IUCN at 60 finally crosses the ‘Other Digital Divide’…

iucn.org

iucn.org

This news just came in, from IUCN – International Union for Conservation of Nature:
“Gland, Switzerland, 29 January 2009 (IUCN) – The world’s oldest and largest environmental organization is launching a new opinion page on its website, starting today with an article on President Obama written by IUCN’s President, Mr. Ashok Khosla.”

The press release quoted Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Director General of IUCN as saying: “Because we are a science-based organization and because we are also a membership organization, we tend to avoid controversies. While we, as an organization, will maintain our scientific rigor and strict neutrality in defending nature conservation, we wanted to provide our experts and members a space to freely express themselves, get feedback from a wide audience and generate informed debates around the big issues of our time.”

Intrigued, I quickly looked up the new Opinion page, and found this welcome note from Mario Laguë, its Head of Global Communications: “IUCN is an organization that built its enviable reputation on science and on the contributions of all its members. This combination of the need for both accuracy and democratic legitimacy can at times slow down our capacity to react to current events or to express opinions that are not ‘official positions’. While it is clear that the views expressed on this page are not necessarily those of IUCN, we expect them to be in accordance with its vision of ‘a just world that values and conserves nature’.

This isn't quite what IUCN would approve, but still an interesting idea...

Not quite what IUCN would approve, but still an interesting idea...

This is what I would call cautious engagement, but it’s certainly a welcome move. The first contribution to the Opinions page is an article by Dr Ashok Khosla, President of IUCN, titled ‘A new President for the United States: We have a dream’. In his characteristic analytical and perceptive style, Ashok sums up the promise the new US administration holds for pursuing the conservation agenda worldwide.

The opinions page allows comments by readers — moderated, and limited to 300 characters per comment, just enough to make a point briefly. Two days after the Khosla essay was posted online, it had attracted four comments…or at least that many were approved by people at IUCN headquarters who review comments.

Beyond these specifics, the launch of an interactive opinions page marks a new era for IUCN which brings together over 1,000 governments, state agencies and non-governmental organisations committed to preserving life on Earth. It signifies that the alliance as a whole is finally crossing what I have called the ‘Other Digital Divide’ — the one that separates the Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants.

I’m delighted to see IUCN belatedly crossing this divide, which I’ve been advocating for some time. In September 2007, participating in IUCN’s Fourth Asian Conservation Forum in Kathmandu, Nepal, I argued that scientific merit and rational (and often very articulate) reasoning alone won’t win them enough new converts to achieve significant changes in lifestyles, attitudes and practices needed to change business as usual.

I said: “To be heard and heeded in the real world outside the charmed development and conservation circles, we need to employ a multitude of platforms, media and ICT tools.”

I added: “IUCN and other conservationists, with their rigorous scientific analysis expressed in technical papers, print publications and the occasional op ed article in broadsheet newspapers, have to navigate in this whirlpool (of new media) — and it’s not easy. But their choice is between engagement and marginalisation. The planet cannot afford the latter.

“I’m not suggesting that conservation scientists and organisations must drop their traditional advocacy methods and rush to embrace the new ICT tools. But they need to survey the new media landscape with an open mind and identify opportunities to join the myriad global conversations.”

It takes time to turn around a large ship like IUCN, but they have been trying. For example, in September 2008, days before its World Conservation Congress in Barcelona, Spain, IUCN launched its own YouTube channel to share its videos online. Four months later, viewing numbers for the three dozen short videos posted are still in double digits, but a start has been made.

So it’s good to have the grand old lady of global conservation enter the endlessly chatty, cacophonic world of web 2.0. Let’s hope she won’t remain too aloof or elite (what I call the ‘broadsheet newspaper mentality’ when much of the world has gone tabloid or ‘compact’), or try to be too prim and proper in expressing her own views. The conversations online tend to evolve fast, and can sometimes be rough, spontaneous or unpredictable. Excessive moderating can leave out the passion and rhetoric that drive some discussions – sanitising is not recommended except to avoid libel and slander. These attributes can be very disconcerting to well-established organisations that have so far carefully managed their corporate communications. Engaging new media requires losing a good part of that control.

But as our friends in Gland have now recognised, it’s no longer a choice – but an imperative.

September 2007 blog post: Crossing the Other Digital Divide – Challenge to Conservation Community

August 2008 blog post: Wanted: Development 2.0 to catch up with web 2.0!

Al Jazeera shares broadcast footage through Creative Commons

Al Jazeera has done it again.

They were the first mainstream news broadcaster to offer most of its content on YouTube. And now, they have started sharing their news footage online through a Creative Commons license.

Uncommon move, once again!

Uncommon move, once again!

This allows others to download, share, remix, subtitle and eventually rebroadcast (or webcast) the material originally gathered by Al Jazeera’s own reporters or freelancers. It has the potential to revolutionise how the media industry gathers and uses TV news and current affairs footage – a lucrative market where there are only a very few suppliers operating at global scale.

Al Jazeera’s uncommon sharing has started with the network’s coverage of the conflict in the Gaza strip, Palestine. Each day they plan to add the latest footage coming from Gaza. Additional Gaza footage from the start of the war is to be made available shortly.

This is the first time that video footage produced by a news broadcaster is released under the ‘Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution’ license which allows for commercial and non-commercial use.

“We have made available our exclusive Arabic and English video footage from the Gaza Strip produced by our correspondents and crews” says the introductory text in Al Jazeera Creative Commons Repository. “The ongoing war and crisis in Gaza, together with the scarcity of news footage available, make this repository a key resource for anyone.”

Gaza in darkness

Gaza in darkness

The website adds: “This means that news outlets, filmmakers and bloggers will be able to easily share, remix, subtitle or reuse our footage.”

Under the Creative Commons framework, Al Jazeera seeks no payment (licensing fees) of any kind. Users are free to reuse the material with acknowledgement to Al Jazeera. This means such users must attribute the footage to Al Jazeera (“but not in any way that suggests that we endorse you or your use of our work”). They are also required to leave the Al Jazeera logos intact, give reference to the Al Jazeera Creative Commons Repository, and the ‘Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution’ license itself.

