Moji Riba: Capturing oral history in moving images

Moji Riba has been working since 1997 to document Arunachal Pradesh's rich cultural heritage. Image courtesy Rolex Awards
Moji Riba has been working since 1997 to document Arunachal Pradesh's rich cultural heritage. Image courtesy Rolex Awards

“I like to think of our heritage as an elastic band. I want to stretch this as much into the future generations as we can – till it reaches its edge and snaps. Each day I wake up and hope that this never happens. But that is sadly a finality we have to stare at – unless of course, there is a revolution of some kind!”

That’s how Moji Riba, Indian film-maker and cultural anthropologist, sums up the raison d’etre for his work.

He has reasons to worry. He lives and works in India’s north-eastern Arunachal Pradesh, which an isolated remote and sparsely populated part of the country that is home to 26 major tribal communities,. Each one has its own distinctive dialect, lifestyle, faith, traditional practices and social mores. They live side by side with about 30 smaller communities.

Today, a combination of economic development, improved communications, the exodus of the young and the gradual renunciation of animist beliefs for mainstream religions threatens Arunachal’s colourful traditions. “It is not my place to denounce this change or to counter it,” says Moji. “But, as the older generation holds the last link to the storehouse of indigenous knowledge systems, we are at risk of losing out on an entire value system, and very soon.”

Can anyone capture culture – a dynamic, hugely variable phenomenon – and preserve it in a museum or lab? Not quite. Preserving the communities as a living reservoir of culture is the best method. In addition, modern communication technologies can be used to record the myriad practices and memories – the indigenous knowledge and oral history of a people.

This is just what Moji Riba has been doing for over a decade. He founded and heads the Centre for Cultural Research and Documentation (CCRD) in Naharlagun, Arunachal Pradesh. The non-profit centre, established in 1997, focuses on audio-visual documentation of the folklore, ritual practices and oral histories of the diverse tribes that inhabit the north-eastern states of India and how the indigenous people are adapting to the processes of rapid change.

Moji, who holds a masters degree in mass communication from the prestigious Mass Communication Research Center (MCRC), Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, could easily have joined the exodus of talent from his state to the metropolitan centres in India. But he chosen to return to his roots with his enhanced skills and expanded worldview.

Over the past decade, he and the centre have made 35 documentaries for television stations and for government and non-governmental agencies. But the centre is more than just an archive or library: it is also a platform offering the tribal people an opportunity to voice their concerns and share experiences.

In 2004, Moji was instrumental in creating the diploma in mass communications at Itanagar’s Rajiv Gandhi University, to augment understanding of cultural values and local customs. He currently divides his time as head of the university’s communications department and running CCRD.

“CCRD has been using documentary films as a tool to document and understand the transitional tribal society and to share that experience through the medium of television,” says Moji. “In these 10 years, we have primarily produced television documentaries on linkages between issues of culture, environment and development and how one cannot be seen in isolation from the other.”

CCRD films have been showcased on Doordarshan, India’s national broadcaster, and various other national and international forums.

Riba teaches Hage Komo the basic camera skills that will allow the young Apatani to film an interview with his father and an animist priest, thus recording his tribe's oral history (Photo courtesy Rolex Awards)
Riba teaches Hage Komo the basic camera skills that will allow the young Apatani to film an interview with his father and an animist priest, thus recording his tribe's oral history (Photo courtesy Rolex Awards)

Years of hard work and quiet persistence are beginning to pay off. Moji has just been selected as an Associate Laureate of Rolex Awards for Enterprise, a prestigious global honour. He is being recognised for ‘helping to preserve and document the rich cultural heritage of India’s Arunachal Pradesh tribes’.

He is among the 10 winners of the 2008 Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which for more than 30 years have supported pioneering work in science and medicine, technology and innovation, exploration and discovery, the environment and cultural heritage.

