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The profound and the profane

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by Kumar David

Today’s column is in two parts. The first relates to a profoundly important concern, the second to a profanity if you call it that. A trilogy written by Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena (KPS) and two subeditors can be found on the Right to Information (RTI) Commissions website. It is an important document that people are not familiar with, and I urge you to spend some time with it. Access to Information helps the public hold the powers that be to account. Seeking and receiving information, furthermore, is a human right, is a safeguard against corruption, and increase trust in public institutions. Transparency is not only about making information available, but ensuring it can be accessed, understood and used. But transparency is only the first step to curbing corruption. We have learned from over twenty-five years of experience that corruption can only be kept in check if representatives from government, business and civil society work together for the common good.

The trilogy is long and very detailed. Every section is accompanied by references to case material and links to websites which convey a wealth of information. There is enough here for a generation of PhD students to busy themselves with; KPJ and her two sidekicks deserve our congratulations for the huge amount of work they have put in. It is unrealistic for me to summarise it here so I have provided an abbreviated and simplified version below.

Transparency International (TI) in its website makes certain important observations that I summarise as follows. Corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. To end it we must understand it. That’s why we look at what causes corruption and what works against it.

To end it ‘power’ must be held accountable. Corruption erodes trust, weakens democracy, hampers economic development and exacerbates inequality, poverty, social division and the environmental crisis. Transparency is about shedding light on rules, plans, processes and actions. Information is a human right that can safeguard against threats to democracy and violation of human rights.

Social-media

The second part of today’s column deals with the ill-effects of social-media on young people. This essay is not intended to be a balanced discussion of both the advantages, which are many, and the downsides of social-media. Though I am certainly not an expert on psychology and am a grandparent whose children are all grown up, there is a reason why I have chosen to deal with the negative. The RTI Commission of Sri Lanka has the legal power to deal with the broadcast (TV and radio) and of course the print media, but maybe that it lacks the resources and technical expertise to monitor the vast web known as social-media.

Even in rich technically advanced countries this is something of a challenge. The security services try hard to keep a tab (not only in authoritarian societies) but they are not very successful because numbers are so large. And there is the added dimension that commercial interests exploit social-media for marketing and for collecting personal and private information often for nefarious purposes. When it comes to young people, even in the cost technologically advanced societies, it is a big problem; to be frank the problem is worse in these societies especially the United States. I provide a few more comments anon.

The formal definition of social-media is that it is a collection of interactive technologies to create and share information, ideas, interests, and other forms of expression through virtual communities and networks.

Their spread is enormous. The best-known platforms with users in billions in parenthesis are as follows Facebook (2.7) YouTube (2.3), WhatsApp (2), Facebook Messenger (1.3), Instagram (1.2), and WeChat (1.2) and TikTok (0.8). Email is not considered a social-media and there is some doubt about WhatsApp because it is not really intended for social distribution.

Social media is a big part of many teens & #39; lives. A 2018 Pew Research Centre survey of 13 to 17-year-olds found that 45% are online almost constantly and 97% use a social media platform, such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat. Nearly 90% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 used at least one form of social media. These users tend to be better educated and relatively wealthy. It can also reduce FoMO or Fear of Missing Out.

But what impact does social-media use have on teens? Social-media allows teens to create online identities, communicate with others and build social networks. These networks can provide teens with valuable support, especially helping those who experience exclusion or have disabilities or chronic illnesses. Teens also use social media for entertainment and self-expression can expose them to current events, to interact across geographic barriers and teach a variety of subjects and help reduce depression.

Social-media risks to young people

The discussion below is a summary, without acknowledgement of material culled from scholarly papers and research surveys. Social-media can be distracting or reduce a meaningful interaction with adults. Social- media can negatively affect teens, distracting them, disrupting their sleep, and exposing them to bullying, rumour spreading, unrealistic views of other people’s lives and peer pressure. Teenage girls and young women are susceptible to exploitation and the circulation of harmful material (‘hot images’ and damaging quotations) by “friends”.

The risk is related to how much social media teens use. A 2019 study of more than 6,500 12- to 15-year olds in the U.S. found that those who spent more than three hours a day using social media are at heightened risk from mental health problems. And a 2019 study of more than 12,000 13- to 16-year olds in England found that using social media more than three times a day highlighted poor mental health in teens.

Other studies also have observed links between high levels of social media use and depression or anxiety symptoms. A 2016 study of more than 450 teens found that greater social media use, night time social media use and high emotional investment in social media — such as feeling upset when prevented from logging on — were linked to poor sleep quality and higher anxiety and even depression.