Says Joi Ito, CEO of Creative Commons: “Video news footage is an essential part of modern journalism. Providing material under a Creative Commons license to allow commercial and amateur users to share, edit, subtitle and cite video news is an enormous contribution to the global dialog around important events. Al Jazeera has set the example and the standard that we hope others will follow.”

Gaza under siege...

Gaza under siege...

Professor Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons, has hailed this initiative: “Al Jazeera is teaching an important lesson about how free speech gets built and supported. By providing a free resource for the world, the network is encouraging wider debate, and a richer understanding.”

Al Jazeera – which means ‘the island’ or ‘the peninsula’ in Arabic – started out in 1995 as the first independent Arabic news channel in the world dedicated to providing comprehensive television news and live debate for the Arab world. Al Jazeera English, the 24-hour English-language news and current affairs channel, was launched in 2006 and is headquartered in Doha, Qatar. The organisation is the world’s first global English language news channel to be headquartered in the Middle East.

On this blog, we have been critical cheerleaders of Al Jazeera. We hailed their commitment to present the majority world’s voice and perspective in international news, but expressed our dismay on how hard Al Jazeera English channel’s aping of BBC World TV. We have sometimes questioned or challenged the ethics of how they sourced or filmed their stories.

Screams, amplified by media?

Screams, amplified by media?

But we have no hesitation in applauding their sharing of news footage. This move makes it easier for many television stations, websites and bloggers to access authentic moving images from the frontlines of news — we certainly hope Gaza marks only the beginning of AJ’s sharing.

It would also make commercial distributors of news and current affairs footage a bit nervous, for such material trades in hundreds or thousands of dollars per second. The logistical difficulties in gathering such footage, and sometimes the enormous risks involved to the news crews, partly explains the high cost. But the small number of suppliers and syndicators has made it possible for high prices to be maintained. If Al Jazeera sustains its sharing, that could mark the beginning of the end for another pillar of the mainstream media industry.

All images used in this blog post are courtesy Al Jazeera websites

Moji Riba and Mountain Eye: A digital time capsule

Moji Riba capturing living cultural heritage before it's too late...

A race against time: Moji Riba capturing living cultural heritage before it's too late...


When young Moji Riba started taking an interest in video cameras and filming, his father was a bit concerned.

“I don’t want my son to end up as a cameraman,” he said, reflecting on the fact that a videographer was considered to be no more than a skilled worker in some sections of Indian society.

He need not have worried. Moji went on to become both a well respected film maker and a teacher of mass communications. But more importantly, he has turned his skill into capturing and preserving the highly diverse cultures and traditions of his home state of Arunachal Pradesh in India’s north-east.

Working below the mainstream media’s radar and improvising with available resources, Moji has been engaged in this pursuit passionately and diligently for nearly a dozen years. These efforts finally came into global spotlight in November 2008 when he was selected for a prestigious Rolex Award for Enterprise.

Rolex recognised Moji for ‘helping to preserve and document the rich cultural heritage of India’s Arunachal Pradesh tribes’. He was among the 10 winners of the 2008 Rolex Awards, 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.

Moji Riba accepting Rolex Award 2008 in Delhi

Moji Riba accepting Rolex Award 2008 in Delhi

The award was presented to him at a simple ceremony held in New Delhi on 22 January 2009. I was glad to be a ‘fly on the wall’ on that joyous occasion, when Moji and fellow winner Romulus Whitaker were felicitated.

Accepting his award certificate and Rolex chronometer, Moji said: “In the end, this award is not about material rewards. Our most important gain was the process of the application and evaluation which were so intense and demanding that we have had to go through a lot of introspection.”

He added: “That process made us pause and ask ourselves: why are we doing our work, are we doing it right and what results are we going to achieve. That was worth a great deal for us.”

In his short and witty acceptance speech, Moji thanked everyone who has believed and supported his team’s work. His wife Purnima and two young children were there, along with several friends some of who had especially flown in for the occasion. Moji acknowledged his father, who, alas, didn’t live to share this proud moment.

Through a rigorous and discerning selection process, Rolex Awards support path-breaking work in progress, giving laureates new momentum and recognition. In the 2008 award cycle, Moji was one of 10 enterprising individuals chosen from among nearly 1,500 applicants in 127 countries by an independent panel of scientists, educators, economists and other experts.

Barbara Geary of Rolex Awards secretariat, Romulus Whitaker, Moji Riba & Yogesh Shah, CEO of Rolex India

L to R: Barbara Geary of Rolex Awards secretariat, Romulus Whitaker, Moji Riba & Yogesh Shah, CEO of Rolex India

Enthused by the Rolex Award, Moji will return to pursue his most ambitious project yet to preserve the living cultural heritage of Arunachal Pradesh, 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. Moji sees this richness “like a wonderful shawl woven in a myriad of colours and patterns”.

In recent years, this heritage has come under pressure from economic development, improved means of communication, the exodus of the young and the gradual renunciation of animist beliefs for mainstream religions. Instead of challenging these larger processes beyond anybody’s control, Moji is trying to harness digital technology to capture at least the essence of it for posterity.

That’s the basic idea behind the Mountain Eye Project, an unconventional initiative of his Centre for Cultural Research and Documentation (CCRD) based in Naharlagun. Magic Eye aims to create a ‘cinematic time capsule’ documenting a year in the life of 15 different ethnic groups.

Moji will 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. Beginning in early 2009, these novice film-makers will capture a broad range of the tribes’ oral histories, as well as the rituals, ceremonies and festivals that take place over a year in their villages.

Moji expects to collect about 300 hours of film per village, all of which will be recorded and archived in their native languages. He believes that the resulting 4,000+ hours of video will provide an invaluable record of life as it has been lived in his state for centuries. The project will also engage scholars belonging to the 15 tribes from the Rajiv Gandhi University at Itanagar to analyse and translate this vast amount of data and organize it in a publicly accessible database.