Read the full profile on Moji and his work on Rolex Awards website

I have known Moji for half a decade, in which time my admiration for him has continued to grow. We first met during a South Asian TV training workshop TVE Asia Pacific organised in Kathmandu in October 2003. Since then, Moji worked with us as a freelance film director and producer. In 2005, he directed Deep Divide, a half-hour, three-country documentary on the state of environmental justice in South Asia. In 2006, he filmed stories for TVEAP series Digita4Change (in Bhutan) and The Greenbelt Reports (in three locations in India).

Moji’s films have drawn the attention of film festivals and reviewers. My friend Darryl D’Monte, one of the most senior journalists in India, wrote in 2006 about one film titled When the Mist is Lifted: “As an insider, he (Moji) is able to draw out the contradiction between old and new lifestyles and practices. In remarks after the screening, he spoke about the difficulties of making films in the northeast, and understandably expressed his reluctance to make another film on Arunachal, which has been his staple over the years.”

rolex-awards-logoWith support from the Rolex Award, Moji and CCRD plan to implement in 2009 the Mountain Eye Project, an unconventional and ambitious initiative that aims to create a cinematic time capsule documenting a year in the life of 15 different ethnic groups. They will select and train young people from each community to do the filming. This gives him access to enough film-makers as well as access to people with an intimate understanding of village life.

According to Moji, the Mountain eye Project is the result of the learnings that have emerged from about a decade’s work on documentation of the folklore and cultural heritage of the tribal groups in northeast India. It seeks to involve local communities in extensively documenting the disappearing cultural practices and traditional knowledge and to build an audio-visual archive of this data.

It also proposes to activate a vast network of outreach activities through museums in order to inculcate in children and youth, an appreciation of traditional heritage and creating respect for cultural diversity.

Watch this space.

Hage Komo gets video instructions from Moji Riba, who is enlisting local young people to capture the oral histories, languages and rituals of their tribes for his project. Komo films his father gathering bamboo in a grove outside Hari Village. (Photo courtesy Rolex Awards)
Hage Komo gets video instructions from Moji Riba, who is enlisting local young people to capture the oral histories, languages and rituals of their tribes for his project. Komo films his father gathering bamboo in a grove outside Hari Village. (Photo courtesy Rolex Awards)

Palitha Perera: The man who refused to be His Master’s Voice

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Doyen of Sri Lankan cartoonists, Wijesoma, saw it all coming (courtesy: The Island)

This cartoon is more than a quarter of a century old. It was drawn by W R Wijesoma, the doyen of Sri Lankan political cartoonists, in March 1982 — barely a month after Sri Lanka’s national television broadcaster Rupavahini commenced its transmissions.

I was a school boy in my mid teens when this happened, but I remember the story behind the cartoon. It was Sri Lanka’s first executive president J R Jayewardene who inaugurated the national TV station, which was donated to Sri Lanka by the Japanese government as part of its large package of aid to the island nation. At the inauguration, JR (as everyone called him) made this lofty speech, where he expressed his hope that Rupavahini would also be a satyavahini (meaning: the picture tube should also dispense the truth).

In practice, that presidential wish never had a chance. JR was in office from 1978 to 1989, and Rupavahini’s fledgling years coincided with his second term. Despite his ideals, his own government misused the new medium from almost day one for blatant, partisan propaganda. In the event, it was my old colleague Wijesoma’s vision of a ‘party-vahini’ (a propaganda vehicle for party in office) that became our sad, stark reality. Some have also called it pacha-vahini (dispenser of lies).

I recall all this on World Television Day, 21 November, because I’ve been reading a very interesting book by a remarkable man who was associated with Rupavahini’s inauguration. His name is Palitha Perera, and he is one of the most senior and respected radio and TV broadcasters in Sri Lanka today. Among other feats, Palitha holds the distinction of having been the inaugural announcer on two Sri Lankan TV channels – Rupavahini (15 February 1982) and TNL TV (21 July 1993).

