UNEP’s search for God: Here’s the way forward to save the planet!

Satinder Bindra
Satinder Bindra: Voice of the Planet?

“Content is king — but distribution is God!”

With these words, UNEP’s newly appointed Director of Communications and Public Information, Satinder Bindra (photo, above), engaged my attention at a meeting in Paris earlier this week.

I almost jumped up in total agreement — this is just what we’ve been saying for years, especially to those who support information, education and communication activities in UN agencies.

Unlike many career UN officials, Satinder knows what he’s talking about. He comes to UNEP with over two decades of wide and varied experience in journalism and broadcasting – the last 10 years spent as a Senior International Correspondent/South Asia Bureau Chief for CNN based in New Delhi, India.

In the hard headed and hard nosed world of international news and current affairs television, distribution and outreach can make or break any content provider. This is something that the two leading news channels BBC World and CNN International know very well — and the more recent entrant Al Jazeera English is still finding out.

Satinder’s remark, in this instance, was more to do with how to get information and analysis on sustainable development out to as many people as possible in all corners of the planet. This is part of UNEP’s core mission since its founding in 1972 — and as chief of communication and public information, Satinder now takes on this formidable challenge.

In Paris, he was listening, taking notes and talking to everyone in the small group who’d come together for the annual partner meeting of the Com Plus Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development.

Com+ is a “partnership of international organizations and communications professionals from diverse sectors committed to using communications to advance a vision of sustainable development that integrates its three pillars: economic, social and environmental”. TVE Asia Pacific was admitted to the partnership a few months ago.

As I’m sure Satinder realises, at stake in his new assignment is a lot more than audience ratings, market share or revenue stream of a single broadcaster. Those are important too, but not in the same league as ensuring life on Earth – in all its diversity and complexity – continues and thrives.

Satinder struck me as a practical and pragmatic journalist who wants to get the job done efficiently. We can only hope the rest of UNEP will keep up with him — or at least they don’t get too much in his way!

As he finds his way around the globally spread, multidisciplinary and sometimes heavily bureaucratic UN organisation, Satinder will come across some incongruities, cynicism and institutional inertia all of which have held UNEP back from being the dynamic global leader in our pursuit of elusive sustainable development.

At the big picture level, communication at UNEP has often been defined narrowly as institutional promotion – delivering UNEP logo to the news media of the world, or boosting the image of its executive director and other senior officials. We don’t grudge anyone enjoying their 15 minutes of fame, but a technical agency like UNEP has so much more to offer — in terms of rigorous science, multiple perspectives, wide ranging consultation and bringing diverse players to a common platform.

The Nobel Peace Prize winning Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), co-supported by UNEP and World Meteorological Organisation, is a good recent example of how solid science, communicated through the media, can inspire governments, industry and rest of society to find solutions to a major global challenge.

The 20-year success of the Montreal Protocol to save the ozone layer is another example. Again, UNEP was a key player in this accomplishment, and is still engaged in the race to phase out the use of a basket of chemicals that damage the protecting ozone layer in the upper atmosphere.

There’s a lot more good science and tons of good stories lurking inside UNEP — if only its experts know how to get these out, and if only its bean-counters won’t stand in the way.

Ironically, elsewhere in the same UNEP Paris building that we were having the Com Plus meeting, the adorable cartoon character Ozzy Ozone (below) was being holed up by excessive rules and regulations. He is one of the best known public communication products to come out of the organisation. Yet, as I wrote earlier this year, he is bottled up and kept captive by an unimaginative UN system.

Then there is the whole scandalous situation where UNEP-funded environmental films are released with needlessly excessive copyright restrictions. As I have been saying, this is the big mismatch in environment and development film-making: many films are made using donor (i.e. public or tax payer) funds, but due to the ignorance or indifference of funders, the copyrights are retained by private individuals or companies involved in the production.

In UNEP’s case, for years it has been commissioning (and sometimes funding) a London-based production company, with a charitable arm, to produce environmental films. That’s certainly a choice for UNEP if the agency feels it continues to get value for its money. But tragically, the producers jealously guard all the copyrights, releasing these only under rigid conditions to a select few.

Whatever outreach figures they might claim, these cannot match what the same films would achieve if the copyrights were not so restrictive. Freed from crushing rights, such environmental films – made with UNEP funding or blessings or both – could benefit thousands of groups engaged in awareness, advocacy, activism, education and training.

For sure, we’ve heard the arguments in favour of tight copyright regimes. Film-makers have every right to be acknowledged for their creative efforts, but public funded products must not be locked up by greedy lawyers and accountants — or even by selfish film-making charities. And millions of users around the world should be able to access such products without having to get through the eye of the copyright needle first.
July 2007 blog post: Lawyers who locked up the butterfly tree

Can Satinder Bindra overcome these hurdles that have for so long inhibited UNEP from reaching its potential? We just have to wait and see.

When he talks about distribution being God, we have to readily agree. But he will soon find some elements within UNEP – or in crony partnerships with UNEP – that stand between him and this God.

To be fair, there’s only so much that an inter-governmental agency like UNEP – beholden to its member governments – can really accomplish. That’s why it needs partners from corporate, civil society, activist and academic spheres. Some of us can easily say and do things that UNEP would, in all sincerity, like to — but cannot.

