In times of crisis people look to leadership from the Government. They demand that the Government, including the security forces, public officials and other State entities, work for the safety and security of the public. They also look for reassurance, progressive views and implementation of the law from Government stakeholders including politicians. There cannot be reassurance without consistent information sharing and updates from law enforcement officials of the situation as it unfolds.
Unfortunately the Government does not believe in proactive information sharing. On Sunday and Monday curfew had to be imposed on Chilaw, Kuliyapitiya, Bingiriya and Dummalasuriya as anti-Muslim unrest flared. In Chilaw according to reports a social media post had triggered unrest and the person was subsequently arrested by Police.
Kuliyapitiya was another tinder box with reports of people attacking Muslim-owned shops and houses. As tension increased Police re-imposed curfew on Monday but there was little verified information coming from the area.
The Government’s response to the clashes was to ban social media for the third time this month. President Maithripala Sirisena, while taking wing to China, had urged the public to go about their lives as normal, which is perhaps the most mindboggling statement of all. He and the Government should understand the public are desperate for information and reassurance. In the absence of the Government releasing credible and verified information, the result is that unconfirmed reports are flying across the country with nothing to counter them. A social media ban to stop misinformation has limited effectiveness because most people are using a VPN and traffic remains undisturbed.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, intense international attention and demand for answers pushed the Government to release at least some amount of information. But even at that point there were many calls from the private sector and responsible factions of the media for a credible spokesman who could consistently engage with the media and release updated information of measures taken by the Government and security forces to enforce the law, give updates on the status on investigations in the Easter Sunday attacks, improve security and restore normalcy.
Unfortunately this was at best sporadically done and of late simply disintegrated into a process of the Government Information Department releasing staged “briefings” where the spokesmen of the Police, Military, Navy and Air Force give basic information. There is no space for the media to ask questions, seek clarification or get verified information as situations change. This is particularly damaging when clashes erupt around the country as the impression created among the public is that the mainstream media are not doing their job in disseminating information in a timely manner but the reality is they are unable to get verified information readily as it is not released by the Government. This sort of informal censorship is the worst way to stifle information because when the public lose their trust in conventional media they turn more and more to unverified social media for information.
The Government has to power to turn this cycle and show the people, particularly the moderates and minorities that they are not alone. The best way for the Government to prove to their public that they are being competent is by increasing transparency. Sri Lanka is a democracy and the people have a right to answers from their elected representatives. In an information vacuum, panic and fear rules above reason and restraint.