RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak, Coordinator, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). Ashoka had inscribed on rocks all over the Indian subcontinent his government’s policies, development programmes and his ideas on various social, economic and political issues — including how religious co-existence.

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at RTI Seminar for Parliament staff, Sri Lanka - 16 Aug 2016

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at RTI Seminar for Parliament staff, Sri Lanka – 16 Aug 2016

Therefore, adopting an RTI law signifies upholding a great Ashokan tradition in Sri Lanka. The presentation looks at RTI good practices and implementation experiences in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Maldives – all these South Asian countries passed an RTI law before Sri Lanka, and there is much that Sri Lanka can learn from them.

The presentation ends acknowledging the big challenges in implementing RTI in Sri Lanka – reorienting the entire public sector to change its mindset and practices to promote a culture of information sharing and transparent government.

 

 

Drafting a New Constitution for Sri Lanka: “ව්‍යවස්ථාවක් කියන්නේ සිල්ලර ලියවිල්ලක් නෙවෙයි” | නාලක ගුණවර්ධන

Sri Lanka’s new government has committed to drafting a new Constitution to replace the current one adopted in 1978.

According to the Cabinet spokesperson, “for the first time [in Sri Lanka], a Constitution is going to be framed with the consultation of people.” Though the country has adopted Constitutions twice after independence — in 1972 and 1978 — public participation was negligible on both occasions.

Nalaka Gunawardene in a serious pose

Nalaka Gunawardene in a serious pose

This is well and good, but it is still not clear what consultation mechanisms would be used, and how genuinely consultative the process is going to be. Our politicians and officials lack imagination and courage to try out new methods of public participation in governance. For example, they barely use the potential of new information and communications technologies (ICTs).

In an interview with Prasad Nirosha Bandara of Ravaya independent broadsheet newspaper, published on 20 December 2015, I make an earnest case for the new Constitution drafting process to be more open, more participatory and more consultative by using all available methods – tried and tested old-fashioned ones, as well as new potential opened up by the spread of the web, mobile phones and social media.

As an example, I cited the experience of Iceland using social media to crowdsource ideas for its new Constitution drafted in 2011-12. Admittedly it was easier for a population of 320,000 people but some generic lessons could be learnt.

I also draw attention to a historically important memorandum was sent by the Ceylon Rationalist Association on 25 September 1970 to Dr Colvin R De Silva, then Minister of Constitutional Affairs, who was heading the group tasked with drafting what eventually became the country’s first Republican Constitution of 1972. Written by the Association’s Founder President Dr Abraham Thomas Kovoor, it captured the broad, idealistic vision that members of that voluntary group of free thinkers had advocated since its inception in 1960. Among other principles, it advocated – in point 6 – that “the best protection for freedom of conscience is a Secular State”.

I located the memo two years ago and published it online on Groundviews.org so that it becomes widely available. In this interview, I urge the new Constitution drafters of 2016 not to make the same mistakes that Colvin R de Silva did in 1972 by ignoring these ideas of public intellectuals.

ආණ්ඩුකරම ව්යවස්ථා සම්පාදනයක මූලික ස්වරූපය මොකද්ද?

ආණ්ඩුක‍්‍රම ව්‍යවස්ථා සම්පාදනය දිහා ඓතිහාසිකව බලද්දි පේන්න තියෙන දෙය තමයි ලෝකයේ බොහෝ රටවල ව්‍යවස්ථා සංශෝධන වෙන්නේ සීමිත විද්වතුන් හා ප‍්‍රභූන් පිරිසක් මගින් වීම. ඇමරිකානු ව්‍යවස්ථාව කියන්නේ ලෝකේ තියෙන ඉතා හොද දාර්ශනික සහ ප‍්‍රබල නීතිමය ලියවිල්ලක්නේ. නමුත් ඒක කළේත් ජනරජයේ සමාරම්භකයන් විදිහට හැඅදින්වූ දේශපාලන නායකයන් හා ප‍්‍රභූන් පිරිසක්. ඒ පිරිස අතර ඉතාම දුරදක්නා නුවණ සහිත හරබරව හිතපු අය හිටියා. ඒත් ඒක පුළුල් සහභාගිත්ව ක‍්‍රියාදාමයක් වුණේ නෑ.

ඊට වඩා මෑතකාලීන උදාහරණයක් වන ඉන්දියානු ව්‍යවස්ථාව වුණත් ගොඩනගන්නේ ආචාර්ය අම්බෙඞ්කාර්ගේ නායකත් වයෙන් යුතු කණ්ඩායමක්. අම්බෙඞ්කාර් කියන්නේ ව්‍යවස්ථා විශේෂඥයෙක් වගේම මහා බුද්ධිමතෙක්.

