The Oscar goes to…Dolphins in danger, and eco-campaigners fighting for them!

The Cove won the Oscar for best documentary feature in 2009

People or dolphins? Human rights or animal rights?

Members of the (US) Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science had this tough choice to make, and their decision – announced at the just concluded 82nd Oscar Awards ceremony – will inspire much debate.

The Oscar for the best documentary feature went to The Cove, an investigative film (described as an eco-thriller) by Louie Psihoyos and Fisher Stevens that chronicles eco-activists’ battles with Japanese officials over dolphin hunting.

The nominee I had hoped would win was Burma VJ – by Anders Østergaard and Lise Lense-Møller – which documented the work of video journalists fighting against the brutal military junta of Burma.

See the full list of nominees and winners for 2009.

Not yet having seen the film, I don’t want to comment on the editorial or technical merits of The Cove. But from its official website, trailer and media coverage/reviews, it certainly sounds like a compelling film. It’s like Hollywood meets Greenpeace.

And as I know from my own film jury experiences, choosing a winner from among excellent contenders is never easy – and the story or content of the film (and its political relevance) is not the only criterion to be taken into account.

Here’s the official synopsis for THE COVE:

The Cove follows an elite team of activists, film makers and free-divers as they embark on a covert mission to penetrate a remote and hidden cove in Taiji, Japan, shining a light on a dark and deadly secret. Utilizing state-of-the-art techniques, including hidden microphones and cameras in fake rocks, the team uncovers how this small seaside village serves as a horrifying microcosm of massive ecological crimes happening worldwide. The result is a provocative mix of investigative journalism, eco-adventure and arresting imagery, adding up to an unforgettable story that has inspired audiences worldwide to action.

THE COVE – Official US Theatrical Trailer

THE COVE is directed by Louie Psihoyos and produced by Paula DuPré Pesmen and Fisher Stevens. The film is written by Mark Monroe. The executive producer is Jim Clark and the co-producer is Olivia Ahnemann.

The Cove was made by the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS), a non-profit organization founded in 2005 by Louie Psihoyos and Jim Clark to “provide an exclusive lens for the public and media to observe the beauty as well as the destruction of the oceans, while motivating change.”

What is impressive is that besides making the film, they have invested lots of time and effort in creating educational and campaigning material for concerned viewers to pursue this interest. They are also using different web tools and social networking platforms to inspire further action on this conservation issue.

Here’s an update from one of their calls to action:

Louie Psihoyos, right, accepted the Oscar for The Cove, with Ric O'Barry, center, and Fisher Stevens (AP photo)

“The focus of the Social Action Campaign for The Cove is to create worldwide awareness of this annual practice as well as the dangers of eating seafood contaminated with mercury and to pressure those in power to put an end to the slaughter.

“And it’s been working. The film has been making waves since it premiered last year. Critical praise and audience awards worldwide have focused international attention on Taiji and the annual dolphin drives off the coast of Japan. Under intense pressure, Taiji called for a temporary ban on killing bottlenose dolphins. The film, which was originally rejected, was shown at the Tokyo Film Festival due to public outcry. Residents in Taiji are being tested for mercury poisoning, and for the first time Japanese media are covering the issue.

“Close to a million people have signed on to the campaign, but this is just the beginning. The fisherman are clearly rattled, but haven’t stopped killing dolphins.”

And it’s not just in Japan that the film makers are taking up this cause. They are now taking on culprits closer home.
New York Times, 8 March 2010: Oscar Winners Try to Keep Whale Off Sushi Plates

The dolphins and whales, if they could speak, would be truly grateful.

Burma VJ: Video Journalists as courageous ‘information smugglers’

“There are two types of prisons in Burma: one with walls and one without.”

This is how Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese opposition leader and pro-democracy activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her non-violent struggle under Burma’s military dictatorship, sums up the sorry state of her country. This is how the Burmese people (population: 50 million) have been living for more than half a century under the tyranny of one of the longest running military dictatorships in the world.

A rare glimpse of that massive ‘prison’ and the people’s struggle for democracy is found in BURMA VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country. It’s is a powerful documentary directed by Danish filmmaker Anders Østergaard.

The film uses camcorder and cellphone footage collected by underground video journalists (VJs) working for Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a collective of Burmese journalists in exile. Set up in 1992, DVB has several dozen VJs recording the life and times of their giant ‘prison’ and smuggling these out of the country for international dissemination. DVB operates satellite TV channel, coordinated from its headquarters in Oslo, Norway. It also disseminates the material by radio and web.

A Sundance and Berlin festival award winner, the film is currently nominated for an Oscar award for the best Documentary Feature of 2009. I’ve just watched the 85-min film, which filled me with outrage (over the utter abuse of power by Burmese junta) and deep admiration for the video journalists whose work is portrayed in it without disclosing any of their identities.

We don’t really see the film’s heroes or heroines – digitally empowered and passionate young journalists – for a very good reason. Being a VJ in Burma is one of the most hazardous journalistic assignments on the planet: the country is ranked almost at the bottom (171 out of 175 countries) in RSF’s Press Freedom Index 2009. If caught, VJs risk torture and life imprisonment.

But by its very definition, video journalism is a field job — it can’t be done from the relative safety of a closed room. DVB’s courageous VJs document travails of ordinary people in the streets, market places, temples, and when dissent erupts periodically, at demonstrations and marches. In doing so, they take huge chances of being spotted and nabbed by the military and undercover police, or their civilian informants.

