Beyond Babu SAARC: Liberating airwaves for South Asians

“Watching the current SAARC jamboree unfold over television news, my young daughter asked why none of the officials were smiling. The SAARC Secretary General, Dr. Sheel Khant Sharma, was always scowling. Others didn’t have smiles on their faces either, even insincere ones. They all looked stressed out, wearing glum, miserable faces.

“I could only hazard a guess. Perhaps the assorted babus have too much to worry about, as they get through their very serious and grim business of fostering regional cooperation. On the other hand, after all these years of endless meetings and declarations, they might have forgotten the simple joys of smiling and enjoying each other’s company.”

With these words I open my latest op ed essay, just published on the Sri Lankan citizen journalism website Groundviews.

Anti-people, Pro-Babu SAARC in Colombo

Anti-people, Pro-Babu SAARC in Colombo

The essay is my personal response to the meetings of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC, taking place in my home city of Colombo this week. Assorted babus (a derogatory South Asian term for pompous officials) from all over South Asia have invaded the city, displacing its people and severely disrupting normal life and work.

And all for what? So that the unsmiling babus can congratulate each other on how little they have accomplished since the last such gathering in New Delhi in April 2007!

As I note in my essay: Make no mistake: SAARC is a good idea hijacked by unimaginative and pompous, unsmiling babus of South Asia and run to the ground. The self-congratulatory rhetoric of the inter-governmental merry-go-round is once again deafening us as the 15th SAARC takes place in Colombo. In reality, SAARC at 23 has the mental development of a 3-year-old (if that). There isn’t, in fact, much to smile about.

The SAARC Sec Gen is always scowling, with never a smile on his face...

The SAARC Sec Gen is always scowling, with never a smile on his face...

I go on to note:
The proof of the SAARC pudding is not in over-hyped Summits or crusty declarations, but in the free flow of people, ideas, creativity and culture across the political boundaries jealously guarded by governments and their militaries. Most SAARC initiatives miserably fail this test. Typical of this arrested development is the SAARC Audio-Visual Exchange, SAVE.

The rest of my essay is a critique of SAVE, and how it has failed to foster greater regional understanding among the people of South Asia through the airwaves. This is because SAVE brought together only the state-owned radio and television stations of South Asia which are no more than propaganda organs for ruling parties and/or militaries that are running our countries.

I go on to cheer the recent initiative called TV South Asia, a collaboration involving 5 private TV broadcasters in South Asia. Without any of the pomposity of SAVE or SAARC, TV South Asia is quietly doing what SAVE has failed for nearly a quarter of a century.

The essay builds on my 6 July 2008 blog post TV South Asia: Nothing official about it, yipee!

Read my full op ed essay on Groundviews

More unsmiling SAARC babus - they certainly dont speak for me!

More unsmiling SAARC babus - they certainly don't speak for me!

Never a smile on their faces!

Foreign secretaries of SAARC: Never a smile on their faces!

All images courtesy Daily News, Sri Lanka

Calling Hydrocarbons Anonymous: Admitting my oil addiction…

Living with climate change

On the set of Sri Lanka 2048: Living with climate change

I have finally done it…and not a moment too soon!

There I was, moderating an hour-long TV debate on Saturday evening prime time television on Sri Lanka’s premier English language Channel One MTV. Our topic for this edition of Sri Lanka 2048 was living with climate change. After exploring its many facets, I was beginning to wind up.

But not before underlining the need for us to take personal responsibility for changing our lifestyles whose cumulative impact on the planet is significant.

The philosophical and political debates over climate change will continue for a long time, I said. Meanwhile, we have to live with climate change impacts that are already happening…and change how we use energy and resources so that we don’t make matters any worse.

This means we must consume less, share more, live simply and pursue smart solutions through green technologies. Of course, at the basis of all this is finding meaningful, practical ways of kicking our addiction to oil.

That’s when I put my hand up and admitted, on air, my own substance addiction: I am hooked on hydrocarbons, a.k.a. petroleum. I’m struggling to break free from it, but it’s not easy.

Of course, my individual addiction pales into insignificance when we look at how entire industries, sectors and countries are addicted to oil and stubbornly insist on continuing the status quo. But we must be the change we seek, so it’s never too late for me to work on my oil problem. When enough of us individuals do, countries and economies will follow.

But people with addictions often need expert guidance, as well as to keep the company of fellow addicts who are similarly trying to kick the habit. That’s why those having drinking problems find help in Alcoholics Anonymous.

We oil addicts could do with some organised help — environmental activist groups, please note. And Sir Arthur C Clarke has already suggested the perfect name for such a movement: Hydrocarbons Anonymous. Read his 2004 essay on Hydrocarbons Anonymous.

