When Worlds Collide #115: Fast-tracking Road Safety in Sri Lanka

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 18 July 2014

Road safety infographic - courtesy WHO

Road safety infographic – courtesy WHO

The Apollo 8 space mission, which lasted from 21 to 27 December 1968, was the first time that a manned spacecraft left Earth orbit, travelled to the Moon and returned after taking a close look.

They didn’t land, but tested many procedures for the actual landing six months later. When they were heading back, a ground controller’s son wanted to know who was driving the spacecraft. Astronaut Bill Anders, replied: “I think Isaac Newton is doing most of the driving now.”

That witty summing up of celestial mechanics is one of the finest quotes of the entire Apollo space program. It comes to mind when I ask myself who — or what — is driving on our chaotic Lankan roads. My own answer: lots of testosterone!

Let me explain. The predominantly male sex hormone must account for at least part of the hazardous driving we see everyday.

No, I’m not reducing a complex phenomenon to a simple contrasting of boys vs. girls. But among the more bizarre excuses I have heard from serially erratic and offensive (male) drivers is that law-abiding and courteous driving is only for ‘sissies’.

Apparently, some – especially bus and truck drivers — consider it an affront to their ‘pirimi kama’ (masculinity) to play by road rules!

How does a society even begin to tackle such backward attitudes? This is why road safety is more than a mere law enforcement or traffic engineering problem. With some help from sociologists, we need to get inside the mindset of our drivers who knowingly break laws and turn our highways into killing fields.

Some argue that better education can lead to more disciplined and careful driving. However, the link isn’t so simple or linear. The way a person drives reflects his or her total personality – shaped by upbringing, culture, mindset and education. Social class or profession often has little to do with recklessness at the wheel.

 Understanding Statistics

Fuelled by many factors, road traffic crashes have reached alarming proportions in Sri Lanka. On average, six to seven persons are killed everyday somewhere on our roads. The 2012 death total, according to police records, was 2,361 (1,963 men and 398 women).

Many more were injured: 2012 grievous injuries totalled 8,460 (6,771 men and 1,689 women), and non-grievous injuries, 20,010 (14,999 men and 5,011 women).

Road traffic crashes 2012 cumulative data available on Sri Lanka official Open Data portal

Many of those killed or injured are younger men and women. Globally, too, road injuries have now become the number one killer of young people aged between 15 and 24.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s Global Status Report on Road Safety 2013, some 1.24 million people died needlessly and prematurely from road traffic crashes (RTCs) in 2010, the last year for which full data was available. That averages to 3,400 lives per day.

Although statistics cannot capture the grief and misery of losing a family member or friend, they indicate the massive personal and societal costs involved.

This problem has been building up for decades. Because deaths are scattered in space and across time, many of us didn’t notice the mounting losses until it was high.

In 2013, three Lankan researchers – Dr Samath D Dharmarathne, Dr Achala Upendra Jayatilleke and Achini C Jayatilleke – published an analysis of trends in road traffic crashes, injuries, and fatalities in Sri Lanka from 1938 to 2010. Using police records, census and other official data, they found how total crashes had a marked increase (from 61.2 to 195.9 per 100,000 people) in those 72 years.

During that period, they noted in their paper in the global medical journal The Lancet (17 June 2013), total injuries went up from 35.1 to 133.2 per 100,000, and total deaths from 3.0 to 13.1 per 100,000. And our total registered vehicles increased by 143 times.

The researchers urged caution in interpreting such aggregated data. For example, while police data on the total number of crashes has shown a decrease since 2003, there has been no reduction in reported deaths. They speculate that this might be due to under-reporting of crashes (it was in 2003 that insurance companies introduced on-the-spot payment schemes).

Under-Reporting

Under-reporting of road accidents is common in the developing world, and distorts statistical analyses and policy responses. The World Bank says official government statistics “substantially under-report road injuries”.

Estimates based on Global Burden of Disease 2010 report, also prepared by WHO, suggest that actual road injury deaths are more than twice the official count in India, and four times in China. Lack of reliable data is one among many problems faced by policy makers trying to tackle road safety.

The United Nations system now considers road crashes a global public health crisis and development problem. In response, WHO has declared a Decade of Action for Road Safety, 2011-2020.

Global burden of disease from motorized road transport 2014 Report

Global burden of disease from motorized road transport 2014 Report

And the World Bank now encourages countries to consider the total health impacts from road transport covering both air pollution and crash injuries. When combined with the deaths arising from vehicle pollution, the road transport death toll exceeds that of, for example, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, or diabetes, says a new report from the World Bank.

Writing a foreword to the report, titled ‘Transport for Health: The Global Burden of Disease from Motorized Road Transport’, the Bank’s President Dr Jim Yong Kim, says: “It is a matter of life, death, and equity: approximately 90% of all road crashes now happen in low- and middle-income countries; yet they own only half of the world’s motor vehicles. More than half of global deaths are among pedestrians and operators of motorized two-wheeled vehicles. Rates are higher in the world’s poorest regions.”

Dr Kim, himself a physician and anthropologist, adds: “These losses are tragic and needless. Families often lose their breadwinners or have to pay for expensive medical treatment. Many are plunged into poverty as a result.”

Road safety infographic - courtesy WHO

Road safety infographic – courtesy WHO

Act on many fronts

So what is to be done?

Enhancing road safety requires a multi-pronged approach. Stricter law enforcement, better built roads, and greater road discipline are all necessary – as are thoughtful urban design, infrastructure planning and sound transport policies at macro level.

The National Council of Road Safety (NCRS), under the Ministry of Transport, says action is to be taken on all five ‘pillars’ identified for strengthening during the Global Decade: road safety management, infrastructure, safe vehicles, road user behaviour, and post-crash care.

Researchers and civil society groups can study many facets of road safety, and help identify ‘policy blind spots’ and gaps in law enforcement.

For example, in an observational study conducted in 2009 in Kandy, researchers at Peradeniya University’s Faculty of Medicine found that most motorcycle riders (97%) used helmets. However, over three quarters (76.5%) of their child passengers did not – they were exempt from mandatory helmet law when in school uniform!

Blaming the growth of vehicle fleet is easy, but that in itself is not the issue. Countries with greater density of both vehicles and people have achieved much lower road crash rates than Sri Lanka.