Watch Burma VJ Viral video (1 min):

Burma VJ is based on the brutal quelling of the September 2007 monks’ uprising, when thousands of politically neutral Buddhist monks took to the streets. The story is narrated by Joshua, a 27-year-old DVB reporter now living in exile in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

In September 2007, an increase in fuel prices sparks extensive protests by students and activists against the military junta. For the first time, they are joined in the streets of Rangoon by thousands of Buddhist monks (the saffron revolution). While 100,000 people protest a repressive regime that has held the country hostage for over 40 years, foreign news crews are banned and the Internet is shut down. The underground VJs are the only, tenuous link that can tell the outside world the mass scale repression unfolding in Burma. The government outlaws all public gatherings, moves soldiers in, and embarks on a bloody crackdown.

As the firearm shooting continues, VJs continue to shoot from street corners and wherever else they could. One VJ captures the horrific moment when Kenji Nagai, a Japanese reporter filming the demonstrations, is shot dead at point blank range. This footage soon reaches the global news channels and shocks an already alarmed world.

Watch Burma VJ official trailer:

Interview with Anders Østergaard and Khin Maung Win, deputy director of the Democratic Voice of Burma in exile was filmed by Liza Béar and originally posted on

BURMA VJ: Anders Østergaard, Khin Maung Win Interview

Actor Richard Gere talks about his impressions of Burma VJ

DVB’s courageous reporters and editors – some of whom I met during a visit to their Oslo office in late 2008 – are struggling against one of the most ruthless and entrenched military dictatorships in the world that tolerates no dissent or criticism. Burma has also been listed by CPJ as the world’s “worst country to be a blogger”.

Hla Hla Win: Paying a high price for video journalism in Burma

Bullets vs. Digits: The Ultimate Battle?

Burma, one of the worst countries for media freedom anywhere in the world, started 2010 in characteristic repressive style.

On 6 January 2010, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) announced that a Burmese woman reporter who contributed video material to them has just been handed a 20-year prison sentence. This brings to 13 the number of imprisoned journalists in Burma.

The news was met with outrage by leading international media watchdog, Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), and the Burma Media Association (BMA).

“People had been expecting signs of an opening and goodwill gestures from the military junta in this election year (2010), but this extremely severe sentence on a 25-year-old video maker and the junta chief’s recent threatening comments leave little hope that the elections will be free,” the two organisations said in a statement.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said on their website: “Hla Hla Win was first arrested on September 11, 2009, on her way back from a DVB reporting assignment in Pakokku Township, Magwe Division, where she had conducted interviews with Buddhist monks in a local monastery. According to her editors at DVB, at the time of her arrest she was working on a story pegged to the second anniversary of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, in which Buddhist monks rose up against the Burma’s military-run government in countrywide protests that were finally violently suppressed.”

DVB is an independent, non-profit media organisation covering Burma issues for the Burmese and the world. They operate from Oslo, Norway, and Asian locations outside Burma (as their kind of work is simply not possible within Burma). Their news is gathered by a network of undercover reporters and cameramen. DVB transmits both satellite radio and satellite television channels, aimed principally at Burmese speaking viewers living in the country and elsewhere.

DVB’s courageous reporters and editors – some of whom I met during a visit to their Oslo office in late 2008 – are struggling against one of the most ruthless and entrenched military dictatorships in the world that tolerates no dissent or criticism. Burma ranked 171 out of 175 countries in RSF’s Press Freedom Index 2009. It has also been listed by CPJ as the world’s “worst country to be a blogger”.

Here’s an extract from DVB’s recent press release:
Hla Hla Win’s imprisonment follows on from the arrest of DVB cameraman, ‘T’, who filmed the aftermath of cyclone Nargis in May 2008. The footage was made into the documentary, Orphans of Burma’s Cyclone, although T was subsequently arrested and is now standing trial, and faces a maximum sentence of 15 years.

The military government in Burma is expected to intensify harassment and imprisonment of opposition in the run-up to elections this year. Already, 2,177 activists, journalists, politician and lawyers are serving lengthy prison sentences, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP).

Born in 1984, Hla Hla Min studied economics and then began working as a teacher. Ever since the September 2007 Saffron Revolution, the security forces have been cracking down on Burmese who send photos and video abroad to exile news media and opposition groups. Around 20 journalists and bloggers have been arrested since then by police or soldiers.

Watch DVB on YouTube

DVB is one of TVE Asia Pacific’s broadcast partners, now numbering over 40 from across Asia Pacific region. DVB takes on TVEAP content, versions into Burmese and broadcasts on their satellite transmissions.

Moving images to animate the Mekong Media Forum in Chiang Mai

Some 225 participants, the bulk of them journalists from Mekong countries, are set to discuss, are debating and taking stock of their media environment against a backdrop of changing and often quite different news cultures at the Mekong Media Forum, being held in Chiang Mai from 9 to 12 December 2009.

I very much wanted to be there, for I’ve been covering the Mekong region as a journalist for 20 years, beginning with my first location filming visit to southern Vietnam in 1990. I’ve visited and worked in five of the six Mekong countries – Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam – with the exception of Burma.

But I’m missing this interesting event due to scheduling difficulties – I must try harder on my omnipresence act in the coming year…

The four-day media conference brings together a mix of participants, from print, television journalists and photojournalists to civil society, academics and developments, who will be discussing a menu of issues such as changes in the Mekong media scene, new trends, citizen journalism and new media, training, media challenges and reporting on water governance, children, as well as gender and sexuality.