This innovative work epitomises the spirit of Rolex Awards, which nurture excellence in individuals who often work against many odds — determined women and men lighting a few candles on their own, instead of just cursing the darkness…

As I enjoyed the company of Moji, Romulus and their many admirers well into Delhi’s chilly evening, these words the Malaysian social and environmental activist Anwar Fazal kept turning in my mind: “In a world that is increasingly violent, wasteful and manipulative, every effort at developing islands of integrity, wells of hope and sparks of action must be welcomed, multiplied and linked…”

L to R - Yogesh Shah, Moji Riba, Nalaka Gunawardene

One more shot: L to R - Yogesh Shah, Moji Riba, Nalaka Gunawardene

Final Question: Who’s Afraid of a Slumdog Millionaire?

Who wants to be a Slumdog Millionaire?

Who wants to be a Slumdog Millionaire?

“All the world is a quiz, and all the men and women merely players.” That’s how the late Magnús Magnússon, iconic host of BBC TV’s long-running quiz Mastermind, once described the scope for his line of work.

These words came to my mind as I watched the new Danny Boyle movie Slumdog Millionaire in New Delhi on its opening night on 23 January 2009. For two hours, it held me spellbound and transported me, alternately, to the rough world of Mumbai slums and the glitzy world of television quizzing in Bollywood.

It’s a feel-good, rags-to-riches story about Jamal Malik, an 18 year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai who goes on to win a staggering 20 million Indian Rupees (a little over US$ 400,000) on India’s version of the popular TV game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? . The story, adapted from an award-winning novel Q&A(2005) by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, resonated strongly with me given my own, long-standing association with the overlapping worlds of quizzing and TV hosting.

As the story unfolds, we find out how and why Jamal – who has had little or no formal schooling and lacks ambition to win the quiz – got on the show: for a very personal reason. Through a series of amazing coincidences, well known in the movies that often ask us to suspend disbelief, the answer to each question he faces is deeply etched in his memory from his tumultuous past.

When the show breaks for the night, Jamal is only one question away from winning the show’s grand prize, which can make him a multi-millionaire. But the show’s organisers just can’t believe that an uneducated street kid (or a ‘slum dog’) has made it thus far on his own. So they call in the police.

As the police inspector says: “Doctors… Lawyers… never get past 60 thousand rupees. He’s on 6 million.” The question for everyone is: how does he do it?

Jamal is arrested on suspicion of cheating, and police torture him overnight to find out how. Desperate to prove his innocence, Jamal tells the story of his life in the slum where he and his brother Salim grew up, of their adventures together on the road, of vicious encounters with local gangs, and of Latika, the girl he loved and lost. Each chapter of his story reveals the key to the answer to one of the game show’s questions…

Watch the official movie trailer for Slumdog Millionaire:

Jamal returns the next evening – straight from police custody – to face the final question. The right answer would earn him 20 million; giving the wrong answer would lose all his winnings so far. By this time, his meteoric rise to the final question has made news headlines and tens of millions of TV viewers across India are watching the show and cheering for him. Among them is the young woman for whom Jamal got on the show in the first place…

The dramatic story ends on a happy note, in true Bollywood style, when boy meets his long-lost girl. One of its sub-plots offers insights into the high adrenalin world of quiz shows, which are now being played for high stakes.

Is that your final answer?

Is that your final answer?

The film uses the actual set of Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), the Indian version of the globally popular game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? which offers large cash prizes for correctly answering 15 (or in some countries, 12) consecutive multiple-choice questions of increasing difficulty. It represents the highly commercialised end of the quizzing world, which traditionally shunned cash rewards for performance. For example, the winner of BBC Mastermind receives nothing more than the coveted title.

I can’t remember exactly when I first took part in a general knowledge quiz — that is now buried too deep in the sediments of my memory. But I have been an active participant in the fascinating world of quizzing for at least three quarters of my 42 years, first as a quiz kid and then as a quiz master.

Slumdog Millionaire reinforces a point I have been making for years: not to equate knowledge with intelligence. Quizzes of every kind only test the general knowledge and quick recollection ability among participants — but not necessarily their intelligence. Measuring intelligence (that is, determining intelligence quotient, or IQ) is a specialised and complicated process. In any case, scientists acknowledge that such measurements are not always accurate because of cultural diversity and other variables. Although someone excelling in quiz would, in all likelihood, also have a high level of intelligence, quiz performance by itself is no measure of someone’s IQ.

Similarly, there is also no direct co-relation between the level of educational attainment and performance at general knowledge quizzes. While good quiz kids generally tend to be high achievers in their curriculum studies, that is not always so. I remember a London taxi driver once beating dozens of academics and professionals to become the overall winner in Brain of Britain, the BBC’s long-running radio quiz show. Apparently he used to read a great deal while waiting for hires.

Finally, I know of serious quiz enthusiasts who frown upon game shows like KBC as a dumbing down of the cerebral art. But there’s no denying that, by invoking popular culture, the new formats have hugely enhanced the audiences following quizzing on TV. For the true aficionados, there’s always Mastermind and other ‘pure’ forms of quizzing that remain above the fray of commerce. For the rest, there are shows that mix the quest for knowledge with the pursuit of happiness through material rewards.

Who’s afraid of the lure of 20 million Rupees?

Barack Obama: President of the New Media World – and watch out for those citizen journalists!

His own brand...

His own brand...

Inauguration Day is finally here! Today, 20 January 2009, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America.

Obama campaigned – and won – on the core promise of change. And even before he moved into the White House, he achieved many firsts. Among them was being the first American leader to understand the power of new media and to use it effectively to harness both campaign contributions and, eventually, votes.

On 6 November 2008, soon after the election results were confirmed, we noted how Obama had just been elected ‘President of the New Media world’. I explained: “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.”

