Remembering Diana, the world’s first Princess of Television

Today, 31 August 2007, is the tenth anniversary of Princess Diana’s tragic death in a road accident in Paris.

A decade on, I can still remember exactly where and how I first heard the news. This experience is widely shared: to many in my generation — born in the 1960s and raised through 1970s and 1980s (just like Diana was) — this was an unforgettable moment. Perhaps just like the assassination of John F Kennedy was to a previous generation.

The analogy between Di and JFK goes further. Both had charismatic personalities that appealed far beyond their home country. Both epitomised the vibrancy of youth and the potential for change in the institutions they joined (Diana the British Royal family, and JFK the American government). Both lives were snuffed out before they could fulfill that promise, but they left enduring legacies — and thriving cottage industries of conspiracy theories (‘Who killed JFK?’ has now been joined by ‘Who killed Diana?’).

Here’s another similarity: JFK and Diana were both iconic images of the era of television.

If JFK turned up just in time to charm the first generation of American TV viewers, Diana’s arrival on world stage coincided neatly with the worldwide roll out of satellite television, especially the all-news channels. And thanks to the advances in global broadcasting, Diana commanded a far bigger global audience than JFK did (though the comparisons must end there).

I would like to remember Diana as the first Princess of Television of our media-rich age.

Looking back, we can see how satellite television started and evolved almost in parallel to Diana’s own life. Diana had just celebrated her first birthday, when the world’s first trans-Atlantic satellite television signal was relayed from Europe to the Telstar satellite over North America on 23 July 1962. (By coincidence, JFK was to have participated in the event, but could not owing to a technical delay.)

Over the next two decades, as Diana grew up and matured into a young lady who would soon capture the world’s imagination, satellite TV’s technology, outreach and mass following evolved to cover more channels, territories and eyeballs.

A turning point came when the US entrepreneur Ted Turner took a daring step for that time by launching the Cable News Network (CNN), the world’s first 24 hour news channel. CNN went on the air on 1 June 1980 amidst many skeptics asking: who would possibly want to watch news all the time?

Who indeed! Until then, conventional wisdom had confined news to a regular evening slot, anchored by larger-than-life newscasters. The routine was broken only when there was some earth-shattering development.

Turner’s CNN, ridiculed in the early days as the ‘chicken noodle network’, changed all that, and paved the way for dozens of 24/7 news channels.

As it turned out, CNN arrived just in time. The engagement between Diana and Charles, the Prince of Wales, was announced a few months later, in February 1981.

Their Royal Wedding on 29 July 1981 was watched by a combined television audience of over 750 million worldwide. That broke records as the highest audience for a live broadcast, surpassing the Apollo XI Moon landing a dozen years earlier (seen by an estimated 500 million).

The rest is recent history. Television newsgatherers could never have enough of Diana — apparently their audiences kept asking for more. That may be a debatable point, but Diana was quick to learn the art of exploiting the inevitable: when she realised it was a stark fact of life, she started using it to her personal advantage.

Diana used television as much as television used Diana. Her famous BBC Panorama interview with Martin Bashir was one among many instances when she lived her personal life under the glare of public television (photo below).

Image from BBC Image courtesy BBC

But Diana’s clever use of television was not just for advancing her personal agenda. When she became a big time charity supporter in the 1990s, she used the power of moving images to demystify and humanise global issues from caring for people living with HIV/AIDS to banishing the scourge of landmines. These ensured that Diana became the People’s Princess in the last years of her life.

Image courtesy Daily Telegraph

Early on in her marriage to Charles, a leading newsman told Diana: when you married him, we came as part of the package deal. If she was initially stressed by that revelation, she later made the best use of that inevitable trapping of her celebrity.

And when she died young and tragically, on 31 August 1997, her premature departure became the biggest news story of the year.

The BBC (domestic) announces Princess Diana’s death:

BBC World TV announces Diana’s death in Paris:

Diana’s funeral on 6 September 1997 had a larger global satellite TV audience than did her wedding. Of course, by then there were more people and more television sets on this planet.

