TWTYTW: Our own (very subjective) list of best and worst of 2009…

All journalism is subjective; it’s just that some of us are better at disguising it! As we head for the end of 2009, we at Moving Images blog take one last fleeting, impressionistic, judgemental and, yes, darn too opinionated look at the past 365 days. That Was The Year That Was…and here’s our list of superlatives!

Best news and biggest relief (national): Sri Lanka’s nearly three decades long and brutal civil war finally ended in mid May 2009 – and not a moment too soon. It rightly created headlines around the world, and also made it to TIME’s top 10 news of the year. Within 24 hours of that much-awaited news, I wrote and published one of my most emotionally charged essays ever, Memories of War, Dreams of Peace. I probably spoke for a whole generation of Lankans: “As we stand on the threshold of peace, I am overwhelmed with memories of our collective tragedy. I hope we can once again resume our long suspended dreams for a better today and tomorrow.” With the hindsight of seven months, I still want to believe every word…although it’s become increasingly hard to cling on to such ideals.

Biggest disappointment (national): Ending the Lankan war entailed tremendous effort, cost and sacrifice, and we all knew that consolidating peace and restoring normalcy were going to be even harder – delivering peace dividends is no mean task. As weeks became months, our cautious optimism slowly turned into disappointment and dismay: it became clear that the triumphalist government was treating the historic ‘open moment’ simply as as blank cheque to do pretty much what it wanted. My May 19 essay on Dreams of Peace had ended with a question that resonated with millions: “Would our leaders now choose the Mandela Road or the Mugabe Road for the journey ahead?” Can we please ask that question again…? Hello, anybody listening?

Most evocative piece of writing: Without competition, that distinction goes to The Last Editorial by Lasantha Wickrematunga, the courageous investigative journalist (and de facto leader of the political opposition) in Sri Lanka, who was brutally slain on January 8 while on his way to work. That editorial, which appeared post-humously in his newspaper The Sunday Leader on 11 January 2009, embodies the best of Lasantha’s liberal, secular and democratic views. Nearly a year after the dastardly daylight crime, his killers have not been caught and independent media remains under siege even in post-war Sri Lanka.

Most memorable quote: While people like Lasantha articulated our cherished dreams for a truly pluralistic society, our billion+ neighbours in India have been building it for over six decades. It’s still a work in progress, and the ideals need occasional reiteration. This is precisely what classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai did when she ran as an independent candidate when India conducted the world’s largest democratic election in April-May. She lost, but wrote one of the most insightful pieces on what it means to live amidst the huge cultural, social and political diversity in India: “We are a salad-like melange of cultures and not a soup where all variations get reduced to a homogeneous pulp—this, to me, is our greatest strength.” (She inspired my own essay: Sri Lanka – Spice Island or Bland Nation?)

Biggest disappointment (global):
The UN climate conference in Copenhagen, held in December and officially dubbed COP15, ended up in what many activists felt was a cop-out. Greenpeace echoed the frustration of many when they said at the end of what was, at its start, billed as the ’14 days to seal seal history’s judgment on this generation‘: “Don’t believe the hype, there is nothing fair, ambitious or legally binding about this deal. The job of world leaders is not done. Today they shamefully failed to save us all from the effects of catastrophic climate change.” I was glad I wasn’t part of the mega event — I’ve burnt enough aviation fuel this year, but almost all events I participated in on three continents were more productive than the Danish debacle…

Biggest Under-achiever: If the world laboured a mountain and delivered a mouse in Copenhagen, the mid-wife of that process must surely have been the current UN chief Ban Ki Moon. More secretary than general, Ban is, in his own admission, the UN’s Invisible Man. All the top speech writers and PR agents in the world can’t animate this the perennially dull and dour diplomat. Not ideal change-maker when the world is racing against catastrophe. Kofi Annan, we miss you!

Most moving work of moving images: The world’s rich are having a party, and millions living in poverty are the ones footing the bill. This is the premise of Indian journalist and activist Pradip Saha’s latest film, MEAN Sea Level, 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. I found it both deeply moving and very ironic. With minimal narration, he allows the local people to tell their own story. As it turned out, these testimonies were lost on the bickering politicians in Copenhagen…

Best media stunts: We are a bit divided here. At a time of ever-shrinking attention spans, it takes much creativity and guts to grab the cacophonous media’s attention, especially for a good cause. Two very different men succeeded where many have failed. In February Bill Gates, the world’s top geek now working for its meek, released some mosquitoes at the TED 2009 conference to highlight the continuing grip that malaria has on the developing world, especially Africa. In October, climate crusader President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives held the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting to remind everyone of the watery future that awaits low lying island nations like his when climate change rises sea levels.