Live with Palitha Perera
Live with Palitha Perera
Palitha has recently penned his first book, titled Palitha Perera Samaga Sajeeva Lesin (Live with Palitha Perera; Surasa Books, Colombo; 2008). It’s not written in the ‘been-there, done-that’ style of self importance. True, it has a rich sprinkling of autobiographical details expressed in Palitha’s lucid, entertaining writing style. But in recalling men and matters, and his own multiple roles in shaping events, he is both modest and moderate -– hallmarks of his professional career.

As I note in a book review published today on “His reminiscences provide some unique insights into our broadcasting history for nearly half a century. He chronicles little known facts and praises unsung heroes. In doing so, he offers a ringside account of the progress — and decline — of state broadcasting in Sri Lanka from the early 1960s to the present.”

Palitha is one of the few broadcasters who successfully moved from radio to television broadcasting. Many other announcers, interviewers and producers of the radio era failed to make that leap, for the two media are different.

In fact, Palitha has been in broadcasting longer than I’ve been alive. I grew up in the 1970s listening to Palitha’s deep, clear and friendly voice. He was Sri Lanka’s pioneering cricket commentator in Sinhala and that’s how he has had the greatest impact on our culture and society.

As I say in the review: “Here we have, straight from the original source, the story of how cricket became the de facto national past-time, if not our national addiction or religion! Like it or hate it, cricket is an integral part of our popular culture. Radio (and later TV) cricket commentaries take much of the credit (or blame, in some people’s view) for building up this uncommon fervour that occasionally unites our otherwise utterly and bitterly divided nation.”

Palitha has also made his name as the country’s foremost interviewer on both radio and television. In his time, Palitha has interviewed dozens of public figures from Presidents and prime ministers to social activists and trade unionists. He is always prepared and well informed. He remains calm and friendly at all times, yet is dogged in his questioning. This style has exposed many a hypocrite and charlatan.

It was said that boxer Mohammad Ali used to ‘float like a butterfly and sting like a bee’. I would say Palitha Perera floats like a butterfly and stings like a butterfly. It never hurts his interviewee personally, but he is piercing and penetrative all the same.

Unlike many other broadcasters who have cheer-led governments prostituting the airwaves, a public property, Palitha Perera never lost sight of who his real masters were: the audience.

Read my full review on Groundviews

Anyone can make video film, right? Why do we need professionals?

Anyone can cook, right?
Anyone can cook, right?

I really enjoyed the Disney/Pixar film Ratatouille (2007), which won the year’s best animated feature film Oscar award and deserved it.

Here’s the plot summary from IMDB: Remy is a young rat in the French countryside who arrives in Paris, only to find out that his cooking idol is dead. When he makes an unusual alliance with a restaurant’s new garbage boy, the culinary and personal adventures begin despite Remy’s family’s skepticism and the rat-hating world of humans. Read full synopsis on IMDB

The movie opens with a TV show featuring Chef Auguste Gusteau, owner of the best restaurant in Paris, talking about his bestselling cookbook, which proudly bears his mantra “Anyone Can Cook!”

Well, that’s heretical to the fine artistes of gourmet. But it’s revived the age old debate between fully-trained professionals and new-entrant amateurs, and inspired some interesting discussions online. One blogger thought: “Remy the rat is a perfect metaphor for the non-expert Web 2.0 knowledge maker. He has no credentials and must prove himself through his actual knowledge and application of knowledge rather than through credentials.”

He added: “What’s the moral of the story? Even without being an acknowledged expert on a topic, if you work hard to express your ideas in clever ways, you too can be respected for what you know.”

I’ve only just read these views, but they resonate with what I felt when I watched the movie in late 2007. The story certainly reminded me of a heated debate in my own field of moving images: can anybody and everybody make video, now that the tech barriers and costs have come down? If this is the case, what’s the point of having highly trained, better paid professionals who do it for a living?

I shan’t try to resolve that debate here. But here’s an interesting take on the debate from the Onion News Network. They report: YouTube is offering a cash prize to the first user to upload a video with a shred of originality or artistic merit.