The challenge is managing numbers through right policies, preventive measures and enlightened self-interest. Indiscriminate bombs are no longer going off on our streets, but we have yet to make them safer.

See also:

17 March 2013: When Worlds Collide #58: Making Our Roads Safer – Every Life Counts!

Incidence of road injuries in Sri Lanka (uses mid-2000s data)

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Posted in Disaster, Sri Lanka, Public perceptions, Transport, Air Pollution, Road Safety, South Asia, Communicating Development, Environmental management, Public health, Education, Poverty, Urban issues, Public policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When Worlds Collide #114: Welcome to UPF – United Planet of Football!

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 11 July 2014

football planet

Last time the FIFA World Cup was approaching its climax in mid July 2010, I did my bit for interstellar cooperation (or conquest).

If you’re an alien planning to invade the Earth, choose the day of the Cup Final, I said in an op-ed published on both sides of the Palk Strait. Chances are that our planet will offer little or no resistance, I predicted.

Well, no aliens took my unsolicited advice (such spoilsports!). But if any such race is still interested, another chance comes up this Sunday, July 13. That’s when World Cup 2014 will culminate at Estádio Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

On that day, a sizeable proportion of the 7.2 billion members of the Earth’s dominant species – Homo sapiens, or humans — will be fully preoccupied with 22 able-bodied men chasing a little hollow sphere. Everything else will be placed on hold.

It’s only a game, really, but what a game! The whole world holds its breath as the ‘titans of kick’ clash in the Cup Final.

Starting on 12 June 2014 and played at a dozen venues across Brazil, this has been much more than a sporting tournament. Held once every four years, it’s the ultimate celebration of the world’s most popular sport.

More popular than the Olympics, it demonstrates the sheer power of sports and media to bring together – momentarily, at least – the usually fragmented and squabbling humanity.

Indeed, the exuberant spectators flocking Brazilian stadiums make up only a small part of the total audience following these games. Far more are following it on TV screens and numerous other devices all over the world.

When a game is underway, it’s not just the fans of two participating nations who cheer or despair. For 90 scintillating minutes, human divisions like race, skin colour and literacy are blurred and forgotten.

Thanks to the global connectivity provided by today’s instant telecommunications, we can all become citizens of Planet Football.

Global audience

To be honest, I’m not much of a football fan. But I love to watch people who watch the game…and how they do it.

Projecting the game beyond its playing venues has come a long way.

When the World Cup was first held in Uruguay in 1930, radio broadcasting was still in its infancy, and only a few privileged fans could share the games’ outcome by telephone.

The first time broadcast television covered the World Cup was in 1954 when Switzerland hosted its 5th staging. Selected games were broadcast live (or delayed) in some European countries that could muster the complex logistics.

Coverage expanded for the next staging, hosted by Sweden in 1958, with the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) getting into the act of negotiating rights. Again, only selected matches were broadcast.

Four years later, the 1962 World Cup in Chile posed much bigger challenges to broadcasters outside Latin America. BBC TV, for example, could only carry it three days delayed: footage had to be rushed by air via the United States back to Britain. But BBC Radio covered the games live.

With geostationary communications satellites being launched by the US and European countries from the mid 1960s, achieving live TV coverage across continents became easier – though it remained a costly exercise.

The operative word here is ‘live’ – kick by kick, goal by goal, as it happens. Arthur C Clarke, who in 1945 first envisaged the use of geostationary satellites for global broadcasting, once suggested a neat phrase to sum up this remarkable phenomenon: How the World was One.

Planetary Stadium

And it’s no longer a passive family of couch potatoes. The web’s rise during the past two decades has effectively turned the whole world into a planetary scale stadium.

Gone are the days when mass audiences simply listened to broadcast commentators annotating a match. Now, everyone can join the global conversation by tweeting or facebooking as play unfolds.

The web started figuring in World Cup coverage more significantly in 2002, when Japan and South Korea – as co-hosts – created multiple websites and home pages for all participating teams. Narrowband Internet didn’t yet allow many to watch any real time video of games, but that eased by 2006 when broadband was rolling out.

The more interactive and user-friendly social media ‘joined’ the game properly only in 2010. (Facebook was two years, and Twitter was just three months old when Germany hosted the World Cup in the summer of 2006.)

By the time it was South Africa’s turn, these two platforms had grown fast and vast. In fact, they helped coordinate between the 10 venues scattered across that large country. (Brazil is doing the same this year.)

For the past month, the formula for unifying the Global Family seemed to be: international football + live broadcasts + live coverage via the web and mobile phones.

Media and telecom companies have launched mobile applications, most of which offer live scores, news updates or interactive features. Some integrated with social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter.

Brazil 2014 was predicted to be the World Cup where Twitter comes of age – and so far, the microblogging platform has lived up to expectations. By end June, Twitter reported more than 300 million tweets about the World Cup. In comparison, the 16 days of London Olympics in 2012 generated 150 million tweets.

Witty remarks or visual memes – from winners and losers alike — can get re-tweeted (i.e. shared) hundreds or even thousands of times. The most popular hashtag (common denominator in tweets) has been #fifaworldcup, followed by #worldcup and #brazil.

Meanwhile, Facebook reported more than a billion World Cup related posts, comments and likes generated by 220 million users from the time the tournament commenced on June 12 until June 29.

Image courtesy Facebook News Room

Image courtesy Facebook News Room

Money and Power

Of course, with big money and power brokering involved, football is no longer just a game. The FIFA World Cup is the largest sporting event excepting the summer Olympics. In some respects, it is on par.

With its 209 member associations from as many countries or territories, world federation of association football or FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) wields considerable political and economic clout.

It is arguably more influential — and certainly better known — than the United Nations, which has 193 member states. The difference is largely in media outreach and embracing popular culture. FIFA and globalised football signifies the rise of ‘soft power’ in our always-connected information society.

The World Cup in Brazil alone would generate around USD 4 billion in revenue for FIFA, 66% more than the last Cup. Half of this is expected to be profit, after paying all participating associations, players and winners.

Television rights, commercial sponsorships and derivative products make up the largest share of FIFA’s income. Unsurprisingly, the governing body has been tainted by corruption scandals in recent times.

Whoever wins the World Cup, FIFA and the world’s media will be laughing all the way to their banks.