Cinema Mekong, a strand within the forum, features the work of documentary filmmakers and video journalists who have been part of the Imaging Our Mekong Media Fellowship since 2002 — making this unique series of films very much from the lens of local filmmakers — as well as other films that focus on the Mekong region.

The films cover trans-boundary topics on environment, culture, children, women and cultural identity. TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP)’s latest Asian regional television series, Saving the Planet is among the many regional and international films being screened

Watch Mekong Media Forum 2009 viral video:

The Mekong Media Forum is being organised by IPS Asia-Pacific news agency and Probe Media Foundation, Inc., which since 2002 have been running the Imaging Our Mekong media fellowships. More than 220 journalists from the region have been fellows in this programme.

Read more coverage on IPS TeraViva online newspaper

Cory Aquino (1933 – 2009): Unleashed People Power, still haunting tyrants worldwide

The remains of former Philippine president Corazon Aquino passes through the historical EDSA road with some 300,000 supporters waving to pay their last respect. The road is remembered in 1986 as then anonymous Cory and some 2 million people rallied out the streets to fight a 20-year government dictatorship through peaceful people power revolution. Photo by Arwin Doloricon/ Voyage Film

The remains of former Philippine president Corazon Aquino passes through the historical EDSA road with some 300,000 supporters waving to pay their last respect. The road is remembered in 1986 as then anonymous Cory and some 2 million people rallied out the streets to fight a 20-year government dictatorship through peaceful people power revolution. Photo by Arwin Doloricon/ Voyage Film

I know this post appears rather late, but I couldn’t let Cory Aquino’s death on 1 August 2009 pass without comment. The original inspiration for People Power that toppled one of the worst tyrants of the 20th Century, she would now turn the Patron Saint of peaceful democratic struggles everywhere.

Last week, I was reduced to tears reading two links that my Filipino friend Ruth Villarama, who runs Voyage Films in Manila, sent me of new comments posted on their website.

In the first post, A housewife, a leader, an angel in yellow (3 August 2009), Joan Rae Ramirez wrote: “Her death at 3 AM on August 1 has stopped a nation from its apathetic works to once again remember what was once fought by this ordinary housewife. It is on these rarest moments where the oligarchs came down from their kingdoms to pay their respect and mingle with the people who truly represent the real state of the Philippine nation.”

Karen Lim, who works with Voyage Films as a producer and project coordinator, wrote a more personalised piece titled The Famous Anonymous.

It opened with these words: “I see her on TV. In some instances I even covered her for a story. Our relationship did not go deeper than the reporter-subject, or the audience and the watched. Yet I feel a certain affinity to the most revered President. And when she died I got sad, a strange feeling of sadness where the source is unknown.”

Karen was too young to have remembered much of those heady days of the People Power Revolution of February 1986 — a series of nonviolent and prayerful mass street demonstrations in the Philippines that eventually toppled the 20-year autocracy of Ferdinand Marcos. Indeed, a whole generation of Filipinos has been born since. But that doesn’t stop them from relating to the monumental events that unfolded at at Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, known more commonly by its acronym EDSA, in Quezon City, Metropolitan Manila and involved over 2 million ordinary Filipinos as well as several political, military and religious figures.

As Karen wrote in her tribute: “Cory’s life became ours too. We watched her, sometimes we joined her. We experienced her highs and lows. We are her “Mga minamahal kong kababayan”(my beloved fellowman). She did what no stranger did in my family – unite us in prayer for the country, unite us in laughter amidst the uncertainties of those times. I had no personal connection to this lady, but I have now every reason to mourn her passing.”

Woman of the Year 1986

Woman of the Year 1986

I can only echo her Karen’s words. As a politically curious 19-year-old, I had followed with much interest the daring gamble and eventual triumph of People Power unfolding thousands of kilometres away from my Colombo home. In the pre-Internet era, and before satellite TV channels provided 24/7 coverage across Asia, my sources were daily newspapers, evening news bulletins on local TV and, once every few weeks, the second-hand copies of Time magazine passed on to me by an uncle. The housewife in yellow ended up becoming Time Woman of the Year for 1986, with Pico Iyer writing a suitably reflective piece.

In the years since the return of democracy – with all its imperfections and idiosyncrasies – I have stood at EDSA more than once, and wondered what it must have been like to mobilise millions of ordinary, concerned people in the days before email, Internet and mobile phones — communication tools that today’s political activists, and indeed everyone else, take for granted. There is a thin line between a non-violent struggle and a passionate yet violent mob that, ultimately, works against their own interests. I am amazed that Cory and her activists didn’t cross the line, despite provocations and 20 years of repression.

Of course, it wasn’t just the human numbers that turned the tide in EDSA. Cory Aquino’s charismatic leadership and moral authority persuaded other centres of power – including the Catholic church and sections of the military – to align with the struggle to restore democracy. It was this combination, and the sudden change of mind by the Americans who had backed Marcos all along, that enabled People Power to triumph.

Elsewhere in Asia, where these elements didn’t align as forcefully and resolutely in the years that followed, the outcome was not as dramatic or positive. We’ve seen that, for example, in places as diverse as Tiananmen Square in China (1989), Burma (2007) and most recently, in the streets of Tehran, Iran. In contrast, it did indeed work and ushered in regime change in places like Nepal, even though it entailed more protracted struggles.