* * * * *

Race Against Time

Nalaka Gunawardene moderates Sri Lanka 2048: Race Against Time

Here’s what the promotional blurb for last weekend’s show said:

Sri Lanka 2048 looks at living with climate change: how challenges can become opportunities

Climate change is no longer a theory; it’s already happening. What awaits Sri Lanka – and how best can we adapt to live with extreme weather events, disrupted rainfall, sea level rise and other projected impacts? How can Sri Lanka play a meaningful role in mitigating further damage to the world’s climate?

These and related questions will be raised in this week’s Sri Lanka 2048, the series of TV debates exploring Sri Lanka’s prospects for a sustainable future in the Twenty First Century. The one-hour debate, in English, will be shown on Channel One MTV from 8 to 9 pm on Saturday, 26 July 2008.

Titled Race Against Time, this week’s debate brings together concerned Sri Lankans from academic, corporate, civil society and government backgrounds to discuss the many challenges of living with climate change. The debate looks at aspects such as promoting renewable energy to reduce our carbon emissions, and emerging opportunities for individuals, communities and businesses to adopt low carbon lifestyles and practices.

This week’s panel comprises: Dr. W. L. Sumathipala Director, National Ozone Unit, Ministry of Environment & Natural Resources; Dr. Suren Batagoda, CEO, Sri Lanka Carbon Fund; Dr Ray Wijewardene, Eminent engineer and specialist in renewable energies; and Darshani de Silva, Environmental Specialist, World Bank Office in Colombo. The debate is moderated by TVE Asia Pacific’s Director Nalaka Gunawardene.

The debate also seeks answers to questions such as: What niche can Sri Lanka occupy in the fast-growing global carbon market? How much money can we make from this market? What is the role of the recently established Sri Lanka Carbon Fund? Is the Clean Development Mechanism the right way forward?

The debate concludes with the recognition that climate Change is not just an environmental concern, but also has economic, social, political and security implications. While the philosophical and political debates over climate change will continue for a long time, everyone has to learn fast to live with it. This calls for consuming less, sharing more, living simply and pursuing smart solutions that reduce carbon emissions without compromising the quality of living.

Sri Lanka 2048 debates are co-produced by TVE Asia Pacific, an educational media foundation, and IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, in partnership with MTV Channel (Private) Limited. This editorially independent TV series is supported under the Raising Environmental Consciousness in Society (RECS) project, sponsored by the Government of the Netherlands.

Sri Lanka 2048

Sri Lanka 2048

Photos by Amal Samaraweera, TVE Asia Pacific

JibJab: Perhaps they don’t know that “Barack” means “a blessing”?

“The U.S. Presidential election may be the most undemocratic in the world. Only some 126 million Americans vote, yet the result is felt by 6.6 billion people. Indeed, in some ways it matters even more to non-Americans. The president is constrained domestically by many constitutional checks and balances, but this is far less true in foreign affairs.”

So said Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani, dean of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and noted foreign affairs commentator in an op ed essay in Newsweek in January 2008. He posed the interesting question: if the whole world could vote in the US presidential election, whom would they choose?

Noting that the world is not unanimous in its choice, he went on to say: “It is clear, however, whose election would have the most dramatic effect: Barack Obama’s. In one fell swoop, an Obama victory would eliminate at least half the massive anti-Americanism now felt around the world.”

Obama
With a dozen more weeks left before the early November election, we won’t hazard a guess on its outcome — but I sure hope Obama wins! Meanwhile, I want to share a very funny, short video that JibJab released last week looking at the whole presidential election campaigning that has gripped Americans this year.

Here’s their own blurb for it:
In our first election satire since 2004’s “This Land” and “Good to be in DC”, we bid farewell to Bush and give Obama and Mccain a proper JibJab hazing! And, of course, who could forget about Hillary and Bill? This rip-roaring musical romp gives the election process the proper spanking it deserves!

Over the weekend, I shared this link with a dozen friends. One of them, an American friend Tedson J Meyers, is an apparent Democratic sympathiser and certainly an Obama fan. He just sent me this rejoinder to JibJab:

I am deeply disturbed by jibjab’s condescension
It is clear that they need some parental attention
Campaigning you see is our way of life
It keeps us keen as the edge of a knife
That’s why I believe jibjab need addressing
Perhaps they don’t know that “Barack” means “a blessing”?

Who are these guys? Here’s a self intro from their YouTube channel:
Brothers Gregg and Evan Spiridellis founded JibJab in 1999 with a few thousand dollars worth of computer equipment, a dial-up Internet connection and a dream of building a global entertainment brand. In 2004, their election parody “This Land” spark an international sensation and was viewed more than 80 million times online. NASA even contacted the brothers to send a copy to the International Space Station! Since then, JibJab has premiered ten original productions on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and received coverage on every major news outlet. In 2004, Peter Jennings named the brothers “People of the Year.”