How South African cartoonist Zapiro saw FIFA during World Cup 2010

How South African cartoonist Zapiro saw FIFA during World Cup 2010

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Posted in Current Affairs, ICT, Media, Social Media, Telecommunications, Television | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When Worlds Collide #113: Outpacing Tsunamis in the Indian Ocean: Are we ready?

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 4 July 2014

How a tsunami warning system works. AFP FILE PHOTO

How a tsunami warning system works. AFP FILE PHOTO

Timely warnings about on-coming disasters can literally save lives – provided the word reaches those at risk. And they know what to do, and react quickly.

These elements form part of disaster risk reduction, or DRR, now receiving greater attention as the frequency and intensity of disasters keep increasing.

In December 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami caught Sri Lanka by surprise and some 40,000 lives were lost. Most of those could have been saved if only a simple warning – for coastal evacuation – reached them. There was a tight but useful window of around 90 minutes until the killer waves arrived on our East coast (and a bit longer while they went around the island and hit other coastal areas).

Sri Lanka was not alone. At the time, much of the Indian Ocean was a massive ‘blind spot’ where tsunamis were concerned. There was no tsunami warning system. There was a rudimentary ocean-based seismic detector network, but it was not possible to monitor or analyze sea level changes in real time.

On the delivery front, too, there was no agreed arrangement to cover the crucial ‘last mile’ to reach communities at risk. In contrast, the Pacific Ocean region has had a functional system for over 60 years.

SciDev.Net 23 Dec 2005: The Long Last Mile: Lessons of the Asian Tsunami

Nearly a decade on, those costly lessons have been put into practice. Much has been done to improve the science of detection as well as early warning issuing and dissemination.

Today, advances in science, closer international cooperation and revamped national systems have made the Indian Ocean a safer region. This was recently highlighted by Dr Stuart Weinstein, Deputy Director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) in Hawaii, USA.

He was delivering the fourth annual LIRNEasia Disaster Risk Reduction Lecture, on ‘Advances in Tsunami Warning Systems since the Great Sumatra Earthquake of 2004’ in Colombo on 19 June 2014.

Dr Stuart Weinstein

Dr Stuart Weinstein [Photo courtesy LIRNEasia]

 Improved Science

Whatever the hazard, early warnings would work well when adequate technological capability combines with proper decision-making and dissemination systems, and prepared communities.

In the case of tsunamis, an effective warning and mitigation system means people living in vulnerable coastal areas know how to respond when a potentially destructive tsunami may be approaching.

Tsunami warning systems are made up of three components.

First, an international or regional arrangement (like PTWC) that detects earthquakes in real time, evaluates their tsunami-creating potential, looks for sea level changes and issues specific messages.

Second, country disaster management organisations that receive such warning messages and make national or local level decisions (alert? stand-by? evacuate?). They activate communication systems and response plans already agreed upon.

Third, residents in areas at risk are educated and trained.

Since 2004, several regional tsunami warning systems have been set up, covering most coastlines worldwide. The Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (ICG/IOTWS) was set up in 2005 and is governed by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC-UNESCO).

The global seismic network to monitor earthquakes in real time has also expanded considerably. PTWC now receives data from over 600 stations. There is also a core sea level monitoring network in place: some 500 stations feed PTWC with real-time data.

Automated sentinels – called Deep-ocean, Real-time Tsunami Reporting Systems (DARTs) — watch the world’s oceans day and night. These can detect tsunami signals immediately via pressure sensors on the ocean floor. Those signals travel acoustically to surface buoys, from where they are beamed to satellites that relay them to the nearest tsunami warning centres.

tsunami-dart-two-buoy

Communications: Lifeblood

It then becomes a race against time. That seismic waves travel about 100 times faster than tsunami waves gives scientists a fighting chance – but only just.

Effective tsunami warnings require very rapid evaluation of earthquakes and resulting sea level changes, followed by equally rapid dissemination of the assessment just made. Not every earthquake undersea generates a tsunami.

Good communications is the life blood of this entire ‘relay’. It depends critically on swift communications and on global data networks with real time transmission capabilities. Disaster early warnings are global public goods: open data sharing among national agencies and cross-border collaboration between researchers is routine practice.

Back in 2004, the average time for PTWC to process data rapidly and issue a warning was 18 minutes. By 2014, according to Dr Weinstein, this has been reduced to 7 mins – a tangible improvement when every second counts.

Of course, even the most accurate warning is only as good as its quick and targeted dissemination. There too, progress has been made.

The number and reliability of pathways to send out a warning have increased. Since 2004, the number of mobile phones in use has risen exponentially (expected to pass 7 billion active subscriptions before 2014 ends), and there is much greater signal coverage. Meanwhile, the phenomenal growth of web-based platforms and social media has opened up new opportunities for emergency communications.

Using communications systems like SMS alerting, cell broadcasting, Twitter, Facebook or Google Public Alerts, tsunami warnings can be sent to a mass or niche audience.

Streamlining this process is the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), a recent global standard that allows emergency alerts and public warnings to be disseminated simultaneously over different systems and applications.

By standardizing the collecting and relaying of all-hazard warnings and reports locally, nationally and regionally, CAP reduces chances for distortion and confusion. It helps to send out consistent messages on mobile phones, radio and television broadcasts, and other networks.

First developed by IT and disaster management experts during 2000-2004, CAP’s first multi-lingual trials were done in Sri Lanka in the months following the Boxing Day tsunami. This was a key part of the Hazard Information dissemination action research project that LIRNEasia implemented with Sarvodaya, Dialog and other partners.

In late 2007, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which sets standards for telecom and broadcasting industries, adopted CAP.

False Alarms

CAP emerged just in time – when rapid expansion was taking place in TV, radio, mobile phones and Internet sectors.

“The likelihood of error and distortions getting into warning messages as they pass through multiple links is that much higher now. The complexity of the first-responder system is also that much higher,” notes Prof Rohan Samarajiva, Chair of LIRNEasia.

CAP can also increase the speed of communicating warnings. Says Prof Samarajiva: “In an ideal scenario, the authorized entity will press one button and the conversion of the formatted message to different forms for multiple media and transmission will be done automatically and instantaneously.”

Even when the best monitoring and assessment systems are coupled with the finest dissemination methods, errors of judgement could still happen.