Elton John sings a special version of ‘Candle in the Wind’ at Princess Diana’s funeral:

So we salute the legacy of the world’s first Princess of Television. One who moved our hearts with moving images of her personal life and those of the worthy causes she championed. One who showed how moving images can move people.

PS: There was a time when the unforgettable television moments were gone after their broadcasts (unless recorded on tape). But now we have YouTube, where the world’s visual memory lives on. All news and current affairs coverage I have linked to in this post were found on YouTube by simply searching for Princess Diana. There is much more where these came from.

Read BBC Online’s timeline of the life of Princess Diana

A science journalist among whales…meeting our giant cousins

Last April in Melbourne, I listened avidly to the doyen of Australian science journalists Robyn Williams compare science journalists to whales as he opened the Fifth World Conference of Science Journalists.

As I paraphrased Robyn in my blog post on 18 April 2007:
They both respond to lots of free drinks and eats. In fact, they like to drink vast amounts (though not necessarily the same liquids!). There is evidence to suggest they are both intelligent species. They are both endangered too – there are some nasty people out to get them. Both are free spirits – don’t like being trapped or hounded.

Back in Australia on a short private visit, I finally manged to catch up with these marvelous creatures that I have admired, written and spoken about for a quarter of a century. Today, I went whale watching in Hervey Bay, north of Brisbane in Queensland.

It was an awe inspiring experience. Here are some photographic highlights. I’ll write more about it when I have caught my breath again.

A humpback whale leaps in joy, having sighted me at last:

Is this the world’s largest tail? Oh boy, what a tale to tell!


Who is watching whom? Take a closer look at these strange creatures who come on noisy vessels:


Your mouse-clicks at work: thanks to the steady income from this blog, I’ve got my own yacht at last (just kidding!):


Al Jazeera International: Looking hard for the promised difference

Image courtesy Al Jazeera

This is how Al Jazeera International (AJI), which started broadcasting on 15 November 2006, promoted itself.

In its own words, the 24/7 English language channel set out to ‘balance the information flow from (global) 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.’

Noble ideals, indeed — and we fervently hope they succeed. That’s what I said in my op ed, Ethical Newsgathering: Biggest Challenge for Al Jazeera, published online within days of the new channel going on the air.

I said: “In recent years, the self righteous arrogance and the not-so-subtle biases of BBC and CNN have become increasingly intolerable. But unless it’s very careful and thoughtful, AJI runs the risk of falling into the same cultural and commercial traps that its two older rivals are mired in.

“CNN can’t get out of its US-centric analysis even in its international broadcasts. And the BBC news team is 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, these global channels have sometimes traded in their journalistic integrity for privileged access, exclusives or -– dare we say it? -– to be embedded.”

I admit that I haven’t been watching enough of AJI to come to any firm conclusions. One reason: the new channel is still not widely available in some countries that I visit and spend time in.

But going by what is on their YouTube channel, where some 1,300 video segments have been placed so far (as at 29 August 2007), I have a rough idea of AJI’s first few months of coverage.

I’m looking long and hard for the difference that they so emphatically promised. Instead, I find them a paler version of BBC World, at times trying oh-so-hard to be just like the BBC!

Take, for example, the coverage they have recently done on the bloody and protracted civil war in Sri Lanka. Being where I live and work, I take a particular interest in this topic.

In a 2-part edition of AJI’s People & Power programme, Juliana Ruhfus investigates the impact of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

People & Power: How the East was Won: Part 1 of 2

People & Power: How the East was Won: Part 2 of 2

I don’t have a problem with AJI’s analysis in this documentary, which tries hard to be balanced and fair in what I know is a very difficult subject to cover, with intolerant hardliners on both sides of the conflict.

But I have several issues with how it has been put together – the norms and ethics of their newsgathering.

* A white blond woman, so evidently a parachute journalist, is reporting and presenting the story. Why isn’t an Asian telling this story?