See my April 2007 blog post featuring another JibJab video: What We Call the News

Sri Lanka 2048: Business As Unusual

Sri Lanka 2048 - Nalaka Gunawardene moderating

Sri Lanka 2048 - Nalaka Gunawardene moderating

When our Sri Lanka 2048 TV debate series started a few weeks ago, I had no idea that I’d be hosting some programmes. But through an interesting turn of events, I’ve ended up doing just that.

The series, which TVE Asia Pacific is co-producing with IUCN and MTV Channel (Pvt) Limited — Sri Lanka’s ratings leading TV broadcaster — has been going out once every week from 22 May 2008. As I wrote at the time the series started, most programmes (8 out of 10) were hosted by Sirasa TV’s versatile and dynamic presenter Kingsly Rathnayaka.

Our plan was to do two shows in English, exploring the topics living with climate change and the nexus between business and the environment. We were still searching for a presenter for these two even as we produced and aired the Sinhala programmes.

In the end, the channel management as well as our production team all suggested for me to take it on. I’ve been hosting quiz shows on TV since 1990, and have been a regular ‘TV pundit’ on a broad range of development, science and technology issues for at least a decade. I’ve also been doing a fair amount of moderating sessions and panels at international conferences. Hosting Sri Lanka 2048 challenged me to combine all these skills — and to be informed, interested and curious about our topics under discussion.

I enjoyed being the ‘skeptical inquirer’, a role I’ve had fun playing for long years as a development journalist. Our viewers can judge how well I fared. My aim was to keep the panel and audience focused, engaged and moving ahead. My style is slower and more reflective than Kingsly’s fast-paced, chatty one. Direct comparisons would be unfair and unrealistic since we are very different personalities.

But I’m enormously grateful to the younger, more experienced Kingsly for his advice and guidance in preparing for my new role. The TV camera is ruthless in capturing and sometimes magnifying even minor idiosyncrasies in presenters. It has as much to do with style as with substance. Hope I made the grade…

Sri Lanka 2048 series branding

Sri Lanka 2048 series branding

Here’s the promotional blurb for this weekend’s show, titled Business As Unusual (yes, I borrowed the apt title from our sorely missed inspiration Anita Roddick). It was broadcast on Channel One MTV, the English language channel of Sri Lanka’s Maharaja broadcasting group.

Sri Lanka 2048 looks at Business As Unusual: How can companies do well while doing good?

The private sector is acknowledged as the engine of our economic growth. But how long can this ‘engine’ keep running without addressing its many impacts on society and the natural environment? With public concerns rising everywhere for a cleaner and safer environment, how best can businesses respond to the environmental challenges — and find new opportunities to grow and innovate?

These and related questions will be raised in this week’s Sri Lanka 2048, the series of TV debates exploring Sri Lanka’s prospects for a sustainable future in the Twenty First Century. The one-hour debate, this time in English, will be shown on Channel One MTV from 8 to 9 pm on Saturday, 19 July 2008.

Titled Business As Unusual, this week’s debate brings together concerned Sri Lankans from academic, corporate, civil society and government backgrounds to discuss what choices, decisions and tradeoffs need to be made for businesses to become environmentally responsible — and still remain profitable. Increasingly, there are examples of smart companies achieving this balance.

This week’s panel comprises (seated left to right in the photo below): Professor Sarath W Kotagama, Professor of Environment Science, University of Colombo; Renton de Alwis, Chairman, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority; Dilhan C Fernando, Marketing Director, MJF Group; and Jeevani Siriwardena, Director – Product Management, Sri Lanka Export Development Board.

Sri Lanka 2048 panel on business and environment broadcast on 19 July 2008

Sri Lanka 2048 panel on business and environment broadcast on 19 July 2008

The wide ranging discussion — looking at both domestic and international markets, and covering a range of industries — notes that many companies already address not just financial but also social and environmental bottomlines. Adopting cleaner production practices have helped increase profits through being thrifty with resources and careful with waste.

The debate also looks at the findings of a survey that IUCN and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce carried out last year of 45 companies on their corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies and practices. It revealed that a significant number of companies are actively applying CSR principles, with slightly over half (53%) already having environmental components in their CSR (known as CSER). The survey also found that local companies were stronger on CSR/CSER than the local operations of multinational companies.

As some panelists and audience members argue, embracing sound environmental practices goes well beyond CSR. With rising consumer awareness and greater scrutiny of how companies source materials and energy, ‘going green’ has become an integral part of responsible corporate citizens.