Satinder sounds like he can forge broad alliances that go beyond monopolist partnerships. Here’s wishing him every success….for everyone’s sake!

Photo courtesy UNEP Climate Neutral Network

Broadcasters and climate change: Turn off your lights, but not your minds!

Let there be darkness!

That could well be a message from your local radio this weekend. Radio channels across Asia would be asking their listeners to turn off their lights for an hour or two today, 21 June 2008.

The Asia Pacific Broadcasting Union (Abu), an alliance of (mostly government-owned) radio and television stations across Asia, has urged broadcasters to join a campaign to encourage listeners to “Turn off Your Lights” for one or two hours as a step to raise awareness of global warming.

According to Abu, the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) made the suggestion at a meeting in Tehran in November 2007. The Japanese broadcaster hopes that the event will encourage the public “to not only to save energy but to give consideration to wider global warming issues.”

Global warming and resulting climate change are such major concerns that every action counts. So we hope the Abu-inspired campaign, although hardly original, will be successful.

It might have made more sense for the broadcast alliance to be part of the more widely observed Earth Hour — an annual international event created by The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), held on the last Saturday of March, that asks households and businesses to turn off their non-essential lights and electrical appliances for one hour to raise awareness towards the need to take action on climate change. It was pioneered by WWF Australia and the Sydney Morning Herald in 2007, and achieved worldwide participation in 2008.

As this composite NASA image of the Earth at night shows, energy use is proportionate to the level of economic activity and social development. Asia accounts for a good deal of the world’s lights at night.

Earth at night - NASA composite image

But at the bigger picture level, broadcasters can and must do a great deal more than merely talk about the multi-faceted, rapidly-evolving issue. For a start, they need to take a closer look at their own industry, which is not known to be particularly efficient in its resource and energy use.

I’ve been writing and talking about the need for the TV broadcast and film-making industries to become more climate friendly (even if everybody can’t immediately become carbon-neutral). These industries are not particularly known for their energy or resource use efficiency.

At Asia Media Summit 2007 held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Abu’s secretary general himself chaired a session on climate change and the broadcsat media.

We heard passionate and articulate views from radio and television managers in Asia on how the airwaves can carry various messages that would sensitise governments, industry and individuals on the climate crisis — and how to live with its many impacts. But I was frustrated that the session was entirely on broadcasters carrying climate change related news and content.

All that’s necessary – but not sufficient. Surely, carrying relevant content is only one part of what broadcasters can do. When it was question time, I asked the more than 400 media managers in the audience: how can our own industries reorient core operations to become more climate friendly?

I noted that a good deal of carbon dioxide – the principal gas that warms up the planet – is emitted by the radio and TV production and broadcast processes, through the use of lights, cameras, transportation and transmitters, etc. Broadcast Television, in particular, is on a high energy mode with a fondness for dazzling lights, super-cooled studios and heavy production gear. The digital revolution has helped bring down size and weight, but it’s not yet a particularly light-weight business.

And energy is consumed not just at the production and transmission end, but when signals are received too. News from that front is not very encouraging: new plasma screens for High-definition Television (HDTV), the trendy new wave, gobble up more power at the viewing end too.

Have Asia Pacific companies engaged in the broadcast industry addressed these integral issues? How many of them calculate carbon dioxide emissions from their day-to-day operations and offset it by comparable investments in renewable energy or support for community-operated greening efforts?

I didn’t get clear answers to any of these questions from the dozens of movers and shakers in Asian broadcasting in the audience — which indicated that these concerns have not been given sufficient thought.

This was disappointing, but I can only hope it doesn’t stay that way for too long. Other players in the communication sector, such as telecom companies, have already started addressing industry-wide, smart contributions they can make in the pursuit of a more climate friendly society.

Lights, camera, action!

So here’s the challenge to radio and TV broadcasters across Asia: by all means, ask your audiences to turn unnecessary lights off every now and then, or even every day. But like charity, good climate conduct begins at home. It’s just not enough being a diligent distributor of climate messages or a mirror of contemporary society’s attempts to adopt climate-friendly lifestyles.

To confront climate change effectively and sincerely, broadcasters must turn those bright lights on to themselves — and adopt meaningful, lasting ways to contain and then reduce their own industry’s emissions.

That’s when they can switch from being part of the problem to part of the solution.

Arthur C Clarke’s last story: A world without religion in 2500 A.D.

Arthur C Clarke

It’s now three months since Sir Arthur C Clarke abandoned his 91st orbit around the Sun and headed back to the stars. We who knew and worked closely with him are still getting used to living in the post-Clarke world.

That Sir Arthur changed our world beyond recognition – by inventing the communication satellite and through his visionary writings – has been acknowledged far and wide. In the days and weeks following his demise, his views on the Next World have also attracted considerable attention.

Sir Arthur was a life-long disbeliever: he was against all forms of organised religion, and considered religion to be the worst form of ‘mind virus’.

As he said: “One of the great tragedies of mankind is that morality has been hijacked by religion. So now people assume that religion and morality have a necessary connection. But the basis of morality is really very simple and doesn’t require religion at all. It’s this: “Don’t do unto anybody else what you wouldn’t like to be done to you.” It seems to me that that’s all there is to it.”

