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Are journalists failing today’s public?



Journalists perform a vital function in keeping the public informed about everything that happens around them, affecting the day-to-day life of the people. They are indispensable to the good health of a democratic society. The importance of this function is illustrated by the press being considered the fourth estate, augmenting the executive, legislature and the judiciary, the three pillars on which a viable democracy could stand. Attempts are being made at every opportunity by interested parties to distort the truth and mislead the people, so that the proponents can hoodwink them and achieve their own ends. Ours is a country with a long legacy of self-seeking politicians, in connivance with their accomplices on mass media, misleading the people with falsehoods. Hence the necessity of the masses to be well informed of true facts is even more important.

Despite the ready availability of the internet, the electronic media and the printed press are the main sources for people to receive information. This is specially so at a time when mass gatherings, indoor and outdoor meetings and the like are severely curtailed due to the pandemic. This situation has provided an ideal cover for wrongdoers to carry on with their sinister programmes keeping the populace in the dark. This has almost become an integral part of the “new normal”. As the rulers and the politicians in general are the decision-makers, often ignoring or not seeking the advice of the learned in the respective field, to know their utterances and answers to any questions raised is important. When the main channels of information fail, social media takes over, giving widely varied perspectives, with questionable authenticity, of a multitude of individuals, often anonymous, confusing the people even further. It is still fresh in our memory how irresponsible news reports and social media posts during times of ethnic conflict and racial disputes lead to violence in the not too distant past.

The state-controlled news media invariably give pro-government views almost amounting to partisan propaganda. They hardly ever give any news or opinions that are against the views or actions of the government. Thus they shield the authorities from any evidence of public discontent, thereby not allowing any course correction that may be required. As far as the so-called independent media are concerned, it is well known and generally accepted that the editorial views expressed therein show the leaning, political or otherwise, of the proprietors of the organizations. When such ownership is mostly in the hands of pro-government businessmen, the democratic Opposition is at a huge disadvantage, having at its disposal only a very limited means of conveying their message to the people. To make matters worse, the handful of news channels and social media, giving information unfavourable to the government, run the risk of being clamped down. Even in progressive democracies of the developed world, news groups historically carry partisan labels, political, business or otherwise. However, most of the time, such affiliations do not colour their commentaries on national issues.

In this adverse environment, it is the primary duty of the journalists to ensure that the truth is extracted from decision-makers. We find the reporters questioning the leaders and other officials at various meetings or at scheduled discussions and Q & A sessions. There are only a very few brave newsmen/newswomen who would ask probing questions, often embarrassing the person concerned, but eventually extracting the truth. Every time a politician comes out from a meeting, many microphones bearing the labels of leading news organizations are used, through half open shutters of luxury vehicles, to record their answers to various queries made. The problem with most reporters is that it is always a one way process. Even when obvious untruths are uttered, there is no cross questioning of any sort that could expose the untruth and unearth the truth. Such unverified facts thus gathered, receive immediate headlines in the newspapers and news bulletins despite all the evidence already available to the contrary. Search for the truth has given way to sensational journalism, making the news media the mouth-pieces of the errant politicians and their subservient officials. The politicians, used to having their own way over the years without being challenged, often get irritated and give abusive answers to probing questions. There are several instances where such reporters asking embarrassing questions have been barred from getting anywhere near them.

The present controversy about chemical fertilis ers and pesticides is a classic example where journalists have failed the people. There is a widely held misconception among the public that these chemicals are harmful to human health. However, there is no proven scientific evidence even to arouse suspicion that this is so. Despite much surveys and research, to date there has been no compelling evidence to show that these chemical substances have a role in causing chronic kidney disease, rampant in some provinces of the island. Yet, we find that in many discussions with journalists and others, politicians and even some medical specialists, keep stressing confidently about the existence of such a harmful relationship. A medical specialist has been callous enough to pronounce that many generations have been poisoned with chemicals used in agriculture. If this is true, obviously this has to be a worldwide phenomenon well established by now, although there is no such evidence anywhere. No journalist has been brave enough to question and challenge them about the evidence for those misleading statements. Such failure in the long term leads to authorities making wrong decisions, as repeated utterances and reporting of unchallenged falsehoods by so called experts will eventually become accepted as the truth (Goebbels theory). In contrast, the role played by the reporters and journalists during the current pandemic in keeping the people well informed is commendable.