On average, three out of every four tsunami related coastal evacuations in Hawaii later prove unnecessary. That, Dr Weinstein feels, is the “price to pay for the ones that prove correct”.

“Rapid judgement is needed in such situations — and we scientists can’t always get it right! We need to take that chance for the greater good,” he said. “We tell Hawaiians that unnecessary evacuations are inevitable if you want to avoid major tragedies.”

Prof Samarajiva is cautiously optimistic. He says: “We can take some satisfaction that Sri Lanka has contributed to the knowledge needed to reduce death and devastation. But knowledge has to be applied…incorporated into everyday practice, not only by government and private sector officials but also by all citizens.”

His hope: the 10th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s greatest disaster will energize the efforts to build more resilient societies in the Asia Pacific.

Rohan Samarajiva (extreme right) moderates at LIRNEasia Disaster Risk Reduction Lecture in Colombo, 19 June 2014

Rohan Samarajiva (extreme right) moderates at LIRNEasia Disaster Risk Reduction Lecture in Colombo, 19 June 2014                                                                                      

[Photo above - courtesy LIRNEasia]

LIRNEasia research: Mobiles for disaster warning

LIRNEasia update: US gets fully behind cell broadcasting for disaster warning

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Posted in Broadcasting, Communicating Development, Disaster, Disaster Communication, ICT, Indian Ocean, Media, Public information, Social Media, Sri Lanka, Telecommunications, Tsunami | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When Worlds Collide #112: Social Media ‘Candles’ for Mainstream Media Blackouts

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 20 June 2014

Many Muslim-owned properties have been attacked and some set alight - AP photo

Many Muslim-owned properties have been attacked and some set alight – AP photo

What is the best way to manage public information in times of national crises – whether disasters, epidemics or conflict?

All governments face this question from time to time and respond with varying degrees of success. It has become especially challenging today due to multiple, instant modes of communications. Suppressing the flow of information is much harder and ultimately counterproductive.

This point was driven home once again in the aftermath of serious communal riots in Aluthgama, Beruwala and Dharga Town this week. At the time of writing (Wednesday afternoon), all right-minded people were hoping the clashes would not spread elsewhere.

The proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has introduced a new dimension to such crisis situations. The multiplicity of info sources, channels and access devices is certainly better than their absence (remember how the tsunami caught us by surprise in 2004?). But relating to this reality requires a very different mindset.

Information blackouts are simply not viable on an island of 20.5 million people where practically all adults use mobile phones (or have easy access to one), the airwaves are crowded by dozens of FM radio and TV channels, and an estimated 25% of population regularly gets online.

A Muslim woman observes her vandalized house in Aluthgama -   (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

A Muslim woman observes her vandalized house in Aluthgama – (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

Total control

Information control was possible (albeit with great effort) two generations ago. An anecdote I heard directly from the key protagonist illustrates those simpler times.

When Sinhala-Tamil ethnic riots erupted in May 1958, Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke assumed direct control, and appointed then Director of Public Works H R Premaratne as Competent Authority in charge of all relief operations.

Shortly afterwards, Sir Oliver tasked Premaratne with another, top secret mission: to restore the Nagadeepa temple, off the Jaffna peninsula, that was damaged during riots. If this news spread, Sir Oliver realised, it could provoke another wave of violence in the South.

Premaratne worked with a handpicked his team and completed the restoration in six weeks. During that time, Sir Oliver kept denying ‘rumours’ of Nagadeepa being damaged. He then organised a special pooja so anyone could ‘go see the intact Nagadeepa temple’!

The real story didn’t come out until decades later. Some believe that Sir Oliver took newspaper editors into confidence. Either way, the story never leaked – everyone involved realised the implications of loose talk.

Bradman Weerakoon, photo courtesy Beyond Borders Sri Lanka

Bradman Weerakoon, photo courtesy Beyond Borders Sri Lanka

A quarter century later, during the infamous Black July of 1983, news still spread fairly slowly. The distinguished civil servant Bradman Weerakoon (secretary to several Prime Ministers) has noted the pattern communal riots spread from Colombo to the provinces.

As Rajan Hoole, human rights activist and co-founder of University Teachers for Human Rights, wrote last year in his reminiscences, “Bradman pointed to the violence engulfing Colombo on Monday, Kandy on Tuesday, Badulla on Wednesday and Passara on Thursday — the delay roughly corresponding with distance from Colombo, and offered his own explanation. He associated it with news passed on by travellers, say someone going from Kandy to Badulla and instigating others…”

At the time, telephones were a still rarity while broadcasting was a state monopoly. Such a situation is inconceivable today.

 Great Responsibility

I’m not suggesting that the riots of 1958, 1983 and the latest ones are comparable. But the altered ICT dimension is worth serious reflection. As Voltaire (and Spiderman’s Uncle Ben) said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Last year, when Groundviews.org brought together thinkers, artistes and activists to reflect on the lasting legacy of Black July, its editor Sanjana Hattotuwa asked: “30 years on, does Sri Lanka’s coast-to-coast connectivity help or hinder that which gave rise to Black July?”

Like it or not, we must face the 21st century info-reality: controlled release of information is no longer an option in the networked Global Village. When will our government’s information mandarins accept this and adapt accordingly?

The government promotes IT literacy and wants to raise it to 70% of population by 2016. We want to be a ‘knowledge hub’ of Asia. These efforts will inevitably lead to a further profusion of digital conversations.

A myriad of narratives will rise. For official ones to stand out, they must be timely, authentic and credible. Even in the cyber cacophony, trustworthy voices still get heard, shared and amplified.

Media Blackout?

For reasons best known to themselves, however, most sections of Sri Lanka’s mainstream media chose not to cover the riots in any detail for more than 48 hours. For a society accustomed to 24/7 news coverage, that is like an eternity. Even afterwards, many reports were patchy.

An honourable exception was Daily FT, which in my view has carried the best reporting on these incidents, such as: The Agony of Aluthgama (17 June 2014) and “What was our Crime?” (19 June 2014). As I asked in a tweet: if they could do this, why can’t our other media — who are facing the SAME pressures (whatever those might be)?

Social media breaks Sri Lankan media’s shameful silence’ ran the headline of an op-ed published in India’s widely read First Post website on June 17.