Sri Lanka 2048 debates are co-produced by TVE Asia Pacific, an educational media foundation, and IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, in partnership with MTV Channel (Private) Limited. This editorially independent TV series is supported under the Raising Environmental Consciousness in Society (RECS) project, sponsored by the Government of the Netherlands.

Sri Lanka 2048 - Nalaka briefing audience just before recording starts...

Sri Lanka 2048 - Nalaka briefing audience just before recording starts...

Wherever you are, Anita, I hope you were watching our show tonight — and hopefully nodding… When you insisted that businesses must care for community and the environment, you were so ahead of the pack. We’re still struggling to catch up.

Nalaka with panelist Jeevani Siriwardena

On the set of Sri Lanka 2048: Nalaka with panelist Jeevani Siriwardena

Photos by Amal Samaraweera, TVE Asia Pacific

Al Gore’s challenge to America: kick the oil habit in a decade

Al Gore making Climate Challenge to America - courtesy New York Times

“There are times in the history of our nation when our very way of life depends upon dispelling illusions and awakening to the challenge of a present danger. In such moments, we are called upon to move quickly and boldly to shake off complacency, throw aside old habits and rise, clear-eyed and alert, to the necessity of big changes. Those who, for whatever reason, refuse to do their part must either be persuaded to join the effort or asked to step aside. This is such a moment. The survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk. And even more – if more should be required – the future of human civilization is at stake.”

With these words, climate crusader Al Gore opened a powerful speech delivered in Washington DC on 17 July 2008, in which he issued what he called ‘A Generational Challenge to Repower America’ to take bold steps towards solving the climate crisis.

At one point he told fellow Americans: “We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that’s got to change.”

Having outlined the environmental, security and economic implications of America’s addiction to oil, Gore challenged his nation “to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years”.

I was immediately reminded of President Kennedy’s pledge to Congress on 25 May 1961 where he said:
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him back safely to the earth.”

In fact, later on in his speech Gore referred to this saying: “When President John F. Kennedy challenged our nation to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely in 10 years, many people doubted we could accomplish that goal. But 8 years and 2 months later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon.”

Al Gore’s full speech, according to a video recording posted on YouTube, lasted 27 minutes — but the We Campaign has released the highlights of the speech running for 5 minutes:

Read the text of his full speech on the We Campaign website.

Read The New York Times coverage of Al Gore speech

The We Campaign is a project of The Alliance for Climate Protection — a nonprofit, nonpartisan effort founded by Nobel laureate and former Vice President Al Gore. Our ultimate aim is to halt global warming. Specifically we are educating people in the US and around the world that the climate crisis is both urgent and solvable.

Celebrating Nelson Mandela…and South Africa’s television revolution

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela‘s long walk to freedom is an epic story of our times, one that continues to inspire millions everywhere who are deprived of that freedom by state tyranny or economic hardships.

As Mandela turns 90 years today, we join people all over the world to celebrate his life and reiterate his message.

Send your greetings to Nelson Mandela on his birthday!

And as Mandela himself reminded us in London during the June 2008 mega musical concert to celebrate his 90th birthday: “Even as we celebrate, let us remind ourselves that our work is far from complete. Where there is poverty and sickness, including AIDS, where human beings are being oppressed , there is more work to be done. Our work is for freedom for all.

American film-maker, social activist and blogger Danny Schechter — who filmed Mandela’s struggle to end apartheid and restore democracy in South Africa — has just remarked: He (Mandela) is one of those leaders who not only helped free his own country and people but became an icon and symbol for freedom in the world. At a time when darkness seems to be descending again, with the economy on the edge amidst protracted wars and pervasive abuses of powers, he is the one person that people the world over look to as a symbol of that saying that ‘another world is possible.’ He is not perfect – who is? He has taken great risks, and made his share of mistakes, but the love and adoration he inspires speaks to how special he is – even as he sees himself as part of a collective, a movement…

The Mandela story has been told many times by many film-makers, writers and journalists. Few other leaders have engaged the media’s attention and popular imagination — both in and out of office — as Mandela has, and with reason.

This is how the BBC in the UK reported the release of Nelson Mandela, by then the world’s most celebrated prisoner, on 11 February 1990.

I find it interesting to go back and watch TV coverage of important events as they unfolded. They say journalists write the first draft of history — that’s done on the run, without the benefit of hindsight or chance to reflect for too long.

In that sense, this BBC television reportage did reasonably well to capture the historic moment of Mandela’s release — the reporter and presenter couldn’t have known what lay ahead for South Africa.

In the report, available on YouTube, there’s a reference to South African television giving live coverage for Mandela’s release. That would have been perfectly logical from a ‘breaking news’ point of view — but there is something very significant and symbolic about that.