What interests me, in particular, is the role played by information and communication technologies (ICTs) in such People Power movements. Alex Magno, a political analyst and professor of sociology in Manila, sees clear links between new communications technologies and political agitation. Interviewed on the Canadian documentary Seeing Is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News (2002), he said: “In the last two decades or so, most of the political upheavals had some distinct link to communications technology. The (1979) Iranian Revolution was closely linked to the audio cassette. The first EDSA uprising in the Philippines was very closely linked to the photocopying machine and so we called it the ‘Xerox Revolution’. Tiananmen, the uprising that failed in China, was called the ‘Fax Revolution’, because the rest of the world was better informed than the rest of the neighbourhood because of the fax machine. The January (2002) uprising in the Philippines represents a convergence between electronic mail and text messaging. And that gave that uprising its specific characteristics.”

Mobile phones' role in People Power II acknowledged in a Manila mural

Mobile phones' role in People Power II acknowledged in a Manila mural

But it was People Power II in the Philippines that is perhaps the best known example of ICTs fuelling and sustaining a revolution. The ability to send short text messages on cell phones helped spawn that political revolution in early 2001, a full decade and a half after the original wave that swept Cory Aquino into office.

President Estrada was on trial facing charges of bribery, corruption and breach of the public trust. Despite mounting evidence against him, the President was let off the hook. That was the turning point. According to Ramon Isberto, a vice-president at Smart Telecom in the Philippines: “People saw it on television, and a lot of people were revolted. They started text messaging each other, sending each other messages over the Internet, and that thing created a combustion.”

Because of texting and email, within two hours over 200,000 people converged in the main street of Manila demanding the president’s resignation. The vigil lasted for four days and four nights, until President Estrada finally got the message and stepped down. It ended with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo taking her oath of office in the presence of the crowd at EDSA, becoming the 14th president of the Philippines.

Those events have been documented, analysed and interpreted by many people from various angles. The Cold War had ended and the geopolitical map of the world had been redrawn. By this time, 24/7 satellite television was commonplace in Asia and the mobile phone was already within ordinary people’s reach. Gloria was no Cory, and Estrada wasn’t Marcos. But the forces and elements once again aligned on EDSA, and with history-making results. The role that the humble mobile phone played is acknowledged, among other places, in a mural in Manila.

Asia’s Other Eclipse: The one that doesn’t make TV news!

This multiple exposure image shows the various stages of the total solar eclipse in Baihata village, 30 kms from Guwahati, the capital city of the northeastern state of Assam on July 22, 2009. The longest solar eclipse of the 21st century cast a shadow over much of Asia, plunging hundreds of millions into darkness across the giant land masses of India and China. AFP PHOTO/ Biju BORO

This multiple exposure image shows the various stages of the total solar eclipse in Baihata village, 30 kms from Guwahati, the capital city of the northeastern state of Assam on July 22, 2009. The longest solar eclipse of the 21st century cast a shadow over much of Asia, plunging hundreds of millions into darkness across the giant land masses of India and China. AFP PHOTO/ Biju BORO

This century’s longest solar eclipsed moved across Asia on 22 July 2009, wowing scientists and the public alike. Asia’s multifarious media covered the solar eclipse with great enthusiasm and from myriad locations across the vast continent.

The path of the eclipse’s totality –- where the sun was completely obscured by the Moon for a few astounding minutes –- started in northern India. It then crossed through Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and China, before heading out to the Pacific Ocean. Those who were lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time saw one of Nature’s most spectacular phenomena. It was certainly a sight to behold, capture on film, and cherish for a lifetime.

But many along the path missed this chance as clouds obscured the Sun. It’s the rainy season in much of Asia, where the delayed monsoon is finally delivering much-needed rain.

Eclipse watching in Taregna, Bihar, India - Photo: Prashant Ravi, BBC Online

Eclipse watching in Taregna, Bihar, India - Photo: Prashant Ravi, BBC Online

That’s what happened in Taregna, in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. The media had dubbed it the ‘epicentre’ of the solar eclipse, and estimated totality to be visible for at least three minutes and 38 seconds. Thousands who flocked to the village were disappointed when the clouds refused to budge. Nature doesn’t follow our scripts.

That didn’t deter some affluent Indians -– if the eclipse won’t come to them, they just went after it. They chartered an airplane to fly above the rain clouds to catch the once-in-a-lifetime eclipse. Each seat cost US Dollars 1,650.

It’s rarely that totality crosses through countries with such high human numbers as China and India. This time around, millions of people and thousands of journalists took advantage.

Some travelled long distances hoping to get the best view from the 200-km wide path of totality. Others watched it one of Asia’s many and cacophonous 24/7 TV news channels. The event had all the elements of a perfect television story: mass anticipation, eager experts and enthusiasts, occasional superstitions, uncertainties of weather and, finally, a stunning display of Nature’s raw power.

‘Darkness at Dawn!’ screamed a popular headline, referring to the eclipse causing a sudden ‘nightfall’ after the day had begun. Other superlatives like ‘Spectacle of the century’ and ‘A sight never to be missed’ were also widely used.

Myanmar Buddhist novices watch solar eclipse through the filters, in Yangon, Myanmar

Myanmar Buddhist novices watch solar eclipse through the filters, in Yangon, Myanmar

Solar eclipses are indeed a marvel of Nature, and the media’s excitement was justified. For once, it was good to see them devoting a great deal of airtime and print/web space for something that was not violent, depressing or life-threatening.