Of course, others had different takes on the same outcome. One of the funniest was by The Onion, which proclaimed: Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.’ It read, in part: “African-American man Barack Obama, 47, was given the least-desirable job in the entire country Tuesday when he was elected president of the United States of America. In his new high-stress, low-reward position, Obama will be charged with such tasks as completely overhauling the nation’s broken-down economy, repairing the crumbling infrastructure, and generally having to please more than 300 million Americans and cater to their every whim on a daily basis.”

The sheer magnitude of Obama’s challenges has become clearer in the weeks following the historic election. While the economy will certainly dominate his agenda, he will also have to live up to the many expectations of hope that his campaign sparked off in hundreds of millions of people — and not just in the United States.

How will the ‘President of the New Media world’ remain engaged with the millions of conversations taking place 24/7 on the web and through mobile devices? Is this realistically possible given his roles as the chief executive of beleaguered America, Inc., and commander-in-chief of the world’s only superpower?

Already, there is much interest whether security concerns and legal requirements will allow Obama to keep using his BlackBerry, to which he admits being addicted. “I’m still clinging to my BlackBerry,” Obama said only a few days ago in an interview with The New York Times. “They’re going to pry it out of my hands.”

The new face of Hope

The new face of Hope

More to the point, how long will the mainstream media’s honeymoon with the new President last? And how will citizen journalists, many of who cheerled Obama in his long and arduous campaign, now relate to their man in Washington DC? Can the Obama Administration strike deals with citizen journalists as every administration has done with the mainstream media over the decades? Outside the strict security cocoon of the White House, will this presidency ever be able to have any moments ‘off the record’ with every digitally connected person being a potential citizen journalist?

Remember how his comments about “bitter” small-town Americans clinging to their guns and religion — uttered at a ticket-only and supposedly no-media San Francisco fund-raiser during the campaign — came to be publicised? And that, too, by a pro-Obama blogger writing on the openly pro-Democratic blogger site Huffington Post!

Then there’s the power of moving images moving around online as broadband rolls out across the planet, and speeds improve to support real time video-watching. The day Americans went to the polls to elect Obama, we recalled the hugely popular Obama Girl (‘I got a crush on Obama’) – an internet viral video, first posted on YouTube in June 2007 – and asked Can this little video change history? We had our answer within 24 hours.

While Obama Girl was a well-edited, slick campaign-boosting video released online, the thousands of citizen-filmed videos being posted online are not. And yet, in that no-frills mode, some bring out public interest concerns that have implications for public policy debates and/or law enforcement.

A current example is the sad case of Oscar Grant, a young, unarmed black man who was fatally shot by police officers while laying face-down on a BART subway platform in Oakland, California, on 31 December 2008. Several citizens filmed the incident on their mobile phones. Three separate videos, circulating online at a rapid pace, show various angles and stages of the incident. See one of them here. These have already put the spotlight on police conduct and may influence the judicial process.

President Obama arrives at the White House to lead the executive of a nation that is unlike any his predecessors faced. His inauguration will be the most digitised, but that’s only the beginning. For four or eight years, Obama’s every move, word and gesture will be captured, dissected and debated to exhaustion by admirers and detractors alike. And his administration will be under scrutiny by thousands of citizen journalists who don’t share much except the digital platforms and social networks on which they post their impressions.

Welcome to the New Media Presidency. The hard work – and real fun – begin now!

Watch this cyberspace…

Vigil for Lasantha: Challenges of keeping the flame alive

Too little, too late? Civil society candlelight vigil for Lasantha Wickramatunga

Too little, too late? Civil society candlelight vigil for Lasantha Wickramatunga

This evening, I quietly crossed a personal threshold. For the first time in my 42 years, I joined a street protest: a candlelight vigil for the slain newspaper editor and investigative journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga.

As I have explained elsewhere: “I’m strongly committed to promoting media freedom, but have never been the placard-carrying, slogan-shouting type. Street activism is necessary — but not sufficient. I’ve been more interested in studying trends and conditions, trying to anticipate what the next big threats, challenges and opportunities are, and how best we can respond to them.”

So I went to the vigil more for Lasantha the person and less for any organised effort. The invitation I received by SMS and email from several sources asked us to gather outside Colombo’s Vihara Maha Devi (formerly Victoria) Park at 5.15 pm. It was going to be a ‘joint civil society protest’ against Lasantha’s killing and the erosion of media freedom, democracy and human rights.

It turned out to be a well-intended but poorly-planned event lacking in vision and dynamism, perhaps a bit like our (very) civil society entities themselves. The couple of hundred people who joined it came mainly from Colombo’s high society, the ones who faithfully lapped up every word that Lasantha churned out week after week for nearly 15 years. Ironically, Lasantha and his newspaper were only loosely associated with this kind of (very) civil society – fellow companions on a shared journey, but not necessarily agreeing on priorities or strategies.

Missing from this gathering were the ordinary people and the grassroots end of the civil society spectrum – the ones who are bearing the brunt of our mismanaged economy, pervasive corruption and decaying public institutions. Some of these people turned up on their own initiative at Lasantha’s funeral service and/or the funeral itself, even if the latter event was shamefully hijacked by opportunistic political parties. (As one blogger noted, politicians of all colours and hue love dead bodies.)

I remembered the battered face of an old lady who sat through the entire funeral service – and then left quietly, without even lining up with the rest of the crowd to take one last look at Lasantha as he lay amidst flowers. I remembered the handful of men and women dressed in bright coloured clothes – standing out amidst the sea of white or black clad people – who I later found out came from the Kotahena area and were part of Lasantha’s home town church.

Lighting candles was good. Keeping the flame alive is harder...

Lighting candles was good. Keeping the flame alive is harder...


No one had sent SMS or emails asking them to turn up. Some of them might not have been readers of English newspapers, which circulate among a numerically small but socially and economically influential section of Lankan society. They came because they felt the fallen man had stood up and spoken out for them.

