Asian broadcasters: Make poverty a copyrights free zone!

Today was the second day at Asia Media Summit 2007 in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. Among the topics taken up today were gender, poverty reduction and climate change — all discussed from the perspective of broadcasters.

I was part of the plenary session on ‘Mobilising airwaves against poverty’ held this morning. Among the other speakers were Walter Fust, director general of Swiss Development and Cooperation agency (SDC) and Stephen King, Director of BBC World Service Trust.

As speakers, we were asked to address these among other questions: How can we generate in media real interest in development issues such as poverty? How can we secure more airtime in educating and bringing about better ways to fight poverty? How can media put the poorest of the poor at the center of attention?


In my remarks, I called for an on-air/off-air combined ‘assault’ on poverty, ignorance, corruption and other scourges of our time. Powerful as they are, broadcasts alone cannot accomplish this massive task, I pointed out.

Here’s an extract from my remarks:

We all know the power of moving images. Used strategically, moving images can move people to change lifestyles, attitudes and behaviour.

Indeed, the right kind of information -– whether about microcredit, contraception, home gardening or immunisation — can vastly improve the quality of life, and even save lives that are needlessly lost.

But this is not something that one-off or even repeat broadcasts alone can accomplish. We need a mix of broadcast and narrowcast approaches.

Communicating for social change is a slow, incremental process that involves learning, understanding, participation and sharing.

At TVE Asia Pacific, we work equally with broadcast, educational and civil society users of moving images. Our experience for over a decade shows that narrowcast work can reinforce and build on the initial broadcast outreach.

But that’s easier said than done. Every year, excellent TV programmes are made on different development topics. Public and private funds are spent in making these programmes, which draw in the creativity and hard work of committed professionals. Many TV channels willingly broadcast these programmes. After a few transmissions, these end up in broadcast archives. A few are adapted for multimedia use. That’s the nature of this industry.

Yet, as I pointed out, most of these programmes have a longer shelf-life. They can be extremely useful in education, awareness raising, advocacy and training. But unfortunately, copyrights restrictions are often too tight for that to happen. Even when the film-makers and producers themselves are keen for their creations to be used beyond broadcasts, the copyright restrictions stand in the way.

I said: “Broadcasters need to let go of development related TV content after initial broadcasts. They must also allow educational and civil society users greater access to vast visual archives, gathered from all over the world.”

I then repeated a proposal I first made last year, which I have since presented at the UN Headquarters and other forums: make poverty a ‘copyrights free zone’.

The idea is to have broadcasters and other electronic publishers release copyrights on TV, video and online content relating to poverty and development issues -– at least until (MDG target year of) 2015.

Read my original essay on poverty as a copyrights free zone, published in June 2006

There was a mixed reaction from the predominantly broadcast audience. I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy sell: this industry is so closely tied to copyrights and licensing in not just commercial but also emotional terms. Letting go of these rights, even in a limited way for a highly worthy cause, is a quantum leap for broadcast managers raised on strict rights regimes.

More about the reaction in a later post.

Meanwhile, here’s the full text of my remarks:


Photo courtesy Manori Wijesekera, TVEAP

Has Al Jazeera left the building?

Where is Wadah Khanfar?

This is the question that everyone kept asking as Asia Media Summit 2007 started off with what turned out to be a feeble and lop-sided panel on participatory media.

Khanfar, listed on the programme as Director General of the Al Jazeera Network, had confirmed participation and a seat was kept reserved for him on stage even as the opening panel kicked off.

The amiable moderator, Jennifer Lewis from Singapore, kept on asking for Khanfar to please come on stage. He never did.

The seat assigned for him remained empty all through the inaugural session. Some speculated if that was due to the recent reshuffle at Al Jazeera, which some interpreted as a pro-US coup in what until recently was regarded as the world’s most outspoken broadcast media network from the majority world.

I myself have been a cautious cheer-leader for Al Jazeera International. For example, on 18 April 2007, I wrote about AJI placing its content on YouTube to enable US-based viewers to watch the channel that was blocked out of many US cable networks.

AJI has been on the air for only six months, so we must reserve judgement on its performance for a while longer.

Many of us media-watchers were optimistic and hopeful that AJI would offer a much-needed counter to the blatantly one-sided and self-righteous coverage of the dominant international news channels, BBC World and CNN International.

AJI set out with a lofty agenda, saying it wants to ‘balance the information flow from South to North, providing accurate, impartial and objective news for a global audience from a grass roots level, giving voice to different perspectives from under-reported regions around the world.’

It also wanted to revolutionise English language TV in the same way it turned Arabic TV upside down, ending the monopoly of the airwaves by state broadcasters and governments.

Writing an op ed within days of AJI starting its broadcasts on 15 November 2006, I reacted to these stated ideals as follows:

“Noble ideals, indeed — and we fervently hope it succeeds, but unless it’s very careful and thoughtful, AJI runs the risk of falling into the same cultural and commercial traps that its two rivals are completely mired in.

“While CNN can’t get out of its US-centric analysis even in its international broadcasts, the BBC news team is more like a hopelessly mixed up teenager: one moment they are deeply British or at least western European; the next moment they are more passionate about Africa than Africans themselves.

“Desperately seeking legitimacy and acceptance in wide and varied circles, these two global channels have sometimes traded in their journalistic integrity for privileged access, exclusives or – dare we say it? – to be embedded.

“They have increasingly come to epitomise a disturbing trend in international news and current affairs journalism: the end justifies the means.”

Read my full essay in Media Helping Media (UK)


I argued in my essay that the end does not justify the means of gathering news.

“If products of child labour and blood diamonds are no longer internationally acceptable, neither should the world tolerate moving images whose origins are ethically suspect.

So that’s the real challenge to Al Jazeera: to usher in real change, it needs to transform not just how television news is presented and analysed, but also how it is gathered.”

We have been watching — whenever we can catch it, that is — how AJI is covering the complex and nuanced world we live in. So far, the impressions are not encouraging. We have to look long and hard to tell the difference between BBC World, CNN International and AJI.

We will keep watching, and give the new kid on the block a bit more time to prove itself.

And we look at not just what’s shown on AJI, but how those pictures get there.

Read earlier post: Banned in the USA, Al Jazeera now on YouTube