Goodbye 2010. Welcome 2011. Hope you treat us better!

Eventually, all New Years go this way! Image from Imperfect Women website



Added on 1 January 2011: New Year 2011 is here: The Future isn’t what it used to be!

In transit are we all,
On this Third Rock from the Sun
Waiting for our onward journeys
From Here to Eternity.

Some of us, the steady types
Stay longer in this transit,
Welcoming dozens of years
As they arrive, endure and depart.

Some leave a mark
In the ‘sands of time’ as they say
Legacies of brick or flesh
Or just fond, loving memories.

But remember this, New Year:
There are a few of us,
Precious few, as it turns out,
Who don’t measure our worth
By the number of years
Whose passage we count.

We add life to years
Not simply years to life.

Read full verse in an earlier blog post, welcoming another year

Saluting Journalism’s First Decade of I-Me-Mine!

My DIY as POY: Famous at last?

“All I can hear I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
Even those tears I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
No-one’s frightened of playing it
Ev’ryone’s saying it,
Flowing more freely than wine,
All thru’ your life I me mine…”

When George Harrison sang those words in the 1970 Beatles song ‘I-Me-Mine’, he was in two minds about expressing in the first person (or ego). He wasn’t alone: mainstream journalism has long had reservations about where ‘I’ fit in journalistic narratives.

“Never bring yourself into what you write,” we were told in journalism school 20 years ago. Journalists, as observers and chroniclers of events, write the first drafts of history – and without the luxury of time or perspective that historians and biographers take for granted. We often have to package information and provide analysis on the run. Bringing ourselves into that process would surely distort messages and confuse many, it was argued. We had to keep our feelings out of our reportage lest it affects our ‘objectivity’.

In other words, we were simply mirrors reflecting (and recording) the events happening around us. Mirrors can’t – and shouldn’t — emit light of their own.

Occasionally, if we felt the urge to express how we personally felt about such trends and events, we were allowed the luxury of an op-ed or commentary piece. Of course, as long as we ensured that it was a measured and guarded expression. And if we really wanted to bring ourselves into the narrative, we could use the archaic phrase ‘this writer…’ to refer to ourselves.

But never use I-Me-Mine! That would surely sour, taint and even contaminate good journalism – right?

Well, it used to be the ‘norm’ for decades — but mercifully, not any longer. Thanks largely to the new media revolution triggered by the Internet, writing in the I-Me-Mine mode is no longer frowned upon as egotistic or narcissistic. It sometimes is one or both these, but hey, that’s part of cultural diversity that our information society has belatedly learnt to live with…

We journalists are late arrivals to this domain. The first person narrative was always valued in other areas of creative arts such as literary fiction, poetry and the cinema. In such endeavours, their creators are encouraged to tell the world exactly how they feel and what they think.

Of course, some writers ignored orthodoxy and wrote in the first person all along. One example I know personally is the acclaimed writer of science fiction and science fact, Sir Arthur C Clarke. Shortly after I’d started working with him in 1987, Sir Arthur encouraged me to fearlessly use the first person narrative even in technical and business writing. A lot of writing ended up being too dull and dreary, he said, because their writers were afraid of speaking their minds.

Yet we had to wait for the first decade of the Twenty First Century to see I-Me-Mine being widely accepted in the world of journalism. Did the old guard finally cave in, or (as sounds more likely) did Generation Me just redefine the rules of the game?

Whatever it is, I-Me-Mine is now very much in vogue. And not a moment too soon!

Joel Stein (Photo-illustration by John Ueland for TIME)

As Time columnist Joel Stein, who often writes with his tongue firmly in his cheek, noted in a recent column: “All bloggers write in first person, spending hours each day chronicling their anger at their kids for taking away their free time. Every Facebook update and tweet is sophomoric, solipsistic, snarky and other words I’ve learned by Googling myself.”

And look at what Time just tempted me to do: put myself on their cover, as the Person of the Year (POY), no less. While designating Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg as its POY 2010, Time teamed up with the social media network to introduce a new application that allows anyone to become POY with just a few key strokes. Provided you have a Facebook account, of course.

Joel Stein quotes Jean M Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, as saying that we are living in the Age of Individualism, a radical philosophical shift that began with Sigmund Freud. It has exploded during the past decade with reality television, Facebook and blogging. “You’re supposed to craft your own image and have a personal brand. That was unheard of 10 years ago,” Twenge says.

What a difference a decade can make. Although trained in the pre-me era, I was never convinced as to why I had to keep myself out of what I write. However, my use of I-Me-Mine was done sparingly in the late 1980s (when I started my media work) and during the 1990s. It was only in the 2000s that I finally found both the freedom to speak my mind – and the ideal platforms for doing so: blogging and tweeting.

As my regular readers know, I blog about my family, friends, pet, travels, writing and conference speaking. I liberally sprinkle photographs of myself doing various things. I tell you more than you really want to know about my life. Ah yes, I’m self-referential too.

And not just on this blog. I’ve also been writing op ed essays for various mainstream media outlets for much of the past decade, and have never hesitated in expressing what I think, feel and even dream about. (Isn’t that what opinion pieces are meant to be?)

But the Digital Immigrant that I am, all my writing is shaped by my pre-Internet training. Even for a blog post or tweet, I still gather information, marshal my thoughts and agonise over every word, sentence and paragraph.

As my own editor and publisher on the blog, I don’t have gatekeepers who insist on any of this. My readers haven’t complained either. Yet I write the way I do for a simple reason. I may indulge in a lot of I-Me-Mine, but I don’t write just for myself. You, gentle reader, are the main reason why I strive for coherence and relevance.

(OK, if you really must know, it also ensures a joyful read when I occasionally go back and read my own writing…)

What were the most iconic images of Asian Tsunami of December 2004?

Every major disaster produces its own iconic images which determine how the collective memory of the world would remember the incident.

In a blog post to mark the sixth anniversary, I quoted photojournalist Shahidul Alam as saying: “The immediacy of an iconic image, its ability to engage with the viewer, its intimacy, the universality of its language, means it is at once a language of the masses, but also the key that can open doors. For both the gatekeepers and the public, the image has a visceral quality that is both raw and delicate. It can move people to laughter and to tears and can touch people at many levels. The iconic image lingers, long after the moment has gone. We are the witnesses of our times and the historians of our ages. We are the collective memories of our communities.”

Looking back six years later, which of the numerous images of the Asian Tsunami of 26 December 2004 have achieved that iconic status? It was one of the most widely photographed disasters of our time — but which handful of images do we remember now, more than 2,000 days later?

One image that lingers, for its frozen horror and tragedy, is this one taken by Reuters photojournalist Arko Datta in Tamil Nadu, southern India. It later won him the World Press Photo and other international awards.

An Indian woman mourns the death of a relative killed in the Asian tsunami. The picture was taken in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, on 28 December 2004 (REUTERS, Arko Datta)

For a mega-disaster that was distributed over a very large area along the Indian Ocean rim, covering a dozen countries in South and Southeast Asia, there must be more iconic images — either globally or nationally. What image/s do YOU remember the December 2004 Tsunami by?

It doesn’t matter if they the image was taken by a professional photographer (i.e. one who is paid to do that job) or a holiday maker or a local resident…as long as it was widely shared and has entered our collective consciousness. Please nominate your images with links, which we will display here.

This photo is a fake!

Note: Beware of fake tsunami images that are in circulation, which some people are peddling either knowingly or unknowingly. One of them — allegedly the waves hitting Phuket in Thailand — is exposed at Urban Legends as digitally imagined fantasy. Another set of images is real enough — but have nothing to do with the tsunami. These show people running away from an oncoming burst of water, seemingly a big wave. They are of a TIDAL BORE, not a tsunami, taken in October 2002 at the Qiantang Jian River in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China — an area known for tidal bores.

Capturing Nature’s Fury: Revisiting Asian Tsunami memories through photographs

Tsunami survivors look at an lbum of family photos in Telwatte, Sri Lanka - Photo by Shahidul Alam

Today marks the 6th anniversary of the Boxing Day Tsunami of December 2004. The occasion is being marked solemnly in many locations hit by the waves all along the Indian Ocean rim countries.

Among them is Peraliya, close to Telwatte, where the worst train crash in railroad history occurred that day — when an overcrowded passenger train was destroyed on a coastal railway in Sri Lanka by the tsunami. The government-owned Sri Lanka Railways will never be able to live down their day of infamy when a packed train headed to disaster with no warning… They have the gumption — and insensitivity — to operate a memorial train today along the same path that led more than 2,000 passengers to a watery grave six years ago.

After six years, most survivors have moved on and rebuilt their shattered lives. Memories are also beginning to fade a bit, but for those directly affected, they will remember 26 December 2004 for the rest of their lives. And we who shared their tragedy and misery will keep reliving the memories through photographs, videos and the growing body of creative writing that the region-wide disaster inspired.

Photographs stand out as possibly the most enduring memory aids of a disaster. As disaster survivors sift through what is left of their homes, family photo albums are among the most cherished possessions they seek to recover. Why are snapshots of frozen moments so powerfully evocative to individuals, communities and the world?

I posed this question in the introductory blurb I wrote for my friend Shahidul Alam‘s chapter on disasters and photography in our 2007 book, Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book.

Titled Capturing Nature’s Fury, the chapter drew on Shahidul’s experiences not only with the tsunami, which he covered in Sri Lanka, but also the earthquakes in Bam, Iran (December 2003) and Kashmir (October 2005), and cyclones and floods in his native Bangladesh.

Shahidul Alam. Photo: Rahnuma Ahmed/Drik/Majority World

Describing the circumstances of the above photo, Shahidul wrote: “In the ruins of Telwatte, where the fateful train disaster had taken place, I came across a family that had gathered in the wreckage of their home. I wanted to ask them their stories, find out what they had seen, but stopped when I saw them pick up the family album. They sat amidst the rubble and laughed as they turned page after page.”

Zooming out, he further reflected:

“I had seen it before. As people rummaged through the ruins of their homes, the first thing they searched for was photographs. Years earlier at a disaster closer to home, I had photographed a group of children amidst the floods of 1988. The children insisted on being photographed. As I pressed the shutter, I realised that the boy in the middle was blind. He would never see the photograph he was proudly posing for. Why was it so important for the blind boy to be photographed?

“Though my entry into photography had been through a happy accident, my choice of becoming a photographer had been a very conscious one. Having felt the power of the image I recognised its ability to move people. The immediacy of an iconic image, its ability to engage with the viewer, its intimacy, the universality of its language, means it is at once a language of the masses, but also the key that can open doors.

“For both the gatekeepers and the public, the image has a visceral quality that is both raw and delicate. It can move people to laughter and to tears and can touch people at many levels. The iconic image lingers, long after the moment has gone. We are the witnesses of our times and the historians of our ages. We are the collective memories of our communities.

“For that blind boy in Bangladesh and for the many who face human suffering but may otherwise be forgotten, the photograph prevents them from being reduced to numbers. It brings back humanity in our lives.”

Read the full chapter: Capturing Nature’s Fury, by Shahidul Alam


Photographer Chuli de Silva’s memories of the Tsunami, recalled six years later

Dec 2007: Asian Tsunami: A moving moment frozen in time

Anand Patwardhan: Film maker as perennial trouble-maker

Anand Patwardhan

Anand Patwardhan is one of India’s best known and most outspoken documentary film makers. He has been making political documentaries for over three decades, pursuing diverse and controversial issues that are at the crux of social and political life in India. He epitomises the activist film maker and has inspired a generation of socially sensitive film makers.

In the world’s largest democracy that is India, and in a country with a vibrant and diverse media that is considered to be among the most free in the developing world, Anand has constantly run into problems getting his films seen on broadcast television. Many of his films were at one time or another banned by state television channels in India and became the subject of litigation by Anand, who successfully challenged the censorship rulings in court.

As his website notes, several of his films have also incurred the wrath of right wing fundamanentalists both in India and abroad. “In keeping with the uneven nature of India’s democratic institutions and its sharply divided polity, bouquets have been accompanied by brickbats.”

I came across a good interview with Anand Patwardhan in the Indian current affairs magazine Frontline, issue for 4 – 17 December 2010. Here are two questions concerning the censorship problems he has often faced:

Ram Ke Naam (In the Name of God), 1991

Q: You have had problems getting clearance from the Central Board of Film Certification for almost all your films, and then later they were not allowed to be screened on Doordarshan. Your films are also not screened on private channels. How do you see this constant struggle with these forms of censorship?

A: Right from the first film, I faced censorship in some form or the other. Even the Janata Party after it came to power refused to screen Waves of Revolution though it was against the Emergency. L.K. Advani was the Information and Broadcasting Minister then. I had added an epilogue which said that the janata raj [people’s rule] that the film spoke about was not the same as [that of] the Janata Party now in power. I also drew attention to the political prisoners still being held in jail. Finally, after media pressure built up, the film was screened on Doordarshan.

Prisoners of Conscience also got into trouble with the censor board, and it took a letter from Satyajit Ray to the government saying that they must not stop a film like this to get the required clearance.

Ram Ke Naam followed the rath yatra of Advani and the violence in Ayodhya on October 30, 1990, when the Babri Mosque was attacked for the first time. It was meant to be a warning to the nation about the rise of Hindutva fundamentalism. I had trouble with the censors initially, but it finally got through in 1992 and then I had trouble with Doordarshan, which refused to show it. Finally, after the film won a national award for Best Investigative Documentary, I was able to go to court and argue that the government cannot give me a national award and yet say that I cannot show the film on Doordarshan, which it had been doing systematically. In fact, whenever any film of mine won a national award, I used it to go to court. I argued that not showing such a film on national TV was a denial of my right to freedom of expression and of the viewers’ right to information.

On these grounds I have won seven cases till now – five in the High Courts and two in the Supreme Court after the government went in appeal. Ram Ke Naam was finally shown on Doordarshan in 1997. The judge ordered that the film should be telecast at prime time.

Stills from Anand Patwardhan (courtesy his website)


Q: Why have you not approached private channels to screen your films?

A: The private media, including television, are not about giving people information. They are run by corporates more interested in providing entertainment. Their news and analysis are restricted to five and 10 second [sound] bites. Their clear mandate is commercial. They will ask, “Where are the advertisers who will endorse your product? Who is going to give the money to show this? Are we going to waste one and a half hours of TV time on issues?”

I have also discovered that even in the private domain there is political censorship. A few days before the Allahabad High Court verdict on [the] Ayodhya [title suit] was due, a private channel approached me to screen Ram Ke Naam. They paid me for three broadcasts but stopped after showing the film just once despite extremely positive feedback from viewers. On inquiring, I was told that the channel was pressured not to show the film by both the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and the TV Broadcasters’ Association. Anyone who watches Ram Ke Naam will realise that this censorship was done to protect the interests of unscrupulous politicians who had used the emotive appeal of Ram for financial and political gain.

The situation today is such that you cannot pinpoint where the censorship is coming from. During the Emergency you at least knew who the enemy was. But now what do you do when every wing of society – whether it’s the legal system, and so on – is complicit in a blanket suppression of facts.

Read the full interview in Frontline magazine, issue for 4 – 17 December 2010

Read TVE Asia Pacific profile and interview with Ananda Patwardhan in 2002

Higher Education in Sri Lanka: Squabbling while our future burns?

Cartoon by Awantha Atigala

What do you think of higher education in Sri Lanka, a young documentary film maker asked me a few weeks ago.

That would be a good idea, I replied. I wasn’t trying to be too cynical, but that’s the stark reality.