In comparison, the candlelight vigil was decidedly upmarket. Nothing wrong in that, for the chattering class is very much part of our society and have the same rights to dissent and protest. In some countries, the upper middle class even provides vision, articulation and leadership to mass struggles. Ours, sadly, is more characterised by part-time activists who move more in the cocktail circuits grumbling about everything yet doing precious little to change the status quo. Indeed, some of them in their day jobs benefit personally from the prevailing corruption and nepotism, no matter which political party is in office.

The vigil’s organisers – it wasn’t clear who exactly they were – had painstakingly got the material ready: a large painting of Lasantha, black cloth bands and, of course, candles. But they hadn’t given enough thought to the location. We initially gathered and spent over half an hour on a stretch of road (Green Path) where only motorists passed by, but absolutely no pedestrians. Then someone thought of moving to the nearby roundabout which was a more visible, strategic location.

Not perfect, but better. By then, dusk was beginning to fall. We moved unhurriedly, chatting among ourselves, and slowly converged on a wide pavement. There, one by one, we started planting our candles on the ground in front of Lasantha’s picture. It was a moving moment captured in many still cameras and a handful of video cameras.

There we lingered for another hour or more, chatting with each other — and not necessarily about the lofty or somber matters. I was glad to catch up with several friends or associates active in artistic, journalistic or intellectual circles. I saw everybody else doing the same.

One of them, a human rights activist now turned peacenik, asked me many eager questions about blogging. A columnist for an English daily, he isn’t active online and his organisation is notably inept when it comes to mobilising the web for their cause. In his early 50s, he evidently hasn’t crossed what I call the Other Digital Divide. And he typifies the face of our organised civil society – a motley collection of do-gooders who are liberal, mostly secular, passionate yet largely ineffective in their advocacy for reform and change. They just can’t mobilise people power.

Candles burn out, but the image captured will live for longer...

Candles burn out, but the image captured will live for longer...


Admittedly, it’s a quantum leap from the one-way street in op ed pages of mainstream print newspapers to the far less orderly, sometimes near-anarchic and often unpredictable world of the blogosphere. This might explain why a majority of Lankan civil society groups stay within their comfort zone and don’t engage the world of web 2.0

On the other hand, the younger, digitally-empowered activists who engage the web with technical savvy and passion are often too impatient or inexperienced (or both) with the necessarily tedious processes of institutional development – such as legal registration, financial management and putting in place mechanisms for the very ideals they advocate in governments and corporations: proper governance and accountability.

Fortunately, this offline/online divide is blurring, even if only slowly. Groups like Beyond Borders, which originated and found their feet in the new media world, are becoming more institutionalised. If they sustain themselves (and don’t lose their sharp edge), they can bridge the online world with the offline realities and needs.

Meanwhile, as some doggedly persistent citizen journalists and new media activists have shown in the days following Lasantha’s killing, it is now possible to stir up public discussion and debate on issues of rights, freedoms and democracy using dynamic websites, blogs, online video and other tools of web 2.0. See, for example, this reflection by the Editor of Groundviews.

Whether they are active online or offline, committed activists in Sri Lanka have their work cut out for them. If the candlelight vigil for Lasantha is an indication, far more work needs to be done in strategy, unity, networking and technology choices. The old order needs to pause, reflect and change their ways. If they can’t or won’t, at a minimum they must get out of the way. (Remember what happened to those dinosaur species that were vegetarian and harmless? They too went the way of T rex…)

Earlier on in the evening, as we were heading to the roundabout with burning candles in our hands, the wind suddenly picked up. Many of us struggled to keep the flame burning, sometimes shielding it with one palm. It wasn’t quite easy to do this while walking forward, watching our step. Amidst all this, we lost sense of where we were heading. We just followed those immediately in front of us, unsure who – if anyone – was leading. Not smart or strategic.

As I drove home, I realised how symbolic that candle-in-the-wind moment had been. Keeping the flames of truth, justice and fairness alive is hard enough. It becomes that much harder when winds of tribalism threaten to snuff it out. And in the thickening darkness, how do we make sure we are headed in the right direction?

The night is young and storm clouds are still gathering. We have miles to go before we can sleep.

Related posts:
August 2007: People Power: Going beyond elections and revolutions
November 2007: True people’s power needed to fight climate change
November 2007: Protect journalists who fight for social and environmental justice!

MEAN Sea Level: An ironic film from the frontline of climate change

What does sea level rise mean to you and me?

What does sea level rise mean to you and me?

In October 2008, while attending an Asian regional workshop on moving images and changing climate in Tokyo, I had the chance to see Indian writer and film-maker Pradip Saha‘s latest film, MEAN Sea Level.

As I wrote at the time: “The few of us thus became the first outsiders to see the film which I found both deeply moving and very ironic. With minimal narration, he allows the local people to tell their own story. There’s only one expert who quickly explains just what is going on in this particularly weather-prone part of the world.”

The world’s rich are having a party, and millions living in poverty are the ones footing the bill. This is the premise of the film, which looks at the impact of climate change on the inhabitants of Ghoramara and Sagar islands in the the Sundarban delta region in the Bay of Bengal.

Almost 7,000 inhabitants have been forced to leave Ghoramara in the last 30 years, as the island has become half in size. The biggest island, Sagar which hosted refugees from other islands all these years is witnessing massive erosion now. 70,000 people in the 9 sea-facing islands are at the edge of losing land in next 15 years. For these people climate change is real.

As the sea level rises and takes with it homes and livelihoods in the delta, the villagers of Sagar are paying a hefty price for a problem that they did not create. Meanwhile, middle class India and the political elite are becoming aware of the problem of global warming, but prefer to look the other way.

I’m glad to note that the film is now being screened to various audiences and making ripples. By showing people – including those still not convinced about climate change – what sea level rise is already doing to poor people, the film is stretching the limits of debate and focusing attention on the need to act, not just talk.

It’s also creating ripples in environmental and/or human rights activist circles where all too often, passionate discussions don’t go very far beyond the rhetoric to bring in the real world voices and testimonies. Pradip’s film accomplishes this with authenticity and empathy yet, mercifully, without the shrill and overdose of analysis found in activist-made films. It powerfully and elegantly tells one of the biggest stories of our times.