It quoted Sanjana Hattotuwa, the editor of Groundviews, as saying: “…Whatever the reason it suggests media is under a regime of censorship through fear, and journalists who have shared with me updates they haven’t made public are also self censoring themselves for fear of being identified later on as those who stoked violence by giving accurate and real time situation reports.”

This gap was partly filled by social media and international media reports – but only to the extent they have outreach in the island. Those who rely on local newspapers, radio and TV had to settle for ‘radio silence’ while media gatekeepers hesitated and held back.

No one can monitor everything that goes on in social media. But most of the hundreds of tweets I read over the past few days have been linked to verified journalistic sources or trusted names.

Amantha Perera, who reports for several international media outlets including TIME magazine, noted in a tweet: “Social media became main platform for info during Sri Lanka communal clashes when mainstream media abdicated, akin to during Thai Coup.”

A number of journalists and photojournalists with news gathering experience kept sharing verified situation updates from the field. These included @tingilye@AmanthaP, @dinidu, @Althaf_4u and @Dinoukc, some of who also quoted the police spokesman. The hashtag #Aluthgama soon started trending on Twitter.

BqQN4IxCIAEKHnW.jpg large

 Divide blurred

Even the mainstream media used social media platforms to quickly share their field reports and images. The Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Sri Lanka, for example, posted on Facebook a series of photographs by its members who visited the affected locations as accredited journalists.

“What was interesting to see was how many journalists were tweeting through their personal accounts that their media outlets were completely blank on,” says Hattotuwa.

Indeed, the divide between mainstream and citizen media blurred as committed individuals rose above institutions to keep vital information flowing. Not just news, but also timely appeals for racial harmony, relief supplies, etc.

Other tweeps with wide following expressed their dismay and fears. @InduNan spoke for many when she tweeted: “I’m confused and not sure of whom or what to believe anymore. Nevertheless, extremely sad how things have turned out to be.”

When I tweeted brilliant cartoons by Awantha Artigala and Gihan De Chickera, for example, these were widely re-tweeted. Clearly, they struck a chord.

https://twitter.com/NalakaG/status/479100695795081216

While Twitter was the social media platform of choice for many (citizen and mainstream) journalists to share news, views and images, public sentiments also poured out elsewhere – on Facebook and blogs.

10411909_10152065161500518_5324521322190670454_nMemes – such as the palm sign with ‘Stand Against Racism’ – are in wide circulation, rallying networked Lankans around on calls for racial harmony, compassion for the affected and restraint all around.

But the same digital tools and web platforms are also being used for spreading hate speech against racial minorities, and to defend violence. Can the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ moderate these excesses, and help soothe the restive nation’s nerves? We can only hope so!

Nearly a decade ago, the tsunami marked a turning point in Sri Lanka’s citizen journalism. It’s too early to be certain, but Aluthgama aftermath can mark a watershed in social media serving the public interest under duress.

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

See also: 30 Years Ago: How ICTs Are Changing Sri Lanka

 

Posted in Broadcasting, Current Affairs, Disaster, Disaster Communication, History, Humanitarianism, ICT, Journalism, Media, Media freedom, Peace & Conflict, Public information, Public perceptions, Religion, Social Media, Sri Lanka, Telecommunications | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When Worlds Collide #111: Science Journalism for Better Governance

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 13 June 2014

Indo Pak Nuclear rivalry seen by Himal Southasian magazine

Indo Pak Nuclear rivalry seen by Himal Southasian magazine

Years ago, as a young science journalist working for Asia Technology magazine of Hong Kong, I was shown around Pakistan’s space agency SUPARCO premises in Karachi. At the time, in early 1990, they were readying the country’s first satellite, Badr 1 (launched later that year on a Chinese rocket).

It was a national showpiece, and no one involved would talk about specifics like costs, benefits and long term research and development (R&D) plans. Although Benazir Bhutto had returned Pakistan to civilian rule, no critical questions could be asked about the country’s nuclear or space programmes.

A few years later, I happened to be in Mumbai when India carried out its second nuclear weapons testing in Pokhran mid May 1998. This ultimate chest thumping act inspired street celebrations and highly nationalistic media coverage. Pakistan carried out its own nuke test within weeks, escalating tensions in one of the world’s most volatile regions.

Both countries have long shielded their space and nuclear programmes from public and media scrutiny, on the grounds of national security. Such ‘Charismatic mega-science’ projects are not the only ones in South Asia to be treated like sacred cows. Large dam and reservoir projects, or efforts to lay national fibre optic cables for broadband Internet connectivity, can easily get elevated to symbols of national pride.

Sri Lanka has its share of grandiose projects. The Accelerated Mahaweli River Development programme in the 1980s was beyond reproach. A current example is plans to launch a national communications satellite and to set up a space centre in Pallekele. Even Parliament is unclear as to who is pursuing what in this respect.

 Public accountability

These mega-projects are meant to showcase technological accomplishment, but not all of them build local capacity or address development priorities (Mahaweli was an exception). Often they can drain scarce funds available for health, education and scientific research.

In many parts of South Asia, independent academics, civil society activists or journalists questioning such projects risk being called ‘anti-national’ or ‘anti-development’. In today’s Lanka, they can be easily labelled as ‘traitors’.

Against this backdrop, how can the media critique the role of science and technology (S&T) in national development? What can science journalists do to hold scientists and policy makers more accountable?

Nalaka Gunawardene (left) in conversation with Ranjit Devraj of SciDev.Net South Asia - Photo courtesy COSTI

Nalaka Gunawardene (left) in conversation with Ranjit Devraj of SciDev.Net South Asia – Photo courtesy COSTI

These and other questions were explored in a recent public conversation I had with visiting Indian journalist, Ranjit Devraj, the Delhi-based South Asia regional coordinator for Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net).

It was part of the ‘Coordinated Dialogue on Science for All: Mainstreaming Science, Technology and Innovation for Public Communication’, held on 29 May 2014. It was organised by the Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation (COSTI) of the Lankan government, in partnership with SciDev.Net.

SciDev.Net, a non-profit entity set up in 2001, operates the world’s leading online source of reliable and authoritative news, views and analysis on information about S&T for global development. Its content is drawn mostly from freelance journalists and experts living and working in the global South.

Although science now encompasses our modern lives, many are still not familiar with how science is done or why it matters. Science communication – done by science centres, museums and other educational activities – seeks to fill this gap by interpreting and explaining matters to non-scientists.