ලංකාවේ ජනරජ ව්‍යවස්ථා දෙක ම හදන්නේත් මොළකාරයන් තමයි. හැත්තෑදෙකේ ව්‍යවස්ථා සම්පාදනයට නායකත්වය දුන්නේ ආචාර්ය කොල්වින් ආර් ද සිල්වා. ඔහුගේ දැනුම හා දේශපාලන දැක්ම ගැන කිසි විවාදයක් නෑ. හැත්තෑ අටේ ව්‍යවස්ථාව සම්පාදනය වෙන්නේත් ඒ වාගේම උගතුන් පිරිසක් අතින්. නමුත් ඔවුන් අතින් නිර්මාණය වුණ ව්‍යවස්ථා දෙකට ම කාලයාගේ අභියෝගයට මුහුණ දෙන්න බැරිවුණා. ඒවායේ තිබුණ දුර්වල තැන් කාලයාගේ ඇවෑමෙන් ඉරි තලන්න ගත්තා. විවිධාකාර පැලැස්තර සංශෝධනවලින් වහගන්න හැදුවේ ඒ ඉරිතැලීම් තමයි.

ව්යවස්ථා සම්පාදනය මහජන සහභාගිත්වයෙන් තොරව හොර පාරෙන් කිරීම නෙවෙයිද ඒවා ඉක්මනින් එපාවීමට හේතුව?

Dr Abraham T Kovoor

Dr Abraham T Kovoor

ඒකෙ කිසියම් ඇත්තක් තියෙනවා තමයි. නමුත් හැත්තෑ දෙකේ ආණ්ඩුක‍්‍රම ව්‍යවස්ථාව හදද්දි වුණත් සමහර වෙලාවට ජනමතයන් භාවිත කරනු ලැබුවා. ඒ සංදේශ ආකාරයට. උදාහරණයක් විදියට, ඒ ව්‍යවස්ථාව පිළිබද හේතුවාදීන් ලියූ ඒ විදියේ සංදේශයක් හේතුවාදීන්ගේ අමතක වුණ ප‍්‍රකාශයක තිබිලා මට හම්බ වුණා. පස්සෙ මං ඒක කෙටි හැදින්වීමකුත් එක්ක ග‍්‍රවුන්ඞ් වීව්ස් වෙබ් අඩවියේ පළ කළා. හේතුවාදී සංගමයේ නායකයා වුණ ආචාර්ය ඒබ‍්‍රහම් ටී කොවුර් විසින් ඒ සංදේශය කොල්වින්ට යවලා තියෙන්නේ එක්දහස් නවසිය හැත්තෑවේ සැප්තැම්බර් විසිපහ.

ව්‍යවස්ථා සම්පාදනයකදී ජන මතය භාවිත කරන්න පුළුවන් ක‍්‍රම දෙකක් තියෙනවා. එකක් තමයි මැතිවරණ ප‍්‍රතිපත්ති ප‍්‍රකාශනයක් මගින් මහජන අදහස් විමසන එක. තමන් මැතිවරණයෙන් ජයග‍්‍රහණය කළහොත් අහවල් අහවල් ව්‍යවස්ථා සංශෝධන කරන බව ජනතාවට කල් තියා හෙළි කරමින් ඒ සදහා ඔවුන්ගේ වරම ගන්න පුළුවන්.

නමුත් ඒ මගින් යන්න පුළුවන් සීමාවක් තියෙනවා. මොකද ව්‍යවස්ථාවක අඩංගු කරන හැම සියුම් කාරණාවක්ම මැතිවරණ ප‍්‍රතිපත්ති ප‍්‍රකාශනයක අඩංගු කරන්න බෑ. ඒ නිසා හොදම දේ ව්‍යවස්ථා සංශෝධනයේදී මහජන අදහස් විමසන එක.

මේ වන විට සිදු කරමින් පවතින ව්‍යවස්ථා කෙටුම්පත්කරණයට අදහස් ලබා දෙන ලෙස මාධ්‍ය මගින් දන්වලා තියෙනවා මම දැක්කා. ඒත් ඒ ක‍්‍රමවේදය හරියට පැහැදිලි නෑ. උගත් පාඩම් හා ප‍්‍රතිසන්ධාන කොමිසමේ අයත් මේ විදිහට සාක්කි ඉල්ලූවානේ. ඒත් එතැනදී ඔවුන් කොමසාරිස්වරුන් පත් කරලා තිබුණා. යමෙක් ලිඛිතව සාක්කි දෙනවා නම් ඒවා ලබාදිය හැකි කාර්යාලයක් තිබුණා. වාචිකව සාක්කි දෙන්න පුළුවන් දවස් කල් තබා දැන්නුවා. ඒත් මේ සිදුකරන සංශෝධන ක‍්‍රමවේදයේ මහජන සහාභාගිත්වයට ලබාදෙන ඉඩ පැහැදිලි නෑ. ඒ නිසා මේක මීට වඩා විනිවිද දකින මට්ටමකට ගේන්න ඕනෑ. ඒ සදහා රටේ ජනතාව හා සිවිල් සංවිධාන වහාම මැදිහත් වෙන්න ඕනෑ. ඒ වාගේ කරුණු විමසීමක් විවෘත වුණාම ඒකට සහභාගි වෙන්න මිනිස්සු සූදානම් වෙන්නත් අවශ්‍යයි.

මේ වාගේ අදහස් විමසීමකදී තොරතුරු තාක්ෂණය නිර්මාණශීලීව යොදාගන්න බැරිද?