How I wish Asia’s media took as much interest in another kind of ‘eclipse’ that surrounds and engulfs us! One that does not end in minutes, but lasts for years or decades, and condemns millions to lives of misery and squalor.

Stories of poverty, social disparity and economic marginalisation are increasingly ‘eclipsed’ in Asia by stories of the region’s growing economic and geopolitical might.

The mainstream media in Asia –- as well as many outlets in the West — never seem to tire of carrying reports of Asia rising. Indeed, that is a Big Story of our times: many Asian economies have been growing for years at impressive rates. Thanks to this, over 250 million Asians have moved out of poverty during this decade alone. According to the UN’s Asian arm ESCAP, this is the fastest poverty reduction progress in history.

We see evidence of increased prosperity and higher incomes in many parts of developing Asia. Gadgets and gizmos –- from MP3 to mobile phones — sell like hot cakes. More Asians are travelling for leisure than ever before, crowding our roads, trains and skies. Lifestyle industries never had it so good. Even the current recession hasn’t fully dampened this spending spree.

World map proportionate to number of poor people in each country/region - from Atlas of the Real World

World map proportionate to number of poor people in each country/region - from Atlas of the Real World

But not everyone is invited to the party. Tens of millions of people are being left behind. Many others barely manage to keep up -– they must keep running fast just to stay in the same place.

National governments, anxious to impress their own voters and foreign investors, often gloss over these disparities. The poor don’t get more than a token nod in Davos. National statistical averages of our countries miss out on the deprivations of significant pockets of population.

For example, despite recent gains, over 640 million Asians were still living on less than one US Dollar a day in 2007 according to UN-ESCAP. Three quarters of the 1.9 billion people who lack safe sanitation are in Asia — that’s one huge waiting line for a toilet!

On the whole, the UN cautions that the Asia Pacific region is in danger of missing out the 2015 target date for most Millennium Development Goals – the time-bound and measurable targets for socio-economic advancement that national leaders committed to in 2000.

The plight of marginalised groups is ignored or under-reported by the cheer-leading media. For the most part, these stories remain forever eclipsed. Except, that is, when frustrations accumulate and blow up as social unrest, political violence or terrorism. Even then, the media’s coverage is largely confined to reporting the symptoms rather than the underlying social maladies.

Indonesian children look up through x-ray film sheets to watch a solar eclipse in the sky in Anyer Beach, Banten province, Indonesia

Indonesian children look up through x-ray film sheets to watch a solar eclipse in the sky in Anyer Beach, Banten province, Indonesia

“Half the children in South Asia go to bed hungry every night, but the covers of our news magazines are about weight loss parlors,” says Kunda Dixit, Chief Editor of The Nepali Times.

As he noted in a recent essay: “Maternal mortality in parts of Nepal is nearly at sub-Saharan levels, but we are obsessed with politics. Hundreds of cotton farmers in India commit suicide every year because of indebtedness, but the media don’t want to cover it because depressing news puts off advertisers. Reading the region’s newspapers, you would be hard-pressed to find coverage of these slow emergencies.”

P N Vasanti, Director of the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies which monitors the leading newspapers and news channels in India, laments how “development” issues such as health, agriculture and education are not even on the radar of popular news sources. Her conclusion is based on a content analysis of the six major Indian news channels during the run-up to the recent general election in India.

I have come across similar apathy in my travels across Asia trying to enhance television broadcasters’ coverage of development and poverty issues. As one Singaporean broadcast manager, running a news and entertainment channel in a developing country, told me: “I don’t ever want to show poor people on my channel.”

Don’t get me wrong. Trained as a science journalist, I can fully appreciate the awe and wonder of a solar eclipse. For years, I have cheered public-spirited scientists who join hands with the media to inform and educate the public on facts and fallacies surrounding these celestial events.

But there are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in our mainstream media’s breathless coverage of the march of capital. Journalists and their gate-keepers should look around harder for the many stories that stay eclipsed for too long.

* * * * * *

Shorter version of the above comment was published by Asia Media Forum on 23 July 2009

Full length version appeared on OneWorld.Net on 23 July 2009

Reprinted in The Nepali Times, 24 July 2009

Waiting for his long eclipse to end...

Waiting for his long eclipse to end...

Thai audiences in the dark about ‘Children of the Dark’

Yami no kodomotachi (Children of the Dark) movie poster

Yami no kodomotachi (Children of the Dark) movie poster

Human trafficking – peddling and trading of human beings for slavery, sexual exploitation and servitude – has grown to alarming proportions in recent years. It’s among the top five illicit trades in the world, whose net annual worth is believed to be between 9 billion and 42 billion US dollars. The truth is, nobody knows exactly how big it is, but human rights activists and development agencies agree the problem is pervasive.

Of the estimated 2.5 million persons trafficked worldwide, more than half are in the Asia Pacific. At the UN General Assembly for Children in August 2007, it was reported that about 1.8 million children became victims of commercial sex trade in 2000. About one million children in Southeast Asia are said to be involved – Thailand is one centre of this shady trade, drawing on misery in its rural hinterlands as well as poorer neighbouring countries like Burma, Cambodia and Laos.

So what happens when someone goes to the trouble of studying the issue in depth, and then pools talent and resources to make a feature film that exposes international connections that sustain the child sex industry in Thailand? Instead of being welcomed as part of the effort to counter this scourge, the film gets banned.