Pradip Saha

Pradip Saha

In November 2008, Pradip showed and talked about his film at a screening organised by SACREDMEDIACOW (SMC), an independent postgraduate collective on Indian media research and production (and much more) at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. Before it started, Pradip told his audience to ‘forget that this is a documentary about climate change’ and just watch.

As one member of his audience, Sophia Furber, later wrote: “The film’s approach to climate change is completely non-didactic. Mean Sea Level is no acronym-fest sermon or disaster story, but an intimate portrait of a way of life which is on the verge of going underwater.”

In his day job as editor of Down to Earth magazine, published from India with a global outlook, Pradip excels in wading through the (rapidly expanding) sea of jargon and acronyms surrounding many topics related to science, environment and development. In typical style, his recently started blog is named alphabet soup @ climate dinner.

Read Sophia Furber’s account of SOAS screening in London

The more Pradip shares his film, the more people who notice the irony that I experienced in Tokyo. A short review by the Campaign against Climate Change says: “There is a greater irony. These poor people got nothing out of the economy that created climate change, nor do they contribute to global warming. Mean Sea Level is a testimony of reckless political economy of our times. Climate change is real, and only a sign of our recklessness.”

Last heard, Pradip was planning to screen MEAN Sea Level on Sagar Island so that the story’s participants can see the film for themselves. The idea was to power the event entirely through renewable energy sources, such as solar power.

I hope he will soon place his film – or at least highlights/extracts – online on YouTube or another video sharing platform. This film is too important to be confined to film festivals and public screenings. Whether it would also be broadcast on television in India and elsewhere, we’ll just have to wait and see. I won’t hold my breath on that one…


Down to Earth: Is climate changing? Yes, say Sundarbans Islanders

International Herald Tribune, 10 April 2007: Living on the Edge: Indians watch their islands wash away

Look carefully...

Look carefully...

Goodbye, Lasantha Wickramatunga – and long live Siribiris!

No discussion or debate...

Colombo General Cemetery: No discussion or debate...

This is a view of Colombo’s main cemetery, the final resting place for many residents of Sri Lanka’s capital and its suburbs. I took this photo less than a month ago, when I visited a grave on a quiet morning.

The late Bernard Soysa, a leading leftist politician and one time Minister of Science and Technology, once called it ‘the only place in Colombo where there is no discussion or debate’.

This afternoon, family, friends and many sorrowful admirers of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the courageous Sri Lankan newspaper editor who was brutally slain last week in broad daylight, took him there — and left him behind amidst the quiet company.

But not before making a solemn pledge. All thinking and freedom-loving people would continue to resist sinister attempts to turn the rest of Sri Lanka into a sterile zombieland where there is no discussion and debate. In other words, rolling out the cemetery to cover the rest of the island.

The last laugh?

The last laugh?

Silencing Lasantha was the clear aim of cowardly gunmen who intercepted him on his way to work and shot him at pointblank. Tarzie Vittachi, the first Lankan newspaper editor to be forced into exile 50 years ago for freely expressing his views on politically sensitive issues, once called such attacks ‘censorship by murder’. (Alas, since Tarzie uttered those words in 1990, shooting the messenger has become increasingly common in Sri Lanka.)

Rex de Silva, the first editor that Lasantha worked for (at the now defunct Sun newspaper) in the late 1970s, has just cautioned that Lasantha’s murder is the beginning of ‘the sound of silence’ for the press in Sri Lanka. Can this sound of silence be shattered by the silent, unarmed majority of liberal, peace-loving Lankans who were represented at the funeral service and the Colombo cemetery today?

And would they remember for all time Edmund Burke’s timeless words: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”?

How many would actually read, absorb and heed the deeply moving words of Lasantha’s one last editorial, copies of which were distributed at the cemetery and the religious service before that?

That editorial, which appeared in The Sunday Leader on 11 January 2009, embodies the best of Lasantha Wickrematunga’s liberal, secular and democratic views.

As I wrote in another tribute published today by Himal Southasian and Media Helping Media: “I have no idea which one – or several – of his team members actually penned this ‘Last Editorial’, but it reads authentic Lasantha all over: passionate and accommodating, liberal yet uncompromising on what he held dear. I can’t discern the slightest difference in style.”

“And there lies our hope: while Lasantha at 51 lies fallen by bullets, his spirit and passion are out there, continuing his life’s mission. That seems a good measure of the institutional legacy he leaves behind. If investigative journalism were a bug, the man has already infected at least a few of his team members…”

Read the full story of The Sunday Leader team’s courage under fire

Read The Sunday Leader‘s tribute to its founding editor on 11 January 2009: Goodbye Lasantha

Much has been written and broadcast in the past 100 or so hours since Lasantha’s journey was brutally cut short by as-yet-unidentified goons who have no respect for the public interest or have no clue how democracies sustain public discussion and debate. I’m sure more will be written – some in outrage and others in reflection – in the coming days and weeks.

puncturing egos for 40 years

Siribiris (left): puncturing egos for 40 years

As we leave Lasantha to his rest, I remember Siribiris. For those unfamiliar with the name, Siribiris is an iconic cartoon character created by Camillus Perera, a veteran Sri Lankan political cartoonist who has been in the business as long as I have been alive.
Siribiris represents Everyman, who is repeatedly hoodwinked and taken for granted by assorted politicians and businessmen who prosper at the common man’s expense. The only way poor, unempowered Siribiris can get back at them is to puncture their egos and ridicule them at every turn. And boy, does he excel in that!

It’s no surprise that Lasantha – the bête noire of shady politicians and crooked tycoons – was very fond of Siribiris. Perhaps he saw his own life’s work as extending that of Siribiris in the complex world of the 21st century. That he did it with aplomb and gusto – and had great fun doing it, sometimes tongue stuck out at his adversaries – will be part of Lasantha’s enduring legacy. (As his last editorial reminded us, in 15 years of investigative journalism on a weekly basis, no one has successfully sued the newspaper for defamation or damages.)