Read interview God, Science, and Delusion: A Chat With Arthur C. Clarke in Free Inquiry magazine

I have just recalled that in his last published story, he envisioned a world without religions by the year 2500. He offered this in a futuristic piece titled The View From 2500 A.D., published in Forbes.com in November 2007, as part of a special online edition on the future.

Sir Arthur described the development of reliable psychological probes, using which any suspected individual could be ‘painlessly and accurately interrogated, by being asked to answer a series of questions’. While its original purpose is to keep the world safe from criminals and terrorists, the “Psi-probe” soon proves to be useful on another front: to weed out religious fanaticism which is a greater threat to humanity.

In his own words:

“One outcome of this–the greatest psychological survey in the whole of history–was to demonstrate conclusively that the chief danger to civilization was not merely religious extremism but religions themselves. This was summed up in a famous saying: ‘All Religions were invented by the Devil to conceal God from Mankind.’

“Billions of words of pious garbage spoken by statesmen, clerics and politicians down the ages were either hypocritical nonsense or, if sincere, the babbling of lunatics. The new insights enabled by the Psi-probe helped humans finally recognize organized religions as the most malevolent mind virus that had ever infected human minds.

“Now that the Psi-probe allows us to link millions of minds together electronically, it has been suggested that something like a ‘supermind’ might be attempted. There is a danger that this will erase the individuality of its components, and whether this is a good or a bad thing has been the subject of endless debate. There are those who think that such a merging would be a blessing–perhaps the only way to reach a true Utopia.”

Read the full story: The View from 2500 A.D. by Arthur C Clarke

Arthur C Clarke

Read Arthur C Clarke’s well known quotes on religion

Arthur C Clarke and Marconi: Waiting for the Ultimate Phone Call

Don’t just do something, sit there!

Feb 2008
Dumbo, Nalaka and Spacey on writing retreat, Phuket, Thailand: Feb 2008

Don’t just sit there
Do something!

So the advice flows:
Don’t idle your life away!

Pack something, anything
into every waking moment!

Sleep an hour or two less
and gain months of life!

Don’t be a lazy bum
who’s good for nothing!

Time wasted
is time lost forever!

Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Blah, blah, blah!

Tell me what’s wrong
in goofing off
once every now and then
so that my mind roams
while my body rests?

Why must I run races
with others, or even
my very own self
every day and every night?

Listen, world!
I’m plain and simple tired
of filling all my time
with meaning and productivity.
So I’ve adopted a new motto
which goes like this:

Don’t just do anything,
Sit there!

Image above is a self portrait taken with my travelling buddies Dumbo and Spacey in Phuket on my 42nd birthday, Feb 2008. Captured with my Nokia phone.

Photograph by Nokia Gunawardene

Not in my backyard: The last urban oasis under siege

This is a view of what I see when I look out from the upstair back balcony of my home. And I’m so privileged to have this much of greenery in my backyard.

I live in Pagoda, Nugegoda, a suburb of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo. This is a crowded, urbanised area, but there still are a few pockets of greenery left. Like this one, that I clicked with my daughter Dhara’s camera on June 5, World Environment Day.

All this greenery is packed into an area no more than a few hundred square metres in extent – it’s really small. But at the same time, it has a concentration of larger trees like coconut, jak fruit and arecanut as well as a good deal of shrubs and undergrowth. And it attracts creatures who are looking for an oasis in a neighbourhood that is increasingly built up.

Last Christmas, I gifted a small, inexpensive digital camera to Dhara, who just turned 12. She has been having lots of fun in the past few months, shooting people and what little of Nature that she can find in our corner of suburbia.

It’s no rainforest for sure, but she’s captured images of several species of birds, snails, a lone monkey and even a couple of rabbits (Okay – these are being raised by a neighbour and aren’t exactly in the wild! But 30 years ago, we did find rabits in the wild in this same area…)

But this level of biodiversity might not last too long. In recent weeks, the little patch of suburban jungle in my backyard has come under siege. Apparently a change of ownership has taken place, and the new owners are drawing up plans to clear the land and build one or more houses. Already, some of the larger trees have been felled (they didn’t seem to value the timber either – they just chopped the trees and carried them away – for dumping?).

So in the near future, as the march of ‘progress’ claims yet another bit of unbuilt land, these photos may be all we are left with.

By happy coincidence, the same week my friend and eminent scientist Ray Wijewardene emailed me this poem which I first read many years ago. I’m very grateful to Ray for sharing this in the same week that I was lamenting the imminent demise of my wonderfully green backyard.

A poem by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree

A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earths sweet flowing breast

A tree that looks art God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray.

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Photos by Dhara and Nalaka Gunawardene

Who’s Afraid of Citizen Journalists 2: Reflections from Asia Media Summit 2008

On World Press Freedom Day 3 May 2008, I wrote a blog post titled Who is Afraid of Citizen Journalists. The answer included the usual suspects: tyrannical governments, corrupt military and business interests, and pretty much everybody else who would like to suppress the free flow of information and public debate.

