Sri Lanka calls for single authority to coordinate emergency broadcasts
by Amal Jayasinghe
COLOMBO, March 29 (AFP) - Sri Lankan legislators called Tuesday for a single body to issue warnings on potential natural diasters after broadcasters complained of a lack of information about Monday's tsunami alert.
The lawmakers held the previously scheduled hearing a day after a huge earthquake off Indonesia triggered tsunami alerts and evacuations in several Indian Ocean countries including Sri Lanka.
Thousands of people were urged to evacuate coastal areas in broadcasts late Monday but some media outlets said access to information was haphazard.
The head of the state-run Independent Television Network, Newton Gunaratne, told the lawmakers that after broadcasting warnings for coastal residents to move to higher ground they were unable later on to get information on the status of the possible tsunami.
"We could not find any authority who was willing to say it was safe for people to go back," Gunaratne said. "That is why we need a centralised system from where authoritative information can be obtained."
Another state broadcaster said the country's Geological Survey unit had only one telephone and it was impossible to reach them on Monday night.
Mahinda Samarasinghe, chairman of a bipartisan committee, endorsed the call for a unified authority to provide information.
"We are looking at what happened yesterday to prepare for any other disaster and that is why we need to look at the shortcomings and problems," Samarasinghe said during a public hearing in parliament.
Police said the evacuation was orderly but unconfirmed reports said there were two deaths in the east of the island.
Buddhist monk and legislator Athuraliye Ratana said there was panic on the streets overnight after the initial warning, but thereafter people were largely left to their own devices.
"Several people sheltered at Buddhist temples," the monk said. "We didn't know for how long these people were going to stay and what steps to take next. We had no information after the initial warning."
The top official for media policy said the government will seek a public service clause in licenses issued to broadcasters, requiring uniform disaster alerts.
"In the licenses we have issued so far, this problem has not been addressed," said media ministry secretary W. B. Ganegala. "But in the future we will include that. We are working on that."
There are two state-owned and six private television channels and around a dozen private radio stations in Sri Lanka.
The lawmakers also criticised the island's cellular and fixed-line phone networks which buckled under heavy call traffic after radio and television announced the potential tsunami threat.
Nearly 31,000 people were killed when giant waves lashed much of the island's coastline on December 26 following a submarine earthquake near Indonesia.
Monday's quake was less intense but the authorities issued the tsunami warning as a precautionary measure and lifted it nearly five hours after the quake.
Copyright (c) 2005 Agence France-PresseReceived by NewsEdge Insight: 03/29/2005 04:44:22