So Goodbye, Lasantha. And Long live Siribiris!

Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Courtesy: Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka

Lasantha Wickramatunga: In Memoriam

Read blog post of 12 January 2009: Goodbye Lasantha – and long live Siribiris!

Farewell & fare forward...

Farewell & fare forward...

Saluting the memory of courageous newspaper editor, fearless investigative journalist, jovial human being and my former colleague Lasantha Wickramatunga, Editor in Chief of The Sunday Leader, Sri Lanka, shot dead by four gunmen within sight of his newspaper office. Today, we lost the real Leader of the Opposition.

RSF: Outrage at fatal shooting of newspaper editor in Colombo
Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka, news coverage: Lasantha shot dead
Dying for Journalism: TIME pays tribute to its reporter in Sri Lanka

Himal Southasian tribute: Unbowed and Unafraid

For once, I’m at a loss for words. When prose fails, we must turn to verse which is always more potent.
I remember Martin Niemoeller (image, below).
I remember Niyi Osundare (text, below).
I remember Adrian Mitchell.

This is the second time I have had to cite this poem in this dreadful week

This is the second time I have had to cite this poem in this deadful week

Not My Business
by Niyi Osundare

They picked Akanni up one morning
Beat him soft like clay
And stuffed him down the belly
Of a waiting jeep.

What business of mine is it
So long they don’t take the yam
From my savouring mouth?

They came one night
Booted the whole house awake
And dragged Danladi out,
Then off to a lengthy absence.

What business of mine is it
So long they don’t take the yam
From my savouring mouth?

Chinwe went to work one day
Only to find her job was gone:
No query, no warning, no probe –
Just one neat sack for a stainless record.

What business of mine is it
So long they don’t take the yam
From my savouring mouth?

And then one evening
As I sat down to eat my yam
A knock on the door froze my hungry hand.

The jeep was waiting on my bewildered lawn
Waiting, waiting in its usual silence.

Attack on Sirasa TV: Who wants to create a headless Sri Lankan nation?

Sri Lanka's most popular channel and ratings-leader

Sirasa TV: Sri Lanka's most popular channel and ratings-leader

‘Sirasa’ literally means ‘head’ in Sinhala. In the past 15 years, ‘Sirasa’ has also emerged as one of the most popular brands in Sri Lanka. It is the flagship name of Sri Lanka’s leading private TV broadcaster, MTV Channel (Private) Limited.

Sri Lankans woke up last morning to the disturbing news that their Sirasa was on fire. In the early hours of 6 January 2009, Sirasa group’s main studio and transmission complex was attacked, ransacked and bombed. A heavily armed and masked gang of around 20 persons had stormed the premises, located in Pannipitiya just outside Colombo, held the night staff at gunpoint and destroyed the main control room.

According to news reports, the attackers fled after inflicting targeted damage to the station’s nerve centre. They were not detected or apprehended in spite of Colombo being under heavy police protection to guard against terrorist attacks.

Within hours, the attack was widely condemned by local and international groups. It also sparked intense discussion and debate online as to who did it, and why. One blogger, who was particularly active on the topic, noted: “The culprits were not identified. The motives were apparent. Somebody badly wants to silence Sirasa TV.”

too little, too late? Image courtesy Daily Mirror

Crime investigation: too little, too late? Image courtesy Daily Mirror

That much is clear: here was yet another case of shooting the messenger, a worrying trend that has become almost entrenched in parts of South Asia. Never mind the information content and its analysis; just attack – and hopefully silence – the messenger bearing bad news.

In other words, if you don’t like what you see in the mirror – which is what media is to society – just kick it, shatter it and hammer it into dust so that it won’t reflect anymore. Destroy all the mirrors of the land, and we’ll finally be the fairest and prettiest in the whole world. That seems to be the perverse logic that fuels attacks of this nature.

Reporters Without Borders strongly condemned the attack. “Violence and threats against such privately-owned media outlets and journalists trying to impartially report on the conflict must stop,” the worldwide press freedom organisation said. “The government must quickly find and punish those responsible for this latest attack and see the network is compensated.

It added: “The attack seems to be because its coverage was not ‘patriotic’ enough. The network is one of the country’s few, and very popular, independent news sources. The incident recalls the November 2007 attack on the Leader Publication printing works, for which nobody has been punished.”

RSF also noted that the MTV/Sirasa network has been criticised “for not giving enough air-time to recent government victories over the rebels, with state-run media outlets accusing it of reporting a suicide attack in Colombo on 2 January, the day the army captured the rebel capital of Kilinochchi, in northern Sri Lanka. A bomb was thrown at the network’s offices just after news of the government victory was broadcast.”

In late 2008, RSF had ranked Sri Lanka among the bottom 10 countries for its media freedom. At No 165 among 173 countries assessed, Sri Lanka is in the company of Cuba, Burma, North Korea, China and Iran. (Interestingly, the latter two are among Sri Lanka’s key donors of bilateral aid or credit.)

Attacking the untamed and pluralistic media is characteristic of these bottom-ranked countries and their intolerant regimes. That is what happened to Geo TV network in Pakistan in 2007-2008, when it bore news that the military dictator General Musharraf and his cronies didn’t like. In March 2007, the station was broadcasting live images of anti-Musharraf street protests when the riot police stormed the Islamabad offices of Geo, the country’s most popular TV network and caused damage. (In 2008, RSF ranked Pakistan at No 152 among 173 countries for its media freedom.)

Within hours, Musharraf had “apologized for the raid…and indicated that the action had been executed without his approval”. But Hamid Mir, the station’s bureau chief, said that was insufficient. “They (police) wanted to destroy this newsroom…They were trying to send a message to the whole media by attacking Geo TV.”