Biggest Irony: NASA announced in November that an unmanned space probe that was intentionally crashed on the Moon had discovered the presence of ‘significant amounts’ of water there. That bit of scientific evidence cost US$79 million to obtain…and was not the most comforting news for a planet that rapidly running short of usable freshwater. In the wake of the Apollo Moon landings in the late 1960s, misguided voters in Sri Lanka elected a government that promised ‘to bring rice even from the Moon’. When might we hear politicians promise us water from the Moon?

Well, that’s it folks — the highs and lows of 2009 according to the Blogger-in-Chief and his team of elves here at the Moving Images Media Empire. We’ve waded through our several dozen blog posts to come up with the above, and make no claims for being fair, balanced or comprehensive…

Indeed, we hope you don’t agree with all our picks, and invite you to express alternative – even dissenting – views. All comments that are not outright libellous or blatantly self-promotional will be published.

We take this opportunity to thank each and everyone who read our posts over the year — and especially those who left comments, sometimes radically disagreeing with our views. We also reiterate our pledge to frustrate those few persistent detractors who keep demanding to see our nationalistic, religious or other credentials…

May the cacophony continue and intensify in 2010!

Rust in Peace: Tribute to my old faithful Toshiba Satellite Pro A100

Dhara and Nalaka with their old faithful Toshiba, 24 Dec 2009 - Photo by Niroshan Fernando

For many of us, computers have become essential silicon extensions of our carbon selves — and we can’t imagine how we managed our work and leisure before their arriva. In my case, the attachment to my laptop goes beyond professional: it’s also my constant companion and travel partner.

So it’s akin to a death in the family when the old faithful finally goes the way of…all silicon. In 20 years of laptop use, I have mourned six: the average productive lifespan seems to be between three and four years. (Confession time: I have a cabinet full of very tired and fully expired laptops, mostly Toshiba.)

The latest calamity happened in early December, pushing me into a few days of digital turbulence just when I was trying to tie up various loose ends in what has been another hectic year. Fortunately, no data were lost, and I eventually managed a fairly orderly transfer.

It didn’t come entirely as a surprise. My Toshiba Satellite Pro (model A100) had been showing signs of wear and tear for a few months. The laptop screen is usually the first to develop problems of old age, but switching to a new machine is such a chore (and expense) that I was willing to live with an occasionally misbehaving display. But when bigger and deeper problems manifested – which our IT Manager Indika found were due to a malfunctioning motherboard – it was time to let go…

When I bought my latest Toshiba in mid 2006, I didn’t immediately like its metallic orange colour. I’d been using laptops with silver or electric blue coloured exteriors, and this was a clear departure from that range. But my female colleagues thought orange was rather ‘cool’. I didn’t easily warm up to this colour shift — until I realised the potential for some harmless fun.

Every few weeks, someone would ask me – inevitably, in the ICT circles that I move — whether I used Apple (the geekdom’s ultimate standard). For the past three and a half years, my honest yet confounding answer has been: ‘No, I’m perfectly happy with my Orange!’

Of course, my affection for the laptop was a lot more than skin deep. It has been an integral part of much of what I did professionally and personally in the past three and half years, both online and offline. My substantial volume of published output (op ed essays, book chapters, reviews and film scripts, etc.) took shape within it before flowing out in many and varied directions. I also generated a good deal of unpublished material, all of which is safely stored but not yet ready to see the light of day…

It was also the launch pad for this Moving Images blog, which I started from my friend Sue’s home in Washington DC in early Spring 2007.

It has travelled the world with me, going through hundreds of airports and keeping me much needed company in endless hotel rooms, conferences and meetings.

It has been my confidante in times of crisis – and the past 1,300 days have been among the most tumultuous in my personal and professional lives. While I’m not a social recluse, and cherish the company of my few close (human) friends, it’s sometimes nice to just pour my heart out to someone who listens, doesn’t judge and never resorts to wisecracks or amateur psychology…

So why do I then keep referring to such a trusted companion in the heartless third person as ‘it’? If ships and countries are decidedly female, what about computers that far more people in the world today relate to? That’s a good question, even if it brings up the heated – and as yet unresolved – debate among computer users on the correct gender of computers.

Assigning a gender isn’t that simple when I wasn’t the only regular user of the recently departed Toshiba. That is also another good reason why I was more attached to the last laptop than any of its predecessors: it’s the first machine that connected my Digital Native daughter Dhara to the internet. It arrived within days of her 10th birthday, and I finally ran out of excuses why she shouldn’t go online and get a digital life. (As I reported a few weeks ago, she has since made rapid progress.)