Michael Crichton (1942-2008): Foresaw the fate of ‘Mediasaurus’

Death has no sense of timing, but it sometimes leaves traces of irony. The day Americans were electing an energetic and articulate senator from Chicago as their next president, one of Chicago’s most celebrated citizens lost his battle with cancer.

Michael Crichton
, who died on 4 November 2008, was trained as a medical doctor but played several roles in the creative arts world. He was a prolific author of science fiction and medical fiction, whose books have sold over 150 million copies worldwide. He also produced and directed techno-thriller movies, and was the creator of the highly successful medical drama series on television, ER (Emergency Room), now in its 15th season.

In the domain of popular culture, Crichton was best known for writing Jurassic Park (1990). This cautionary tale on unrestrained biological tinkering was turned into a blockbuster movie by Steven Spielberg in 1993. It became the highest earning film up until that time.

Before and since, Crichton used his technical training, vivid imagination and mastery of English to spin some of the most enjoyable – and scary – stories that often depicted scientific advancements going awry, resulting in the worst-case scenarios. A notable recurring theme in Crichton’s plots is the pathological failure of complex systems and their safeguards, whether biological (Jurassic Park), military/organizational (The Andromeda Strain), technical (Airframe) or cybernetic (Westworld).

Crichton was also a talented essayist who wrote perceptive pieces of non-fiction about science, society and culture – including the role of media. It is one such essay that I would like to recall in his memory.

The media world was very different when, in 1993, Crichton riled the news business with an essay titled “Mediasaurus“. In this essay, written for the newly launched Wired magazine, he prophesied the death of the mass media — specifically the New York Times and the American commercial TV networks.

“To my mind, it is likely that what we now understand as the mass media will be gone within ten years. Vanished, without a trace,” he wrote.

Building on his credentials as the author of a best-seller on dinosaurs, Crichton called this endangered beast ‘mediasaurus’.

Mediasaurus - courtesy Slate
Mediasaurus - courtesy Slate
He added: “There has been evidence of impending extinction for a long time. We all know statistics about the decline in newspaper readers and network television viewers. The polls show increasingly negative public attitudes toward the press – and with good reason.”

He talked about technological advances — “artificial intelligence agents roaming the databases, downloading stuff I am interested in, and assembling for me a front page” — that would drive the mediasaurus to their inevitable doom.

Only those nimble, adaptable media products would survive, he said, noting that CNN and C-SPAN were steps in the right direction, giving viewers direct access to events as they happen.

But he had no sympathy for the media. “The media are an industry, and their product is information. And along with many other American industries, the American media produce a product of very poor quality. Its information is not reliable, it has too much chrome and glitz, its doors rattle, it breaks down almost immediately, and it’s sold without warranty. It’s flashy but it’s basically junk. So people have begun to stop buying it.”

Read the full essay: Mediasaurus by Michael Crichton, Wired Oct/Nov 1993

Like most people who dabble in the imperfect art of foreseeing the future, Crichton got the trend right but the timing somewhat wrong. The mainstream media (MSM) were indeed on the decline but not at the dramatic rate that he envisaged.

In February 2002, Jack Shafer wrote a piece in the online magazine Slate titled “Who You Calling Mediasaurus?” Its subtitle was: “The New York Times dodges Michael Crichton’s death sentence”. It asked and tried an answer the question: Where did Crichton go wrong?

Shafer wrote: “Fables of the near future have a way of never materializing, whether they be fevered dreams of nuclear energy too cheap to meter or fossil fuels too expensive to burn. To be fair, Crichton wasn’t the only one to get puking drunk on the new media moonshine. Many of us spent a lost weekend—sometimes months—in a stupor after reading early issues of Wired. But instead of blotting out conventional media, the emerging Infotopia seems only to have made the conventional media more ubiquitous.”

Shafer asked: “Who would have predicted in 1993 that America’s great dailies (minus the Wall Street Journal) and the news networks would dodge both extinction and irrelevance by erecting Web sites overnight and giving their content away? That they would use their Web sites to keep us informed 24-hours-a-day in a way that we take for granted today but that would have astonished us nine years ago?”