It is disappointing to note that the news media concentrate only on a few issues at a given time. At present new Cabinet appointments and farmers’ problems are receiving attention. The ongoing calamities with long-term repercussions like destruction of nature with the cutting down of trees on a large scale, unregulated sand mining of river beds, and even the extensive damage done to the seafront and marine life destroying the livelihood of fishermen by the recent maritime disaster, are almost completely forgotten by the news media. The human-elephant conflict causing immense misery needing continued attention is off the table now. It is the duty of journalists and reporters to ensure that these issues and discussions are kept alive, until meaningful remedial action is taken by those responsible.

Most reporters appear to be amateurs with no formal training in the field. It is reasonable to expect the few who may have followed a course in journalism offered in many institutions, to do better in their profession. It is imperative that they have a basic knowledge or understanding of the subject under discussion. It would be a valuable learning exercise to follow the reporters and journalists in advanced democracies, asking probing questions even from seemingly very powerful leaders and others, until the unambiguous truth is elicited. As a result, those who are questioned are careful enough to speak only the facts that could be substantiated.

Our journalists, if not investigative, should at least be inquisitive. Instead they appear to be totally subdued in the presence of overpowering personalities trying their best to avoid embarrassing situations. It is heartening to see a handful of journalists on television programmes, brave enough to ask probing questions from powerful ministers and officials trying their best to avoid giving straight forward answers. One only hopes that their own bosses at TV channels will not silence them, as almost 90% of news organisations are owned either by the government or by businessmen who have benefited tremendously by their unwavering loyalty to politicians in power.

By being passive broadcasters of unverified falsehoods uttered by equally ignorant people, the newsmen are insulting the intelligence of the people. They appear to be working to their own agendas rather than promoting the wellbeing of the nation. They have often failed the populace eagerly waiting to learn the truth, especially in these turbulent times with many controversies disturbing the peace-loving citizens of the land.



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Covid pandemic, KNDU debate and civil-military relations



By Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Covid-19 pandemic, undoubtedly, is the central challenge Sri Lanka is facing today, along with other countries. All indications are that the world might not be able to get back to ‘normal’ at least until 2023. This is assuming that our governments would be able to implement viable vaccination programmes and other necessary measures with people’s cooperation.


Gravity of the pandemic

Even that ‘normal’ might not be the ‘past normal’ with most countries facing continued economic devastation, weak workforces due to poor health conditions, disrupted international trade relations, and environmental catastrophes. It is not clear what kind of a political-economic ‘model’ would hold for the future as liberal capitalism is the root cause of most of the present disasters, plundering of natural resources, pollution of environment, displacing of animals and over exploitation of the human resource.

In the case of Sri Lanka, so far the challenge of the Coronavirus pandemic has been handled satisfactorily, although the necessary cooperation from some important sections has not been forthcoming. The near future, however, is not very clear given the devastating effects of the fast-spreading new Delta variant. Nevertheless, there are sections in the polity who want to desperately continue their politics, protests, strikes or even ‘plans to overthrow the government’ disregarding these conditions.

To the people, politics in a democratic system is about choices through trial and error. They did a trial in 2015 and found an error. They have again done a new trail in 2019/2020 and may be evaluating the results. The best possible choice for the people under democracy is to get the best out of any government that they elect during the tenure through dialogue, cooperation, non-cooperation, criticism and constructive criticism. This is exactly what is happening in countries like Australia where I live at present. Strikes and protests are staples in the democratic menu, but not exactly under conditions like the prevailing pandemic.