Yami no kodomotachi (Children of the Dark, 138 mins, original Japanese) is a Japanese-Thai film made in 2008 about child sex slavery. It has been banned in Thailand on the grounds that it was ‘inappropriate’ and touched on a ‘sensitive’ issue.

Watch the official trailer of the film (Japanese soundtrack, Thai captions):

I haven’t seen the film, but according to one reviewer who did, Junji Sakamoto‘s film is based on a novel by Yan Sogil and scripted by Sakamoto himself, shows, with a documentary-like directness, how children caught in the web of a Thai prostitution ring are exploited, abused and, in some cases, murdered when they are no longer sexually salable.

Mark Schilling, writing in The Japan Times in August 2008, noted: “…In being so visually graphic — particularly in the sex scenes in the Thai brothel — Sakamoto treads a dangerous line between hard-hitting social drama and stomach-turning exploitation. He takes care never to show his young actors (whose average age looks to be about 10) and their adult ‘clients’ in the same explicit shot, but he films them engaged in sexual acts or their aftermath. Sakamoto may defend these scenes in the name of realism, but could he have filmed similar ones in Japan, using Japanese children? The short answer is “no.”

The Thai ban prevented ‘Children of the Dark’ from being screened at the Bangkok International Film Festival, held in the Thai capital from 23 – 30 September 2008.

“The ban puts under the spotlight the country’s – or at least its higher-ups’ – seeming unwillingness to let go of the Film Act of 1930, when Thailand was still under absolute monarchy. That law gave a Board of Censors the power to impose cuts or to ban a film it deems inappropriate,” writes my friend and colleague Lynette Lee Corporal in an article just published on Asia Media Forum.

Thailand in denial about its Children of the Dark

Thailand in denial about its Children of the Dark

She quotes my Thai colleague and documentary filmmaker Pipope Panitchpakdi as saying: “Authorities always think that viewers need to be protected and shielded from real issues. They still have that kind of sentiment that the media should function as a gatekeeper. That is, let the good stories in and the bad ones out. It’s okay in certain circumstances but not when talking about real, serious issues.”

Pipope adds: “This country has no problem with hypocrisy; we don’t see anything wrong with double standards. We have sex workers in corners of the city, but we can’t watch people kissing.”

A Bangkok-based journalist who calls himself Wise Kwai, writing in his blog, asks: “When will they (Thai authorities) learn that when they ban or censor a film, the ensuing stink that’s raised causes more problems than if the film had been allowed to quietly unspool? Perhaps if people had seen it, they might criticise it, but they’d also talk about the problems in society that allow children to be exploited.”

Read the full article: Film Censorship Leaves Viewers in the Dark by Lynette Lee Corporal

My Sep 2007 post: MTV Exit: Entertainment TV takes on human trafficking

Amitav Ghosh on Cyclone Nargis: High tech alone can’t save us!

Whenever Burma hits the international news headlines, I think of author Amitav Ghosh. His 2002 historical novel, The Glass Palace, was my introduction to Burma’s recent history. It describes – with historical accuracy and detail – how the British colonised a land of prosperity in 1824 and left it an impoverished nation in 1948.

I was intrigued, therefore, to read an excellent op ed essay by Amitav Ghosh in The New York Times of 10 May 2008. Titled When Death Comes Ashore, it is a commentary on the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis that particularly hit Burma in recent days. Ghosh offers both comfort and worry.

The bad news, as he puts it, is that “for the rapidly growing countries that surround the Bay of Bengal there is an increasing urgency to find a way to protect themselves. They have experienced some of the world’s most devastating storms.”

Courtesy Wikipedia

He makes a strong call for cooperation among the countries who surround the Bay of Bengal, which means Bangladesh, Burma, India, (part of) Indonesia and Thailand.

As he says: “Nation-states tend to see their interests as being confined within their own borders. But the reality is that the people who live around the Bay of Bengal have a vital interest in common that they do not share with their compatriots in the hinterlands: they are joined by the furies (and let it be said also, the blessings) of that body of water.”

To me, the most important point he makes is about disaster preparedness, a topic we covered in some depth and detail in Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book that I co-edited last year.

“Recent experience has demonstrated in spectacular ways that rich, technologically advanced nations are not invulnerable to extreme weather. What has also been demonstrated, but more quietly, is that a nation need not be wealthy or technologically advanced to be well prepared for natural disasters.”

Ghosh talks about Mauritius, a small Indian Ocean island that meteorologists call a ‘cyclone factory’, which has “evolved a sophisticated system of precautions, combining a network of cyclone shelters with education (including regular drills), a good early warning system and mandatory closings of businesses and schools when a storm threatens.

He adds: Mauritius is a country that has learned, through trial and experience, that early warnings are not enough — preparation also demands public education and political will. In an age when extreme weather events are clearly increasing in frequency, the world would do well to learn from it.”

Let’s hope the Indian Ocean rim countries – especially those that share the Bay of Bengal’s blessings and lashings – would heed the celebrated Indian author’s call. After the 2004 tsunami, we saw a flurry of activity to set up high-tech and high cost early warning systems for future tsunamis. The United Nations and development donors huddled together in various exotic locations of our region to work out the details.

But I wrote in a SciDev.Net opinion piece in December 2005: “Setting up a state-of-the-art, high tech and high cost system is not a solution by itself. Because the most advanced early warning system in the world can only do half the job: alert governments and other centres of power (e.g. military) of an impending disaster. The far bigger challenge is to disseminate that warning to large numbers of people spread across vast areas in the shortest possible time“.