දැන් ලෝකයේ ගොඩක් රටවල සිද්ධවෙන්නේ ඒ දේ තමයි. හොදම උදාහරණය විදියට අයිස්ලන්තයේ ව්‍යවස්ථා සම්පාදන වැඩපිළිවෙළ ගන්න පුළුවන්. අයිස්ලන්තය කියන්නේ සාපේක්ෂව කුඩා ජනගහනයක් ඉන්න උතුරු යුරෝපීය රාජ්‍යයක්. ඒ රටේ ජනගහනය ලක්ෂ තුනහමාරක් විතර. මේ අය දෙදහස් දහයේදී නව ආණ්ඩුක‍්‍රම ව්‍යවස්ථාවක් සම්පාදනය කළා. එහිදී පාර්ලිමේන්තුව පක්ෂ විපක්ෂ බේදයකින් තොරව තීරණය කළා ව්‍යවස්ථා සම්පාදන වැඩපිළිවෙළ මහජනයා එක්කම සිදු කළ යුතුයි කියලා.

එතැනදී ඔවුන් ඉස්සෙල්ලාම කළේ ව්‍යවස්ථා සම්පාදක මණ්ඩලයට අමතරව රටේ සෑම ප‍්‍රදේශයක්ම හා ජන කොටසක්ම නියෝජනය කරන ආකාරයේ නියෝජිතයන් නවසිය පනහක් තෝරාගන්නා එක. ඒ ඒ ප‍්‍රදේශවල ජනතාවගේ ගැටලූ සහ ආශාවන් නියෝජනය කරන මහජන මණ්ඩලය විදියට කටයුතු කළේ ඒ පිරිස. එහෙම නැත්තම්, ව්‍යවස්ථා සම්පාදක කමිටුව හා රටේ සමස්ත ජනයා අතර අතරමැදියන් විදියට කටයුතු කළේ ඒ අය.

ඊළගට ඔවුන් තම ව්‍යවස්ථා සම්පාදනය වෙනුවෙන් නිල ෆේස්බුක් පිටුවක් පටන්ගත්තා. ඒ අනුව ඒ රටේ හැම පුරවැසියෙකුට වගේම පිටරට ජීවත්වන අයිස්ලන්ත ජාතිකයන්ට තම ව්‍යවස්ථාව පිළිබද අදහස් දක්වන්න පුළුවන් වුණා. ඒ විතරක් නෙමෙයි අයිස්ලන්ත ව්‍යවස්ථාව ගැන උනන්දු විදේශිකයකුට පවා අවශ්‍ය නම් අදහස් දක්වන්න පුළුවන් වුණා ඒ ෆේස්බුක් පිටුව තුළ.

Facebook was used as part of a public consultation strategy to draft Iceland's new Constitution in 2011-13

Facebook was used as part of a public consultation strategy to draft Iceland’s new Constitution in 2011-13

ආණ්ඩුක‍්‍රම ව්‍යවස්ථාවේ හැම කොටසක් ම කෙටුම්පත් වූ විගස ඒ පිටුව මගින් ප‍්‍රචාරය කළා. ඒ හැම පරිච්ෙඡ්දයක් ම නරඹමින් අදහස් දක්වන්න, තර්ක විතර්ක කරන්න හැමෝටම අවකාශය හිමිවුණා. ඒ අනුව ලැබෙන අදහස් දැක්වීම් මත කෙටුම්පත යළි යළි සංශෝධනය කෙරුණා. අයිස්ලන්ත ව්‍යවස්ථාව කෙටුම්පත් කළ කාලය අවුරුදු දෙකක්. ඒ කාලය තුළ මේ අදහස් දැක්වීම් මත ආණ්ඩුක‍්‍රම ව්‍යවස්ථාව නැවත නැවත දොළොස් වතාවක් කෙටුම්පත් කෙරුණා.

ඒ විතරක් නෙමෙයි, ව්‍යවස්ථා සම්පාදක කමිටුව රැස්වෙන හැම වාරයක්ම සජීවීව රූපගත කරලා ප‍්‍රචාරය කෙරුණා. කොහොමින් කොහොම හරි දෙදහස් දොළහේදී ව්‍යවස්ථාව අනුමත වෙද්දී ඒක බහුතර ජනතාවගේ දායකත්වය මත කෙරුණ හා රටේ බහුතරයකගේ පිළිගැනීමට ලක්වුණ එකක් වුණා.

ඇත්තටම අයිස්ලන්ත ව්‍යවස්ථාව තමයි මං දන්න තරමින් වැඩිපුරම ජන සහභාගිත්වයෙන් සිදුවුණ ව්‍යවස්ථාව. අලූත් ආණ්ඩුක‍්‍රම ව්‍යවස්ථා සම්පාදනයේදී අපිටත් මේ දේවල් කරන්න පුළුවන් කියලායි මට හිතෙන්නේ.