Measures in Australia and Sri Lanka

Until recently, Australia managed the pandemic fairly well, given the cooperation the central government and state governments received from the oppositions, medical professionals, health workers, trade unions and the public. Unlike France, there were not much opposition to lockdowns, face masks, social distancing, or strict guidelines. Australia managed the situation quite well, like New Zealand until recently.

Perhaps because of the successes, Australia also got a little complacent and the vaccination roll-out got delayed. This appears to be the key reason the virus started to spread again particularly in Sydney (NSW), in addition to the attack by the virulent Delta variant since last month. Now there are strict rules again. Compared to Sri Lanka, the public health system is quite advanced and the private sector is cooperating. There were no strikes or protests by doctors or nurses, although there are similar pay anomalies and grievances on their part. They were patient and tolerant.

Of course, the grievances in Sri Lanka are more grave, as a poor and developing country. Moreover, politics is exceedingly hot. Education is a field greatly affected in both countries with obvious future repercussions. In Australia, teachers are cooperating fully, conducting online teaching. In Sri Lanka, obviously there are problems, but teacher protests are completely undermining the efforts to resolve them.

Australia has the necessary resources to offset the adverse economic effects on employment and businesses, due to lockdowns and other restrictions, through job-keeper, job-seeker and business concessions. However, such possibilities, in Sri Lanka, are limited. In controlling the spread of the virus, Australia is implementing extremely effective contact-tracing measures and asking people to follow strict rules. While this type of accurate measures are difficult in SriLanka, many people who are infected or possibly infected appear to be taking these instructions lightly.

Because of, people’s widespread mistrust of the police, the application of these regulations through the police in Sri Lanka has become difficult. This is not the case in Australia. There is no apparent opposition to lockdowns or other government measures by opposition political parties at the national, state or provincial levels. The opposing Labour Party cooperates with the government, critically as necessary.

There were some protest demonstrations against lockdowns recently in Sydney and Melbourne which were forcefully dispersed and the perpetrators were brought to justice with punishments and heavy fines. This kind of pandemic control might not be possible in Sri Lanka given the present political culture and people exercising freedoms without responsibilities.

The NSW government brought the military into the scene and prevented any protest from taking place during last weekend. Soldiers are also deployed to ‘knock door-to-door’ in local government areas, where strict lockdowns are implemented, to reprimand those who disobey. Of course these measures are implemented with civility and respect for people’s rights.


KNDU Debate

Although the pandemic is the main challenge at the moment, the government, the Opposition, the civil society, media, academics or any other party should not neglect addressing or discussing other issues. What is necessary is to understand the circumstances, and prepare for the next stage, without unnecessarily postponing anything else. Therefore, the KNDU (Kotelawala National Defence University) debate is important but it should be placed in the broader context.

There is a pressing need to expand, upgrade and diversify University education, of course without violating the basic principles of free education. While around 350,000 students sit for the admissions examination (GCE-A), and around 200,000 students qualify for admissions, only around 30,000 are admitted to universities. This year the University Grants Commission (UGC) intends to enroll an additional 10,000 students to bring the number to around 40,000. Annually over 10,000 students go abroad for their education. These figures very clearly show the need to further expand university education.

Under the UGC, there are 15 universities and the average student intake is around 2,000. The expansion of university education has been lethargic, from my experience, due to the centralised control of the UGC. At least universities like Colombo, Peradeniya and Moratuwa should have been granted autonomy a long time ago, to expand, be efficient and innovate.

KNDU has been under the Ministry of Defence and independent from the UGC. The property was donated by Sir John Kotelawala and as a fee levying university it has become largely self-reliant. Its capacity has increased over five-fold, admitting less than 200 students at the beginning and increasing eventually to around 1,000 per year. KNDU is primarily a defence university (special purpose), but admits civil students. The teachers are mainly military but with other reputed academics participating.


Some questions

There can be (and are) inconsistencies and weaknesses in the proposed Bill for the KNDU. But such weaknesses exist even in the Universities Act (1978). It is up to the government and the Opposition to sort them out.