* She is repeatedly mispronouncing all the local names. Just like the BBC does as a matter of routine.

* She gestures, interviews and talks exactly like those know-all reporters from the BBC. At times I detect a faint condescension in her voice, but that may be my imagination.

* For part of the coverage, the intrepid AJI reporter becomes embedded with the Sri Lankan armed forces, and interviews civilians under the watchful eye of military men. This is hardly a credible way of eliciting any honest responses!

* More importantly, she shows little regard for the personal safety of some people she interviews. At one point, she asks three muslim men if the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka is now any safer than before it was ‘liberated’ by the government forces. The men are clearly uncomfortable with this question. Honest answers can cost them dearly. But why should she care? She persists, showing close-ups of these individuals.

* Even when she interviews people who had explicitly asked for concealment of their identity, she leaves tell-tale signs for those identities to be easily guessed. A woman whose teen-aged son has been coerced into joining a paramilitary group is filmed in silhouette — not a good enough cover. Real voices have not been altered through a synthesizer.

These and other observations blur the difference between BBC and AJI in my mind. With a few notable exceptions, most BBC reporters don’t care one bit about the hapless, distressed people whom they interview. All they want is to get a ‘good story’ with dramatic visuals.

AJI is desperately trying to outdo the BBC in all the latter’s wrong aspects. Otherwise why should Juliana Ruhfus try so hard to get a damning comment from an interviewee evidently ill-at-ease of being ambushed by this western woman?

I still want to have an open mind about AJI’s promised difference, and keep hoping that it will emerge sooner rather than later. But this kind of newsgathering and film-making don’t augur well.

If this is the ethical standard of journalism that AJI aspires to, we who had high hopes of their becoming a real alternative to the dominant two are going to be disappointed.

Read my earlier post: Wanted: Ethical sourcing of international TV News

Watch Al Jazeera on YouTube


New Face of People Power: Social Accountability in action

In an earlier post, I wrote about how citizen groups are increasingly empowering themselves with information to demand greater accountability from their elected representatives in local, provincial and central governments.

This is collectively called Social Accountability – and it represents a significantly higher level of citizen engagement than merely changing governments at elections or taking to the streets for popular revolt (‘people power’).

In 2004, TVE Asia Pacific produced a half-hour international TV documentary titled People Power that profiled four Social Accountability projects in Africa (Malawi), Asia (India), Europe (Ireland) and Latin American (Brazil).

Watch the Brazil story on TVEAP’s YouTube channel:

The experiment with participatory budgeting in the municipality of Porto Alegre in Brazil is a long-running example that we filmed. This is one of the largest cities in Brazil, one of the most important cultural, political and economic centers of Southern Brazil.

The city is well known as the birth place of the World Social Forum. The first WSF was held there in January 2001.

Participatory budgeting goes back to a decade earlier. It was started in 1989 by the newly elected “Worker Party” (PT) to involve people in democratic resource management in an effort to provide greater levels of spending to poorer citizens and neighborhoods. It has since spread to over 80 municipalities and five states in Brazil.

Porto Alegre’s challenge was how to include the poorer people in this success. Housing was a major problem as rural people migrate to the city looking for work. In the past, people built temporary houses on whatever land they could find, and the city council kept on demolishing these unauthorised structures.


As Brazil moved from a totalitarian to democratic form of government in the late 1980s, the newly elected city government adopted a program where the people participate in prioritising the City Budget.

The city is divided into sixteen regions and during each year, local neighbourhoods send representatives to people’s assemblies. In these assemblies, the neighbourhood representatives discuss priorities for the allocation of the city budget. They then elect their representatives from each region to form a budget council.

Over a year, from neighbourhood associations to people’s assemblies, up to 20,000 people have a direct say on how the city budget should be allocated.

This participation ensures democratic accountability and fairer distribution of tax revenue. It allows the poorest and the richest regions to have equal weight in the decision process.