ඒ විතරක් නෙමෙයි අයිස්ලන්තයේ ව්‍යවස්ථා සම්පාදක කමිටුවට තෝරාගත්තේ රටේ දක්ෂ නීතිඥයන්, වෛද්‍යවරු, පූජකයන්, ගොවි නියෝ ජිතයන්, පාරිභොගිකයන් නියෝජනය කරන්නන්, ශිෂ්‍ය නියෝජිතයන්, වෙළද නියෝජිතයන්, කලාකරුවන් වගේ පුළුල් ක්ෂේත‍්‍රවල අය. ඒ වගේ ම එතැනදී ස්ත‍්‍රී පුරුෂ දෙපාර්ශ්වයෙන්ම යොදාගන්න ඔවුන් වගබලාගත්තා.

ලංකාවේ සමාජ් මාධ් භාවිත කරන ආකාරයත් එක්ක ගොඩ නැගුණු සුවිශේෂී ගැටලූ මේ වාගේ කටයුත්තකදී හරස් වෙන එකක් නැද්ද?

සමාජ මාධ්‍ය කියන්නේ කොහොමත් නොයෙක් ගාලගෝට්ටිවලින් පිරුණු සතිපොළක් වගේ තැනක් තමයි. මේ වාගේ පියවරකට යද්දී අපිටත් යම් යම් ගැටලූ මතුවෙන්න පුළුවන්. සමාජ්‍ය මාධ්‍යවල හරවත් දේ වාගේම හරසුන් දේ කියන කරන අයත් ඉන්නවා. ඒ වාගේම තේරුමක් නැතිව ගැටුම් ඇතිකරගන්න අයත් ඉන්නවා. ඒක තමයි සමාජ මාධ්‍යයේ ස්වභාවය.

සමහර විට ෆේස්බුක් තුළ ඉලක්කයක් නිවැරදිව තියා ගන්න සංවාද දිගට ගෙනි යන්න අමාරු වෙයි. නමුත් ඒක තමයි අභියෝගය. ඒක අයිස්ලන්තය වගේ රටවල් කළා නම් අපිට බැරි වෙන එකක් නෑ. අනික ජනසම්මත ආණ්ඩුවක් හැටියට ප‍්‍රතිපත්ති සම්පාදනය කළ යුත්තේ ඒ වාගේ වඩා ගාලගෝට්ටියක් තියෙන තැනක ඉදන් ම තමයි.

හේතුවාදීන් කොල්වින්ට ලියූ ඔබ දැක්වූ සංදේශයේ මේ ව්යවස්ථාවට වැදගත්වන සංකල්පත් ඇති?

ඒවායින් ගොඩක් දේවල් අදටත් වැදගත් තමයි. එදා කොවුර් ඇතුළු පිරිස කොල්වින්ලාගෙන් ඒ ඉල්ලීම් කළත් බොහෝවිට ව්‍යවස්ථා සම්පාදනයේදී කළේ ඊට ප‍්‍රතිවිරුද්ධ දේවල්. හැත්තෑ අටේ ව්‍යවස්ථාවේදී වුණත් ඒ දේවල් හරියට වුණේ නෑ.

ඒ සංදේශයේදී හේතුවාදීන් මුලින් ම පෙන්නා දෙන්නේ අධිකරණයේ ස්වාධීනත්වය කියන කරුණ. ව්‍යවස්ථාදායකය විධායකය සහ අධිකරණය එකිනෙකට වෙන්ව පැවතීම හා සංවරණය හා තුලනය වීම ගැන එතැනදී කතා කරලා තියෙනවා. ඒ වාගේම නීතියේ ස්වාධිපත්‍යය කියන සංකල්පය සම්පූර්ණයෙන් ම ව්‍යවස්ථාව විසින්ම තහවුරු කළ යුතු බව කියන කොවුර් ඒ සංදේශය අවසන් කරන්නේ නීතියේ ස්වාධිපත්‍යය සහ ස්වභාව යුක්තියේ මූලධර්මය කියන එක සෑදීමට නියමිත ව්‍යවස්ථාවේ මුදුන්මල්කඩ කරගත යුතු බවත් කියමින්.

ඒ සංදේශයේදී කොවුර් දෙවැනියට කියන්නේ මූලික අයිතිවාසිකම් ගැන. එතැනදී ඔහු එක්දහස් නවසිය හතළිස් අටේ සම්මත කළ මානව හිමිකම් පිළිබද විශ්ව ප‍්‍රකාශනය උපුටා දක්වනවා. නව ව්‍යවස්ථාව සියලූම පුරවැසියන්ගේ අයිති වාසිකම් සුරැුකීමට සමත් විය යුතු බවත් ජාතිය, කුලය, ආගම, ලිංගිකත්වය උපන් ස්ථානය හෝ වෙනස් සාධකයක් නිසා කිසිම අයෙකුට අඩුවෙන් සැලකිය නොහැකි බවත් එතැනදී කියනවා.

නිලධාරීවාදය නිසා බැට කන දුක් විදින සාමාන්‍ය ජනතාවගේ දුක්ගැනවිලි කියන්න ඔම්බුඞ්ස්මන්වරයෙක් පත් කළ යුතු බවත් ඒ යෝජනා අතර තියෙනවා. නමුත් ඒ එකක්වත් හැත්තෑ දෙකේදි සිද්ධ වුණේ නෑ. ඒ වාගේම රාජ්‍ය සේවා කොමිසම හරහා රාජ්‍ය සේවය සම්පූර්ණයෙන්ම දේශපාලන බලපෑම්වලින් ආරක්ෂා කර ගත යුතුයි කියලා හැත්තෑ ගණන්වලදී පවා එදා කොවුර් කියලා තියෙනවා.

