[Op-ed] Major Reforms Needed to Rebuild Public Trust in Sri Lanka’s Media

Text of an op-ed essay published in the Sunday Observer on 10 July 2016:

Major Reforms Needed to Rebuild Public Trust

in Sri Lanka’s Media

 By Nalaka Gunawardene

Sri Lanka’s government and its media industry need to embark on wide-ranging media sector reforms, says a major new study released recently.

Such reforms are needed at different levels – in government policies, laws and regulations, as well as within the media industry and profession. Media educators and trainers also have a key role to play in raising professional standards in our media, the study says.

Recent political changes have opened a window of opportunity which needs to be seized urgently by everyone who desires a better media in Sri Lanka, urges the study report, titled Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka.

Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka (May 2016)

Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka (May 2016)

The report was released on World Press Freedom Day (May 3) at a Colombo meeting attended by the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and Minister of Mass Media.

The report is the outcome of a 14-month-long research and consultative process. Facilitated by the Secretariat for Media Reforms, it engaged over 500 media professionals, owners, managers, academics, relevant government officials and members of various media associations and trade unions. It offers a timely analysis, accompanied by policy directions and practical recommendations. I served as is overall editor.

“The country stands at a crossroads where political change has paved the way for strengthening safeguards for freedom of expression (FOE) and media freedom while enhancing the media’s own professionalism and accountability,” the report notes.

Politicians present at the launch could only agree.

“The government is willing to do its part for media freedom and media reforms. But are you going to do yours?” he asked the dozens of editors, journalists and media managers present. There were no immediate answers.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks at the launch of 'Rebuilding Public Trust' report in Colombo, 3 May 2016 (Photo courtesy SLPI)

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks at the launch of ‘Rebuilding Public Trust’ report in Colombo, 3 May 2016 (Photo courtesy SLPI)

Whither Media Professionalism?

The report acknowledges how, since January 2015, the new government has taken several positive steps. These include: reopening investigations into some past attacks on journalists; ending the arbitrary and illegal blocking of political websites done by the previous regime; and recognising access to information as a fundamental right in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (after the report was released, the Right to Information Act has been passed by Parliament, which enables citizens to exercise this right).

These and other measures have helped improve Sri Lanka’s global ranking by 24 points in the World Press Freedom Index (https://rsf.org/en/ranking). It went up from a dismal 165 in 2015 index (which reflected conditions that prevailed in 2014) to a slightly better 141 in the latest index.

Compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a global media rights advocacy group, the Index reflects the degree of freedom that journalists, news organisations and netizens (citizens using the web) enjoy in a country, and the efforts made by its government to respect and nurture this freedom.

Sri Lanka, with a score of 44.96, has now become 141st out of 180 countries assessed. While we have moved a bit further away from the bottom, we are still in the company of Burma (143), Bangladesh (144) and South Sudan (140) – not exactly models of media freedom.

Clearly, much more needs be done to improve FOE and media freedom in Sri Lanka – and not just by the government. Media owners and managers also bear a major responsibility to create better working conditions for journalists and other media workers. For example, by paying better wages to journalists, and allowing trade union rights (currently denied in many private media groups, though enjoyed in all state media institutions).

Rebuilding Public Trust acknowledges these complexities and nuances: freedom from state interference is necessary, but not sufficient, for a better and pluralistic media.

It also points out that gradual improvement in media freedom must now to be matched by an overall upping of media’s standards and ethical conduct.

By saying so, the report turns the spotlight on the media itself — an uncommon practice in our media. It says that only a concerted effort by the entire media industry and all its personnel can raise professional standards and ethical conduct of Sri Lanka’s media.

A similar sentiment is expressed by Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, an experienced journalist turned media trainer who was part of the report’s editorial team (and has since become the Director General of the Department of Information). “Sri Lanka’s media freedom has gone up since January 2015, but can we honestly say there has been much (or any) improvement in our media’s level of professionalism?” he asks.

Media in Crisis

Tackling the dismally low professionalism on a priority basis is decisive for the survival of our media which points fingers at all other sections of society but rarely engages in self reflection.

Rebuilding Public Trust comes out at a time when Sri Lanka’s media industry and profession face many crises stemming from an overbearing state, unpredictable market forces and rapid technological advancements. Balancing the public interest and commercial viability is one of the media sector’s biggest challenges today.

The report says: “As the existing business models no longer generate sufficient income, some media have turned to peddling gossip and excessive sensationalism in the place of quality journalism. At another level, most journalists and other media workers are paid low wages which leaves them open to coercion and manipulation by persons of authority or power with an interest in swaying media coverage.”

Notwithstanding these negative trends, the report notes that there still are editors and journalists who produce professional content in the public interest while also abiding by media ethics.