After the introduction of participatory budgeting, an influential business journal nominated Porto Alegre as the Brazilian city with the ‘best quality in life’ for the 4th consecutive times. Statistics show that there has been significant improvement in quality of roads, access to water services, coverage of sewerage system, school enrollment and tax revenue collection.


We interviewed Joao Verle (wearing pink shirt in photo above), the then Mayor of Porto Allegre, who said: “I believe in this project since i was one of those responsible for starting it fifteen years ago. The participatory budget is now part of the organic life of this city – people can change it any time they please. And this makes it more adaptive to the people’s needs.”

First broadcast on BBC World in February 2004, People Power documentary has since been widely distributed to broadcast, civil society and educational users in the global South. It is still available from TVEAP on DVD and VHS video.

Photos are all captured from People Power video film. Courtesy TVE Asia Pacific

Read my post about social accountability in the world’s largest democracy, India

The Road from Citizen Kane to Citizen Journalist

From Citizen Kane to Citizen Journalist.

That’s the original title given to an essay that I co-wrote with Sir Arthur C Clarke nearly two years ago, at the invitation of the Indian news magazine Outlook.

The editors of Outlook changed it to Arise, Citizen Journalist! — which was fine, though perhaps not as poignant.

Of course, our original title would make sense only if you know what Citizen Kane means. That’s the name of the famous 1941 movie directed by Orson Welles, based on the life and career of American newspaper publisher Charles Foster Kane. The Wikipedia describes Kane as ‘a man whose career in the publishing world was born of idealistic social service, but gradually evolved into a ruthless pursuit of power and ego at any cost.’

Many consider Citizen Kane to be one of the finest movies ever made — some rank it as the best ever.

Image courtesy Wikipedia

In the essay, written within months of the Asian Tsunami of December 2004, we looked at the rise and rise of citizen journalists — taking both a historical perspective and a futuristic scenarios.

On the road thus far, we wrote: “Historically, organised and commercialised mass media have existed only in the past five centuries, since the first newspapers — as we know them — emerged in Europe. Before the printing press was invented, all news was local and there were few gatekeepers controlling its flow. Having evolved highly centralised systems of media for half a millennium, we are now returning to a second era of mass media — in the true sense of that term. Blogs, wikis and citizen journalism are all signs of things to come.

After exploring the corporatisation of the mass media, and its implications for free flow of information and opinions, we ask the question: can the citizen journalist fill the many voids in today’s mainstream media?

The essay quotes John Naughton, a noted British chronicler of the new media, who has watched and commented on the rise of blogging and its impact on the rest of the media. We also refer to researches Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis who have defined citizen journalism as the act of citizens “playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analysing and disseminating news and information”

We raise the all-important question: “Will citizen journalism survive and thrive in the harsh marketplace? The answer to that question lies in our hands—let us not underestimate the power of the discerning media consumer to set new trends (and not forget how mass indifference kills many innovations).

The essay suggests that we should not write off the mainstream media — it has survived and adapted to many changes in both technology and the marketplace.

But our conclusion is definitive: Yet one thing is clear: the age of passive media consumption is fast drawing to an end. There will be no turning back on the road from Citizen Kane to citizen journalist.”

Read the full essay in Outlook magazine’s 10th anniversary issue, 17 October 2005

Read my friend Shahidul Alam on ‘Publishing from the Streets: Citizen Journalism’

Shahidul Alam on citizen journalism on MediaHelpingMedia website

People Power: Going beyond elections and revolutions

“At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper.”

That’s how Sir Winston Churchill summed up democracy at work. Elections – at national and local levels – give ordinary people the chance to decide who would run their affairs for the next few years. At least in theory.

In the modern world, however, elections alone cannot ensure that people’s wishes prevail. Better models of engagement are needed…and are being developed across the globe.

Historically, people responded to bad governance by rejecting governments at elections, and occasionally by overthrowing corrupt and despotic regimes through mass agitation. In the past decade, this “people power” has toppled rulers in the Philippines, Nepal and Ukraine among others, and sent a strong signal to autocratic governments elsewhere.