I called it the Long Last Mile (sorry, metric fans, it just doesn’t read right to say the last kilometre!), a phrase that I also used in the book chapter and the short film that I scripted for TVE Asia Pacific in 2007.

LIRNEasia’s National early warning system for Sri Lanka

LIRNEasia’s 2006-2007 project to Evaluate the Last Mile Hazard Information Dissemination

Read the full essay: Death Comes Ashore, By AMITAV GHOSH, in The New York Times, 10 May 2008
(requires free registration to read online)

Burmese television: Meet Asia’s model public broadcaster!

Photo courtesy Associated Press

In the wake of Cyclone Nargis that wreaked havoc in Burma, the world has once again realised the brutality and ruthlessness of the military regime that runs the country.

And as the United Nations and aid agencies struggle with the incredibly uncaring Burmese bureaucracy to get much needed emergency relief for the affected Burmese people, the media outside Burma are having great difficulty accessing authentic information and images.

Despite the massive disaster and resulting tragedy, Burma remains closed to foreign journalists, especially the visual media. No doubt the memories of the monk-led pro-democracy protests of late 2007 are still fresh in the minds of the ruling junta and their propagandists. The few courageous foreign reporters who managed to get in at the time ran enormous personal risks, and Japanese photojournalist Kenji Nagai was shot dead by a Burmese soldier while filming demonstrations.

Unable to report from the multiple scenes of disaster, and lacking a wide choice of reliable local sources willing to go on the record, international news agencies and broadcasters have been forced to quote the government-owned Burmese television station, MRTV.

Global news leaders like Al Jazeera, BBC and CNN have all used MRTV visuals to illustrate their news and current affairs reportage. A recent example from Al Jazeera, posted on 8 May 2008:

The image monopoly by MRTV wouldn’t have mattered so much if they at least provided an accurate account of the unfolding events in its own country. But that seems far too much to expect of this mouthpiece of the Rangoon regime. In Burma’s darkest hour in recent memory, MRTV would much rather peddle the official propaganda – never mind the millions made homeless by the recent disaster.

Here’s an insight from the Inter Press Service, the majority world’s own news agency, reporting from their Asia Pacific headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand:

BURMA: Cyclone Nargis Exposes Junta’s Anti-People Attitude
By Larry Jagan, IPS

Worse, there is evidence emerging that the military authorities had ample warning of a storm brewing in the Bay of Bengal but chose to ignore, or even suppress, it.

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) which keeps a close track of geo-climatic events in the Bay of Bengal and releases warnings not only to provinces on the Indian east coast but also to vulnerable littoral countries said it warned Burmese authorities of Cyclone Nargis’ formation and possible approach as early as on Apr. 26.

“We continuously updated authorities in Myanmar (as Burma is officially called) and on Apr. 30 we even provided them a details of the likely route, speed and locations of landfall,’’ IMD director B.P. Yadav told IPS correspondent in New Delhi, Ranjit Devraj.

Burma’s meteorology department did post a warning on its official website on Apr. 27 but no effort was made to disseminate information to the people, much less to carry out evacuations along the coastline or from the islands on the Irrawaddy Delta.

By the time state-run media, which has been continuously spewing propaganda and exhorting the public to vote ‘yes’ to Saturday’s constitution referendum, issued its first cyclone alert on Friday afternoon it was too late for the hapless residents of Rangoon.

courtesy Reuters

Elsewhere in the report, IPS says:

Pictures of soldiers removing fallen trees and clearing roads in Rangoon on the state-run television have further infuriated many in the city. “This is pure propaganda and it’s far from the truth,” e-mailed a Burmese journalist, asking not to be identified for fear of the consequences. “Why do foreign broadcasters show them too –Burmese government propaganda is a disgrace enough to journalism,” he fumed.

“I saw some soldiers getting onto a truck yesterday,” said a 50-year-old resident. “They had no sweat on their shirts, despite what was shown on TV!”

“My wife saw three truckloads of soldiers parked in front of a fallen tree, none of them got down to remove it,” he added.

And here is what Dinyar Godrej has to say on the website of New Internationalist, another pro-South, liberal media outlet. In a post titled ‘Seeing but not believing’, he says:

“Burma is shut off from foreign journalists (unless they are invited in by the military regime to cover specific showpiece events). Western news channels have had to rely on state run television for their moving images.

“So while the death toll is now officially 22,000 (unofficially up to 50,000), with 40,000 people missing and a million homeless; and while the regime is coming in for bitter criticism for its foot-dragging over opening up to international aid and the utter incompetence of its own relief effort so far (which has reached only a tiny fraction of the people affected), we are watching on our television screens soldiers handing over food parcels. We can see nothing of the grief or rage of the people going hungry and thirsty (many water sources are too contaminated to use). They do not talk on camera. Instead they sit obediently in the state TV images, taking what’s given to them. And we watch them, while listening to the numbers and being told of the heightening crisis.”

Appalling as these revelations are, they don’t surprise us. Indeed, MRTV is not alone in this kind of shameless abuse and prostitution of the airwaves, a common property resource. A vast majority of the so-called ‘public’ broadcasters in Asia behave in exactly the same callous manner. This is why I don’t use the term ‘public broadcaster’ to describe these government propaganda channels – because, whatever lofty ideals their founding documents might have, most of them are not serving the public interest any more (if they ever did).