Unfortunately, their good work is eclipsed by media content that is politically partisan and/or ethnically divisive.

For example, much of what passes for political commentary in national newspapers is nothing more than gossip. Indeed, some newspapers now openly brand content as such!

Similarly, research for this study found how most Sinhala and Tamil language newspapers cater to the nationalism of their respective readerships instead of promoting national integrity.

Such drum beating and peddling of cheap thrills might temporarily boost market share, but these practices ultimately erode public trust in the media as a whole. Surveys show fewer media consumers actually believing that they read, hear or watch.

One result: younger Lankans are increasingly turning to entirely web-based media products and social media platforms for obtaining their information as well as for speaking their minds. Newspaper circulations are known to be in decline, even though there are no independently audited figures.

If the mainstream media is to reverse these trends and salvage itself, a major overhaul of media’s professional standards and ethics is needed, and fast. Newspaper, radio and TV companies also need clarity and a sense of purpose on how to integrate digital platforms into their operations (and not as mere add-ons).

L to R - Lars Bestle of IMS, R Sampanthan, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Paranawithana, Gayantha Karunathilake with copies of new study report on media reforms - Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

L to R – Lars Bestle of IMS, R Sampanthan, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Paranawithana, Gayantha Karunathilake with copies of new study report on media reforms – Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

Recommendations for Reforms

The report offers a total of 101 specific recommendations, which are sorted under five categories. While many are meant for the government, a number of important recommendations are directed at media companies, journalists’ and publishers’ associations, universities, media training institutions, and development funding agencies.

“We need the full engagement of all stakeholders in building a truly free, independent and public interest minded pluralistic media system as a guarantor of a vibrant democracy in Sri Lanka,” says Wijayananda Jayaweera, a former director of UNESCO’s Communication Development Division, who served as overall advisor for our research and editorial process.

In fact, this assessment has used an internationally accepted framework developed by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Known as the Media Development Indicators (MDIs), this helps identify strengths and weaknesses, and propose evidence-based recommendations on how to enhance media freedom and media pluralism in a country. Already, two dozen countries have used this methodology.

The Sri Lanka study was coordinated by the Secretariat for Media Reforms, a multistakeholder alliance comprising the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media; Department of Mass Media at University of Colombo; Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI); Strategic Alliance for Research and Development (SARD); and International Media Support (IMS) of Denmark.

We carried out a consultative process that began in March 2015. Activities included a rapid assessment discussed at the National Summit for Media Reforms in May 2015 (attended by over 200), interviews with over 40 key media stakeholders, a large sample survey, brainstorming sessions, and a peer review process that involved over 250 national stakeholders and several international experts.

Nalaka Gunawardene, Editor of Rebuilding Public Trust in Media Report, presents key findings at launch event in Colombo, 3 May 2016 - (Photo courtesy SLPI)

Nalaka Gunawardene, Editor of Rebuilding Public Trust in Media Report, presents key findings at launch event in Colombo, 3 May 2016 – (Photo courtesy SLPI)

Here is the summary of key recommendations:

  • Law review and revision: The government should review all existing laws which impose restrictions on freedom of expression with a view to amending them as necessary to ensure that they are fully consistent with international human rights laws and norms.
  • Right to Information (RTI): The RTI law should be implemented effectively, leading to greater transparency and openness in the public sector and reorienting how government works.
  • Media ownership: Adopt new regulations making it mandatory for media ownership details to be open, transparent and regularly disclosed to the public.
  • Media regulation: Repeal the Press Council Act 5 of 1973, and abolish the state’s Press Council. Instead, effective self-regulatory arrangements should be made ideally by the industry and covering both print and broadcast media.
  • Broadcast regulation: New laws are needed to ensure transparent broadcast licensing; more rational allocation of frequencies; a three-tier system of public, commercial and community broadcasters; and obligations on all broadcasters to be balanced and impartial in covering politics and elections. An independent Broadcasting Authority should be set up.
  • Digital broadcasting: The government should develop a clear plan and timeline for transitioning from analogue to digital broadcasting in television as soon as possible.
  • Restructuring state media: The three state broadcasters should be transformed into independent public service broadcasters with guaranteed editorial independence. State-owned Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (Lake House) should be operated independently with editorial freedom.
  • Censorship: No prior censorship should be imposed on any media. Where necessary, courts may review media content for legality after publication. Laws and regulations that permit censorship should be reviewed and amended.
  • Blocking of websites: The state should not limit online content or social media activities in ways that contravene freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and international conventions.
  • Privacy and surveillance: Privacy of all citizens and others should be respected by the state and the media. There should be strict limits to the state surveillance of private individuals and entities’ phone and other electronic communications.
  • Media education and literacy: Journalism and mass media education courses at tertiary level should be reviewed and updated to meet current industry needs and consumption patterns. A national policy is needed for improving media literacy and cyber literacy.