Sri Lanka’s 20 million population is served by 15 public universities. Between them, these had a total of 65,588 students (not counting those enrolled with the Open University) and 4,738 faculty members in 2009.

None of these universities come anywhere near the top 1,000 (or even top 2,000) of the world’s universities as independently ranked using measurable criteria. Some say we have universities in name only, which of course those inside the system protest and deny vehemently.

University World News, an online global higher education publication focusing on international higher education news and analysis, recently asked me for a comment article on the crisis in Sri Lanka’s higher education sector. When I said I was a complete outsider to the system, they replied that’s precisely why they wanted my view.

So I wrote a 1,100 words which has just been published. My original title was ‘Squabbling while our future burns’ but some editors like to understate (their prerogative). I’m glad the rest of my text has largely survived their considerate editing.

Here are the opening paras:

“Sri Lanka’s university system is overburdened, outdated, and badly in need of reform. But politicians, academics and students just can’t agree on how to do it. So they fight.

“The recent wave of student protests have focused on one element of a wider package of proposed reforms: inviting private universities into a country where publically -funded universities currently dominate.

“In Sri Lanka’s heavily polarised political culture, the much-needed reforms have become the latest source of bickering. Yes, we need public discussion and debate to make the best policy choices. But what progress can be achieved when rhetoric replaces reason?

“As a concerned citizen and anxious parent, I call this reckless squabbling while our children’s future burns…”

Read the full essay on University World News website
SRI LANKA: Squabbling while higher education burns

The essay ends with the brief author bio, part of which reads: “Nalaka Gunawardene sometimes calls himself a ‘higher education refugee'”. My regular readers know how and why.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg: Digital Pied Piper of our times?

The Face of Facebook


“For connecting more than half a billion people and mapping the social relations among them, for creating a new system of exchanging information and for changing how we live our lives, Mark Elliot Zuckerberg is TIME’s 2010 Person of the Year,” TIME magazine’s editors announced on 15 December 2010.

As if to support their choice, their profile of Facebook’s co-founder added: “One out of every dozen people on the planet has a Facebook account. They speak 75 languages and collectively lavish more than 700 billion minutes on Facebook every month. Last month the site accounted for 1 out of 4 American page views. Its membership is currently growing at a rate of about 700,000 people a day.”

As usual, TIME’s selection was eagerly awaited, and the most popular choice online was WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. He ended as a runner-up as the next four newsmakers of 2010 — perhaps it was too controversial a choice for TIME’s editors considering the heavy polarisation of views at home about WikiLeaks?

I first read about this selection on Twitter. By coincidence, I was just finishing my latest essay, which was more about the challenges of living in the WikiLeakable world that we now find ourselves in. But Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook get honourable mentions in there.

The essay, now published as Living in the Global Glass House: An Open Letter to Sir Arthur C Clarke, includes these paras:

“I’m not so sure what you might have made of this thing called Facebook. With more than 500 million active members, the social networking website is the largest of its kind (well ahead of its nearest rival Myspace, owned by your friend Rupert).

“Going by the sheer numbers, Facebook is behind only China and India in population terms. But those who compare it to a major league country don’t imagine far enough — it’s really becoming another planet…

An essential survival skill in this Info Age...

“While Facebook’s high numbers are impressive, not everyone is convinced of its usefulness and good intentions. Can we trust so much power in the hands of a few very bright (and by now, very rich) twentysomethings? How exactly is Facebook going to safeguard our privacy when we (wittingly or unwittingly) reveal so much of our lives in there?

“I raise these concerns not only as a long-time ICT-watcher, but also as the father of a teenager who is an avid Facebooker. I once called Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg a ‘Digital Pied Piper’: might we someday see Hamelin the sequel?”

Read the full essay: Living in the Global Glass House: An Open Letter to Sir Arthur C Clarke

PS: On 1 Oct 2010, when the movie The Social Network (based on the Facebook story) opened, I tweeted: “www.thesocialnetwork-movie.com Story of da world’s biggest Pied Piper. And his 500 million+ rats!”