So it was rather apt that Dhara should come up with the perfect epitaph for our beloved, sorely missed silicon companion. It isn’t quite original, but sums up our shared sentiments very well: RIP: Rust In Peace…

PS: Rust in Peace is also the title of an interesting collection that New York magazine recently published of everyday stuff rendered obsolete in the first decade of this century. Among the 17 items listed are the fax machine, audio cassette, answering machine, cathode ray tube TV and incandescent bulb…

Asian Tsunami+5: How a packed train headed to disaster with no warning…

Scene of Peraliya train disaster - in Dec 2005 and Dec 2009 - Photos courtesy AFP

We tend to think of trains and railways as solid, tough objects. When the Asian Tsunami’s killer waves started rolling in without warning, the coastal residents of Telwatte and Peraliya areas in southern Sri Lanka thought a passing train offered them relative safety. They were dead wrong…

The train’s many tons of steel were no match for the enormous seismic energy that the sea waves were transmitting that day. There is no precise estimate of how many people perished on that train, ironically named Samudra Devi (Queen of the Sea) on the morning of 26 December 2004. The estimate ranges between 1,500 and 2,500 – some bodies were never recovered and washed into the sea. They joined a total of nearly 40,000 people dead or missing in Sri Lanka.

This is how the Wikipedia introduces the incident: “The Queen of the Sea rail disaster, the greatest train crash in railroad history, occurred when an overcrowded passenger train was destroyed on a coastal railway in Sri Lanka by the tsunami which followed the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake. Up to 2,000 people were killed, making it the world’s worst railway accident and eclipsing the previous record set by the Bihar train disaster in India in 1981, when a train had derailed and fell off a bridge, drowning about 800 people.”

Peraliya, scene of world's biggest train disaster

My friend Chanuka Wattegama, engineer turned ICT researcher, has done a detailed analysis of how and why no early warnings were issued anywhere in Sri Lanka that day, thus allowing many preventable deaths to occur. The tsunami, though extremely forceful, impacted only coastal areas and rapid evacuation could certainly have saved lives. He summed up his findings in a chapter on the subject he wrote for Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book that I co-edited with Frederick Noronha two years ago.

This is what he says about the train tragedy, which sounds every bit gripping like a disaster movie script (but alas, was every bit real):

The railway authorities realise that one of their trains is moving down south, towards a risk prone area. They attempt to call the railway stations en route. The train is parked at the Ambalangoda railway station, when the station master’s phone rings constantly. Nobody answers it. Both the station master and his deputy are busy supervising the unloading of some goods from the train. By the time they receive the message, the train had already left the station. They do not have any way of issuing a warning, as the engine drive does not have a mobile phone.

“The train stops sometime later, in the middle of a village that had already been hit by the first waves. Those who are running for their lives assume the train to be a shield against the waves. They are wrong. The next waves hit the train, carrying it away like a child’s toy. The railway tracks get crumpled like a Möbius strip. If it can be called a railway accident, this would have been the worst train accident the world had ever witnessed. It alone costs more then 2,500 lives. Perhaps many of those lives could have saved if only the engine driver has been given a mobile phone.

We didn’t hear of any responsible official resigning or being sacked even after such massive bungling. But now Sri Lanka Railway has the dubious distinction of allowing the biggest train disaster to happen, which could have been prevented with quick thinking and action. Think about this before you next board a train anywhere in Sri Lanka…


Read full chapter: Nobody told us to run, by Chanuka Wattegama

Peraliya train disaster - photo by Shahidul Alam, Drik

Asian Tsunami+5: Are we sure there won’t be a surprise next time?

A monumental failure in communication...

This is one of the most memorable cartoons about the Asian Tsunami of December 2004. It was drawn by Jim Morin, the Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist of the Miami Herald.

It summed up, brilliantly, one of the biggest shocks associated with that mega-disaster. As I wrote in my op ed essay to mark the fifth anniversary: “It took a while for the tsunami waves, traversing the Indian Ocean at the speed of a jetliner, to reach India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Yet, in this age of instantaneous telecom and media messaging, coastal residents and holiday makers were caught completely unawares — there was no public warning in most locations. Institutional, technological and systemic bottlenecks combined to produce this monumental failure in communication.”

Chanuka Wattegama

My friend Chanuka Wattegama, trained as an engineer and now working as a senior research manager at LIRNEasia, has studied this vital aspect of early warnings. He contributed a whole chapter on the subject to Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book that I co-edited with Frederick Noronha two years ago.