Yet such people power has its own limits: in country after country where one political party – or indeed political system – was replaced with another through popular vote or revolt, people have been disappointed or dismayed at how quickly the new brooms lose their bristles. The solution must, therefore, lie in not just participating in elections or revolutions, but in constantly engaging governments and keeping the pressure on them to govern well – or else.

So what is to be done, as Lenin famously asked? One challenge is to find new approaches to promoting good governance.

Photo: An election awareness public rally in Rajastan, India (late 2003)

An example is Social Accountability practices – individuals or civil society groups getting together to demand accountability from different levels of government. This represents a significantly higher level of citizen engagement than merely changing governments at elections or taking to the streets.

It involves the careful gathering of data, their systematic analysis and knowledge-based engagement and negotiation with elected and other public officials. Crucial to this process is accessing and using critical information – about budgets, expenditures, excesses, corruption, performance, etc.

The new breed of citizen voice is about using information in a way that lead to positive change in government and society. People use knowledge as a pivotal tool to improve governance, better use of common property resources, and management of public funds collected through taxation or borrowed from international finance institutions.

The media can play multiple roles in such social accountability processes. At a basic level, media’s coverage of these processes adds momentum to citizen movements. At a higher level, some citizen groups are use media as an information tool or campaigning platform or both, optimising each other’s strengths.

Here’s an example from my own experience. In 2004, TVE Asia Pacific produced a half-hour international TV documentary titled People Power that profiled four Social Accountability projects in Africa (Malawi), Asia (India), Europe (Ireland) and Latin American (Brazil).

First broadcast on BBC World in February 2004, it has since been widely distributed to broadcast, civil society and educational users in the global South. It is still available from TVEAP on DVD and VHS video.

Hernando de Soto

We interviewed the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto (photo, above) of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy in Lima, Peru, who said: “Supposedly in a democracy, if the majority of people are poor, then they set the criteria of what is right. Yet all those mechanisms that allow [society] to decide where the money goes — and that it is appropriately allocated — are not in place throughout the Third World. We take turns electing authoritarian governments. The country, therefore, is left to the [whims] of big-time interests, and whoever funded the elections or parties. We have no right of review or oversight. We have no way for the people’s voice to be heard — except for eight hours on election day.”

When the India story was being filmed, in late 2003, by coincidence several states were holding elections for the state legislatures. Our crew followed the election process in the northern Indian state of Rajastan to see how a citizen group was forcing social accountability for all standing for election.

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) invited the people of Beawar, Rajastan, to a public meeting where the affidavits on the local candidates were made available to everyone. This process of social accountability and transparency extends beyond the political process to the village level where the MKSS has successfully lobbied for the right to information legislation to overcome the systemic corruption in the political and bureaucratic organisations.


MKSS’s struggles has led to laws to ensure people’s right to information across India.

“India is the largest functioning democracy in the world and it has significant strengths (but) it also has weaknesses,” says Dr Bela Bhatix (photographed wearing red saree), Associate Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, interviewed on our film. “Among the strengths is that we have been able to sustain our democracy…It’s no small matter to have regular elections and we usually have something like 60 per cent turnout — around 600 million people, or twice the size of America. But at the same time there are some very important weaknesses of our democracy which we really need to think about.”

Social activist Aruna Roy, coordinator of MKSS (photographed below), says: “In 1996, the MKSS sat in a 40-day sit-in at Beawar and we were demanding the right to access records of the Panchayat, the smallest elected body in India. We involved the entire city and made it a people’s campaign. We involved people from all over India, and the national campaign for people’s right to information was born.”

Watch India story from People Power on TVEAP’s YouTube channel:

All photos captured from People Power documentary, courtesy TVE Asia Pacific.

Read TVEAP website feature, People Power beyond elections and revolutions by Nalaka Gunawardene

Wanted: Ethical sourcing of international TV news

In recent years, consumer pressure has built up against products made using child labour and blood diamonds. If these are no longer internationally acceptable, neither should the world tolerate moving images whose origins are ethically suspect.