Science journalism is a form of science communication — with a critical edge. Journalism involves gathering, processing and analysing what is topical and socially relevant. Science journalists use the craft and tools of the trade to probe issues related to S&T. They work within the same ethical and professional framework common to all mass media.

SciDev.Net South Asia home page on 11 June 2014

SciDev.Net South Asia home page on 11 June 2014

 Critical Cheer-leaders

Thus, we science journalists are not simply public amplifiers for scientists or their institutions. We support scientific research and its use in policy making and society, but at the same time, we question them closely.

In my view, science journalists’ primary role is to be ‘critical cheer-leaders’ for science: we promote scientists and their institutions while also holding them socially accountable.

David Dickson, the British science journalist who founded SciDev.Net, was among the first to recognise the value of his kind for transparent, responsive and accountable government.

He wrote in 2007: “The concept of the journalist as a defender of the public interest is usually applied to those writing about overtly political issues, since it is here that the need for — and indeed the challenges to — a free press are often greatest. But a growing number of political decisions, from allocating medical resources to promoting economic growth, have a scientific and technological dimension to them. It is therefore important to recognise the extent to which science journalism forms an essential component of a well-functioning democracy.”

This has long been acknowledged in the industrialised world, but Dickson argued that it is equally true of developing nations.Science journalists can, he said, highlight government failure to meet public commitments in science-related areas. They can also press for government policies to be firmly embedded in evidence drawn from sound science.

Contentious debates

The work of SciDev.Net during the past dozen years has helped define a new ‘common ground’ between democracy, development and pursuit of scientific knowledge.

The nuclear questionRanjit and I discussed how this has happened, for example, in contentious debates surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs), nuclear energy, and pharmaceutical drugs. When expert opinion is polarized, policy makers need neutral platforms where concerned parties can discuss matters openly.

In recent years, I have chosen to focus on stories that explore the nexus between science, public policy and the public interest. There is plenty to choose from – from dengue control and safe use of agrochemicals to climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction.

On these and other current concerns, I have sometimes irked single-issue activists whose commitment I admire but whose rhetoric and conspiracy theories I don’t accept.

Taking on Big Agro, Big Pharma and Big Tobacco seems a popular sport for them. Yet the best long-term defence is in strengthening governance and improving the policy processes. And in recognising that, despite activist prescriptions, ‘Big Government’ is not a panacea for all ills.

When Worlds Collide #84: Have Lankans Suspended Disbelief Permanently?

In this column, I have flagged the danger of ‘policy-based evidence’ – when ministers commission investigations to prove a preconceived notion, or quote from selected research while ignoring inconvenient truths.

When Worlds Collide #80: When politicians turn to science for evidence…

To be effective, science journalists must sometimes challenge political and academic authorities when their positions are clearly misguided. This is easier said than done, Ranjit and I agreed, especially when patriotism is the last refuge of mediocre scientists.

It’s not the journalists’ job to join any group’s chest thumping or back slapping. We should simply keep asking the right questions and go in search of answers and clarity.

And that’s why we science journalists shouldn’t jump on any bandwagon, even one as laudable as science for all. Instead, we can be fellow travellers along the same path.

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

Part of the audience at Science for All event in Colombo on May 29 [photo courtesy COSTI]

Part of the audience at Science for All event in Colombo on May 29 [photo courtesy COSTI]

Posted in Broadcasting, Communicating Development, Environment, Environmental policy, Journalism, Media, Poverty, Public health, Public information, Public policy, South Asia, Sri Lanka, Sustainable Development | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

When Worlds Collide #110: Saluting unknown ‘Tank Man’ 25 Years Later

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 6 June 2014

One man against a mighty army - Tank Man in Beijing

One man against a mighty army – Tank Man in Beijing

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on protesting students at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

In our media saturated world, with hundreds of mainstream and citizen journalists bearing witness to key events, one image often stands out as symbolic. It’s that one which gets etched into our collective memory.

There was such an iconic image from Tiananmen Square. It shows a solitary, unarmed Chinese man standing up against a column of battle tanks rolling down a street.

Captured by several photographers snapping away from a nearby hotel balcony, it is one of the best known moments in 20th century photojournalism.

Perhaps the most widely seen photo was taken by Jeff Widener, an American photojournalist who was working for the news agency Associated Press (AP).

Tank Man appeared on the cover of TIME, 19 June 1989

Tank Man appeared on the cover of TIME, 19 June 1989

In fact, that image represented so much more than a news event, and has inspired art, graffiti and political activism. With that extraordinary act of defiance, the man in the picture caught the imagination of a whole generation.

A quarter century later, nobody knows who he was, or what happened to him afterwards. He has been dubbed ‘Tank Man’. In April 1998, TIME magazine included this “Unknown Rebel” in its list of 100 most important people of the last century.

Uncommon Heroism

The sequence of events has been well established by those who saw it happen. On the morning of 5 June 1989, a line of 18 tanks was pulling out of Tiananmen Square and driving east along Chang’an Avenue (literally, Avenue of Eternal Peace). It was just one minute’s walk away from the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which leads into the Forbidden City.

The previous day, the square had been ‘cleared’ violently, and now the protesting students were being tracked down all over the city.

Suddenly a slim man, dressed in a white shirt and black trousers and carrying a shopping bag in each hand, steps out and stands directly on the path of advancing tanks. The leading tank stops, then moves to its right as if to go around him.

The man waves a shopping bag, and moves a few steps to his left to block the tank again. The tank swerves back to avoid him. The man waves the bag and gets in the way again. All the while, he is saying something – but video cameras are too far to catch it.

Then they both stop. The man climbs on to the tank, and is seen talking to the soldiers inside. He stays there for over a minute before stepping down. We can hear intermittent gunfire in the background.

Tanks resume their course, and the man tries once more to block them before being pulled back by some bystanders. The drama ends there – and that’s the last time the world sees the Tank Man.

From CNN: 1989 Raw Video: Man vs. Chinese tank Tiananmen square

There have been conflicting reports on who he was, and what happened to him. Some say he was arrested within minutes, while others contend that the authorities couldn’t nab him and he lives, to this day, unrecognized somewhere on the mainland. When American media asked party general secretary Jiang Zemin a year later about the man’s fate, he just said, “I think never killed.”