1. KNDU is primarily opposed claiming it jeopardises free education. General Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy or University was in existence since 1981, but there was no such opposition before. There are private universities, but those are also not opposed, but patronised by some. KNDU fees should be reasonable and it should not be a profit making enterprise. Some public universities running on a fair-fee basis, with other assistance, would help expand ‘fully free education’ for needy students while expanding the university system in the country as a whole.

A university (first) degree today is considered only a basic qualification internationally. Therefore, expansion of university education is a must for Sri Lanka to be on par with other countries in knowledge, skills and capacities. KNDU appears to make a useful contribution towards this end.

2. KNDU is also opposed because of its military affiliation or nature. This is largely a misplaced and/or emotional outburst. During 2005 and 2010, I was affiliated with the KNDU, mainly teaching human rights. I have known many civilian academics teaching different subjects in KNDU then and thereafter. Since then, the civilian student population has expanded even to the point of including foreign students. The interaction of civil and military, local and international is a healthy atmosphere at the KDU.

Student unions are barred at KNDU. Instead there are social clubs. Military training is reserved for military cadets. Perhaps sports should be promoted for civilian students (aiming at Olympics!). Sri Lanka is poor in sports except for cricket. Of course the quality and standards of KNDU courses, curricula and teaching should be reviewed by the UGC or such organisation.


Civil-Military Relations

I believe the newly proposed KNDU Bill can play a major role in civil-military relations. This is something neglected in Sri Lanka. Defence forces are and should be ‘People’s Defence Forces.’ They are not enemies of the people and should not be the case. The defence personnel, and also the police, also should learn how to deal with the people with civility.

In Australia, a Civil-Military Centre (ACMC) promotes this scenario. The Centre also includes the police in its programmes. Its mission statement is, “We work in contexts where there are no easy answers, where the environment is always changing. Our purpose is to support civil-military-police capabilities to prevent, prepare for and respond more effectively to conflicts and disasters.”

Particularly in the context of a pandemic like the Coronavirus, recurrent floods, landslides and droughts, and oceanic disasters like X-Press Pearl, the field of study of ‘civil-military relations’, both in theory and practice, is important. In all these activities women should be given equal prominance. The proposed KNDU Bill, with positive amendments, can expand university education, upgrade and diversify courses and curricula, and also promote civil-military relations, of course without jeopardizing free education.


A civil-military seminar in Australia (ACMC)

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Apples and doctors



Once at a party, in Riyadh, a very close engineer friend of mine (late Yaseen Marikkar) who, in fact, helped to recruit hundreds of his workmates who were with him when he was attached to a British firm in Colombo. He was married to a doctor (late Doctor Nafeesa Marikkar) and told those present that the English proverb ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ does not work with everybody and in his case even if he were to take two apples a day he cannot keep this doctor away — pointing at his wife, who is a doctor.

There was loud laughter! However, according to studies, it should work, at least with some. Although there is another apple-related saying that I am quoting here, with utmost reluctance, since it is a little harsh on the doctors, most of whom dedicate their life to serve humanity. It goes as follows: “Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.” We admit that in every profession there are bad apples, too, so the medical profession is no exception.

Apple contains Vitamin C, which helps our immune system in our body. It also prevents heart diseases and cancers. It contains phenols, which reduces bad cholesterol, and it prevents tooth decay and infection that damages the structure of teeth and thus paves the way for a new saying, “An apple a day also keeps the dentist away.”

Survey has revealed, apples protects brain diseases and, most importantly, of all other fruits, it tastes great! Apple is an affordable fruit in many parts of the world although it is not the same in most of the Third World Countries, where this ‘little doctor’ is scarce and expensive.





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The need for vaccination and masking



First, I will give the bad news. Princetown is a fishing village in Massachusetts the USA. This region has achieved a high rate of vaccination against Covid. While Massachusetts is the second highest state in the rate of vaccination, Princetown had vaccinated almost all of their population, above 12 years. Encouraged by this high rate of vaccination, Princetown did what it does best, partying. On 4th of July, in the warm Summer weather, thousands got into pubs, restaurants and beaches. By 12th of July, new cases of Covid started to crop up and soon there were 833 new cases. The bad news is that 73% of these cases were fully vaccinated. Moreover, studies, based on these cases, proved that the Delta variant is more transmissible than previously thought, in line with Chickenpox and Ebola.