This is a point I have been making for sometime. I feel very strongly about it, because to me, what goes on behind the cameras is as important as what is in front of the cameras — and is therefore seen by millions of television viewers.

Many media researchers and media-watchers don’t pay enough attention to this aspect. Volumes of content analysis are produced on what is broadcast, but do we probe how that content gets on the air in the first place?

My recent blog post, and international op ed essay, on cheque-book development corrupting the broadcast media reiterates this point.

from-mediachannelorg.jpg from-mediachannelorg.jpg

When Al Jazeeera launched its English language international news and current affairs channel in November 2006, I wrote an op ed essay called ‘Ethical Newsgathering: Al Jazeera’s Biggest Challenge’. This was published by media-watch websites on both sides of the Atlantic: managed from New York, USA, and MediaHelpingMedia managed from London, UK.

I looked at the track record of the two leading international news channels, BBC World and CNN International, and noted:

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

“Take, for example, a major news story that broke in my part of the world two years ago: the Asian Tsunami of December 2004.

“In a few dreadful hours, the disaster killed, injured or otherwise shattered the lives of millions. The ‘media tsunami’ that followed added insult to injury by turning the plight of affected people into a global circus. The right to privacy and dignity of thousands of affected people was repeatedly violated. The visual media, in particular, had no qualms about showing the dead, injured and orphaned: the story was gory.

One CNN reporter later wrote a whole book recounting those few momentous days, when his team apparently managed to get stories before anyone else. Seemingly because they threw more money, equipment and diplomatic clout than others. The ‘gung-ho’ tone in that book is revolting yet revealing.

“Such journalists’ only operating guideline seems to be: get the story, no matter what — or who gets hurt in that process.”

Read the essay: Ethical Newsgathering: Al Jazeera’s Biggest Challenge, by Nalaka Gunawardene, on

Read an earlier essay, Communication Rights and Communication Wrongs, by Nalaka Gunawardene, on SciDev.Net


In the corporate media world, we the viewers are ‘consumers’ of what the multiple news channels peddle 24/7. Few of us see beyond what comes up on our screens, and even fewer bother about how those images are sourced.

If we want ethical sourcing of TV news content, that pressure must come from us, the consumers. We should react not only to the carefully packaged moving images and soundbytes dished out to us, but also demand to know if these have been acquired in an ethically acceptable manner.

Good journalism is not just a mix of accuracy, balance and credibility (the A, B and C we are taught in journalism school). There is also D (Discernment) and E (Ethical sourcing).

– Nalaka Gunawardene

Memories of Toyama: Japan Wildlife Film Festival

Image courtesy JWFF

The Japan Wildlife Film Festival opens today – 23 August 2007 – in Toyama, in eastern Japan.

As their website says: “Established in 1993, the Festival is held biennially. It started in the hope that by screening moving images of the wonders of wildlife and the co-existence of nature and people, we could help to increase understanding and awareness of the urgent need to protect and care for the natural world.”

The last Festival, in August 2005, received 331 film entries from 35 countries and some 30,000 people, including many school children, attended the public screenings staged throughout the Toyama region. This level of public participation is exceptional for an international film festival — and shows how well the organisers, the Nature Film Network, have engaged the local people.

International film-makers and broadcasters now know the Festival as one of the biggest of its kind in Asia.

I’m missing Toyama this year. I participated in the last two festivals and have fond memories — of watching great films, having excellent company and enjoying outstanding Japanese hospitality in the salubrious holiday city of Toyama.

In 2003, I was part of the festival’s international jury. Then at the 2005 festival, I was invited to give a talk about our Children of Tsunami media project, which at the time was documenting the personal recovery stories of eight families affected by the Asian Tsunami in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

In both years, a highlight of my experience was the opening evening reception, held at a traditional Japanese farm house restored by NFN and located a half-hour’s drive outside the city. There, the local people hosted us to food and beverages prepared at home. An evening of simple, unpretentious cultural exchange — with nothing ‘official’ about it!