මේ සංදේශයේ තියෙන ඉතාමත් වැදගත් යෝජනාවක් තමයි ලංකාවේ ඇදහීමේ නිදහස මුළුමනින්ම ආරක්ෂාවන පරිදි ආගමයි රාජ්‍යයයි දෙක වෙන් කළ යුතුයි කියන එක. ඕනෑම ආගමක් හා ඕනෑම චින්තනයක් ඇදහීමේ නිදහස මුළුමනින්ම ආරක්ෂා කිරීමයි එතැනදී බලපෑවේ. ඕනෑම කෙනෙක් ඕනෑම ආගමක් ඇදහුවත් රාජ්‍යයට ආගමක් තිබිය යුතු නෑ කියලා කොවුර් ඍජුව කියනවා. එදා කොවුර්ලා මේ විදියට ඉල්ලීම් කළත් කොල්වින්ලා බෞද්ධාගමට සුවිශේෂී සැලකිල්ලක් දුන්නේත් මේ ව්‍යවස්ථාවේදීමයි. ඒ වෙලාවේ කොවුර්ගේ මේ තාර්කික අනතුරු හැගවීම කොල්වින් තැකුවා නම් ලංකාවේ ව්‍යවස්ථා ඉතිහාසය විතරක් නෙමෙයි වාර්ගික හා ආගමික වශයෙන් රට අර්බුදයට ගිය තත්ත්වය මීට වඩා වෙනස් වෙන්නත් ඉඩ තිබුණා.

දැන් කියූ බෞද්ධාගමික රමුඛත්වය සමාජයේ මුල් ඇදලානේ. වාගේ තත්ත්වයක් තුළ ඒක වෙනස් කරන එක පහසු වෙයිද?

හැත්තෑ දෙකේ ඇතිකළ මේ තත්ත්වයට තවමත් අවුරුදු පණහක්වත් නෑ. ඒ කියන්නේ හරියට බැලූවොත් අපේ පරම්පරා දෙකක්වත් ඔය බන්ධනයට යටත් වෙලා නෑ. රටක ප‍්‍රගමනයට ජනප‍්‍රිය නොවන තීන්දු ගන්න පාලකයන්ට සිද්ධ වෙනවා. ව්‍යවස්ථාවක් කියන්නේ සිල්ලර ලියවිල්ලක් නෙවෙයිනේ. ඉතින් මේ අවස්ථාවේ රනිල් වික‍්‍රමසිංහ අගමැතිවරයා සහ ව්‍යවස්ථා සම්පාදක මණ්ඩලය ඒ සදහා විශාල කැපකිරීමක් කරන්න ඕනෑ.

ඒ විතරක් නෙමෙයි, ලෝකයේ තියෙන සංකීර්ණත්වය ළමයින්ට බාලවියේදී තේරුම්ගන්න බැරි නිසා පාසලේදී ආගම් ඉගැන්විය යුතු නැති බව පවා අර සංදේශයේදී කොවුර් කිව්වා. ආගම කියන එක තමන්ට තේරෙන වයසේදී තමන් විසින් ම තෝරාගන්න සිසුන්ට ඉඩ දෙන්න අවශ්‍ය බවයි එතැනදී හේතුවාදීන් අදහස් කළේ. ඒ වාගේ ම රජයේ සේවයක් ලබාගැනීමට රෝහලකට හරි වෙනත් කාර්යාලයකට හරි ගියාම මහජනයාගෙන් ආගම සහ ජාතිය විමසීම නැවැත්වීමට ව්‍යවස්ථාව තුළින් ම ප‍්‍රතිපාදන සැකසිය යුතු බවත් ඔහු ඒ සංදේශයෙන් කියනවා. මොකද ඒ වාගේ කාර්යයක් කරගන්න යද්දී රජය සහ පුරවැසියා අතර ගනුදෙනුවට ඒ වගේ පසුබිම් අදාළ නෑ.

කොයි දේ වුණත් අද යුගයටත් වඩා සමාජය පරිණාමය වෙලා තියෙනවා. මේත් එක්ක මතු වෙන සුවිශේෂී ව්යවස්ථාමය අවශ්යතාවන් නැද්ද?

ඇත්ත. හැත්තෑ අටේ ව්‍යවස්ථාව සම්මත කරන කාලයත් එක්ක බැලූවත් අද වන විට ලෝකය ගොඩක් ඉස්සරහට ඇවිත්. ඒ වාගේම ඒ කාලයේ තිබුණාට වඩා වෙනස් විදියේ් අභියෝගත් අද මතුවෙලා තියෙනවා. මානව හිමිකම් පිළිබද දැනුම හා අවබෝධය ගත්තත් ඒ වාගේ. අද මානව හිමිකම් විශාල වශයෙන් පුළුල් වෙලායි තියෙන්නේ. හැත්තෑ ගණන්වල මඳ වශයෙන් ලෝකය කතා කළ ලිංගික සුළුතරයන්ගේ අයිතිවාසිකම් වාගේ දේවල් වුණත් අද නොතකා හරින්න බෑ. මොකද අද ඒවාට ලෝක සමාජයේ විශාල පිළිගැනීමක් තියෙනවා. ඒ අයගේ අයිතිවාසිකම් රැකගැනීම රාජ්‍යයේ වගකීමක් වෙලා තියෙනවා. ඒවා ඊනියා සදාචාරවාදීන්ගේ බලපෑම් මත අමතක කරන්න බෑ.