In some respects, Sirasa TV is Sri Lanka’s own version of Geo TV. The latter’s resolve amidst much adversity from the Pakistan’s military rulers earned it worldwide praise, even if it had to pay a heavy price for such defiance. The station was driven off the air for some time in late 2007, and later its offshore transmissions from Dubai were also suspended under pressure from Pakistani government. But Geo had the last laugh…

Sirasa's branding of 24/7 news

News 1st: Sirasa's branding of 24/7 news

We can only hope that the Sirasa TV situation will not evolve to such drastic levels. Surprising its viewers (and perhaps also its attackers?), the Sirasa group’s television channels managed to get back on their feet within a few hours of the attack – for much of January 6, they ran a combined transmission that showed the extent of damage and aired many and varied comments of politicians, artists, intellectuals and ordinary viewers shocked by this turn of events.

MTV channel head Chevaan Daniel was quoted as saying that “it would be a while before normal programming can be resumed”. He says the current broadcasting set-up was due to the ingenuity of the engineering staff of MTV.

This isn’t the first time Sirasa group has literally risen from the ashes. A fire broke out at the same studio complex on on 6 January 2001, which was not linked to arson, but nevertheless caused massive damage. On that occasion, state-owned TV channel Rupavahini – which lags behind Sirasa TV in Sri Lankan TV ratings by independent market research firms – came to its gutted rival’s help. The one-time monopoly broadcaster loaned some of its transmission facilities to Sirasa to get back on the air, but it took the latter station weeks to resume its regular schedule.

Just a few years later, such inter-station solidarity seems unthinkable. The Sri Lankan broadcast media landscape is now so polarised between those who uncritically support the government, and those who choose to practise the time-honoured principles of journalism, such as consulting multiple sources and accommodating a multitude of opinions. Sirasa group, and its news operation branded as News 1st, operate on this basis: their slogan is ‘we report, you decide’.

Journalists in Colombo protest the attack on Sirasa, 6 January 2009 - photo courtesy Daily Mirror

Journalists in Colombo protest the attack on Sirasa, 6 January 2009 - photo courtesy Daily Mirror

It’s precisely that kind of rational and independent thinking that the attackers on Sirasa would rather not allow. Media and human rights activists have already said that the attack on Sirasa is far more than an act of violence against an individual media organisation. Indeed, it goes far deeper: it’s an attempt to zombify a society, to turn 20 million Sri Lankans into a headless nation that can then be herded, remote-controlled and led in any direction to the beat of war drums…with no one asking irritating questions.

Tragically, sections of the private media have already fallen in line to such an extent that they behave so much like docile school boys and girls. The country has 3 state-owned TV channels and a dozen privately owned channels, all broadcasting signals free to air, and some more cable or DTH channels available to paying subscribers. But this proliferation of channels – the product of (imperfect yet useful) media liberalisation since the early 1990s – has not been matched by a corresponding plurality of views.

If their station logos were suddenly removed, I would find it hard to discern between state TV and some private – and supposedly independent – TV channels!

To be fair, all private channels – both radio and TV – have reasons to mind their step. They operate on broadcast licenses granted on governmental discretion. What I wrote in a commentary in November 2006 still holds: “When it comes to radio and TV broadcasting, private operators are completely at the government’s mercy. The highly discretionary broadcast licensing system has always lacked transparency, accountability and consistency from the time private broadcasting was first permitted in 1992. Since then, several governments have been in office, and while election manifestos regularly promised the creation of a broadcasting authority, such a body has not yet materialised.”

A further attempt to regulate private TV broadcasters in October 2008 was delayed only because media activists petitioned Supreme Court which ordered further study and hearings.

In this turbulent, unfair and unjust media scenario, Sirasa group’s channels have tried hard to uphold the people’s right to information, offering a platform for a diversity of views, and opportunity for public discussion and debate. The station telecasts in three main languages on separate channels: MTV Channel One in English, Sirasa TV in Sinhala and Shakthi TV in Tamil. No other station has such dedicated channels for each of the country’s three official languages. Programme content of the channels includes news, educational programmes, family entertainment, music, sports, teledramas and game shows.

Sirasa group has been an innovator and pathfinder pushing the limits of Sri Lankan broadcasting. For the past decade, it has been a case of the group’s bouquet of radio and TV channels leading and all others struggling to follow. Sirasa innovates; all others emulate or shamelessly copy!

When innovation led to popularity and market domination, that inevitably inspired much jealousy among its less successful rivals. Especially the former monopolists of state radio and state TV have been very bitter about being beaten in their own game by this relatively young, dynamic and innovative channel. I call them tired old aunties without eyeballs. At their age, they need to watch out: too much of sour grapes can cause serious indigestion.

It’s not surprising that, unable to compete in the marketplace of ideas, they should resort to patriotism, the usual last resort of the scoundrel. As RSF noted in its statement: “The state-owned media has recently attacked MTV/MBC for supposedly being “unpatriotic,” which has forced some of its journalists to censor themselves or flee the country.”

Yet amidst all the frustration, envy, finger-pointing and fist-waving, how many of Sirasa’s detractors and competitors have paused to think why Sirasa remains the ratings leader in radio and television broadcasting in Sri Lanka? Why does this channel have such wide appeal among the various ethnic and religious groups who call Sri Lanka home, and from across the social and education spectrum? To begin their search, they might start looking in the mirror.

Meanwhile, the vocal minority of Sirasa’s critics – some of who have already tried to justify the latest attack – would do well to remember that there’s a cheaper, entirely legal and far more civilised way to silence a TV channel they find objectionable or even offensive for one reason or another.

It’s a little gadget called the remote control. Try it once in a while.

Declaration of interest: I consider myself part of Sirasa’s extended family. I have been a regular ‘TV pundit’ on Sirasa airwaves for at least a decade, and in 2008 co-produced a TV debate series called Sri Lanka 2048 which explored choices for creating a more sustainable Sri Lanka over the next 40 years. This doesn’t mean that I uncritically cheer everything they do. As my friends at Sirasa know very well, I don’t always agree with them, but we respect each other’s right to hold differing opinions.