Now for the good news. The good news is that only seven out of 833 cases, had to be hospitalised and nobody died. This proved that the vaccines were really good. Serious illness, in the vaccinated, was rare, and death was almost nil. The vaccines were found to be more effective compared to their performance in clinical trials. The other bit of good news is there is no evidence that Delta causes more severe illness than the original strain, though it replicates at a much faster rate and spreads faster. This may be because the virus knows it should not kill its host for it cannot survive without the host!

The USA government was thinking about fully opening the country, and lifting the safety measures’ like social distancing and wearing masks, as about 50% of the population has been vaccinated. Now the government may have to change these plans as the Delta variant shows a capability of spreading even among vaccinated people. This is the situation in the European countries, too. British PM Boris Johnson is supposed to have said “No more lockdowns. Let the bodies pile high”. However, bodies did not pile high, as sufficient numbers had been vaccinated and people wore masks. Where governments, and the people, had been careless, Covid has caused huge catastrophe. Indonesia is ravaged by the Delta variant and is paying the price for being lax with the preventive measures. So is Brazil. There is a lesson in all this for Sri Lanka, too.

The infection rate, in Princetown, due to the Delta variant, was swiftly brought down from 15% to 5.9% by strictly practicing preventive measures like wearing of masks and limits on indoor gathering. They didn’t have to go for a complete lockdown. The high rate of vaccination, made this possible. Adequate vaccination and masking, saved the day for Princetown. Health authorities and virologists now say the way to winning the war against the Delta is to achieve a high rate of vaccination and for people to wear masks when they go out.

There is a lesson the world can learn from what happened in Princetown. No one can lower guard just because he or she has received both jabs of the vaccine. The goal for the world would be to achieve vaccination of the global population, above 12 years of age, in adequate numbers, as quickly as possible, and then to follow the preventive measures that were successful in Princetown until the virus, unable to find hosts in sufficient numbers to replicate and spread, would lose the battle. Total lockdown, unless affordable as in Australia and China, could be avoided by adopting these methods.

The war against the virus would be won and we would be able to start a mask-less life only if and when the whole world is adequately vaccinated. Until then, everybody, whether vaccinated or not, will have to wear masks and follow the health guidelines. When we could achieve total victory would depend very much on the attitude of the 15 countries who are holding on to large stocks of vaccines, though WHO targets for vaccination in those countries have been reached. They are reluctant to release the vaccines for they fear that the need for a third jab may arise. They must realise that even a third jab may not protect them if a variant capable of bypassing the antibodies emerges in a country where the pandemic is rampant due to inadequate vaccination. A better insurance against variants would be to make available the vaccine to the poor countries as soon as possible. There are countries in the African continent where vaccination rate is very low and less that 1% has been given the jab. This sad state is due to the unavailability of vaccines. If this situation continues, the world will be ruled by Covid for years to come.

In Sri Lanka, the Delta variant is threatening to cause a huge devastation. The government is racing against time to get the people vaccinated. More than 300,000 are given the jab everyday. This is a good rate. People must take whatever vaccine is available as all vaccines are effective in preventing serious illness and death. The government, at this juncture, may not want to go for a total lockdown because of the economic situation. People must cooperate with the government if the looming disaster is to be avoided. All those who have got on to the street, with various grievances, genuine or not, must think of the grave risk they take. The whole country is placed at great peril due to their irresponsible actions. The country is at war with an invisible enemy. This is not the time to crowd the streets to support their demands. They could wait for better times. The government, too, could avoid attempting to get controversial legislations enacted during these times as people are unable to participate in the dialogue that must precede enactment of crucial acts of Parliament. S. Amaratunga



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