By end May, I realised that some people in the mainstream media (abbreviated MSM, and less charitably called old media or dinonaur media) are also afraid of citizen journalists. That was one insight I drew from attending Asia Media Summit 2008 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (27-28 May 2008).

Asia Media Summit 2008

The two day event drew 530 broadcast CEOs, managing directors, media experts and senior representatives of development and academic institutions from more than 65 countries in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Over eight plenary sessions and twice as many pre-summit events, they examined ‘new visions and new strategies broadcasters need to pursue to address the demands of new technologies, stiff competition, media liberalization and globalization’.

As I shared in my first impressions from the Summit, this annual event is still warming up to the new media. That’s understandable considering that most participants are those who work in MSM/OM/DM. Some, like myself, have been flirting or experimenting with new media in recent years, but even my own organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, still works largely with television broadcasters going out on terrestrial, cable or satellite platforms.

While the death of MSM/OM/DM has been greatly hyped, it’s a fact that they face more competition today than ever before. And instead of competing for eyeballs (and other sensory organs) with better content and higher levels of product customisation, some sections of MSM/OM/DM are trying to impose their own, obsolete mindset on the new media.

A session on ‘Regulations and New Media Models’ brought this into sharp focus. The session raised questions such as: Should we apply some principles from traditional media (meaning MSM) to the new media? Should we adopt some minimum rules to allow for sufficient legal space for new media businesses to find their niche in the market and evolve to fit the needs of consumers? What are the policy implications of User-Generated Content (UGC) with regard to copyright infringement, information accuracy and content quality?

The panel comprised three Europeans and one American, all working in MSM or academia (it wasn’t immediately clear if any of them blogged personally). For the most part, they said predictably nice and kind things about new media. It was interesting to see how these professionals or managers – who have had their careers entirely or mostly working in or studying about MSM – were trying to relate to a new and different sector like the new media.

But the panel’s cautious attitude about the new media went overboard on the matter of regulation. This is where matters are highly contentious and hotly debated: while most of us agree that there should be some basic regulation to ensure cyber security and to keep a check on content that is widely deemed as unacceptable – for example, hate speech – there is no consensus on what content should be regulated by whom under which guiding principles.

Ruling unanimously in Reno v. ACLU, the US Supreme Court declared the Internet to be a free speech zone in 1997, saying it deserved at least as much First Amendment protection as that afforded to books, newspapers and magazines. The government, the Court said, can no more restrict a person’s access to words or images on the Internet than it could be allowed to snatch a book out of a reader’s hands in the library, or cover over a statue of a nude in a museum.

It was during question time that the discussion took a cynical – even hostile – attitude on the new media. Some members of the audience engaged Dr Venkat Iyer, a legal academic from University of Ulster in the UK, in a narrowly focused discussion on how and where bloggers may be sued for the opinions expressed on their blogs. The issue of multiple jurisdictions came up, along with other aspects of cyber libel and how those affected by criticism made online by individual bloggers (as opposed to companies or organisations producing online content) may ‘seek justice’.

These discussions were more than academic, especially in view of worrying trends in host Malaysia and neighbouring Singapore where bloggers have been arrested or are being prosecuted in recent weeks.
Asia Media Forum: Restrictions follow critics to cyber space
IHT: Malaysian blogger jailed over article

From the floor, I remarked that I was disturbed by the tone and narrow vision of this discussion, which merely repeated new media bashing by those who failed to understand its dynamics. Acknowledging the need for restraint where decency and public safety were concerned, I argued that it is a big mistake to analyse the new media from the business models or regulatory frameworks that suit the old media.

There are mischief makers and anti-social elements using the new media just as there have always been such people using the old media. Their presence, which is statistically small, does not warrant a knee-jerk reaction to over-regulate or over-legislate all activity online, as some Summit participants were advocating. To do that would be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I continued: “This is not a healthy attitude to adopt, especially when we look at the bigger picture. In many countries where freedom of expression and media freedom are threatened or suppressed by intolerant governments and/or other vested interests, new media platforms have become the only available opportunity for citizens to organise, protest and sustain struggles for safeguarding human rights, better governance and cleaner politics. In countries where the mainstream media outlets are either state owned or under pressure from government (or military), and where newspapers, radio and TV have already been intimidated into silence, citizen journalists are the last line of defence…”

I also noted with interest that on this panel was Mogens Schmidt, UNESCO’s Deputy Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information (in charge of freedom of expression), and said that this was not the kind of rolling back of freedoms of expression that UNESCO was publicly advocating. In a brief response immediately afterwards, Schmidt said that he fully agreed with my views, and that this was UNESCO’s position as well.

Another panel member, Dr Jacob van Kokswijk, secretary of the International Telecom User Group in the Netherlands, noted that the new media required a totally new thinking and approach where its content is concerned – the rules that have worked for the old media can’t be applied in the same manner. He added that only 3 to 4 per cent of Internet content could be considered as ‘bad’ (by whatever definition he was using), and that should not blind us to seizing the potential of new media.

Another panel member, Joaquin F Blaya, a Board member of Radio Free Asia (RFA), made a categorical statement saying he was opposed to any and all forms of censorship. He knows what that means – RFA says its mission is ‘to provide accurate and timely news and information to Asian countries whose governments prohibit access to a free press’.