As I commented in Feb 2008: “In developing Asia, which lacks sufficient checks and balances to ensure independence of state broadcasters, the only thing public about such channels is that they are often a drain on public money collected through taxes. Their service and loyalties are entirely to whichever political party, coalition or military dictator in government. When the divide between governments and the public interest is growing, most ‘public’ channels find themselves on the wrong side. No wonder, then, that discerning views have abandoned them.”

Read Feb 2008 post: Why do development Rip van Winkles prefer ‘Aunties’ without eyeballs?

I don’t hold a grudge against the hapless staff of MRTV, who simply must remain their Masters’ Voice at all times to stay alive. Those working for government channels in countries with greater levels of democratic freedom can’t take refuge in this excuse. They must be held accountable for their continuing propagandising and the disgusting pollution of the airwaves.

And the incredibly naive and sycophantic UN agencies – especially UNESCO – also share the blame for their feeble yet persistent defence of the so-called public broadcasters. Years ago, I stopped attending meetings discussing public service broadcasting (PSB) in Asia, which these agencies equate with what the government channels are doing. I see yet another of these exercises in futility being lined up as part of the Asia Media Summit 2008 coming up in a few days in Kuala Lumpor.

As I wrote in February, if these development agencies are seriously interested in broadcasting that serves the public interest, they must engage the privately-owned, commercially operated TV channels, which are the market leaders in much of Asia.

Except, that is, in tightly controlled, closed societies like Burma, where government channels are the only terrestrial TV available for the local people.

Images courtesy AP and Reuters, as published by The New York Times online

Nargis hits Burma: Army-run country not armed by Nature!

Filming the Greenbelt Reports TV series in Indonesia, mid 2006

“As the memories of the Asian Tsunami fade, there’s a danger that its important environmental lessons might also be forgotten.”

I wrote these words for the closing narration of an Asian documentary produced by TVE Asia Pacific in 2006. The Greenbelt Reports: Armed by Nature was an attempt to document and analyse the greenbelt effect: how coral reefs, mangroves and sand dunes help protect coastal locations and communities by acting as ‘natural barriers’ against tsunami waves and cyclones.

Now, as we watch in horror the massive, unfolding humanitarian crisis triggered by cyclone Nargis hitting Burma, it does seem that the tsunami’s lessons were indeed not heeded by the generals in charge of the beleaguered Southeast Asian nation.

Evidently, the Burmese army – one of the most repressive in the world – has not considered it necessary to safeguard Nature’s own coastal defences. Tens of thousands of Burmese people are now paying a terrible price.

AFP has just quoted ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan (chief of the powerful 11-nation economic alliance) as saying that the destruction of mangrove forests left Burma’s coastal areas exposed to the devastating force of Nargis. Coastal developments had resulted in mangroves, which act as a natural defence against storms, being lost, he said.

ABC/AFP story: Mangrove destruction raised Burma toll

In the wake of the destruction and rising death toll caused by Cyclone Nagris, Mangove Action Project (MAP) is calling for the re-establishment of mangrove buffer zones and coastal greenbelts along affected coastal zones to avert future such disasters.

“This latest disaster in Burma is a grim reminder of other recent natural disasters,” said Alfredo Quarto, executive director of MAP, a worldwide network of organisations committed to conserving the world’s mangrove forests.

He was referring to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that left over 200,000 dead or missing and the 1999 Super Cyclone that hit the coast of Orissa, India, that killed over 10,000. “The force of the cyclone could have been greatly lessened and much loss in life and property damage could have been averted if healthy mangrove forests had been conserved along the coastlines of the Irawaddy Delta,” he added.

We worked with Alfredo’s Asian colleagues – Jim Enright in Thailand and Ben Brown in Indonesia – in producing Armed by Nature.

Filming TVEAP\'s The Greenbelt Reports in Jaring Halus, Indonesia, in 2006

Alfredo quotes Burmese researchers saying that during a period of 75 years (1924-1999), 82.76% of the mangroves of the Irrawady were destroyed. Globally, he says, less than half the world’s mangrove forests remain – around 15 million ha (around 37 million acres). The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates a 1% annual loss of mangroves worldwide, which signifies a 150,000 ha (367,500 acres) loss per year.

“There is scientific evidence that the mangroves’ dense, intertwining trunks, branches, and roots can protect coastlines, and that the destructive force from storm surges is greatly dissipated as they pass through intact, healthy coastal zones containing mangroves,” says MAP.

Read the full press release from MAP

BBC Online: Mangrove loss put Burma at risk

Watch The Greenbelt Reports: Armed by Nature on TVE Asia Pacific’s YouTube channel (in three parts as YouTube does not allow videos longer than 10 mins):

The Greenbelt Reports: Armed by Nature Part 1 of 3:

The Greenbelt Reports: Armed by Nature Part 2 of 3:

The Greenbelt Reports: Armed by Nature Part 3 of 3:

Watch all stories in
The Greenbelt Reports series on TVEAP’s YouTube channel

My op ed essay published by Islam Online, December 2005:
A year after the tsunami: Have we learned the lessons?

Islam Online science feature, Feb 2005: Solid wall of trees vs. solid wall of water

Blog post in July 2007: Love Thy Mangrove – a Greenbelt Report from Pra Thong island, Thailand

Photos courtesy Pamudi Withanaarachchi, TVE Asia Pacific


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