During the 1950s and 1960s, South Africa was the only wealthy country in the world that did not have a national television broadcasting service. In fact, despite being the most economically advanced country on the continent, South Africa was among the last in Africa to introduce television broadcasting. The main reason: television was viewed as potentially undermining the apartheid government’s ideology. The white minority regime saw it as a threat to its control of the broadcasting media, even though the state-controlled South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) had a virtual monopoly on radio broadcasting.

The minister of broadcasting, Albert Hertzog, simply refused to permit television. He said that TV would come to South Africa “over my dead body”. He denounced it as “a miniature bioscope [cinema] over which parents would have no control.” He also argued that “South Africa would have to import films showing race mixing; and advertising would make (non-white) Africans dissatisfied with their lot.”

Many white South Africans, including Afrikaners, didn’t share Hertzog’s views, and regarded the hostility towards what he called “the little black box” as absurd. When Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon in 1969, South Africa was one of the few countries unable to watch the event live, prompting one newspaper to remark that “The moon film has proved to be the last straw… The situation is becoming a source of embarrassment for the country.”

But Hertzog was adamant. A few months later, in an interview with The Cape Times on 1 Dec 1969, he admitted: “If, at the present time, you introduce television, you will pay for it with the end of the white man…”

That was an extremely perceptive remark. From the white minority regime’s point of view, the minister was right: if the pen is mightier than the sword, the camera can be mightier than both.

No wonder that most governments, whether liberal or otherwise, try to control – or manipulate – what appears on television, especially domestic transmissions that a majority of their people regularly watch. The power of the idiot box is not to be underestimated, even if it’s often dominated by….well, idiots.

As events turned out, the national and international media – especially television – did play a major role in the transformation of South Africa during the last two decades of the twentieth century.

And we now know: Albert Hertzog’s worst fears came true.

But the world’s worst fears of South Africa descending into utter chaos did not — thanks, largely, to the compassionate vision and leadership of Nelson Mandela.

Watch Nelson Mendela’s inauguration speech, when he was sworn in as the 11th President of South Africa on 27 April 1994:

Historical footnote from Wikipedia:
In 1971, the SABC was finally allowed to introduce a television service. Initially, the proposal was for two television channels, one in English and Afrikaans, aimed at white audiences, and another, known as TV Bantu, aimed at black viewers, but when television was finally introduced, there was only one channel. Experimental broadcasts in the main cities began on 5 May 1975, before nationwide service commenced on 5 January 1976.

The Mandela legacy continues, on air and off air, and more films are still being made about his remarkable life and times. The latest is a new documentary being released this month to mark his 90th birthday. SABC television will premiere it in 18 July during prime time – how times have changed!

Here’s part of the press release from the South African production company that made it:

Viva Madiba: A Hero For All Seasons, a feature length film produced by Anant Singh and Videovision Entertainment as a 90th Birthday Tribute to former president, Nelson Mandela, will have its World Premiere when it is broadcast on Friday, 18 July 2008 on SABC 2 at 21h00.

Viva Madiba: A Hero For All Seasons is a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s epic life and his status as an international icon. In this, the year of his 90th birthday, he remains a man at the centre of attention, not only in South Africa, but around the world as a moral leader, an elder statesman and an exceptional human being.

Viva Madiba: A Hero For All Seasons takes one on a journey behind the headlines and away from the public eye and looks at Madiba as a loyal friend, a dependable comrade, a trusted confidant, a respected mentor, and a man who has touched and transformed countless lives.

For the first time his complete story is being told – a life of struggle, humanity, destiny and greatness is recalled and celebrated by those who knew him best and who worked with him in the quest to break the chains of oppression, taking us beyond the political and into the personal. The programme features exclusive interviews with politicians, close friends and comrades of Madiba, among whom are Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Oliver Tambo, George Bizos, Ahmed Kathrada, Pik Botha, Dorothy Masuka, Nthato Motlana, Cyril Ramaphosa, Helen Suzman, Zolani Mkiva, Jessie Duarte, Francois Pienaar, Sydney Kentridge, Mac Maharaj, Christo Brand and Gill Marcus.

Read and watch Danny Schechter talk about his role supporting the making of Viva Madiba


Happy 90th, (ex) prisoner 46664!

Nelson Mandela turns 90 on 18 July 2008.

Moving Images blog joins the world in wishing him many happy returns of the day — and many more birthdays to come!

To mark the occasion, we feature the song 46664 (That’s My Number) Nelson Mandela recorded some years ago to draw attention to HIV/AIDS.

This background story comes from the YouTube channel of Andrew Heath:

46664
was Nelson Mandela’s prison number when he was incarcerated on Robbin Island, Cape Town for 18 years.

46664 is a global movement fighting against HIV/AIDS in Africa and around the globe and MUSIC is a key element of the 46664 campaign.