Full report in English is available at: https://goo.gl/5DYm9i

Sinhala and Tamil versions are under preparation and will be released shortly.

Science writer and media researcher Nalaka Gunawardene served as overall editor of the new study, and also headed one of the four working groups that guided the process. He tweets as: @NalakaG


Echelon May 2015 column: Black Swans, White Lies and the Rise of ‘Info-Doers’

Text of my column written for Echelon monthly business magazine, Sri Lanka, May 2015 issue

Black Swans, White Lies and the Rise of ‘Info-Doers’

By Nalaka Gunawardene

They are rare, but whey they arrive, bring Bad News...

They are rare, but whey they arrive, bring Bad News…

The Global Village is a pretty noisy place. In today’s networked society, information can spread at the speed of light. Fabrications, half-truths and myriad interpretations compete with evidence-based analyses and official positions. Trust is being redefined.

How can the formal structures of power – whether government, academic, military or corporate – engage in public communication in effective ways? Should they ignore what I call the Global Cacophony and limit themselves to formal statements made at their own bureaucratic pace?

Consider a recent scenario. A controversy erupts over how the Central Bank of Sri Lanka handles the latest Treasury Bond issue, but the government takes several days to respond. The Prime Minister makes a detailed statement in Parliament on March 17, which he opens saying: “I felt my first statement with regard to the so-called controversy over Treasury bonds should be made to this House.”

He offers a characteristically good analysis. But in the meantime, many speculations had circulated, some questioning the new administration’s commitment to transparency and accountability. Political detractors had had a field day.

Could it have been handled differently? Should government spokespersons have turned defensive or combative? Is maintaining a stoic silence until full clarity emerges realistic when governments no longer have a monopoly over information dissemination? What then happens to public trust in governments?

Black Swans

Some information managers still invoke an old adage: this too shall pass. The digitally empowered citizens may descend on an issue with gusto, they contend, but attention spans are short. ‘Smart-mobs’ tend to move on to the next breaking topic within days if not hours…

Nassim Nicholas Taleb - image from Wikipedia

Nassim Nicholas Taleb – image from Wikipedia

But how reliable is that as a strategy? And what happens when, once in a while, ‘Black Swan events’ occur disrupting everything?

It was the Lebanese-American scholar, statistician and risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb who proposed the theory of Black Swan events. He used it as a metaphor to describe an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalised afterwards with the benefit of hindsight.

The idea, first introduced in his 2001 book Fooled By Randomness, was initially limited to financial events. In a follow-up book The Black Swan (2007), he extended it to other events as well.

According to Taleb, almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events and artistic accomplishments are “Black Swans” — undirected and unpredicted. Examples include the rise of the Internet, the personal computer, World War I, dissolution of the Soviet Union and the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001.

The nexus between Black Swan events and information management has been explored in depth in a 2009 study titled ‘The Skyful of Lies & Black Swans: The new tyranny of shifting information power in crises’ that came out from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

Nik Gowing at World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2012 - image via Wikipedia

Nik Gowing at World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2012 – image via Wikipedia

I recently had a fascinating conversation with its author Nik Gowing, a senior British television journalist with 40 years of experience in news and current affairs. Before he stepped down in 2014, he was main anchor for much of BBC’s coverage of major international events including Kosovo in 1999, the Iraq war in 2003, the global financial meltdown of 2007 and Mumbai attack in 2008. On 9/11, he was on air for six hours leading the coverage.

“In a moment of major and unexpected crisis, the institutions of power – whether political, governmental, military or corporate – face a new, acute vulnerability of both their influence and effectiveness,” Nik says summing up the study’s findings.

He analysed the new fragility and brittleness of those institutions, and the profound impact upon them from a fast proliferating and almost ubiquitous breed of what he calls ‘information doers’.


‘Info-doer’ seems more inclusive than the contested term ‘citizen journalist’. Such ‘info-doers’ are empowered by cheap, lightweight, go-anywhere technologies. That trend, already evident in 2009, has gained further momentum since.

“They have an unprecedented mass ability to bear witness. The result is a matrix of real-time information flows that challenges the inadequacy of the structures of power to respond both with effective impact and in a timely way,” the study says.

Nik adds: “Increasingly routinely, a cheap, ‘go-anywhere’ camera or mobile phone challenges the credibility of the massive human and financial resources of a government or corporation in an acute crisis. The long-held conventional wisdom of a gulf in time and quality between the news that signals an event and the whole truth eventually emerging is fast being eliminated.”