In an email interview with Shafer at the time, Crichton acknowledged his own limitations: “I don’t have a lot invested in whether my predictions are right or wrong; I assume that nobody can predict the future well. But in this particular case, I doubt I’m wrong, it’s just too early.”

In that interview, Crichton said he wished he had foreseen “the effect of big media conglomerates combined with the universal decision to make news into entertainment. It’s all headlines and chat now. Factual content is way down, accuracy has vanished (it’s not even a goal any longer), and public confidence in media is at an astonishing low. Not surprisingly, audiences are shrinking.”

Crichton admitted at the time that the personalized ‘infotopia’ he envisioned in 1993 had yet to arrive. He scoffed at the Web for being too slow. “Its page metaphor, too limiting. Design, awful. Excessive hypertexting, too distracting. Noise-to-signal ratio, too high.”

Who succeeds mediasaurus?
Who succeeds mediasaurus?
Now fast-forward to May 2008. The same Jack Shafer, once again writing in Slate, published a piece titled “Michael Crichton, Vindicated”. It was introduced as: “His 1993 prediction of mass-media extinction now looks on target”.

In this essay, Shafer wrote: “As we pass his prediction’s 15-year anniversary, I’ve got to declare advantage Crichton. Rot afflicts the newspaper industry, which is shedding staff, circulation, and revenues. It’s gotten so bad in newspaperville that some people want Google to buy the Times and run it as a charity! Evening news viewership continues to evaporate, and while the mass media aren’t going extinct tomorrow, Crichton’s original observations about the media future now ring more true than false. Ask any journalist.”

Read Jack Shafer’s full interview with Michael Crichton in Slate, May 2008

the weapon that killed Mediasaurus
Revealed: the weapon that killed Mediasaurus
By this time, Crichton was more positive about the web. He noted that the Web has “made it far easier for the inquisitive to find unmediated information, such as congressional hearings.” It’s much faster than it used to be, and more of its pages are professionally assembled.

Crichton suggested that readers and viewers could more objectively measure the quality of the news they consume by pulling themselves “out of the narcotizing flow of what passes for daily news.” Look at a newspaper from last month or a news broadcast.

“Look at how many stories are unsourced or have unnamed sources. Look at how many stories are about what ‘may’ or ‘might’ or ‘could’ happen,” he said. “Might and could means the story is speculation. Framing as I described means the story is opinion. And opinion is not factual content.”

He summed it up with something we already know: “The biggest change is that contemporary media has shifted from fact to opinion and speculation.”

It was interesting to note how mainstream media outlets paid tributes to Crichton this week. He was remembered for the entertaining story teller he truly was, and some even questioned his mixed legacy, for example being an ardent skeptic of global warming – thus batting for the fossil fuel cartels even if only inadvertently.
But I could find few references to his perceptive critique of the mass media.

Who says media likes to turn the spotlight on itself?

PS: I was intrigued to see The New York Times’ reasonably benign obit on the author who predicted their demise. Here’s a collection of Times commentary on him – and some op eds he wrote for them.

Barack Obama: Just elected President of the New Media world

President Obama and the call at 3 am...
President Obama and the call at 3 am...

“Congratulations for restoring sanity and intelligence to Washington…and giving the world its first President. Real hard work begins now. Look after him!”

This was my brief message to American friends soon after they elected Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America.

It was entirely appropriate that I sent this message via mobile phone text (SMS). For Obama’s trail-blazing campaign to the White House used the new media innovatively while also using the old media (such as broadcast television) in a complementary manner.

Obama’s rise has epitomised change in many ways. Among other things, he is the first elected leader of a major democracy who shows understanding and mastery over the New Media World, which is radically different from the old media order.

As AFP reported in a story titled ‘Obama surfs the web to the White House‘: “Social networks and Twitter messages may have helped but analysts agree it was the Democrat’s impressive online organization and Internet fund-raising that fueled his victory over Republican John McCain in Tuesday’s election.”