In 2003 Jacqui Joseph (TV Presenter & Director of GHC Productions) was asked to host the first “live” Nelson Mandela 46664 Concert at Green Point Stadium in Cape Town with an audience of 40,000 that was broadcast globally and on the internet to 2 Billion people.

Jacqui provided her services for free and interviewed all the artists performing at the concert including Beyonce, Bono, The Edge, Peter Gabriel, Dave Stewart, Brian May, Roger Taylor, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Angelique Kidjo and did the voice over for the official 46664 DVD.

As a result of her charity work and involvement with 46664 Jacqui and all involved in the campaign became official Ambassadors to the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Although a number of years have passed since Jacqui fronted the first big 46664 music event she now feels the time is right to re-energise and raise the public awareness and profile for the 46664 campaign.

In order to do this, Jacqui asked Max & Andy (remixer/producers) to come up with a fresh musical anthem & video for the 46664 campaign.

In 2006 Max & Andy completed the track and video and the result is: 46664 (THAT’S MY NUMBER)

46664 (That’s my Number) combines samples taken from Nelson Mandela’s inaugural 46664 speech in 2003 over dubbed onto an infectious re-mix of pop, ska and reggae classics.

The 46664 (that’s my number) video includes images sampled from the first official 46664 DVD and live concert shot in 2003 as well as original clips filmed for the GHC Productions video.

Nelson Mandela 46664

Mobile phones in Sri Lanka: Everyman’s new trousers?

Mobile phones - social leveller in Sri Lanka

Mobile phones - social leveller in Sri Lanka

Mobile Phones in Sri Lanka: Everyman’s new trousers?

This is the title of my latest op ed essay, published this week on Groundviews, the leading citizen journalism website in Sri Lanka.

In this, I try to place in a social and cultural context a series of discriminatory laws, regulations and taxes that my native Sri Lanka has introduced – or threatened – in the past few months all aimed at mobile phones, and only mobiles.

This, despite the fact that the proliferation of mobiles has brought telecom services within reach of millions of Sri Lankans in the past decade, helping raise the country’s overall tele-density (mobiles+fixed phones) to 54 telephones per 100 population. With over 11 million SIMs issued, mobiles today outnumber fixed phones by three to one.

In my essay, I cite specific examples, and ask the crucial questions:

Why is this already licensed and regulated technology often targeted for ‘special treatment’ by different arms of government?

Where is this wide-spread suspicion and hostility towards mobiles coming from?

I argue that it is rear-guard action by the traditional elite and bureaucracy who’d rather not allow such digital empowerment to spread. And this has historical parallels.

Here’s the crux of it:

“There is a numerically small (but influential) privileged class that resents information and communication access becoming universal. They might talk glibly in public on using ICTs for social development or poverty reduction. But back inside the corridors of power, they make policies and regulations to undermine the very utility of these tools. This is no accident.

“The mobile phone is the biggest social leveller in Sri Lankan society since the trouser became ubiquitous (initially for men, and belatedly for women). Our elders can probably recall various arguments heard 30 or 40 years ago on who should be allowed to wear the western garb: it was okay for the educated and/or wealthy mahattayas, but not for the rest. Absurd and hilarious as these debates might seem today, they were taken very seriously at the time.

“Make no mistake: the mobile is the trouser of our times –- and thus becomes the lightning rod for class tensions, petty jealousies and accumulated frustrations of an elite that sees the last vestiges of control slipping away.

Read the full essay on Groundviews

Relevant to this discussion is a short film that TVE Asia Pacific produced for LIRNEasia in late 2007, summarising the findings of the latter’s large sample survey on tele-use at the bottom of the pyramid in five emerging markets (which included Sri Lanka).

TVEAP News, Nov 2007: Film highlights telephone revolution in Asia’s emerging markets

Watch the film online:

Teleuse@BOP – Part 1 of 2

Teleuse@BOP – Part 2 of 2

Photo courtesy TVE Asia Pacific

TV Southasia: Nothing official about this, yipee!

TV South Asia

Nearly one year ago, I wrote a blog post titled: Channel South Asia? Yes and No!

My closing words at the time were:
“I, for one, am relieved that South Asian governments are unlikely to come together in such a venture – we’ve suffered long enough and hard enough with our state-owned, government-controlled, ruling party mouthpieces (both radio and TV) that pollute our airwaves (a public commons) every day and night. Euphemistically called ‘national television’, these conduits of governmental propaganda have progressively lost audience share — and influence — since private channels started operating in the early 1990s. They are today reduced to vanity channels for vane politicians and bureaucrats. The mass audience has long ago abandoned them. I’d rather take chances with a South Asian Murdoch, than with our unaccountable, selfish governments.”

Chevaan Daniel, head of Sri Lanka’s enterprising Channel One MTV, posted a comment soon afterwards, on 27 July 2007, saying: “Maharaja Channels have pioneered this for Sri Lanka, by joining together in an initiative involving media companies from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh to launch ‘The SouthAsian’. This collaboration includes a weekly programme produced in Calcutta, aired at the same time in the region. The next step is indeed a SouthAsian Channel, which we are working towards.

Well, I’m delighted to find that over the past 12 months, they have indeed been investing time, creative effort and money in this venture. TV Southasia is now a reality!

It’s a collaborative venture of commercial broadcasters in five countries of South Asia, who have joined hands to produce and share content across their national borders. Mercifully, no governments are involved and certainly none of the state-owned broadcasters (Babu TVs) whose lack of vision and creativity is only matched by their depleting audiences these days.

TV Southasia

Indeed, there’s nothing official about TV Southasia (TVSA), and that’s to be celebrated on its own merit. And if they get it right, TVSA founders — Rtv of Bangladesh, TARANEWS of India, Image Channel of Nepal, Aaj TV of Pakistan and News 1st of Sri Lanka — can tap into an enviably large audience. Between them, their countries have more than 1.5 billion people, most of who have access to television.

TVSA founders are taking one step at a time, perhaps knowing very well that cross-border ventures in South Asia need to be nursed slowly and incrementally, while dealing with assorted historical hang-ups and tonnes of red tape (or these days the colour could well be saffron or khaki, depending on where you live!).

It all started when a group of broadcasters and activists from across South Asia came together in Kolkata in December 2006 and agreed to forge the Southasian initiative. They swapped content to start producing a half-hour magazine programme (containing news analysis, music, features and interviews) from April 2007. Called Southasian, it was produced by Taranewz drawing on content from the participating channels, who then broadcast it weekly and also made it available online.

Taking the next logical step, the five broadcasters decided in August 2007 to form a channel, branded as TV Southasia. It started being previewed on 19 April 2008.
Read more about TV Southasia on its own website

The channel is being distributed by Thailand’s ThaiCom5 satellite, and would be available through cable operators across South Asia. It’s an English language channel, based on the reality that English is the only link language shared and understood by all countries of South Asia.

TVSA says it’s concentrating on talk shows, interviews, lifestyle, music, short films, sports, cuisine and quiz — most of this content is already available through many national channels and occasionally from global channels too. But TVSA can bring in a trans-boundary, pan South Asian outlook which is largely missing in these channels. In fact, it would be refreshing to see a TV channel covering South Asia as a whole, without giving into the frequent pressures or temptations of national tribalism and geopolitical posturing that we see all the time on both BabuTVs and many commercial channels.

Click here for programme lineup on TV Southasia

I have so far only caught glimpses of their offering, when Channel One MTV shows the Southasian magazine show. Going by this limited exposure, I can confirm that the products of this collaboration are superior to what BabuTVs have been struggling to do for two decades through the very official (read: officious and unimaginative) framework of SAARC Audio-Visual Exchange, or SAVE.

Started in 1987, just two years after the South Asian governments formed the regional grouping called South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC, SAVE brought together the so-called national broadcasters in radio and TV. Trapped in inter-governmental bureaucracies, they tried to share and carry each other’s broadcast content. The officially sanctioned programmes, often made by committees, completely failed to capture the diversity and vibrancy of what’s going on in each South Asian country that interests the rest of the sub-region. I have no idea if SAVE still exists, because I don’t watch BabuTV anymore (does anybody?). Even in its formative days, I could tell that SAVE was beyond saving…

TV Southasia

Enter TV Southasia – and not a moment too soon. As its website says: “It is for the first time in history that the private electronic media channels have come together and have formed a collaborative channel sharing the same view points on diversity, heritage, bondage and possibilities.”

Unlike many broadcast ventures, TVSA declares its agenda – and it’s a lofty one. It wants to promote highly desirable values like liberalism, scientific temperament, education, heritage and cultural diversity. Rather courageously, it also declares what it is explicitly opposed to, which includes superstition, fundamentalism, corruption, violence, cultural hegemony and communalism — the long and depressing list of evils that keeps hundreds of millions of South Asians in misery, fear and trapped at the bottom of the development ladder. Read TVSA’s vision, mission and ideals

This agenda resonates with the equally passionate, secular idealism of Ujala TV, another satellite broadcast venture aimed at beaming to South Asia since mid 2006. I have been cheering them from the beginning, while my organisation TVE Asia Pacific has been a regular supplier of factual programming for them. Read my July 2007 blog post on Ujala TV – Enriching South Asian airwaves

Well, we need as many idealists as we can find in South Asia. Encouragingly, TV Southasia has already involved Himal Southasian founder and editor Kanak Mani Dixit, a great champion of people-to-people collaboration in South Asia. Perhaps it’s due to Kanak’s influence that the brave new channel is spelling Southasia as one word, as Himal Southasian has been doing for some years now. It might seem an aberration in spelling to some, but in fact, it separates these entirely unofficial, people’s ventures from the many committees and initiatives of the official SAARC, which are endlessly meeting yet constantly failing to forge regional trust, cooperation and cohesion.