During those few minutes, however, as unknown soldiers hesitated to run him over, the Unknown Rebel unwittingly entered history. He probably wasn’t looking for any posterity – he was more likely a horrified citizen who’d seen the carnage and felt that ‘enough was enough’…

Tiananmen Square protests of 1989: A brief chronology by PBS

Tiananmen Square protests 1989: A simplified chronology by Christian Science Monitor

Tiananmen Square protests 1989: A simplified chronology by Christian Science Monitor

 Bearing Witness

But how was that moment captured and shared around the world from a country that did not allow easy access to the global media? What made the live (or nearly live) coverage of Beijing events possible?

We need to remember that it was a very different world. The Cold War was still underway (albeit slowly thawing), the Berlin Wall was still standing, as was the Soviet Union (though not for much longer). The World Wide Web was not even fully invented, and first generation mobile phone networks were still being rolled out in the West and Japan.

The world witnessed Tiananmen Square events and the Tank Man incident thanks to a historic accident. Student demonstrations had been building up for weeks since mid April, but without much international attention. Then in mid May, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in the Chinese capital for a Sino-Soviet summit, the first in over 30 years.

Gorbachev, who had already ushered in unprecedented reforms in his country, was a global media superstar. His China visit generated much media interest, and the world’s leading news organisations sent reporters and camera crews to Beijing. Keen to showcase the new era of relations between the world’s two largest communist nations, somewhat relaxed its usually strict controls on allowing global media.

But things didn’t go according to plan. When the leaders tried to clear the Tiananmen Square ahead of the summit, the students held their ground. At that time, moderates in the Community Party were still trying to negotiate with student leaders. But they were quickly sidelined after demonstrators blocked Gorbachev’s motorcade and the visiting leader had to be sneaked out through the back doors of the Forbidden City. The government felt deeply embarrassed.

Sensing the rising tension, some international reporters and photographers stayed on after Gorbachev left. On May 20, the government declared martial law and surrounded the capital with troops. After the siege dragged on for another two weeks, Deng Xiaoping decided to finally deal with protesting students by using full military force.

It has recently been disclosed that at least one of his top commanders refused – saying the protests were a political problem, and should be settled through negotiations, not force. He was soon arrested, and the others quickly fell in line.

The bloody events that followed have been documented and analysed by many. The People’s Liberation Army – the world’s largest military force – attacked their own unarmed countrymen, killing hundreds or more, and injuring thousands.

The official death toll has ranged between 200 and 300 (including soldiers). The actual number is believed to be much higher: there is no reliable figure, and the Chinese authorities will not permit independent historical research. China still refers to the events simply as a “counterrevolutionary rebellion” that had to be contained.

Infographic  © CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc.

Infographic © CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc.

The aftermath

Was the Tank Man among many killed that week or later?

Charlie Cole, a Newsweek photographer who bore witness (and won World Press Photo of the Year 1989 for his image), later said: “Personally I think the government most likely executed him. It would have been in the government’s interest to produce him to silence the outcry from most of the world. But, they never could. People were executed at that time for far less than what he did.”

He added: “I think his action captured people’s hearts everywhere, and when the moment came, his character defined the moment rather than the moment defining him. He made the image, I just took the picture. I felt honoured to be there!” (Read Cole’s full account at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4313282.stm)

Read recollections of Charlie Cole, Stuart Franklin, Jeff Widener and Arthur Tsang Hin Wah on New York Times Lens blog

The Tank Man - a long shot Stuart Franklin

The Tank Man – a long shot by Stuart Franklin

The unknown Tank Man was not the first of his kind, or the last. From Eastern Europe to the Middle East, and from Burma to Nepal, many other ordinary men and women have risked life and limb to take on state brutality wielded in the name of national security, law and order or anti-terrorism.

In an increasingly connected world, bearing witness to such acts has become easier – but no any less dangerous.

When the Burmese junta turned its guns on unarmed civilians in 2007, for example, it was mostly the anonymous citizen journalists who filmed that atrocity with hand-held digital cameras. Their footage, smuggled out, found its way to a global TV audience and also fed the 2008 Danish documentary Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, directed by Anders Østergaard.

Every time a courageous civilian stands up for collective human rights despite overwhelming odds, and every time another committed individual bears witness to that act, the spirit of Tank Man lives on. We may never know his real identity, but his defiance resonates down the ages as an embarrassment for tyrants from Rangoon to Tehran.

As writer Pico Iyer once put it so well, “In a century in which so many tried to impress their monogram on history, often in blood red, the man with the tank…stands for the forces of the unnamed: the Unknown Soldier of a new Republic of the Image.”

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

 

Posted in Current Affairs, History, Human Rights, Journalism, Media, Media freedom, Peace & Conflict, Television | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When Worlds Collide #109: Huffing and puffing over Tobacco in Sri Lanka

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 31 May 2014

May 31 is World No Tobacco Day

May 31 is World No Tobacco Day

Tobacco control presents formidable policy dilemmas. It isn’t a simple or simplistic battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as anti-tobacco activists would make us believe.

There is no doubt that tobacco kills many smokers — and some non-smokers, too. It was in January 1964 that the US Surgeon General issued the first report of the Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health. Based on over 7,000 papers relating to smoking and disease in biomedical literature, it concluded that cigarette smoking was a cause of lung cancer and laryngeal cancer in men, a probable cause of lung cancer in women, and the most important cause of chronic bronchitis.

During the half century since, much more evidence has piled up, yet tobacco remains a legitimate trade. Starting, continuing or quitting smoking is a personal lifestyle choice which, at least in democracies, governments can’t legislate.

U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry addressing press conference at the release of the 1964 Report on Smoking and Health

U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry addressing press conference at the release of the 1964 Report on Smoking and Health

The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General, 2014

However, as the cost of treating tobacco-caused ill health burdens public healthcare systems, there is a need to control and contain consumption. Tobacco use is now the single most preventable cause of death globally, responsible for 10% of all adult deaths.

“Nearly 6 million people die from tobacco-related illness each year, of which more than 600 000 are non-smokers dying from breathing second-hand smoke,” says the World Health Organisation (WHO). “Unless we act, the epidemic will kill more than 8 million people every year by 2030. More than 80% of these preventable deaths will be among people living in low-and middle-income countries.”