It quoted Julie Germany, director of George Washington University’s Institute for Politics Democracy & the Internet, as saying: “No one’s going to say Obama won the election because of the Internet but he wouldn’t have been able to win without it. From the very beginning the Obama campaign used the Internet as a tool to organize all of its efforts online and offline. It was like the central nervous system of the campaign.”

Both Obama and McCain campaigns had slick websites and TV campaigns. But additionally, Obama inspired thousands of web-savvy volunteers to extend his message way beyond the official outreach. Doing so risked diluting the campaign or losing tight control, but that gamble paid off.

Al Gore, US vice president from 1992 to 2000, also understood the potential of new media, especially the transformative nature of the Internet. But at the time he was in office, the new media tools were not being used by sufficiently large numbers of people for it to make a difference in political campaigning or citizen engagement.

Both the timing and technologies favoured Obama, who successfully tapped into Digital Natives — those relatively younger people who have grown up with digital technology such as computers, the Internet, mobile phones and MP3. (In contrast, Digital Immigrants are those individual who grew up without digital technology and adopted it later.)

But as many commentators are pointing out, the real fight has just begun. It remains to be seen how Obama and his team use New Media tools, platforms and potential to deliver the promise of change.

Meanwhile, my own favourite cartoon of Obama election is the one above – and funnily enough, it concerns a piece of old technology: the good old fixed phone. If you recall, in long-drawn campaign for Obama to secure Democratic Party nomination, his rival Hillary Clinton ran this TV commercial which peddled her credentials for being familiar with the corridors of power.

It’s 3 AM and your children are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing.
Something’s happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call…

Hillary’s original ad:

Obama’s official response:

There were various unofficial spoofs created by Digital Natives who love to play with new media tools. Just run a search for ‘3 am’ or ‘red phone’ on YouTube and you can watch many of these online!

By the way, isn’t it time that the old-fashioned Red Phone in the White House – the American President’s Hotline to save the world – was replaced with a more modern looking instrument? One more thing for the New Media President Obama…

Climate change and copyrights: What intellectual property on a dead planet?

Twenty centuries ago, Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Today, some media companies are squabbling over copyrights while the planet is warming.

This is the main thrust of my latest op ed essay, just published by the Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net) anchored in London, UK. It’s titled: Planet before profit for climate change films.

I have adapted for this commentary some of my ideas initially expressed on this blog – especially the post on 12 Oct 2008: Climate in Crisis and planet in peril – but we’re squabbling over copyrights!

Broadcasting on a warming planet
Broadcasting on a warming planet

In writing this essay, I’ve also drawn on the excellent discussions we had last month during the Asia Pacific workshop on Changing Climate and Moving Images in Tokyo.

I’m challenging broadcasters to put their money where their mouth is.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Broadcast mandarins routinely support global struggles against poverty, HIV, corruption and climate change by offering free airtime to carry public interest messages. But few let go of their own products on these very subjects for non-broadcast uses.

“Making climate change a ‘copyright free zone’ for media products would increase the resource materials available to thousands of educators, social activists and trainers struggling to communicate this complex topic to audiences across the world. Moving images would make their task easier.

“The climate crisis challenges everyone to adopt extraordinary measures. Broadcasters and film-makers need to balance their financial interests with planetary survival.

“What use is intellectual property on a dead planet?”

Read my full essay on SciDev.Net: Planet before profit for climate change films.

In September 2006, speaking at the United Nations headquarters (photo below), I called for poverty to be recognised as a copyright free zone. The idea was to have broadcasters and other electronic publishers release copyrights on TV, video and online content relating to poverty and development issues -– at least until (MDG target year of) 2015.

The TV broadcast and film communities have reacted to this proposal with disdain or indifference, but I keep badgering on. If poverty didn’t motivate broadcasters to change business as usual, I hope, the planetary threat posed by climate change would.

Obama Girl: Can this little video change history?

Is this the face that launches a revolution?
Is this the face that launches a revolution?

November 4 is already here in Asia – and the day will dawn a few hours later in the United States. Today is the day Americans go to the polls to choose their next President.