The official, officious and unproductive SAARC will be on parade once again at the next Summit due in late July 2008. My SAARCasm is shared by many journalists, intellectuals and activists across South Asia who have tracked the origins and evolution of this grouping since its founding in Dhaka in 1985. To put it charitably, at 23 years of age, SAARC has the mental development of a 3-year-old (if that). We only need to take a look at the People’s SAARC Declaration, adopted in Kathmandu in March 2007, to realise how much the official SAARC has failed to accomplish.

That’s in spite of its frequent and highly expensive meetings. Alas, this time they have chosen to meet in my city of Colombo, which means – after footing a massive Summit bill of LKR 2.8 billion (over USD 27 million) – we ordinary citizens will very likely be kept under virtual house arrest for its duration. All in the name of security, of course.

I hope I can catch a bit more of TV Southasia when the visiting SAARC-babus drive us off our own streets.

Photos and images all courtesy TV Southasia

Below – photos from TV Southasia launch

The price of light: Insights from The Willow Tree

The Willow Tree

“There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.”

These words, by George Bernard Shaw (in “Man and Superman”, 1903), came to my mind as we watched Iranian director Majid Majidi’s 2005 film The Willow Tree (96 mins, in Farsi with English subtitles) as TVE Asia Pacific’s monthly feature film screening this week.

The Willow Tree chronicles the revelations and shocks experienced by Youssef (Parvis Parastui), a blind professor of literature whose eyesight is miraculously restored 38 years after he lost it in a childhood firecracker accident. For nearly four decades, he lived in the care of his comfort zone, first in biological and then married family. But when he regained the ability to see, it opens up a whole new world — one which he is not fully prepared to face.

Some critics see The Willow Tree as closely linked to Majidi’s 1999 film, The Color of Paradise, the story of the lonely but strangely happy Mohammad, a blind 8-year-old boy whose widowed father reluctantly abandons him to the care of a rural carpenter. (Not having seen the latter film yet, I can’t comment.)

As Stephen Holden wrote in a New York Times review: “If the two films are viewed as a matched pair, as I think they should be, Youssef could be Mohammad’s urban grown-up counterpart. Both films are explicitly religious, intensely poetic meditations, filled with recurrent symbols and suffused with a spirit of divine apprehension. Both are sad beyond measure, and both risk seeming mawkishly sentimental.”

The Willow Tree is a soulful, emotionally moving film where Majidi once again proves his dexterity with multi-layered symbolicism and clever use of soundtrack, especially music, to convey much that is unsaid in dialogue.

At one level, the film reinforces the cautionary tale to be careful of what you wish for. At another, it makes us question the whole notion of what it means to be able to see the world with our eyes — something many of us take for granted, but is the defining attribute in Professor Youssef’s life.

It’s easy for us who work in moving images to forget that there is a wholly different world for those who cannot see, or whose vision is impaired as in, say, astigmatism or colour blindness. We sometimes tend to picture perfect our creations – with extra touches of visual effects, some of which are so subtle that they could easily be lost in the fleeting playback. We argue over the shades of gray, the seamlessness of a fade-in and fade-out, or the precise colour corrections, as if those choices were matters of life and death. We who play with light like to get things exactly right.

Well, it’s fine to strive for excellence, but it’s sobering to note that there are some who will never see and appreciate our hard-laboured visual subtleties. A few among them may listen to the soundtrack of our audio-visual creations. But on the whole, cinema, television and video are media catering to those who can both see and hear. Watching films like The Willow Tree, therefore, gives a sense of perspective to us that is not typically part of our daily work milieu.

In the end, we are what our sensory perceptions make us. Yes, it’s a blessing to have all or most of our five senses (and some among us seem to have an as yet undefined sixth sense). But before we rejoice, it’s good to reflect that there may be other beings in the vast universe (or in other dimensions) with far greater powers of sensory perception in realms we have no way of knowing.

This is what American poet Harry Kemp (1883—1960) hinted at in his most famous poem, ‘Blind’:

THE SPRING blew trumpets of color;
Her Green sang in my brain—
I heard a blind man groping
“Tap—tap” with his cane;

I pitied him in his blindness;
But can I boast, “I see”?
Perhaps there walks a spirit
Close by, who pities me,—

A spirit who hears me tapping
The five-sensed cane of mind
Amid such unguessed glories—
That I am worse than blind.

The Willow Tree