By the end of the session, I was relieved to see a more balanced view on the new media emerging in our discussion, with more moderate voices taking to the floor. No, we didn’t resolve any of the tough issues of new media regulation during the 90 mins of that session, but we at least agreed that the old media mindset of command-and-control was not going to work in the new media world.

From its inception in 2003, the annual Asia Media Summit has been very slow to come to terms with this reality, but this year the event moved a bit closer to that ideal – partly because they invited leading new media activist Danny Schechter to be a speaker.

We just have to wait and see if this momentum can be sustained next year when the Summit is hosted by the Macau Special Administrative Region of China.

I’m going to keep an open mind about this — but won’t bet on it…

3 May 2008: Who’s afraid of citizen journalists? Thoughts on World Press Freedom Day

Message to the UN on World Environment Day: Kick your own CO2 habit!

World Environment Day 2008 logo

The theme for this year’s World Environment Day (WED), being marked on 5 June 2008, is Kick the Habit! Towards a Low Carbon Economy.

Responding to worldwide concerns on climate change, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) is asking countries, companies and communities to focus on greenhouse gas emissions and how to reduce them. UNEP says it plans to “highlight resources and initiatives that promote low carbon economies and life-styles, such as improved energy efficiency, alternative energy sources, forest conservation and eco-friendly consumption”.

UNEP has suggested 12 steps to help kick the CO2 habit. It also lists a series of examples of how groups or countries have reduced their carbon emissions. This emphasis on Carbon Dioxide is because it’s an important greenhouse gas that traps the Sun’s heat and warms up our planet.

All this is well and good — except that the United Nations does not practise what it preaches. UNEP or any other part of the UN system telling the world to kick the carbon habit is a bit like a heavily drunken person extolling the virtues of staying off liquor. It just doesn’t sound credible.

Let me explain. Having been a UN-watcher and critical cheer-leader of the UN system (though not always of individual agencies), I have personally seen how carbon thrift – or indeed, any kind of thrift – is not a strong point in that system.

Consider these well known facts.

The UN has long been known as a formidable ‘paper factory’ because of the millions of documents it cranks out every year. On an average, it produces over 700 million printed pages every year (2005 figures). The cost of printing documents in its New York and Geneva offices is over 250 million dollars annually.
IPS May 2005 story: World’s celebrated paper factory tries to save forests

And despite recent claims of trying to become carbon neutral, the UN system – including specialised agencies – convene thousands of international meetings every year. Only a few of them produce tangible outputs (some merely agree to meet again!) and even fewer are covered in the public media. But beneath media’s radar and public scrutiny, the UN officials and their buddies (mostly) in governments continue to huddle together in key world cities and some exotic locations.

A random example is Bali, Indonesia, which hosted a massive climate change conference in December 2007 that reportedly attracted over 12,000 participants from all over the world – most of who flew thousands of kilometres to get there. Yes, the meeting’s organisers claimed all their carbon emissions will be offset, and let us presume that they indeed kept their word (even if we question the measurable outcome of the mega-event for long-term climate change coping strategies).

But the mega talk shop in Bali (photo, below) did nothing to restore the UN’s already damaged credibility. How can the UN expect the ordinary people to adopt austere, low-carbon lifestyles when its own operations display such profligacy where resources and energy are concerned?

It would be worth investigating if the number and magnitude of numerous meetings convened by the UN system have shown any marked decrease since climate concerns rose to the top of the public agenda during the past couple of years.

Similarly, with the rise of electronic means of information storage and distribution, it would be interesting to find out if the UN’s endless churning out of paper-based documents has been reduced.

I doubt if either has happened, but we can keep looking for some evidence.

What I have noticed in recent months is the proliferation of meetings – convened or endorsed by the UN system – that address different aspects of climate change. That has become the latest excuse for the development set and its academic friends to have endless physical meetings.

The contradictions and incongruities reach dizzy heights when agencies like the International Telecommunications Union – keeping track of the world’s telecom and ICT developments – convene meeting after meeting to discuss how ICTs can help mitigate climate change.

Our regular readers know we’ve been pushing a simple yet effective slogan for this: Don’t commute; communicate!. Alas, that’s the very message that ITU and the world’s leading telecom/ICT companies managed to miss in Bali last December.

So what is to be done?

On this World Environment Day, let’s turn things around — and ask the United Nations secretariat and its specialised agencies (especially UNEP) to heed their own clarion call. Let change begin with them, and let’s see how (and if) the UN sets an example for the rest of the world.

So here’s a modest proposal that can have far-reaching benefits for the planet. Adopt and strictly observe for a year or two a moratorium on all large UN gatherings (no matter what they are called – Summits, conferences, symposia, meetings, etc.) that involve more than 500 persons. In this day and age of advanced telecommunications, it is possible to consult widely without always bringing people physically together.

It’s not just the carbon emissions of air travel that I’m talking about (aviation accounts for less than 5% of worldwide carbon emissions). Much more important is the message such UN austerity would send out to the world. Practising what you preach has a strong moral persuasive power — even if it goes against addictive habits formed for over 60 years of the UN’s history.

After all, the UN wants everyone on the planet to ‘kick the habit’. So let the ladies and gentlemen of the UN Secretariat and agencies lead by personal and institutional example — kicking their own addiction for meetings, more meetings and more paper.

PS: Don’t be too shy to turn up at Hydrocarbons Anonymous.

March 2007 blog post: Kicking the oil addiction: Miles to go

Declaration of interest: I have attended my share of UN meetings in the past 20 years, but the last mega event I joined was WSSD in Johannesburg in mid 2002. In 2007, I declined three sponsored invitations to go to Bali, and now selectively attend very few small meetings that promise clear focus and output.

Lakshani: A child of the sea travels beyond the seas…

Lakshani photo by TVEAP

Our teacher said our country is small and is surrounded by the sea….she showed it on the globe.”

With these words, young Lakshani Fernando (photo, above) begins telling us the compact story of her short life.

Lakshani, 9, has lived by the sea (Indian Ocean) from the time she was born. When she was just six, the Asian Tsunami of December 2004 destroyed their beachfront house in Koralawella, Moratuwa, on Sri Lanka’s western coast. More than three years later, when my colleague Buddhini Ekanayake met Lakshani in March 2008, the family was still struggling to raise their heads from that massive blow.

A day in Lakshani’s life is the story of a short, 3-minute film that Buddhini produced for TVE Asia Pacific a few weeks ago. It’s part of an Asian and African television co-production project that is about, for and by children.

In the film, Lakshani shares the highlights of a typical day. That includes going for a walk on the polluted beach with her fisherman father, spending a few hours at the nearby school and playing with neighbourhood children. While at it, she tells us her wishes for a cleaner beach and a better neighbourhood.

Buddhini called Lakshani a ‘Child of the Sea’. Even the cruel waves of the tsunami didn’t scare Lakshani away for too long.

I love to play with waves…” Lakshani says towards the end of the film. Then she looks far out at the horizon, and talks again. “There are ships far out at sea. That’s all there is…

She might not yet imagine lands beyond ships and waves, but last week, her story travelled across the seas. Over 500 broadcast media managers, journalists and researchers from around the world, who’d gathered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for Asia Media Summit 2008, had a glimpse of Lakshani when the first 90 seconds of the film was screened during plenary.

Elizabeth Smith, secretary general of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (CBA), chose an extract from Lakshani’s story to introduce the media initiative. Sitting in the audience, I immediately texted the news to Buddhini.

Watch “I am A Child of the Sea”:

This film forms part of a series that has 20 TV producers from 13 countries engaging in a co-production of a short programmes series (mini documentaries) about and for children. The series is the outcome of a regional project organised by the Asia Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD) in collaboration with the French Ministry of Foreign affairs, the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (CBA), Thomson Foundation, Prix Jeunesse, Children and Broadcasting Foundation for Africa and RTM-IPTAR of Malaysia.

The project tries to capture cultural diversity through the eyes of children. When its concept first reached us, it was defined very narrowly in terms of ethnicity and/or religion. TVE Asia Pacific being a strictly secular organisation, we couldn’t fit into such a tight range. Besides, we realised that many modern day children have a self identity that goes above and beyond the race and religion that blind chance of birth assigned to them.

So we took an editorial decision: instead of doing a story that highlights factors that utterly and bitterly divide humanity (such as race and religion, both of which fuel the long-drawn war in Sri Lanka), we would look for a unifying factor. The tsunami’s killer waves, when they rolled in, didn’t care for our petty human divisions. For a few days and weeks following the tragedy, Sri Lanka was united in shock and grief in a manner I have never seen in my 42 years of living here. (Then we went back to killing each other again.)

The result of our search was Lakshani and her story captured in ‘I am a Child of the Sea’.

Buddhini chose to feature Lakshani after interviewing 10 children from different localities and a diversity of cultural backgrounds. (Never once did she ask for the child’s religion, which unlike ethnicity is not always apparent from the name.) There was some significance in featuring a child who identifies herself closely with the Sea in a country where tens of thousands of tsunami-affected people have still not come to terms with the sea. Even after the tsunami destroyed their home, Lakshani’s family moved to a ‘temporary’ shelter within sight of the sea. Thus, her story had a close association with the sea which formed part of her lifestyle, environment and culture.

Buddhini developed the script after several leisurely chats with Lakshani, based partly on the child’s own writing about herself. Filming the story took place in early March 2008, with the full consent of her parents, extended family and neighbours. Read more about the making of this film on TVEAP website and on Buddhini’s own blog.

TVEAP crew filming Lakshani's story

Lakshani’s story is symbolic at another level. It reveals how, despite receiving a massive outpouring of donations from all over the world, some tsunami-affected families are still struggling to put together their shattered lives. The litany of woes, missed opportunities and sometimes outright plundering of donations came out strongly in the first hand accounts of affected people (in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand) who spoke to us during the Children of Tsunami media project. Read our reflections on the project in Communicating Disasters book published in 2007.

Lakshani’s family is not typical of Sri Lanka’s tsunami affected persons. Unlike most such families, the Fernandos live on the western coast, relatively close to Colombo. Although wave action destroyed or damaged beachfront homes in these areas, most attention was focused on areas in the south, east and north of the island that were hit much harder. So those affected and living on the west coast have often been overlooked or dismissed lightly. In this sense, Lakshani’s family has some parallels with what I called ‘step-children of tsunami’.

There is a bit more cheerful post-script to this story. During several visits to Lakshani and family for researching, filming and editing this film, Buddhini (who has a daughter aged four herself) bonded with the girl. It became more than a mere film-making venture, and has led to a lasting relationship. Meanwhile, young voice artiste Shanya Fernando, who rendered Lakshani’s Sinhala voice into English for an international audience, has also felt an attachment to the ‘star’ of our film.

While the film was made with the informed consent of Lakshani’s family who received no material benefits for their participation, both Buddhini and Shanya have since presented some basic educational gifts to Lakshani — who is certainly in need of such help. And who am I to stand in the way of such gestures of human kindness?

Producer BUddhini with Lakshani

Photos by Amal Samaraweera, TVE Asia Pacific

Asia Media Summit 2008: Still warming up to new media…

Asia Media Summit 2008

Last week, I tried being in two places at once: executive producing an ambitious new TV debate series in my city of anchor Colombo (Sri Lanka) and participating in Asia Media Summit 2008 (AMS 2008) taking place in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, May 27-28.

The two cities are 2.5 hours and a few thousand kilometres apart, and I just about managed being productive on both fronts. But I don’t recommend the experience: I ended up with a massive sleep deficit that I’m still trying to shake off.

According to the summit organisers, some 530 CEOs, managing directors, media experts and senior representatives of development and academic institutions from 65 countries joined the two-day event and 16 pre- Summit workshops.

The Summit had its moments — a few ‘Aha!’ ones and quite a few others where I found myself nodding (bored out of my mind, and not in agreement with what was going on). Unlike last year, when I chaired part of a pre-Summit seminar and also served as a plenary speaker, I was merely participating this year — which gave me the chance to network, take things easy and ask more questions from the audience.

Of the five Summits held since 2004, I’ve attended four (I missed the first one). The scope, content and quality of this annual event have certainly improved in this time. But I find the Summit still very much a gathering of the movers and shakers in the mainstream media, primarily radio and TV (which dominate the Asian media landscape). Very few new media practitioners – individual bloggers like myself, as well as online audio/video publishers and operators of web portals – turn up at this event.

And the Summit discussions in the past have sometimes been decidedly cynical or dismissive of new media. When this happened in the opening plenary itself at Asia Media Summit 2007, I was so disappointed that I asked if I was actually attending the Asia ‘Mediasaurus’ Summit.

Things could only get better this year – and they did. For one thing, they had invited new media practitioners to speak of their chaotic new world (unlike last time, when we heard fossilised old media worthies pontificate fuzzily on the new media). Perhaps this was the organisers heeding our critique of last year. Or it had something to do with the rise and rise of bloggers in the host country Malaysia: the March 2008 general election there saw five active bloggers being elected to national Parliament from the opposition in the biggest political upheaval Malaysia had seen in half a century.

Asia Media Summit 2008

For this reason, we were looking forward to the Summit’s opening by Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, but for the second year running, he decided to skip the event. Instead, he sent his deputy Mohd Najib Tun Abdul Razak in his place to read his speech.

As Malaysia’s pro-government New Straits Times newspaper reported the next day, he urged journalists not to be too taken in by the “bells and whistles of technology”, but to hold to established virtues of accuracy, intelligence, fairness and grit as these formed the competitive advantage of the traditional press in the “anarchic environment of the new age”.

He added: “The right to freedom of speech and expression cannot be used as a pretext or excuse to violate and abuse the reputation and dignity of a people, to slander and libel or to defame religions or religious symbols. If this were the case, there would be no laws of defamation or libel and laws against those who incite racial or ethnic violence.”

During question time, the well known American blogger and media analyst Danny Schechter had an interesting exchange with the chief guest. Danny referred to the case of Malaysian blogger Raja Petra bin Raja Kamarudin who was recently charged of sedition for having written a political blog post.

DPM Najib and Schechter had very different views on the limits of freedom of speech and how far the new media can and should be allowed to comment on current affairs, especially politics. On the wider issue of human rights, Najib took the populist line and made references to America’s detention camps in Guantanamo Bay and the CIA outsourcing torture. Danny shot back saying that only 20% of the American people now support their president and his policies (and Danny certainly wasn’t one of them). He argued that human rights should be universal. Read Danny’s take on it here, and the more official version in the New Straits Times.

With that slightly bumpy start, AMS 2008 went on to display the mainstream media’s still uneasy relationship with the new media. For sure, the Summit had sessions on user-generated content and new media business models. But for the most part, these sessions brought out the narrow perspective of mainstream media’s managers or its long-standing researchers. With notable exceptions like Danny Schechter, other speakers talked about a fast-changing, rapidly-evolving reality that they’d barely skimmed or experienced themselves.

I would belatedly write more blog posts on some of the discussions that took place in later sessions, which prompted me to intervene several times from the audience.

Sri Lanka 2048: Talking today for a better tomorrow!

Sri Lanka 2048 - TV Debate series on sustainable futures for Sri Lanka

I’m just coming up for fresh air after two hectic weeks – this blog was silent during that time as I was deep immersed in doing something new and interesting.

With my team at TVE Asia Pacific, I’m involved in producing a new TV series started airing on May 22 on Sri Lanka’s ratings-leading, privately-owned, most popular channel, Sirasa TV.

Named Sri Lanka 2048, it is an innovative series of one-hour television debates that explore prospects for a sustainable future for Sri Lanka in the Twenty First Century.

Each debate will involves -– as panel and studio audience -– over two dozen Sri Lankans from academic, civil society, corporate and government backgrounds. They are recorded ‘as live’ and broadcast every Thursday at 10.45 pm, which, in Sri Lankan TV viewing patterns, is the favoured time for serious current affairs and political programmes.

The debates are being co-produced by TVE Asia Pacific, the educational media foundation that I head, in partnership with IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and MTV Channel (Private) Limited, which runs a bevy of radio and TV channels including Sirasa TV and Channel One MTV.

The editorially independent series will accommodate a broad spectrum of expertise and opinion.
The debates are based on topics such as managing our waste, reducing air pollution, protecting biodiversity on land and in the seas, and buffering communities from disasters. Two debates in English will look at the nexus between business and the environment, and coping with climate change.

Read detailed news story on TVEAP website
Read series line up and broadcast schedule

Sri Lanka 2048 image montage by The Nation newspaper

The series is based on the overall premise that Sri Lanka has abundant land and ocean resources that can be used to build such a future -– but it faces many challenges in taking the right action at the right time. We believe that public discussion and debate on issues, choices and alternatives is an essential part of this process. Read more on why this series.

Why 2048? For one thing, it’s the year Sri Lanka will mark 100 years of political independence. Being 40 years in the future, the year lies slightly more than a generation ahead, allowing ample time and opportunity to resolve deep-rooted problems of balancing development with conservation.

Sri Lanka 2048 follows an informal, talk show format that allows ample interaction between the panel and empowered audience. Although they take place within a clearly defined scope that enables some focus, all debates are unscripted.

Our amiable moderator Kingsly Rathnayaka (centre in the photo montage above), one of the most versatile presenters on Sri Lankan television today, keeps the panel and audience engaged. By design, we ask more questions than we are able to answer in a television hour (48 mins). But then, we don’t expect to resolve these burning issues in that time – all we can hope to do is to stretch the limits of public discussion.

Logistics and studio size limit the number of our audience to a two dozen. We’ve tried hard to ensure a good mix among them, drawn from all walks of life. To bring in additional voices and perspectives, we insert into each debate 2 or 3 short video reports produced in advance. These highlight solutions to environment or development problems that have been tried out by individuals, communities, NGOs, government agencies or private companies. Played at key points during debates, these help steer discussion in a particular direction.

Sri Lanka 2048 by TVE Asia Pacific

We are already receiving favourable media reviews and coverage. Here are some that appeared in English language newspapers (more have come up in Sinhala newspapers, the language in which most of this series is produced and broadcast):
The Morning Leader, 28 May 2008: Timely action to sustain Sri Lanka’s development

The Sunday Times, 18 May 2008: TV Debate series to create a sustainable future
The Nation, 1 June 2008: Pick the best at Sri Lanka 2048

Sri Lanka 2048 is the culmination of months of research, development and pre-production work carried out by TVE Asia Pacific’s production team in collaboration with IUCN Sri Lanka. Our preparatory work involved consultations with dozens of experts, activists, officials, entrepreneurs – and their various organisations or companies. We synthesize and package their information, opinions and experiences with the dynamic and creative production team at MTV Channel (Pvt) Limited.

The inspiration for this series came from my mentor Sir Arthur C Clarke, with whom I wrote an essay 10 years ago that outlined his personal vision for his adopted country in 2048. The celebrated futurist that he was, Sir Arthur often said that there is a range of possible futures, and our actions – and inaction – determine what kind of future actually happens. Desirable futures don’t just happen; they need to be worked on.

Sri Lanka 2048 is an attempt to discuss how Sri Lankans can pursue economic prosperity without trading off their good health, natural wealth and public order. This is not a series preaching narrowly focused green messages to a middle class audience. We want to rise above and beyond the shrill of green activists, and engage in informed, wide ranging discussions on the tight-rope balancing act that emerging economies like Sri Lanka have to perform between short term economic growth and long term health of people and ecosystems.

Contrary to popular perception, ‘sustainable development’ is not some utopian or technical ideal of environmental activists. It’s about creating a liveable society here and today – where everyone has an acceptable quality of life, ample opportunities to learn and earn, and the freedom to pursue their own dreams.

Doing good television takes a good deal of time, effort and money. This TV series is supported under the Raising Environmental Consciousness in Society (RECS) project of IUCN Sri Lanka, which is funded by the Government of the Netherlands. But neither is responsible for editorial content or analysis, which rests on my shoulders as the executive producer of the series.

And I, in turn, stand on the shoulders of dedicated, hard working production teams drawn from TVE Asia Pacific and MTV Channel (Pvt) Limited. Doing good television is all team work.
Sri Lanka 2048 - Fisheries panel at Sirasa Studio - Photo by TVEAP

All photos courtesy TVE Asia Pacific