In less than 48 hours, we’ll know who the winner is. All the polls of US voters suggest that it would be Senator Barack Obama. Surveys in different parts of the world also indicate how so many people expect him to win. And I certainly want him to win!

But after what happened with the 2000 US Presidential Election, I hesitate to draw any conclusions.

Whatever the outcome of today’s election, one thing is for sure: a little campaign video by a relatively little known actress and model changed the face of Campaign 2008.

“I Got a Crush… on Obama”
is an internet viral video, first posted on YouTube in June 2007 featuring a young woman seductively singing of her love for Illinois Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Produced by, a website for funny political videos, it featured actress and model Amber Lee Ettinger who lip-synched the song which was actually sung by Leah Kauffman (of “My Box in a Box” fame).

This video was named biggest web video of 2007 by People magazine…the AP…Newsweek…and AOL. It certainly helped to project Obama as a cool and hip candidate.

As we wait for democracy to take its course, here’s that history-making viral video, which has been watched on YouTube more than 10 million times…and counting:

These are the principal credits:
Created by: Ben Relles
Starring: Amber Lee Ettinger
Vocals: Leah Kauffman
Music Producer: Rick Friedrich
Directed by: Larry Strong and Kevin Arbouet.

Visit Obama Girl’s blog

And finally, if any of you feel anything at all for the incumbent who is about to be relegated to the dustbin of history, here’s a wicked video from the same creators called: Lil’ Bush Girl…Meet Obama Girl
(Caution: it’s not for the prim and proper, but then readers of this blog aren’t!).

Meet the new Pied Pipers of our Global Village: the Media!

In the well known legend, the pied pier of Hamelin played his musical pipe to lure all the rats into the nearby Weser river. When the town reneged on the promised fee, he played a different tune to entice all its children away from the town.

Modern-day pied pipers use smooth talk and convincing images instead of hypnotic musical tunes to lead people astray. And they achieve much greater coverage today — thanks to the modern media.

When the media amplify pied piper tunes, how responsible are they for the resulting damage?

Then and now, we like to follow a tune...
Then and now, we like to follow a tune...

This is the question I raise – and try to answer – in an op ed essay published this week by the Asian website Eye on Ethics.

‘When media amplify pied piper tunes…’ was inspired by a current experience in my native Sri Lanka. For the past few weeks, Sri Lankans have been shocked and dismayed to learn how thousands of middle-class adults have been hoodwinked by a confidence trickster who used paid advertisements in newspapers and on television to boost his image.

Sakvithi Ranasinghe, a populist tutor of English turned businessman, fled the country in mid-September 2008 after duping thousands of unsuspecting people to deposit money in an Ponzi-style investment scheme that offered abnormally high returns.

After the scandal broke, the media have been giving it a great deal of coverage. But most of it falls into follow-the-victim, blame-the-authorities style of journalism.

The main point of my essay: “Amidst the finger-pointing, arm-waving and name-calling, few have noticed the role of the media in promoting Ponzi schemes in the first place. Wittingly or otherwise, the media have helped amplify the mesmerizing tunes of pied pipers, and quietly collected substantial advertising revenue from such racketeers.”

Sakvithi's investment victims protest in Colombo - photo courtesy Daily Mirror
Sakvithi's investment victims protest in Colombo - photo courtesy Daily Mirror

I also comment in this essay the blurring of what used to be a sacred divide in the media – between editorial content and paid advertising. Here’s an excerpt:

“Many people experience media products as a whole, and lack the media literacy to separate news, commentary and paid commercials. Besides, the once clear demarcations have blurred in recent years.

“Television’s seamless blending of news, entertainment and commercials can leave even the most media-literate people somewhat perplexed. News bulletins are sponsored variously by sellers of insurance, milk food or detergents, while current affairs shows are branded by various commercial products or services.

“In newspapers, the steady rise of ‘advertorials’—product promotions neatly dressed up as editorial content—makes it harder to discern where one ends and the other begins.”

Read and comment on my full essay at Eye on Ethics website

Encounter with Anpanman: A superman made of bread!

Anpanman is one of the most popular anime cartoon series in Japan
Anpanman is one of the most popular anime cartoon series in Japan

Last month, on my way to the Tokyo headquarters of NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, I stopped at the Tokyo Tower for a bit of sight-seeing.

A communications tower located in Shiba Park, Minato, Tokyo, the Tokyo Tower is 332.6 meters (1,091 ft) tall – which makes it the tallest self-supporting steel structure in the world. Built in 1958, this Eiffel Tower-like structure supports an antenna that broadcasts television and radio signals for important Japanese media outlets including NHK, TBS and Fuji TV.

At the base of the tower, I had an unexpected encounter with an old friend. I know him as Gnana Katha Malliya, the name given to him in the Sinhalese adaptation that I watch on Sri Lankan television.

But everyone in Japan knows him by his original name: Anpanman. He is one of the most popular anime cartoon series (manga) in Japan. It is produced by Nippon Television Network Corporation.

Anpanman is the creation of Takashi Yanase, a Japanese writer of children’s stories. Each animated cartoon is approximately 24 minutes long, split into 2 episodes of approximately 12 minutes each.

Yanase has been writing Anpanman since 1968. He became inspired by the idea of Anpanman while struggling to survive as a soldier in World War II. He had frequently faced the prospect of starvation which made him dream about eating a bean-jam filled pastry called Anpan.

Anpanma is indeed a superman made by a baker. His head is a bun made by Jam Ojisan, a kind-hearted baker. He was created when a shooting star landed in Jam Ojisan’s oven while he was baking.

Anpanma’s name comes from the fact that he is a man with a head made of bread that is filled with bean jam called an anpan. His weakness is water or anything that makes his head dirty. He regains his health and strength when Jam Ojisan bakes him a new head and it is placed on his shoulders. Anpanman’s damaged head, with Xs in his eyes, flies off his shoulders once a new baked head lands.

The most endearing attribute of Anpanman is his sense of sacrifice. When he comes across a starving creature or person, he lets the unfortunate creature or person eat part of his head. Jam Ojisan has to keep baking an endless supply of heads for our hero.

And it gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘eat my head off’.

Baikinman is the villain in the stories. He comes from the “Germ World” and is the leader of the viruses. His name means “Germ Man”, and his ambition is to destroy Anpanman and turn the planet into another “Germ World”.

Read about other characters in Anpanma

Anpanman (R) and Baikinman at the Tokyo Tower
Anpanman (R) and Baikinman at the Tokyo Tower

According to the Wikipedia, as of September 2006, Anpanman’s books had collectively sold over 50 million copies in Japan.

The Anpanman television series is called Soreike! Anpanman (meaning ‘Go! Anpanman’) – it has been on the air in Japan since 1988. More than 800 episodes have been made to date. There are also 18 cinematic films featuring the characters.

According to the Japanese toy company Bandai, Anpanma is the most popular fictional character from age 0 to 12 years in Japan.

As I found out, Anpanman is such a cultural icon in Japan that his images adorn railway carriages, and there is an Anpanman museum opened in Yokohama in 2007.

Anpanman is also popular in many countries across Asia. He has a large following in China and Korea, where the comics and TV series have been a popular Japanese cultural export for years.

And, as it turns out, I’d been enjoying his exploits on Sri Lankan television for years without even knowing his original Japanese name! This reinforces the point I made in Feb 2008, writing about another favourite character Madeline – originally French, but whom I encountered on a visit to Manila and Los Banos in January this year.

I wrote: “It’s becoming impossible to discern or define what is ‘local’ anymore in this rapidly globalising and integrating world. Sociologists and communication researchers who split hairs about preserving ‘local content’ have a romanticised notion that is hard to find in the real world.”

Read my Feb 2008 blog: What’s local in our mixed up, globalised world?

Watch a sample story: Anpanman to Hamigakiman