That’s the character of NFN chairman Hirohisa Ota: a man of few words who leads by example and brings together a small but dynamic team of staff and volunteers to run the 4-day festival with clockwork precision.

The photo below shows international participants at JWFF 2005.

Photo from JWFF website

Image from JWFF website

List of finalist films competing in JWFF 2007

Read my earlier post on Toyama 2005: Lawyers who locked up the Butterfly Tree

Rajiv Kafle: A ‘Portrait of Commitment’ against HIV

Photo by Shahidul Alam, Drik/Majority World

It was good to see Rajiv Kafle again — even if only in this photograph, where he is the grown up surrounded by children. This was taken by my friend Shahidul Alam, whose latest photo exhibition, Portraits of Commitment, I’ve just seen.

I immediately recognised Rajiv because he was a key character in a documentary film we at TVE Asia Pacific commissioned five years ago, in 2002. Love for a Longer Life, directed by Nepali film-maker Dhurba Basnet, was part of a package of Truth Talking films that probed how Asia Pacific societies were coping with rapid change or crises.

At that time, there were 50,000 Nepalis living with HIV. But Rajiv was the very first among them to publicly announce that he had HIV — it created ripples in the conservative Nepali society.

He is a former injecting drug user who contracted HIV through unsafe needles.

“I injected drugs for two years. I got infected with HIV when I used a contaminated syringe belonging to one of my friends. He was HIV positive and I used his syringe without sterilising it properly,” Rajiv described his case history on our film.

After coming to terms with his own HIV status, Rajiv turned activist. For the past few years, he has been a crusader to educate Nepalese youth to prevent them from contracting HIV through ignorance. He gives talks at schools and colleges about his experiences of living with HIV.

It has not been easy: his revelation shook the conservative Nepali society, where most people are still reluctant to talk about HIV, associating it directly with illicit sex.

“Stigma, discrimination — then death.” That’s the bleak future that many HIV positive people in Nepal face according to Rajiv. “There is a great deal of stigma and discrimination against HIV/AIDS sufferers. Because there is so much negative publicity, an HIV-positive person finds it difficult to reveal his condition. He will have heard only about stigma, discrimination and death.”

“If we create a favourable environment, people will definitely come out and let others know,” he says, adding: “It took me a couple of years before I was able to publicly announce that I was HIV positive.”

Change was happening even five years ago when the camera crew from Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists (NEFEJ) followed him across Kathmandul Valley as he gave talks at schools and other public places.

“Now I see a change. Lots of young people understand the problem and are getting involved. The media and public are now more interested in this subject and they want to interact with people who have been through this.”


It wasn’t easy to produce Love for a Longer Life. As Dhurba Basnet (photo, above) reported at the time: “The major problem we faced during shooting, however, was that it was very difficult to get people living with HIV to talk naturally on camera. We had to first win their trust. This we achieved by behaving with them as normally as possible.”

After some shooting had been completed, Rajiv Kafle fell ill. “Since he was a major character in the film we had to wait a whole month while he recovered.”

Read more about Truth Talking films from across Asia Pacific

Shahidul Alam’s blog post on Portraits of Commitment photo exhibition featuring individuals making a difference in South Asia’s battle against HIV

Read my earlier blog post on HIV in Nepal: Ratomate’s best cup of tea (29 March 2007)

Rajiv Kafle photo by Shahidul Alam, Drik/Majority World

HIV/AIDS as a growth industry?

The 8th International Conference on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, or ICAAP8, is currently being held in my home city Colombo, Sri Lanka, and runs from 19 to 23 August 2007.

As I wrote earlier, some of us who have a track record of communicating on HIV/AIDS have been excluded from this conference by the arrogance of its organisers. And having just read the biography of Sri Lanka’s best known HIV/AIDS activist, I now understand why.