On 31 May every year, WHO leads the observance of World No Tobacco Day, which highlights the health risks associated with tobacco use and focuses on effective policies to reduce tobacco consumption.

Tobacco in Lanka

Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) have become the leading cause of illness and death in Sri Lanka, with tobacco use recognized as a key causal factor. In 2009, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health estimated that tobacco-related illnesses were responsible for about 20,000 deaths (averaging 57 per day). This is set to increase in the coming years.

An official report, titled Brief Profile on Tobacco Control in Sri Lanka(2009), said 39% men and 2.6% women in Sri Lanka smoked tobacco. Besides cigarettes, other products on the local market are cigars, low-cost and less refined beedis, and betel quid with tobacco leaves.

Sri Lanka signed and ratified the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2003. The National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol (NATA) was set up through an Act of Parliament in 2006.

Since then, regulations have highly restricted smoking in public places. Tobacco advertising, promotions and sponsorships are prohibited, as are cigarette vending machines. Written health warnings have been mandatory for years.

In recent months, Parliament passed new regulations requiring cigarette packs to contain pictorial health warnings covering 80% of total area. Ceylon Tobacco Company, the country’s monopolist cigarette maker and distributor (mostly owned by British American Tobacco, BAT) challenged this at the Court of Appeal. In a recent ruling, the court limited the pictorial warning to 50-60% of the printable area on the pack.

While the Minister has accepted the ruling (at least for now), activists want to continue fighting for 80%. Key opposition political parties have endorsed this in media comments.

Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA), the apex professional body of medical professionals in the country, says it “strongly supports” 80% of pictorial warnings “purely on technical grounds”.

SLMA recently responded to a newspaper editorial (The Sunday Times, 18 May 2014) that asked why the health authorities were focusing on tobacco control without tackling other threats like narcotic drugs, infectious diseases, food safety and (health effects of) pollution.

Dr. Palitha Abeykoon, President of SLMA, and Prof Narada Warnasuriya
chairman of its Expert Committee on Tobacco and Alcohol, argued that “harm from tobacco single-handedly dwarfs all those listed, even if the deaths and disabilities of all those are put together”.

Such single-minded resolve is certainly admirable, but anti-tobacco campaigning in Sri Lanka needs to evolve beyond number games and multinational-bashing.

WHO encourages pictorial warnings

Beyond Rhetoric

Activists need mass support to succeed in their policy advocacy as well as public awareness efforts. But to accomplish lasting change, they need to employ more than just populist rhetoric. Taking the moral high ground isn’t enough: they must marshal evidence, study markets and mindsets, strategize, and engage current and potential users of tobacco.

In fact, success will depend critically on good public communication. Being legally mandated to use 50 – 60% of space on a cigarette pack is still a significant opportunity. But that space needs to be used in best possible manner.

Knowing your audience is a first principle in communication. An independent analysis by Amba research and the Colombo Stock Exchange (Oct 2013) notes how most (roughly 95%) of cigarettes are sold in Sri Lanka as loose sticks. If this is indeed the case, most cigarette buyers among us will never get to see 80% (or 50-60%) pictorial warnings! (www.cse.lk/cmt/upload_report_file/460_1384255423645.pdf)

A helpful starting point to understand the mindset and behaviour of Lankan smokers is regular surveys by the Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC), an advocacy group. Since 1998, ADIC has conducted a public survey twice a year to determine trends in alcohol and tobacco consumption among males above 14 years. (Full reports: http://www.adicsrilanka.org/publication/)

The latest, in July 2013, covered 2,465 boys and men in 10 districts across the island, and from all walks of life. It probed current tobacco users as well as those who have used it at some point in life and those who never have.

It found that 32.5% of the sample currently smoked or chewed tobacco. The highest numbers (36.7%) were among those aged 40 and above while 26.9% of those between 15 and 24 admitted to smoking.

Seven out of 10 current tobacco users do so everyday. Two thirds of daily smokers claimed they used less than five cigarettes a day; only a small percentage (3.9%) admitted to smoking more than 20 a day.

Almost a third (32.7%) of current tobacco users had ‘no obvious reason’ for smoking while nearly as many (31.4%) attributed it to ‘habit’. Other reasons included ‘fun’ (19.3%), ‘to socialize with friends’ (14%) and to ‘forget problems’ (3.4%). Only 1.1% admitted peer pressure, but then it is less likely to be openly acknowledged.

Among current users, 60% have tried to quit the habit at least once – just over half of them because of its potential health hazards.

Sri Lanka tobacco use trend 2000-2012 as seen in ADIC surveys [Full reports at: http://www.adicsrilanka.org/publication/]

Sri Lanka tobacco use trend 2000-2012 as seen in ADIC surveys [Full reports at: http://www.adicsrilanka.org/publication/%5D

Defiant smokers

We shouldn’t read too much into such surveys. But findings in recent years show a gradual decrease in cigarette smoking. This is consistent with global trends, but it still remains a major public health issue everywhere.

Smokers are a defiant lot. Many already know of multiple health hazards of their habit/addiction. They have seen a steady shrinking of public spaces for lighting up. Inside private confines, they are determined to hold out. They are not going to cave in to a nanny state or pious arguments.

Getting inside the smokers’ mind is essential for engaging them. This is where our medical and public health professionals need to work with sociologists, psychologists and communication specialists – including (rare) conscientious advertising professionals.

Anti-tobacco messaging cannot succeed on the (proven) health hazards alone. The image of individuality and lifestyle choice carefully projected by the tobacco industry must be countered through rational arguments and sincere engagement. That takes much time and effort – and not everyone will be won over.

Yes, clever slogans and stunning visuals do help. (My favourite: Tobacco companies kill their best customers!). But don’t judge or condemn smokers — which will only strengthen their resolve.

[Personal note: I have never smoked, and as an asthmatic, react badly to secondhand smoke. At the same time, I don't accept conspiracy theories on tobacco peddling or pious arguments against tobacco users.]

World No Tobacco Day appeal from WHO

World No Tobacco Day appeal from WHO

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

Posted in Air Pollution, Business & Commerce, Communicating Development, Conspiracy Theories, Education, Poverty, Public health, Public policy, Sri Lanka, Sustainable Development, Youth | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments