Road to Bali: Beware of ‘Bad weather friends’!

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All the environmental roads — well, actually flights — seem to lead to Bali in the coming days.

The Indonesian ‘Island of the Gods’, famed as a tourist resort, will play host to the 13th United Nations Climate Change Conference from 3 to 14 December 2007.

The Conference, hosted by the Government of Indonesia, brings together representatives of over 180 countries together with observers from inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations, and the media. The two week period includes the sessions of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), its subsidiary bodies as well as the Meeting of the Parties of the Kyoto Protocol.

The Bali meeting will be a turning point in the global response to climate change, an issue which has moved above and beyond being a simple ‘green’ concern to one with economic, security and social implications. The annual meeting returns to Asia after five years, since New Delhi, India, hosted the 8th meeting in November 2002.

In the build up to Bali, a new report released on 19 November 2007 says that without immediate action, global warming is set to reverse decades of social and economic progress across Asia, home to over 60 per cent of the world’s population.

Up in Smoke? Asia and the Pacific – with a foreword by Dr Rajendra K Pachauri, Chairman of the Nobel prize-winning Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – is the most extensive and concluding chapter of a unique, four-year long exercise by the Up in Smoke coalition, an alliance of the UK’s major environment and development groups.

The report shows “how the human drama of climate change will largely be played out in Asia, where almost two thirds of the world’s population live, effectively on the front line of climate change.”

When our friends at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London sent me the press release about the report last week, something caught my eye. Among the several accompanying quotes was this one concerning the media:

“In many Asian countries climate change stories don’t make it into the media, so the public are left out of the debate. The challenge for decision-makers and the media is to stimulate interest in their work and translate the complex issues into stories that capture the public’s imagination. Climate change above all requires the engagement of everyone in creating the changes required.”

This sweeping statement is attributed to Rod Harbinson, Head of Environment, Panos London.

I know Panos London well, and am surprised to read an official remark of this nature emerging from that organisation which, until recently, has tried to relate to the majority world media as a friend and supporter. In fact, the first time I had one of my own pieces internationally syndicated was by Panos Features, back in 1989.

Come to think of it, the second article I wrote for Panos Features concerned how the low-lying, Indian Ocean island nation of Maldives was preparing for adverse impacts of climate change. That was years before the web, so there’s no link I can provide.

As a development writer and journalist who has covered global climate change among other issues for two decades, I have problems with Mr Harbinson’s remark.

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Photo: A family looks for shelter using a raft made of banana trees during the last Monsoon: 31 July 2007: Gaibandha, Bangladesh © Quddus Alam/DrikNews Linked from Shahidul News

I’m in full agreement on the need to ‘translate the complex issues into stories that capture the public’s imagination’. There is also no argument that climate change requires the engagement of everyone.

But I would be very interested to know on what statistical or analytical basis he says “in many Asian countries climate change stories don’t make it into the media, so the public are left out of the debate’.

Asia, as Mr Harbinson should surely know, is not just China, India and Indonesia. It is large and highly diverse region, containing five sub-regions as defined by the UN. It is home to nearly two thirds of humanity, who live in over three dozen independent states or dependent territories.

Living in Asia and trying to work at regional level, I know how difficult it is to make any generalisations about this rich and constantly changing assortment of economies, cultures and societies branded as Asia (which, taken together with the small island nations of the South Pacific, is known as the Asia Pacific). In fact, it’s wise not to speak about Asia as a whole, for there is little in common, say, between Japan and Laos, or between China and Maldives.

The Asian media are as diverse as the region, and have been undergoing rapid change in recent years. Unshackled from the state’s crushing grip in most countries, the broadcast media (radio, TV) have proliferated and emerged as the primary source of information for a majority of Asians. New media – web, mobile devices and multimedia combinations – are now changing the way many Asia’s communicate and access information.

I have always been curious how Panos London, perched at its cosy home in London’s White Lion Street, assesses what goes on in the majority world. In this case, how much of Asia does Mr Harbinson know and is really familiar with? How many Asian media outlets has he or Panos monitored, assessed and sampled before coming to this sweeping and damning conclusion about the lack of climate change stories in the Asian media?

And how many of these outlets are radio and TV, and in languages other than English? I would really like to know.

If Panos London believes in evidence-based analysis, then it owes us in Asia an explanation as to on what basis its head of environment makes such statements about an entire continent, whose media output is predominantly in Asian languages, not English. And whose principal media are broadcast, not print.

And what constitutes a climate story? Tracking the endless array of inter-governmental babble in the name of working out some compromised partial solution to the major problem? Or reporting on campaigns to clean up polluting industries or sectors (such as transport) that generate most of the greenhouse gases? Or focusing on how humble communities in remote corners of the world are finding how their lifestyles and livelihoods are suddenly threatened by something they hardly understand?

To me, it’s all of the above — and a lot more. Climate change is akin to a prism through which many, many development issues and topics can be analysed. Just as HIV/AIDs long ago ceased to be a simple medical or health story, climate change has moved well beyond being an environmental story.

The more angles, perspectives and topics that are covered in the media, the better. And all of it need not be in that staid, cautiously balanced style of The Guardian or BBC that Panos London must be more familiar with.

Panos London, in its statement of beliefs, says ‘Freedom of information and media pluralism are essential attributes of sustainable development’. Surely, then, they realise that media pluralism includes speaking in a multitude of tongues, and analysing from many different perspectives — as happens in the Asian media 24/7, if Mr Harbinson and his colleagues care to spend more time in the region and keep their eyes and ears open.

But instead, they seem more like a group of well-meaning people with a solution in search of a problem. For the past many months, Panos London has been crying wolf about the allegedly poor coverage of climate issues in the majority world media.

That was the main thrust of a report they published in late 2005, titled Whatever the weather – media attitudes to reporting climate change.

According to Panos London website that I have accessed today, “…the survey found that there is little knowledge among journalists about these important choices and they are rarely discussed. The dramatic impacts of extreme weather events, for example, rarely feature in relation to climate change and the topic remains low on editors’ story sheets.”

The survey was based on ‘interviews conducted with journalists and media professionals in Honduras, Jamaica, Sri Lanka and Zambia’ and claimed to ‘give insights into the attitudes of journalists and the status of the media in these countries.’

Well, I was one of those majority world journalists covered by the survey — and I had major reservations about how they used my responses. Being cautious, I had used email (and not the phone) to respond to their survey questions – I therefore have a complete record of everything I said. When the draft report was shared on my request, I found some of my responses being distorted or taken out of context. I had to protest very strongly before some accuracy was restored. I later regretted having agreed to be part of this dubious survey.

It was flawed in many ways. The questionnaire was very poorly conceived and structured. I actually declined to answer some questions which were worded in such a way as to elicit just the kind of response that Panos London wanted — to make a case that journalists in the majority world are so incompetent that they need help.

A glaring omission in the final report was that it carried no list of journalists interviewed. I had to ask several times before I could even find out how many others participated in the survey (apparently some three dozen). But my requests for a list of other survey respondents were repeatedly declined by Panos London, who said it was privileged information. They later took the position that European data protection laws did not allow them to disclose this information!

In an email sent to Rod Harbinson on 22 Feb 2006, I said: “I would argue that Panos London had pre-conceived notions that it wanted to present in this report, and used superficial and largely unprofessional interview surveys with a few scattered journalists as a rubber-stamping exercise to publish what it wanted to say anyway. This is further borne out by the fact that some of my more outspoken responses have been completely ignored.”

I have seen or heard nothing since to change the above view. And the contents of Whatever the weather – media attitudes to reporting climate change are consistent with what Rod Harbinson says in the IIED press release that prompted me to make this comment.

Yes, climate change is the Big Issue of our times that needs everyone to rally around and search for ‘common but differentiated’ solutions and responses. But no issue or global threat is too big to warrant the willing suspension of time-honoured journalistic or academic values of honesty, integrity and balance. Issuing lop-sided ‘survey reports’ and making sweeping negative statements do not help the cause of improving public discussion and debate on climate change.

The road to Bali and beyond is going to be an arduous journey. On that treacherous road, we in the majority world need to beware of ‘bad weather friends’ who come bearing bad surveys and self-serving offers of ‘help’.

— Nalaka Gunawardene

Note: In the spirit of communication for development and media pluralism, I invite Panos London to respond to the above critique, and offer to publish their response in full.

I remain a critical cheer-leader of the global Panos family, and serve on the Board of Panos South Asia, an entirely independent entity that has excellent relations with Panos London. Like all families, we don’t always agree – and that’s part of media pluralism!

Related blog posts:

Nov 2007: True ‘People Power’ needed to fight climate change
Nov 2007: Beyond press release journalism: Digging up an environmental business story
Oct 2007: The Al and Pachy Show: Climate Change gains public momentum

Aug 2007: Arthur Clarke’s climate friendly advice: Don’t commute; communicate!
June 2007: Sex and the warming planet: A tip for climate reporters
April 2007: Can journalists save the planet?
April 2007: Beware of Vatican Condoms and global warming
April 2007: Pacific ‘Voices from the Waves’ on climate change
April 2007: Wanted – human face of climate change!

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Al Jazeera English is one: Getting better at imitating its rival BBC World!

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Al Jazeera English (AJE), the world’s newest global news and current affairs channel, completed one year on the air on 15 November 2007.

This in itself is a commendable accomplishment, and we extend heart-felt first birthday greetings to the channel that entered the highly competitive arena of global newscasting offering 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.

AJE wanted to revolutionise English language TV in the same way Al Jazeera turned Arabic TV world upside down, ending the monopoly of the airwaves by state broadcasters.

First, the good news. AJE has done well on some fronts, adding to the diversity in international news and current affairs television, and enriching the often endangered media pluralism in a world that is, ironically, having more broadcast channels than ever before in history. It has brought to us stories ignored by other news outlets, while offering us somewhat different takes on widely covered stories.

In a self-congratulatory note and video clip posted this week on YouTube, the channel says: “A year ago Al Jazeera English was launched, marking the start of a new era in international journalism. In the last 12 months we have brought a fresh perspective to world events and shed light on many of the world’s little reported stories.”

Here are some of the highlights compiled by AJE.

In another post on its own website, AJE offers a selection of exclusive video stories from its correspondents to show how it ‘continues to set the news agenda’.

We also salute AJE for withstanding the unofficial yet widespread ‘block out’ of its distribution by North American cable operators, depriving most viewers in the US and Canada the opportunity of watching it on their TV screens. In a nifty move, the channel started placing some of its more consequential content on YouTube, making it available to anyone, anywhere with a sufficiently high speed Internet connection.

Image courtesy Al Jazeera

And now, on to the not-so-good news…

If AJE in its first year somewhat stood apart from the other two global newscasters – BBC World and CNN International – that was occasional and superficial, and not quite consistent or substantial. In fact, the only thing that AJE has consistently done is to under-deliver on its own lofty promise of doing things differently.

As I wrote in a blog post in August 2007: “I’m looking long and hard for the difference that they (AJE) 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!”

Of course, AJE – or any other broadcaster, for that matter – is fully entitled to set a trend or follow a model already set by another channel, even that of a rival. But to so blatantly imitate the BBC while all the time claiming to be different is simply not credible.

And credibility is the most important virtue for a news and current affairs media operation. Earn and sustain it and the world will be on their side. Lose it, and they will be the laughing stock on the air.

I’m not suggesting that has happened yet. But as I cautioned in an op ed written days after AJE started broadcasting in November 2006, “unless it’s very careful and thoughtful, AJE runs the risk of falling into the same cultural and commercial traps that its two rivals are completely mired in.”

Here’s a simple test. If viewers were to watch AJE, BBC World and CNN International without logos and any other tell-tale branding, how many would be able to tell the channels apart?

To me, CNN is in a league of its own for a variety of positive and negative reasons. Their offering is technically and professionally superior, even if I have objections to some of their editorial choices and analysis.

However, it’s harder to discern differences between the often befuddled BBC World and its enthusiastic imitator, Al Jazeera English. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the latter has a significant number of former BBC reporters and presenters, many of who have been poached. While that again is a choice for AJE’s management, they must realise that we the viewers in the global South do not want a global channel rooted in our part of the world to dress up in the BBC’s increasingly discredited clothes.

And then there is the whole question of ethical sourcing of content — an important consideration which most global, regional and national TV channels continue to ignore. Many roaming news journalists’ key operating guideline seems to be: get the story ahead of rivals, no matter what — or who gets hurt in that process.

That business as usual must end. As I have argued in this blog and elsewhere: “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.”

Aug 2007 blog post: Wanted: Ethical sourcing of international TV news

Nov 2005 op ed on SciDev.Net: Communication rights and communication wrongs, by Nalaka Gunawardene

In August 2007, I critiqued some Sri Lanka related stories appearing on AJE’s People & Power strand, pointing out some ethically questionable practices in how their reporter got the story, possibly placing some of her sources and interviewees at personal risk. To her credit, the reporter Juliana Ruhfus engaged me in this blog, explaining her side. Read the full exchange here.

But there are other key areas where AJE needs to very carefully guard its image and credibility. In the past year, the world’s assorted development and humanitarian agencies have realised that it’s ‘cool’ to be seen on Al Jazeera than on BBC and CNN. Some of their propagandists (sorry, public information officers) had beaten a path to AJE offices in London, Doha and Kuala Lumpur, seeking to cut various deals to get coverage.

Yes, the development and humanitarian communities certainly have worthwhile messages and issues to communicate, many of which need urgent, wide dissemination. Tragically, what most agencies seek is self-promotion and ego-massaging, not issue based discussion. It is precisely this alarming trend of paying media outlets to carry agency propaganda that I have labelled ‘cheque-book development’.

Aug 2007: ‘Cheque-book Development’ – paying public media to deliver development agency logos

It’s no secret that BBC World has shamelessly allowed its airwaves to be sold for cash by assorted ‘touts’ claiming to have privileged access to the once-respected broadcaster. In the past year, some of these touts have extended their tentacles to AJE. We don’t yet know if these are entirely pro bono acts of goodwill by AJE, or if money has exchanged hands somewhere along the line.

If the latter has happened, we ardently hope that someone within AJE would blow the whistle in their own collective self interest. Or perhaps AJE wants to be too much like BBC World in every respect — including the corruption part?

Meanwhile, the real challenge to Al Jazeera remains exactly what I said one year ago: to usher in real change, it needs to transform not just how television news is presented and analysed, but also how it is gathered.

Despite having a code of ethics for its conduct, the well-meaning, south-cheering channel has yet to rise to that part of the challenge. Let’s hope that in its second year, Al Jazeera English would spend less time imitating its rivals, and more time in living up to its own promise.

Personal note: Some readers have asked why I continue to hold AJE to higher standards in a world where media ethics are being observed in the breach all the time. It’s simply because I still see AJE as the best hope for the majority world to tell its own stories in its own myriad voices and accents. I desperately want AJE to succeed on all fronts, not just in audience ratings, signal coverage and market penetration. For that, it must fast find its identity and stop defining itself by its rivals.

Protect journalists who fight for social and environmental justice!

In June 2007, I wrote about the late Joey R B Lozano, a courageous Filipino journalist and activist who fought for human rights and environmental justice at tremendous risk to his life.

For three decades, Joey survived dangerous missions to defend human rights using his video camera in the Philippines, a country known for one of the highest numbers of journalists killed in the line of duty. Joey went into hiding numerous times, and he dodged two assassination attempts.

Last week, a leading Filipino academic and social activist called for greater protection for local level journalists who cover social and environmental justice issues risking their life and limbs.

“Things are pretty savage at the grassroots level in some of our countries. Journalists who investigate and uncover the truth take enormous personal risks – the vested interests hire killers to eliminate such journalists,” said Professor Walden Bello, executive director of the Focus on the Global South (photo, below).

He was speaking at the Greenaccord Media Forum on 10 November 2007 in Frascati, Rome, where several dozen journalists covering environmental issues had gathered for a four-day meeting.

He delivered an insightful survey of social movements across Asia on environmental and public health issues
, where he questioned the role of elites in the global South in standing up for what is right and fair for all people.

During question time, I asked him how he saw the media playing a role in social movements that he’d just described. It varied from country to country, he said, and gave several examples.

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In China, most environmental exposes in recent years have been made by ‘very brave journalists’. Their investigations have compelled the local and central authorities to address the massive incidents of pollution and environmental degradation resulting from China’s economic march forward.

In South Asia, the record is uneven. Indian publications like The Hindu newspaper and Frontline magazine are at the forefront in reporting and analysing ‘almost exhaustively’ on environmental struggles in the world’s largest democracy.

In contrast, Singapore and Malaysia have no critical mass media to turn the spotlight on excesses or lapses, he said. In these countries, journalists as well as activists have turned to the web to express themselves — but even they are under pressure from their governments.

In Thailand, the two English language newspapers The Nation and Bangkok Post have both have a long tradition of covering environmental issues and supporting mass movements. A number of Thai language newspapers also have sustained coverage.

In his native Philippines, Prof Bello singled out the Philippine Daily Enquirer for persisting with environmental coverage and exposing environment related scandals. But that comes with its own risks.

“At the local levels, journalists who take up these issues face many threats, including the very real risk of extra-judicial killings. The Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world today for independent journalists and human rights activists,” he added.

Journalists living in the provinces and reporting from the grassroots are more vulnerable than those based in the cities. This is precisely why local journalists need greater support and protection to continue their good work.

The local elites and officials would much rather silence such journalists. International solidarity for such journalists could make a big difference, Prof Bello said.

He had a suggestion for his hosts, Greenaccord, which annually organises what is now the world’s largest annual gathering of journalists and activists concerned about the environment: Invite and involve more local level journalists in the future forums.

That will give them a voice, and strengthen their resolve to continue the very important work they do.

Read April 2007 blog post: Can journalists save the planet?


Meeting photos courtesy Adrian Gilardoni’s Flickr account

True ‘People Power’ needed to fight climate change

Dealing with climate change – the biggest environmental threat faced by the planet today – requires building up a mass movement at the grassroots across the developing countries of the global South.

Such a movement might be unpopular not only with the Southern elite but also with sections of the urban-based middle class sectors that have been the main beneficiaries of the high-growth economic strategy that has been pursued since the early 1990s, a leading southern activist cautioned in Rome last week.

Speaking at the Greenaccord Media Forum on 10 November 2007, Walden Bello, Filipino academic and executive director of the Focus on the Global South (seen in photo below, on the right), dismissed the notion that Asian masses are inert elements that uncritically accept the environmentally damaging high-growth export-oriented industrialisation models promoted by their governing elites.

“It is increasingly clear to ordinary people throughout Asia that the model has wrecked agriculture, widened income inequalities, led to increased poverty after the Asian financial crises, and wreaked environmental damage everywhere,” he said.

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People in the South are open to an alternative to a model of growth that has failed both the environment and society, he said. For instance, in Thailand, a country devastated by the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and wracked by environmental problems, globalization and export-oriented growth are now bad words.

He added: “Thais are more and more receptive to the idea of a ‘sufficiency economy‘ promoted by popular monarch King Bhumibol, which is an inward-looking strategy that stresses self-reliance at the grassroots and the creation of stronger ties among domestic economic networks, along with ‘moderately working with nature'”.

But the southern countries cannot and must not rely on their elite to provide leadership, he said. “What is clear is that in most other places in the South, one cannot depend on the elites and some sections of the middle class to decisively change course. At best, they will procrastinate.”

The fight against global warming will need to be propelled mainly by an alliance between progressive civil society in the North and mass-based citizens’ movements in the South.

Delivering the Lectio Magistralis to conclude the 4-day international gathering of journalists, activists and experts concerned about the environment, Prof Bello traced the evolution of social movements on environment and public health in East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia over the past few decades.

Read the test of a similar talk given by Walden Bello at the Trans National Institute in October 2007.

Prof Bello acknowledged that the environmental movements in the South and North have seen their ebbs and flows. “As with all social movements, it takes a particular conjunction of circumstances to bring an environmental movement to life after being quiescent for some time or to transform diverse local struggles into one nationwide movement.”

The challenge facing activists in the global North and the global South is to bring about those circumstances that will trigger the formation of a global mass movement that will decisively confront the most crucial challenge of our times.

And climate challenge is one among several challenges we confront today.

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Meeting photos courtesy Adrian Gilardoni’s Flickr account

People power India photo courtesy TVEAP image archive

Bretton Woods on fire: Hard times ahead for World Bank and IMF

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As the California forest fires raged over many days in October 2007, it dominated the US and some sections of the global media. Focus was on how the fires started and what factors contributed to their rapid spread.

Below the media’s radar, another kind of ‘fire’ has been building up over the past few months on the US East Coast. According to one leading intellectual-activist that I heard this week, this is a development whose reverberations will be felt right around the world, and for years to come.

The Bretton Woods are on fire. Actually, it’s the Bretton Woods institutions, namely the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Speaking at the Greenaccord Media Forum in Rome on 10 November 2007, Walden Bello, Filipino academic and executive director of the Focus on Global South, suggested that the World Bank and IMF are headed for turbulent times as countries in the global South (majority world) assert themselves economically.

Preparing to rebuild the international economic system as World War II was still raging, 730 delegates from all 44 Allied nations gathered at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire for the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference. The delegates deliberated upon and signed the Bretton Woods Agreements during July 1944. That marked the birth of the World Bank and IMF.

The World Bank and IMF are essentially lenders of money to governments for development purposes. If these lending institutions run short of borrowers, they will be out of business.

That hasn’t happened yet, but Bello (photo, below) identified several trends that must make the Bretton Woods duo worry about losing control.

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According to Bello, the resistance is led by countries of Latin America, a region where the twin lenders have long been controversial. In May 2007, Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez announced it would be leaving both the World Bank and IMF.

Venezuela has repaid its remaining debts to the World Bank five years ahead of schedule and paid off its debts to the IMF shortly after Mr Chavez first took office in 1999. Bello says the oil-rich country has sought to provide alternative forms of credit and financial support for countries in the region. One such project is the “Bank of the South”, which aims to financially help Latin American countries to pay off their IMF loans ahead of schedule.

In October 2007, Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz endorsed the Chávez plan to create a pan-regional bank for Latin America. Professor Stiglitz, a Washington insider and former World Bank chief economist, said the Bank of the South would benefit the region and give a welcome shakeup to western lending institutions.

Read March 2006 commentary by Mark Engler in Common Dreams: Latin America Unchained: Will the U.S. Lose its Influence Over Countries That Have Paid Off Their IMF Loans?

These trends, coupled with the rise of a new set of Southern countries willing and able to provide loans or grant aid to fellow countries of the South, are slowly but steadily eroding the domination and power the Bretton Woods twins have exercised for over half a century, Bello said.

Some of these alternative lenders are giving money with fewer conditions and restrictions. These include China, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. This is what the editor of the influential US journal Foreign Policy called ‘rogue aid’ in an article he wrote in the journal’s March/April 2007 issue.

As the global South asserts itself and begins to exercise the power of their recent economic growth – which, ironically, is partly thanks to past borrowing from the Bretton Woods twins, the coming years will be crucial for the future World Bank and IMF.

The fire in the Bretton Woods is only just smouldering. But watch that smoke…

* * * * *

Walden Bello won the Right Livelihood Award (the Alternative Nobel) in 2003, for his decades of advocacy, activism and research. As the award foundation noted: “Walden Bello is one of the leading critics of the current model of economic globalisation, combining the roles of intellectual and activist. As a human rights and peace campaigner, academic, environmentalist and journalist, and through a combination of courage as a dissident, with an extraordinary breadth of published output and personal charisma, he has made a major contribution to the international case against corporate-driven globalisation.”

While campaigning on human rights he saw how the World Bank and IMF loans and grants were supporting the Marcos regime in power. To expose their role, he took the risk of breaking into the World Bank headquarters in Washington, and brought out 3,000 pages of confidential documents. These provided the material for his book Development Debacle (1982), which became an underground bestseller in the Philippines and contributed to expanding the citizen’s movement that eventually deposed Marcos in 1986.

Read full profile on Walden Bello on Right Livelihood Award website


Meeting photos courtesy Adrian Gilardoni’s Flickr account

Beyond coffee and bananas: We need fair trade in international media!

Fair trade is gaining momentum worldwide. More products are coming within the scope of fair trade in more countries.

That’s certainly good news in a world full of exploitation, inequality and unfairness at various levels.

But are we, in the mass media whose business it is to gather and deliver news and information, yet part of this good news ourselves? In other words, isn’t it high time there was fair trade in international media products too?

This is the simple question I raised this week at the V Greenaccord International Media Forum on the Protection of Nature, held from 7 to 11 Novmeber 2007 at the historic Villa Mondragone in Frascati, some 20km southeast of Rome.

During the 3.5 day international gathering of journalists and scientists concerned about the environment, we had several speakers referring to fair trade in Europe and at a global level. As more consumers become aware of environmental and social justice considerations, they are doing something about it in their buying of goods that are fairly traded, we heard.

The Wikipedia describes fair trade as ‘an organised social movement and market-based model of international trade which promotes the payment of a fair price as well as social and environmental standards in areas related to the production of a wide variety of goods.’

The movement focuses in particular on exports from developing countries to developed countries, most notably handicrafts, coffee, cocoa, tea, bananas, honey, cotton, wine and fresh fruit.

Fair trade is all about creating opportunities for small scale producers in the developing countries to get organised and supply directly to consumers in different parts of the world. When they sell direct, with few or no intermediaries, they can earn three or four times more, and that money will enhance their incomes, living standards and societies.

Read more about fair trade at Oxfam website, Make Trade Fair

Fair trade is certainly a cherished ideal, but it’s mired in complex economic and political realities. The globalised march of capital, profit-maximising corporations and developed country farm subsidies are among many factors that make fair trade difficult to achieve.

Fair trade activists are well aware of these realities. Their success is built on connecting producers with individual consumers. The proliferation of new media – especially the Internet – has made it easier to sustain such communications.

But the fair trade movement is still largely rooted in goods, not services. In my view, this is necessary but not sufficient in a modern world economy where nearly two thirds of global GDP comes from the services sector. (The Wikipedia’s breakdown for global GDP is agriculture 4%; industry 32%; services 64%).

I can’t immediately find how much the print, broadcast and online media contribute to that 64%, but it must be significant in the media saturated world today. And certainly the flow of media products — text, audio, photographs, moving images, online content and derivatives of these — has become more globalised in the past two decades.

So why not begin to agitate for fair trade in media products when they cross borders? Why aren’t we practising fair trade in our own media industry even as we cover fair trade as a story in our editorial content?

I didn’t get a very clear answer from fair trade activists that I posed this question to this week. While agreeing with me that the same fair trade principles can be applied to the media sector, they acknowledged that each sector has its own dynamics and must develop realistic ways to accomplish fair trade.

So it’s up to us who produce, distribute and manage assorted media products to begin this transformation from within.

Let’s not kid ourselves about what we are taking on. As I wrote in a blog post in September 2007:

“In the media-rich, information societies that we are now evolving into, media and cultural products are an important part of our consumption — and therefore, more of these have to be produced. In the globalised world, more television and film content is being sourced from the majority world — or is being outsourced to some developing countries where the artistic and technical skills have reached global standards.

“But in a majority of these media production deals, the developing country film and TV professionals don’t enjoy any fair terms of trade or engagement. Their creativity and toil are being exploited by those who control the global flow of entertainment, news and information products.

“This is why the top talent in the global South become assistants, helpers and ‘fixers’ to producers or directors parachuting in to our countries to cover our own stories for the Global Village. Equitable payments and due credits are hardly ever given.”

In the same commentary, I added:
“Unfair trade in film and TV is also how the unsung, unknown creative geniuses contribute significantly to the development of new cartoon animation movies or TV series, as well as hip video games that enthrall the global market. Lacking the clout and skill to negotiate better terms, freelancers and small companies across the global South remain the little elves who toil through the night to produce miracles. They work for tiny margins and even tinier credit lines. Some don’t get acknowledged at all.”

Read my blog post: Wanted: Fair trade in film and television!

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Raising this amidst 60 journalists and producers from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean attending the annual Greenaccord meeting, I pointed out that many of us were keen to contribute to media outlets beyond the countries where we are based. It gives us a chance to tell our stories to a bigger audience, and to have our voices heard about a range of issues and topics important to our communities.

And yes, the additional income that such work brings in is quite useful too, thank you.

Heads were nodding when I pointed out how hard it is for a talented, hard working journalist based in the majority world to break into the tightly controlled international media outlets. Even when they make an occasional breakthrough, they are often exploited by being paid lower professional fees for the same output and quality of work.

Or worse, majority world journalists are slighted and insulted for being where they are and who they are, rather than be judged on the merit of their work. As I wrote in a commentary published by SciDev.Net in November 2005: “Media gatekeepers in the North often dismiss the better-informed and equally competent Southern professionals — saying, insultingly, that ‘they don’t have the eye’! And for years, I have resisted the widespread practice of Northern broadcasters and filmmakers using the South’s top talent merely as ‘fixers’ and assistants.”

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All this makes it imperative for us in the globalised media — in the developed North and developing South — to begin agitating for fair trade in media products and services. As in other products, we are not looking for charity or tokenism or a lowering of standards. We must strive for fairness and equality while working on building the capacity of southern journalists to generate world class media products.

And as my friend Darryl D’Monte — whom we missed dearly at this year’s Greenaccord forum — has been saying for years, publishing each other’s stories is one great step forward.

Mahatma Gandhi put it this way: we must be the change we wish to achieve.

Note: My own organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, practises what I preach here, and always engages local camera crews when we film TV stories across Asia. We will be taking up Fair Trade in Film and Television (FTinFT) as a campaign from 2008.

Read other related blog posts:

Images from the Majority World: Global South telling its own stories

Wanted: Fair trade in film and television!

Image of camera crews courtesy Pamudi Withanaarachchi of TVEAP.

Meeting photos courtesy Adrian Gilardoni’s Flickr account

Beyond press release journalism: Digging up an environmental business story

“Don’t reproduce press releases from companies, or accept their corporate PR. To get to the real stories, journalists have to dig deeper and work a bit harder.”

Paolo Pietrogrande
, Chairman of Atmos Holding, offered this piece of advice when talking to an international group of journalists at the V Greenaccord International Media Forum on the Protection of Nature, held from 7 to 11 Novmeber 2007 in Rome, Italy.

Pietrogrande (seen speaking in photo, below) was talking on ‘new investment scenarios in renewable energy sources’ during a session on sustainable economic mechanisms. A New York based Italian businessman with past experience in Ducati Motor, General Electric, Bain&Company and Ryanair, he suggested that many positive environmental business stories were being overlooked by the media.

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According to him, there are billions to be made in clean energy and clean technology sectors in the coming years — and venture capitalists and other investors have already recognised this potential. Real Money is now being invested in these sectors, often below the media’s radar and without any fanfare.

This is not corporate social responsibility (CSR), philanthropy or ‘greenwashing’ PR. These are hard-nosed investors who fully expect good and dependable returns on what they put in. They do due diligence and take expert advice before putting in their billions into such emerging sectors.

Yet, immersed in peddling doom and gloom stories – especially on climate change these days – most media outlets miss out on these stories which have significant business and environmental angles.

His advice to journalists included these tips:
* Don’t look at press/media sections on corporate websites, which is usually full of PR. Even CSR reports are carefully crafted to give a rosy picture. The real stories lie elsewhere.
* Instead, read the annual reports of companies, especially the CEO’s letter to shareholders. That’s a carefully crafted statement and analysis which contains a good deal of information.
* Stop replying on press releases, and certainly don’t get into the habit of recycling them in news stories. Instead, look at public disclosure documents of companies for leads and insights.

The environment has moved way beyond CSR and corporate PR, he said. More and more companies realise how environmental compliance increases their efficiency and thus profitability. Whole new business areas and opportunities are opening up for those working on clean energy and clean technologies. The impetus has come from concerns on global climate change.

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If Pietrogrande sounded a bit like Carl Sagan – talking of billions and billions – that is understandable. He sees vast potential in clean energies and clean technologies that can help reduce carbon emissions causing global warming. Industry has traditionally made profit emitting carbon, and now there is money – and profit – to be made cleaning it up.

Investors are lining up with the money, but good ideas and projects are in short supply, he said.

Which reminded me of something that the American engineer, architect and visionary Buckminster Fuller once said: “There is no shortage of energy on this planet. There is, however, a serious shortage of intelligence”.


Meeting photos courtesy Adrian Gilardoni’s Flickr account