How teens use social media determines impact. A 2015 study by Mayo Clinic found that personal, social and family income comparison and seeking feedback on these matters using cell phones and laptop computers was linked with depressive symptoms. A small 2013 study found that older adolescents who used social media passively, such as viewing others’; photos, reported declines in life satisfaction. Those who used social media to interact with adults or post their own content didn’t experience these declines.

And an older study on the impact of social media on undergraduate college students showed that the longer they used Facebook, the stronger was their belief that others were happier than they were. But the more time the students spent going out with their friends, the less they felt this way. Because of teens’ impulsive natures those who post content on social media are at risk of sharing intimate photos or highly personal stories. This can result in teens being bullied, harassed or even blackmailed. They sometimes often create posts without considering these consequences or privacy concerns.

There are steps that one can take to encourage responsible use and limit negative effects. It is true that this is still a rich family’s problem in Sri Lanka but even less well-off parents and older relatives should not underestimate how much access a smart phone makes available. Here is advice provided by the Mayo Clinic website that I mentioned and culled from other scholarly studies and research reviews (too many to give credit to explicitly). Parents can set reasonable limits, avoiding social-media interference with sleep, meals or homework. Encourage a bedtime routine that avoids electronic media use, and keep cell-phones and tablets out of bedrooms. Parents can set an example by following these rules themselves. Monitor accounts let it be known that you will be checking. Discourage gossip, rumours, bullying or damaging other's reputation. Encourage face-to-face contact with friends. This is particularly important to those vulnerable to anxiety disorder. Talk about social media and its benefits and harm. Remind them that social- media is full of unrealistic images. Encourage social-media exchanges with adults.

This brings me to my conclusion. The information and news atmosphere, has changed fundamentally in recent years. Think of Sri Lanka’s presidents, prime ministers, cabinet ministers and MP’s. Who believes them anymore? How much of the content of television, radio and the print media is trusted anymore? The “news” has little relationship to reality. Fake news is created by social media and it is so powerful, especially in technically advanced countries like the US that media outlets themselves are inundated.



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Credibility in governance through elections and not security forces

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Ranil Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s warning that he is prepared to declare a state of national emergency and use the military to suppress any public protests for change of government would reflect the pressures he is under. The manner in which he has used the security forces to deal with the protest movement has been unexpected. His words and deeds are contradictory to what he has previously stood for as a five-time former prime minister. This is especially true in the case of the ethnic and religious minorities who have consistently voted for him and his party at elections. They have felt safer and more secure under his governments which always sought to reduce the heavy hand of state oppression in which national security is given pride of place. He has always promised them much though he has been unable to deliver on much of what he promised.

Notwithstanding the unfortunate rhetoric and actions of the present time the belief still persists that President Wickremesinghe is the best of the available options. Recent pronouncements of the president have reignited hope that he will address the problems of the religious and ethnic minorities. He has stated that he does not want to leave this problem to the next generation. He has said that he wants to resolve this intractable national problem by the country’s 75th independence anniversary on February 4 next year. The hope that the president will make a fresh effort to resolve their problems has led the main Tamil party, the TNA, to desist from voting against the budget which passed with a relatively small majority. Their spokesperson, M A Sumanthiran said in Parliament that due to the president reaching out to them, stretching out his hand, they did not vote against the budget although they disagreed with it.

It is not only in words that the president has reached out to the ethnic and religious minorities. Reports from the north and east indicate that the Maveer (Heroes) Day commemorations this year took place without incident. During the past two years scores of people were arrested and a massive presence of security forces blocked the people from participating in public events. On this occasion the security forces did not get involved in any attempt to stop the commemorations. University students distributed sweets and even cut a birthday cake to celebrate slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday. The analogy that the president drew to himself being seen as a Hitler who exterminated ethnic and religious minorities is misplaced. The release of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for engaging in similar acts in the past would further contribute to the reconciliation process.

WORSENING CRISIS

In this context, the president’s use of militaristic rhetoric can only be understood in relation to the growing economic crisis that shows no sign of abating. The anticipated IMF bailout package is at risk of getting indefinitely delayed. It was initially anticipated to come in September then in November but now January is being targeted. Japan’s top brokerage and investment bank, Nomura Holdings Inc, has warned that seven countries – Egypt, Romania, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Czech Republic, Pakistan and Hungary – are now at a high risk of currency crises. Sri Lanka is in third place on the table of risk. The next devaluation of the rupee could see another spike in inflation that will make the cost of living even more unbearable to the masses of people.

The president is on record as having said that the economic crisis will get worse before it improves. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates that it is indeed worsening. University teachers at the University of Sabaragamuwa reported that attendance in their classes was down by at least a quarter. Students who come from other parts of the country are unable to afford the cost of meals and so they stay at home. A study by the Institute of Policy Studies has shown that about four percent of primary, 20 percent of secondary and 26 percent of collegiate students had dropped out of school in the estate sector, which is the worst affected. The future costs to the country of a less well educated population is incalculable and inhumane.

As it is the situation is a dire one for large swathes of the population. Research from the University of Peradeniya has revealed that close to half of Sri Lanka’s population, 42 percent (up from 14 percent in 2019) are living under the poverty line. Professor of Economics Wasantha Athukorala has said there is a dramatic increase in the poverty level of over three-hold across the past three years. In 2019, nearly 3 million people lived below the poverty line, but that number has increased to 9.6 million in October 2022. In these adverse circumstances stability in a polity can be ensured either through legitimacy or through force. It would be tragic if the latter is the choice that is made.

ELECTORAL SOLUTION

President Wickremesinghe has been stressing the importance of political stability to achieve economic development. His recent statement that the security forces will be used to negate any unauthorised protest is a sign that the government expects the conditions of economic hardship to escalate. The general public who are experiencing extreme economic hardship are appalled at the manner in which those who committed acts of corruption and violence in the past are being overlooked because they belong to the ruling party and its cliques. The IMF has made anti-corruption a prerequisite to qualify for a bailout, calling for “Reducing corruption vulnerabilities through improving fiscal transparency and public financial management, introducing a stronger anti-corruption legal framework, and conducting an in-depth governance diagnostic, supported by IMF technical assistance.”

It is morally unacceptable even if politically pragmatic that the president is failing to take action against the wrongdoers because he needs their votes in parliament. As a start, the president needs to appoint a credible and independent national procurement committee to ensure that major economic contracts are undertaken without corruption. Second, the president needs to bite the bullet on elections. The country’s burning issues would be better accepted by the country and world at large if they are being dealt with by a statesman than by a dictator. Government that is based on the people’s consent constitutes the sum and substance of democracy. This consent is manifested through free and fair elections that are regularly held. Local government elections have been postponed for a year and are reaching their legal maximum in terms of postponement. These elections need to be held before March next year.

Elections will enable the people to express their views in a democratic manner to elect their representatives for the present. This would provide the government with guidance in terms of the decisions it is being called to take to revive the economy and place the burden in a manner that will be acceptable to the people. The provincial council elections have been postponed since 2018. Democratically elected provincial councils share in the burdens of governance. The devolution of power that took place under the 13th Amendment was meant to promote ethnic harmony in the country. The president who has taken the position that he is for a solution to the ethnic conflict should seriously consider conducting the provincial council elections together with the local government elections se their financial costs. By doing so he will also gain legitimacy as a democratic statesman and not a dictator.

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WEDNESDAY – Movie Review

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The Addams Family is back with a new tale to tell! Originally created by Charles Addams as a comic strip published in The New Yorker, it offered readers a sarcastic take on the ‘typical nuclear family’ by substituting it with a more macabre bunch of strange and eerie individuals. Since then the titular family has been adapted on to the big screen many times, from live action movies to animated versions, the Addams Family has gained many fans throughout the years. Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, with Tim Burton working on four episodes of the eight-part series, Wednesday is a welcoming tale for young fans, but unfortunately fails to think outside the box and remains anchored to the floor with a messy storyline.

Dead-eyed Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) is a stubborn, independent and intelligent teenager in this new series. Her penchant for attracting trouble wherever she goes alarms her parents, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán). With an already strained relationship with her parents (specifically her mother), Wednesday is enrolled at Nevermore, an academy for outcasts like herself. Having attended the academy themselves, Morticia and Gomez are hopeful that their daughter will ‘fit right in’. Caught between trying to build her own identity and other teenage complexities, Wednesday soon finds herself in the middle of a twisted mystery.

This is the first time audiences are introduced to a teenage Wednesday, which allowed the creators to build a new world on their own terms, but while keeping true to the original nature of the character. The creators do a fair amount of world building by introducing other outcasts like the Fangs (vampires), Stoners (Gorgons), Scales (sirens) and Furs (werewolves), among others. Nevermore Academy itself is beautiful and comes with the classic package of creepy crypts, hidden rooms and secret societies. The series also offers a decent amount of gore, although they could have added more given Wednesday’s proclivity for gore-related activities. The series deals with classic young-adult tropes which includes teenage crushes, bullies, relationships and even prom, among other things. The series navigates through Wednesday’s journey of self-discovery, which is a new avenue for both the character and the fans. From understanding and displaying her emotions to discovering her identity and understanding her peers, the series takes a deep dive into heavy material.

Ortega’s performance as the titular character plays a major role in keeping audiences glued to the screen. This is also the first time viewers are shown a teenage Wednesday Addams, which works to Ortega’s benefit as she depicts more dimensions to the ghoulish, morose character many are associated with based on previous renditions. Her facial expressions and ability to deliver on seriously emotional moments strengthens her role as the lead. The rest of the Addams Family, even with limited screen time, lack the eccentricities their characters should have. Hopeless romantics Morticia and Gomez seem incompatible in this version and Uncle Fester is far less crazy than he ought to be. The only member worth mentioning is the Thing—a severed hand— who brought more character and spirit to the series acting alongside Ortega. With barely any room to develop a majority of the characters are prosaic and tedious, even though they remain vital to the plot.

Apart from Ortega, Gwendoline Christie and Emma Myers deserve honorable mentions for their roles as Nevermore’s head teacher, Larissa Weems and the peppy Enid Sinclair respectively. Enid quickly became a fan favorite as the character was the polar opposite to Wednesday. Her character is vital to Wednesday’s character development and their journey to find common ground as mismatched individuals is amusing.

Christina Ricci who played Wednesday in the 90s returns as ‘normie’ teacher, Miss Thornhill and unfortunately barely stands out and this in large part due to the messy storyline. The series is bogged down with numerous subplots and overlapping tropes and the characters with potential for growth are completely overlooked. With love triangles, bullies and killer monsters on the loose, the series self-destructs and the climax sinks into disappointment.

At the end of the day, Wednesday plays to the beat of the new generation and touches on new themes, which is welcoming seeing as the character should grow up at some point. While not everyone may relate to Wednesday’s teenage perils, it is interesting to witness her growth and her journey as an ‘outcast’ or ‘weirdo’. And while Wednesday doesn’t exactly offer a distinctly unique story, it gives audiences a small taste of what Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday is capable of. Creating a story around a well-established franchise is a difficult task, and in this case the creators fail to add value to their visions. If the series continues, the creators will have the opportunity to think further outside the box and push the limits to Wednesday’s character and give audiences a bone-chilling experience. Wednesday is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

 

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Stage set for… AWESOME FRIDAY

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The past few weeks have been a very busy period for the new-look Mirage outfit…preparing themselves for their big night – Friday, December 2nd – when they would perform, on stage, for the very first time, as Donald Pieries (leader/vocals/drums), Benjy (bass), Niro Wattaladeniya (guitar), Viraj Cooray (guitar/vocals), Asangi Wickramasinghe (keyboard/vocals), along with their two frontline female vocalist, Sharon (Lulu) and Christine.

They have thoroughly immersed themselves in their practice sessions as they are very keen to surprise their fans, music lovers, and well-wishers, on opening night…at the Peacock, Berjaya Hotel, in Mount Lavinia.

Action starts at 8.00 pm and, thereafter, it will be five hours of great music, along with EFFEX DJs Widhara and Damien, interspersed with fun and excitement…for the whole family!

Yes, opening night is for the whole family, so you don’t need to keep some of your family members at home – kids, especially.

Working on their repertoire for Friday, bassist Benjy says “what we will dish out will be extra special, with lots of action on stage.”

It would be interesting to see Sharon (Lulu) doing her thing with Mirage, after her early days with the Gypsies, and, I’m told, a dynamic performance from Sharon is what is in store for all those who make it to the Peacock this Friday

Edward (Eddy) Joseph (centre) with Donald and Benjy

While the band was at one of their practice sessions, last week, they had a surprise visitor – Edward (Eddy) Joseph, a former member of the group Steelers, who is now based in Germany.

Eddy is here on a short visit and is scheduled to return to Germany, tomorrow (30).

He spent an hour with Mirage, at their practice session, and says he is disappointed that he would not be around for the group’s opening night.

However, there is a possibility of several well-known personalities, in the showbiz scene, turning up, on Friday night, to experience the sounds of the new-look Mirage, including Sohan Weerasinghe and Joey Lewis (from London).

Rajiv Sebastian, too, says he is keen to be a part of the fun-filled evening.

You could contact Benjy, on 0777356356, if you need to double check…their plans for AWESOME FRIDAY!

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