Good books help us experience a range of emotions. A Life in the Round: Desamanya Kamalika, The Girl from Giruwa Pattuwa by Hilary Abeyaratne (WHT Publications, Colombo, 2006) made me outraged and deeply ashamed of the kind of sick society I live in.

Here are some depressing ‘lowlights’ from the book:
* Some medical professionals and para-medics simply refused to treat one of their own kind who was accidentally infected with HIV (fearing infection from casual contact!).
* A leading government hospital carelessly stocked and peddled blood contaminated with HIV. When discovered, it was quickly covered up, and the official investigation was suppressed.
* Some NGOs and charities have turned HIV activism into a self-serving, lucrative industry. There are fierce ‘turf wars’ to claim persons living with HIV as their institutional ‘property’.
* The public health system mandated to care for those living with HIV reinforces stigma and discrimination against such persons.

Image courtesy YouandAIDS Image courtesy YouandAIDS

That’s just for starters. The book packs more shocking details on mass-scale ignorance about basic facts, bureaucratic apathy and a nation in staunch denial about the human immunodeficiency virus.

And we understand why the merchants of misery detested Dr Mrs Kamalika Abeyaratne, who stood up and spoke out for the rights of those living with HIV in Sri Lanka.

She was an extraordinary Sri Lankan woman and a dedicated physician, and the book is her life’s story told by her family and friends. As the cover blurb says: “This is a sad but inspiring account of the joys, sorrows, achievements and disappointments in an all-too-brief but beautiful life, cut short by tragedy and a courageous battle with HIV.”

In 1994, Dr Kamalika was involved in a serious road accident while heading to a rural location where she was to conduct a free medical clinic. While being treated at a government hospital, she was administered HIV-contaminated blood. Media investigations later revealed how intravenous drug users had routinely sold their blood to this hospital, which had few checks in place. This created a major scandal in the public health system — ironically, the very system that she had served for many years.

Dr Kamalika (Kami to her friends) was one of the very few Sri Lankans who openly acknowledged their HIV status. She paid a dear price for this admission: she was shunned and maligned by many members of her own medical community. Undaunted, she spent the last few years of life as an activist campaigning for the rights of persons living with HIV. She waged an almost lone battle for access to anti retroviral (ARV) treatment.

As Sonam Yangchen Rana of UNDP’s Regional HIV and Devlopment Programme has noted: “As a champion for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS, she had become an icon for PLWHA in the region. Spreading awareness about issues surrounding the epidemic had become the mission of her life. She campaigned vigorously against stigma and discrimination faced by people living with HIV/AIDS and exemplified that PLWHA can lead productive and meaningful lives. productive and meaningful lives.”

And here’s a revealing extract from her biography:
“Paediatrician turned activist, here is the story of Kami’s involvement in the HIV/AIDS campaign. A story that suggests rather wryly that it is not only about People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA), but also about those who have been called People Living off HIV/AIDS (PLOHA). Kami’s own statement on this issue was that the known number of both groups was about the same, with some of the latter, representing some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or other, living in five-star hotels, driving around in Toyota Land Cruisers, and using up sixty percent of their resources on ‘administrative costs’.”

So now we know why some organisers of ICAAP8 were so defensive and protective of ‘their’ virus: after all, it is their horn of plenty that they cannot share with anyone else. These PLOHA are the mandarins of HIV/AIDS, Incorporated.

On a personal note, I always admired Dr Kamalika but never got to meet her. Our paths almost crossed once in July 2000, when I had helped Panos South Asia to organise a media gatekeepers’ meeting on HIV which she addressed. But the night before, I was struck down by influenza, and didn’t get to participate in what had been a stimulating meeting.

Read Dr Kamalika Abeyaratne: A Profile of Courage, written by my friend Manori Wijesekera in 2003:

Read InterPress Service profile on Dr Kamalika Abeyaratne

The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) review of Kamalika Abeyaratne biography (March 2007)

Read The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) tribute to Dr Kamalika Abeyaratne, 19 June 2005

Read journalistic coverage of ICAAP8 by Inter Press Service:
IPS Terraviva