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

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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