කථනයේ හා භාෂණයේ නිදහස අද වනවිටත් හැම දෙනාටම තියෙනවානේ. ඒ වගේම දහනව වන ව්‍යවස්ථා සංශෝධනය යටතේ තොරතුරු දැන ගැනීමේ අයිතියත් තහවුරු වෙලා ඉස්සරහට ගියා. ඒ නිසා අලූත් ව්‍යවස්ථාව තුළ ඒවා මේ තියෙන මට්ටමින් ම පවත්වාගන්න ඕනෑ. ඒ වාගේම සයිබර් අවකාශයේ අදහස් ප‍්‍රකාශ කිරීමේ ප‍්‍රකාශන නිදහසත් මේ ව්‍යවස්ථාව තුළ වෙනම සටහන් විය යුතුයි. අද මේ වාගේ කරුණක් සම්බන්ධයෙන් නීතිමය ගැටලූවක් ඇති වුණොත් ගොඩක් වෙලාවට අධිකරණය කරන්නේ ඒවාත් අදහස් ප‍්‍රකාශනයට අදාළය කියලා අරන් තීන්දු දෙන එක. නමුත් මේ වෙනුවෙන් සෙසු අදහස් ප‍්‍රකාශනයන්ට තියෙන තරමටම ස්වාධීන ප‍්‍රතිපාදන සැකසීම ඉතාම වැදගත්. එදා ප‍්‍රකාශන නිදහස කියලා හැදින්වුණේ යමක් ලිවීමේ හා යමක් ප‍්‍රකාශ කිරීමේ අයිතිය. නමුත් අද වනවිට ඉන්ටෙර්නෙට් හරහා එය තවත් මානයකට ගිහින් තියෙනවා. සයිබර් අවකාශයේ ප‍්‍රකාශන අයිතිය තහවුරු කරගන්නේ කොහොමද, ඒවාට තියෙන සාධාරණ සීමා මොනවාද වගේ දේවල් අද වෙන විට අවධානයට ලක්වෙනවා.

බුරුමයේ මාධ්‍ය ප‍්‍රතිසංස්කරණ සදහා විද්වත් දායකත්වය දක්වන්න කියලා මට ආරාධනා ලැබුණ නිසා පහුගිය කාලයේ මං දෙවතාවක් බුරුමයට ගිය නිසා මට ඒ රටේ අත්දැකීම් ටිකකුත් ලැබුණා. අපි දන්නවානේ බුරුමය කියන්නේ අවුරුදු පණහක් විතර දැඩි කුරිරු හමුදා පාලනයක ඉදලා දැන් දැන් නිදහස් වෙන රටක්. පහුගිය මාසයේ පැවති ඡන්දයෙන් අවුන් සාන් සු චීගේ පක්ෂයට සියයට හැත්තෑවක ජනවරමක් ලැබුණා. ඒ අනුව ලබන මාර්තු මාසේ ඒ අය රජයක් පිහිටුවන්නයි හදන්නේ. ඇත්තටම බුරුමය මේ වෙලාවේ තියෙන්නේ ඉතාමත් තීරණාත්මක මොහොතක. මීට කලිනුත් ඡන්දයකින් සුකී මේ විදිහට ම ජයග‍්‍රහණය කළාම ඒ ප‍්‍රතිඵල අහෝසි කළ ඉතිහාසයක් බුරුමේ තියෙන්නේ.

කොහොම වුණත් දැන් බුරුමයේ ඉක්මනින් ආණ්ඩුක‍්‍රම ප‍්‍රතිසංස්කරණ සිදුවෙමින් තියෙනවා. ඒ වාගේම මේ වෙලාවේ මාධ්‍ය සම්බන්ධයෙන් විශාල ප‍්‍රතිසංස්කරණ වැඩ පිළිවෙළක් සිදුකරගෙන යනවා මාධ්‍යවේදීන්ගේ මැදිහත්වීමෙන්ම. බුරුමය කියන්නේ පහුගිය කාලයේ කිසිම නියාමනයක් නැති මාධ්‍ය සංස්කෘතියක් තිබුණ රටක්. ඒත් පහුගිය කාලයේ ඒ අය ගෙනගිය වැඩපිළිවෙළ තුළින් අපිට ඉගෙනගන්න දේවල් ගොඩක් තියෙනවා.

From MDGs to SDGs: Well done, Sri Lanka, but mind the gaps!

This op-ed appeared in Daily Mirror broadsheet newspaper in Sri Lanka on 1 October 2015.