After doing a dispassionate analysis of what went wrong in Sri Lanka in the crucial hours just before and during the 2004 tsunami, he asked: “So what remedies one can suggest so that when the next disaster happens — which may or may not be a tsunami — we do not see the same series of events repeated? What exactly is the role that the media can play?”

He outlined five action areas, all of which can be read in his chapter available for free online access (as is the rest of the book).

Here’s an excerpt:

Disaster warning is everyone’s business: Life for most of us would have been easier had the government taken full charge of disaster warnings. Unfortunately, the things do not work that way. These are some of key stakeholders and they have specific roles that they can play:

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...

• The scientific community: Develop the early warning systems based on their expertise, support the design of scientific and systematic monitoring and warning services and translate technical information to layman’s language.
• National governments: Adopt policies and frameworks that facilitate early warning, operate Early Warning Systems, issue warnings for their country in a timely and effective manner.
• Local governments: Analyse and store critical knowledge of the hazards to which the communities are exposed. Provide this information to the national governments
• International bodies: Provide financial and technical support for national early warning activities and foster the exchange of data and knowledge between individual countries.
• Regional institutions and organizations: Provide specialized knowledge and advice in support of national efforts, to develop or sustain operational capabilities experienced by countries that share a common geographical environment.
• Non-governmental organizations: Play a critical role in raising awareness among individuals and organizations involved in early warning and in the implementation of early warning systems, particularly at the community level.
• The private sector: Play an essential role in implementing the solutions, using their know-how or donations (in-kind or cash) of goods or services, especially for the communication, dissemination and response elements of early warning.
• The media: It has to play an important role in improving the disaster consciousness of the general population, and disseminating early warnings. This can be the critical link between the agency that offer the warning and the recipients.
• Communities: These are central to people-oriented early warning systems. Their input to system-design and their ability to respond ultimately determines the extent of risk associated with natural hazards.

And here’s his conclusion:
“Technology is important. The sole reason behind the seemingly incredible advancements that have happened in the field of human development is the spurt in the growth of new technology. However without people to handle it properly, the technology per se can achieve little. What we can expect a sophisticate earthquake detecting device to do, if there are no human beings to take note what it indicates? So, while giving technology its due position, let us focus on the people-side of the problems. “

Spoken like an uncommon engineer, for sure.

Read full chapter: Nobody told us to run, by Chanuka Wattegama

Asian Tsunami+5: It’s governance, stupid!

Kalutara beach in south-western Sri Lanka before & during the 2004 tsunami - Satellite image courtesy Digital Globe

This montage of satellite images was taken by the DigitalGlobe Quickbird satellite. It shows a portion of the south-western coast of Sri Lanka, in Kalutara, some 40km south of the capital Colombo. The lower image was taken on Sunday 26 December 2004, at 10.20 am local time, shortly after the moment of impact of the Indian Ocean tsunami that wreaked havoc in South and Southeast Asia that day. For comparison, we have an image of the same location on a normal day a few months earlier.

The tsunami was one of the most widely photographed and videographed disasters in history. In fact, it marked a turning point for citizen journalism in Asia.

For many of us in the media and communication sectors, this was the biggest story of our lives. Because the killer waves hit numerous coastal locations in several countries, this disaster’s ‘Ground Zero’ was scattered far and wide. Not even the largest news organisations could see, hear and capture everything. Everyone had to choose.

And not just geographically, but thematically too, the tsunami’s impact was felt across sectors, issues and concerns. That provided both ample scope and many challenges for journalists, aid workers and others who rushed to the multiple scenes of disaster.

But there was a downside. Because the tsunami’s scale was so vast and its effects spread so wide, no single individual or organisation could comprehend the full picture for months. For many of us in the Indian Ocean rim, culturally unfamiliar with tsunamis, it was as if a Godzilla had stomped through our coasts. Grasping the full, strange phenomenon was hard.

Countries affected by 2004 Dec tsunami - map courtesy BBC

Journalists, professionally trained to hastily produce ‘first drafts of history’, found it a bit like being close to a huge tapestry still being woven: we all absorbed parts of the unfolding complexity. We reported or analysed those elements that held our interest. But we were too close, and too overwhelmed, for much perspective.

Five years on, we can ‘zoom out’ more easily to see the bigger picture. When I do, one overarching factor stands out as the most important and lasting lesson of the tsunami: the need for better governance.

The absence of good governance was at the root of most major stories about the tsunami. It cut across every level in our societies — politics, public institutions, corporate sector, humanitarian agencies, academia and civil society.

This is the thrust of my latest op ed essay, written in time for the tsunami’s fifth anniversary being marked today. I briefly recall three aspects of the tsunami that I covered as a journalist — early warnings, deluge of aid and environmental lessons — to show how the absence of governance aggravated matters in each case.

The lesson is not simply one of academic interest: it holds many practical, survival level implications. I end by quoting Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, who argues that democracy and good governance are also the most important elements in climate change adaptation.

Read the full essay online:
Media Helping Media (UK): Tsunami five years on – the lessons learned
OneWorld.Net (UK): The big lesson of the tsunami: better governance
DNA newspaper (India: condensed version): The Tsunami Effect
Groundviews.org: Better governance – The Biggest Lesson of 2004 Tsunami
Himal Southasian Online edition: Better Governance: The biggest lesson of 2004 tsunami
The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka): Better Governance: The biggest lesson of 2004 tsunami

Looking back at Asian Tsunami of 2004…and media response

Nalaka Gunawardene talking about 2004 Asian Tsunami

To mark the fifth anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004, TVE Asia Pacific has just released excerpts from an in-depth TV interview I recorded four years ago.

The wide-ranging interview was originally filmed in November 2005 in Bangkok, Thailand, by Thai journalist and film maker friend Pipope Panitchpakdi. He used excerpts at the time for a Thai documentary to mark the first anniversary of the tsunami. It remains one of the best media interviews I have given, for which all credit goes to Pipope.

Selected segments of that interview, in its original English, can now be viewed on TVEAP’s YouTube channel, while the transcript is published on the TVEAP website.

To give a flavour of this belated release of archival material, here are the first two extracts:

Nalaka Gunawardene recalls Asian Tsunami of Dec 2004 Part 1 of 6

Part 2 of 6:



Watch all extracts on TVEAP’s YouTube channel

Asian Tsunami+5: Revisiting survivor Heshani Hewavitharana of Sri Lanka…

Heshani in Feb 2005: Creative and reflective - Photo courtesy TVEAP

Heshani Madushika Hewavitharana, 13, was an eager student in school who also excelled in creative writing, in which she’d won certificates and awards. All of these, along with her school books and everything else her family owned, was lost in the Asian Tsunami of 26 December 2004. Their beach front house, in Suduwella in Sri Lanka’s southern district of Matara, was badly damaged. They escaped with their lives — and were among the luckier ones.

When we found Heshani and family a few weeks after the tragedy, they were taking refuge in a friend’s house. Her fisherman father could not immediately return to his work without his boat and gear, also washed away by the waves. The family was living on the mother’s meagre income from spinning coir ropes.

Despite their plight, Heshani and family agreed to participate in the Children of Tsunami media project, where local film crews in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand tracked how eight survivor families were rebuilding their lives and livelihoods after the Asian tsunami disaster.

We at TVE Asia Pacific documented on TV, video and web the personal recovery stories of eight affected families in these worst affected countries for one year after the disaster. Our many media products — distributed on broadcast, narrowcast and online platforms -– inspired wide ranging public discussion on disaster relief, recovery and rehabilitation. In that process, we were also able to demonstrate that a more engaged, respectful kind of journalism was possible when covering post-disaster situations.

Watch Heshani’s first monthly video update, February 2005:

Not all our participating families recovered from the tsunami’s mighty blow within one year, but we ran out of money and had to stop capturing their stories by the end of 2005, which I called Asia’s longest year. In a goodbye tribute to the courage and resilience of these families, I wrote in December 2005: “Our journey with the eight families ends with the first anniversary. We know their own journeys to recovery are far from finished. We can only wish them well.

Heshani in Nov 2009 - Courtesy Xinhua

Since then, I have often wondered how the eight children were faring. (In March 2007, it suddenly became seven when the Theeban, the boy in Sri Lanka’s east whose story we tracked, was brutally murdered.) However, I have resisted the temptation to revisit the children as I felt we had been intrusive enough already during that first difficult year after the tsunami. They must now be allowed to continue their lives in private.

Yet, I was intrigued by a recent report where two correspondents working for the Chinese news agency Xinhua, Chen Zhanjie and Liu Yongqiu, tracked down Heshani and family. They wrote a story on Xinhua’s website for the Universal Children’s Day in November which focused attention on the protection and welfare of children. Heshani is now 17, and her younger sister Dimalka, 12. Already having passed the GCE Ordinary Level exam, Heshani is now preparing for her Advanced Level exam slated for August 2010.

While Dimalka aspires to be a doctor, Heshani wants to become a banker. Their father believes the tragedy has added a new dimension to the girls’ lives: “They have leant their responsibilities from the tsunami. Now the two girls have no fears.”

Read the full story on Xinhua website: From tsunami to trauma to trek ahead