From MDGs to SDGs:

Well done, Sri Lanka — but mind the gaps!

By Nalaka Gunawardene

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.

Sustainable Development Summit 2015 Logo

Sustainable Development Summit 2015 Logo

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.

SDGs in a nutshell - courtesy UN

SDGs in a nutshell – courtesy UN

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.

That is also the overall message in a recent report that took stock of Sri Lanka’s pursuit of Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs.

Sri Lanka MDG Country Report 2014

Sri Lanka MDG Country Report 2014

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.

Highlights

 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.

Proportion of Lankans living below the poverty line - total head count and breakdown by district

Proportion of Lankans living below the poverty line – total head count and breakdown by district

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.

Sri Lanka offers the safest motherhood in South Asia

Sri Lanka offers the safest motherhood in South Asia

Open Development

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.

Equal numbers of girls and boys go to school in Sri Lanka today, But women struggle harder to find employment.

Equal numbers of girls and boys go to school in Sri Lanka today, But women struggle harder to find employment.

All infographics courtesy: Millennium Development Goals: Sri Lanka’s Progress and Key Achivements, http://countryoffice.unfpa.org/srilanka/?reports=10872

Echelon August 2015 column: Media Reforms – The Unfinished Agenda

Text of my column written for Echelon monthly business magazine, Sri Lanka, August 2015 issue

Cartoon by Awantha Artigala, Sri Lanka Cartoonist of the Year 2014

Cartoon by Awantha Artigala, Sri Lanka Cartoonist of the Year 2014

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.”

 Media under pressure

 The multi-author book, titled Embattled Media: Democracy, Governance and Reform in Sri Lanka (Sage Publications, Feb 2015), was compiled during 2012-14 by a group of researchers and activists who aspired for a freer and more responsible media. It came out just weeks after the last Presidential Election, where media freedom and reforms were a key campaigning issue.

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.”

Embattled Media - Democracy, Governance and Reform in Sri Lanka

Embattled Media – Democracy, Governance and Reform in Sri Lanka

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.

Parallel to this, there were two international missions to Sri Lanka (in March and May) by representatives of leading organisations like Article 19, UNESCO and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). I served as secretary to the May mission that met a range of political and media leaders in Colombo and Jaffna.

 Unfinished business

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.
Cartoon by Awantha Artigala, Sri Lanka Cartoonist of the Year 2014

Cartoon by Awantha Artigala, Sri Lanka Cartoonist of the Year 2014

 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.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene is on Twitter @NalakaG and blogs at http://nalakagunawardene.com

Thoughts on Realising Peace, Reconciliation and Ending Violence: Remarks at WCY 2014

World Conference of Youth 2014: Colombo, Sri Lanka

World Conference on Youth 2014: Colombo, Sri Lanka

When I was invited to speak at World Conference on Youth 2014, being held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, this week, I accepted on one condition: that I don’t have to ‘clear’ my remarks with anyone before delivering. (This precaution was necessary as the host government of Sri Lanka is not known for its capacity to accommodate divergent or dissenting points of view.)

The organisers — Ministry of Youth Affairs & Skills Development —  kept their word, and I just spoke at a session on Realising Peace, Reconciliation and Ending Violence. The theme is apt, especially in view of forthcoming fifth anniversary of the end of Sri Lanks civil war.

Alas, we had no opportunity to discuss any of the speeches due to sessions starting late. But I was able to engage several youth delegates, both from Sri Lanka and around the world, who apparently shared my idealism.

Here then is the text of my remarks (slightly ad-libbed during delivery):

Knotted gun sculpture at UN Headquarters in New York, made by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd - Photo by Dhara Gunawardene, 2011

Knotted gun sculpture at UN Headquarters in New York, made by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd – Photo by Dhara Gunawardene, 2011

Theme: Realising Peace, Reconciliation and Ending Violence

Remarks by Nalaka Gunawardene

Science writer, columnist and blogger          

I thank the organisers for this opportunity.

Participating today reminds me of the IDEALISM, HOPE & PASSION with which I took part in similar events in my own youth – which was not that long ago!

In particular, I remember two instances:

A quarter century ago, as an undergraduate, I took part in an Asian regional Model United Nations conference held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The topic assigned to our group was VIOLENCE WITHIN AND BETWEEN SOCIETIES.

In all eagerness, we explored big questions such as:

  • Do we humans have an evolutionary inclination for aggression and violence?
  • What socio-economic factors trigger youth unrest and insurrection?
  • How does culture aggravate or mitigate conflicts?

For several days, a few dozen of us from across Asia discussed and debated this and other key concerns.

Five years later, as a young journalist, I had the opportunity to attend the World Youth Leadership Summit, held at the UN headquarters in New York. In the fall of 1995, around 200 of us from around the world came together to discuss the state of the world – and our role in shaping its future!

Again, a key topic that occupied our minds was the RISING VIOLENCE WITHIN OUR SOCIETIES. Not just civil wars and crime — but also INSTITUTIONALISED DISCRIMINATION and STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE.

These discussions enhanced my understanding of violence, which has become more SOPHISTICATED and INSIDIOUS in today’s world.

STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE as a concept was introduced in 1969 by the Norwegian sociologist and peace researcher Johan Galtung. He defined it as: “any form of violence where some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs”.

There are many examples of STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE in our societies. Among them:

  • institutionalized elitism;
  • ethno-centrism;
  • racism;
  • sexism; and
  • nationalism

STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE affects people differently in various social structures, and is closely linked to SOCIAL INJUSTICE.

So, in a broad sense, campaigns for HUMAN RIGHTS & SOCIAL JUSTICE are attempts to resist – and ideally, reduce – structural violence. These mass movements include:

  • the CIVIL RIGHTS movement in the US;
  • WOMEN’S RIGHTS movement worldwide;
  • ANTI-APARTHEID struggles in South Africa;
  • current global efforts to reduce absolute POVERTY; and
  • the on-going struggle for recognizing rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups.

While fewer people are dying today in conflicts between nations, or even those within nations, we cannot rejoice: we still have many faces of STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE and SYSTEMIC VIOLENCE.

So did we save the world in the Fall of 1995 through all our eager and idealistic discussions at the UN Headquarters?

No, we didn’t. Our world is still an UNJUST, UNFAIR and UNSAFE place for too many human beings.

But experiences and exposure like that probably SAVED ME – from becoming an uncritical and unquestioning peddler of the dominant narrative. It opened my mind – to question rhetoric and spin, coming from governments, UN agencies and even civil society.

That is probably the greatest benefit of conferences like this:

  • opening of our minds;
  • deepening of our understanding & empathy; and
  • broadening of our perspectives.

I wish I could tell you that Sri Lanka offers a fine example of post-war RECONCILIATION. But our reality is actually more complex and complicated.

Five years ago this month, we witnessed the end of Sri Lanka’s CIVIL WAR which last for over 25 years. As a diverse nation and a pluralistic society, our people felt many different emotions about that defining moment.

One sentiment most of us shared was a HUGE SENSE OF RELIEF. And some of us also felt a huge sense of RESPONSIBILITY –

  • for HOW the war was ended; and
  • the enormous rebuilding and healing that had to be done.

Five Years later…

The factors that led to the violent conflict still remain largely unaddressed. These include concerns about governance, political power sharing, and economic benefit sharing – issues that youth feel strongly about.

In the past 40 years – in my lifetime – similar concerns have triggered two other youth insurrections in Sri Lanka — in 1971 and in the late 1980s. Both were suppressed violently by the state in the name of law and order. The scars of those wounds have not yet healed either.

In this sense, many of us have three layers of scars from recent violence. And we realise, belatedly, how HEALING involves more our HEARTS than our MINDS.

We know that PEACE is much more than the simple absence of hostility. Likewise, RECONCILIATION entails much more than a mere co-existence of groups who were once engaged in a conflict.

RECONCILIATION cannot be decreed by leaders……or legislated by governments. Technocratic solutions are helpful — but not sufficient — to achieve RECONCILIATION.

Progressive state policies can nurture RECONCILIATION — but in the end, TRUE HEALING must spring from all of us… individually and collectively.

It’s not EASY, and it’s not always POPULAR. But it’s a worthy goal to aspire to!

Building SUSTAINABLE PEACE requires time, effort – as well as a switch in our mindset. We must face HARD TRUTHS, acknowledge them, and hopefully, FORGIVE…

There is cultural conditioning that stands in the way. Historically, many societies have glorified war, weaponry and combat. AGGRESSION is often seen as a sign of strength…and of masculinity.

With this inertia of history and culture…can we replace confrontation and conflict with cooperation and collaboration?

The religious case for this is well known. But I hesitate to invoke religions as they have inspired so much hatred and violence.

In recent years, we have seen a growing body of scientific evidence and theories that argue that COLLABORATION HAS A GREATER SURVIVAL VALUE than aggression.

This is contrary to the long held Darwinian notion of the ‘survival of the fittest’. It now appears that virtues like KINDNESS, GENEROSITY and SHARING are more than just moral choices: they are useful EVOLUTIONARY TRAITS too!

The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello has been studying the EVOLUTION OF TOLERANCE & TRUST among human beings and the role it plays in today’s societies. He and other researchers have drawn attention to the evolutionary benefits of COLLABORATION and ALTRUISM.

There is no consensus yet among experts. Anthropologists, evolutionary biologists and sociologists keep debating about:

  • individual selection vs. group selection in evolution; and
  • whether aggression or collaboration has key survival value.

As Harvard biologist Edward O Wilson summed it up in his recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth:

“The human condition is an endemic turmoil rooted in the evolution processes that created us. The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be.”

So our big challenge is: How to tame our worst evolutionary baggage, and instead bring out our best as a species?

I don’t have any quick answer. But this is among the questions we must all keep asking – and keep looking for practical, thoughtful answers.

Dear friends,

It’s easier to have abundant IDEALISM, HOPE & PASSION when you’re 18 or 25 or even 30. It’s harder to retain these values when you’re approaching 50 — as I am, now. But I keep trying!

I wish you stimulating conversations. I hope you’ll find enough common ground — while not forcing any artificial consensus!

Thank you.