He describes how, in the most remote and hostile locations of the globe, hundreds of millions of electronic eyes and ears are creating a capacity for scrutiny and new demands for accountability. “It is way beyond the assumed power and influence of the traditional media. This global electronic reach catches institutions unaware and surprises with what it reveals.”

The phenomenon is globalised. Info-doers, with a range of motivations, are everywhere from the financial capitals like London and New York to crisis locations in Iraq, China’s Tibet plateau, Burma, the flooded heart of New Orleans or the mountains of Afghanistan. Censorship and crackdowns can’t stop them.

How to respond?

So what is to be done?

The instinct of many authorities is still to deny inconvenient truths and blame “the damn media” in times of crisis. This no longer works (if it ever did).

“Too often, the knee-jerk institutional response continues to be one of denial as if this new broader, fragmented, redefined media landscape does not exist. Yet within minutes the new, almost infinite media dynamic of images, video, texts and social media mean the public rapidly has vivid, accurate impressions of what is unravelling.”

For example, during Burma’s ill-fated Saffron Revolution of September 2007, video footage and images of protests rapidly spread online and through mainstream broadcast media. Most had been captured using mobile phones and sent out through internet cafes despite attempts to block their flow. The junta later dismissed such coverage as a “skyful of lies”, convincing no one.

The immediate policy challenge is to enter the information space with self-confidence and assertiveness as the media do, however incomplete the official understanding of the enormity of what is unfolding.

After a major crisis hits, both the mainstream media and policy makers face what Nik Gowing defines as the F3 dilemma. The F3 options are:

  • Should they be the first to enter the info-space?
  • How fast should they do it?
  • But how flawed might their remarks and first positions turn out to be in ways that could undermine public perceptions and institutional credibility?

Using many examples, the study has analysed the typical institutional response: to hesitate and lose initiative. This is because wielders of power still don’t appreciate dramatic changes in the real-time new media environment. Nik has included a few enlightened policy responses – “too few to suggest any sign of a fundamental shift in understanding and attitudes”.

The study ends with recommendations for how various institutions of political and corporate power can respond to the new challenges.

“The new real-time media realities are harsh. But once understood, embraced and acted upon, the proposed solutions are compelling. They represent a path to institutional effectiveness and credibility when these are currently lacking.”

Full study is online at: http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/publication/skyful-lies-black-swans

Beware of Black Swans: but can we really prepare for them?

Beware of Black Swans: but can we really prepare for them?

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene is on Twitter @NalakaG and blogs at http://nalakagunawardene.com.


Introducing Kanak Mani Dixit, a ‘Media Typhoon’ in South Asia

Journalist Kanak Dixit in a protesting rally in Kathmandu on 5 April 2006, Kathmandu. Photo by Shehab Uddin

Expanded from introductory remarks at Ceylon Newspapers Limited office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 2 Aug 2012:

There are many ways to introduce my good friend and partner in crime, Kanak Mani Dixit.

Aunty Google, as well as his own website (www.kanakmanidixit.com) can tell you the basic info about his education and career path, which I won’t repeat here. Instead, let me personalise what I know about this courageous man I’ve known and worked with for over 15 years.

Kanak is a journalist, editor and activist – all rolled into one. And if you think that journalists cannot become effective social or democracy activists, just watch him balance these seemingly daunting roles. Study how he juggles reporting, commentary writing, editing and social intervention.

Kanak came from a privileged family background, and could easily have spent his life in leisurely scholarship and endlessly doing the cocktail and conference circuits in South Asia and beyond. He CHOSE to be different.

Kanak spent a few years with the UN Department of Public Information in New York, and yet chucked up a promising international career to return to South Asia – a chaotic, unpredictable but also exhilarating part of the world that we call home. Another conscious choice.

Back home, Kanak could have watched over his beloved Kathmandu Valley and simply commented or satirised about the politics, economy and society of his impoverished land, one of 49 least developed countries in the world. He does that, too, but when needed he takes to the streets. As he did back in 2005/2006 when Nepalis rose against a tyrannical king…

He paid a price for his frontline activism. He was arrested – along with thousands of others – for defying a curfew and demanding democratic reform. He spent 19 days in a Kathmandu jail that he once pointed out to me from afar. As an influential publisher, he could have worked out some deal for a quicker release, but again, chose not to.

How many other South Asia editors or publishers do you know who won’t peddle influence for their personal gain or safety?

Some editors and publishers think of themselves as ‘king-makers’ in the political arena. This editor-publisher was literally a ‘king-dumper’: Nepal’s People Power forced autocratic King Gyanendra to restore Parliament in April 2006. Two years later, the whole monarchy was phased out.

Kanak has spoken truth to power, stared authority in the eye, and yet he has not allowed himself to be corrupted by the temptations of political, diplomatic or other positions. He continues to critique and needle those in public and elected office.

In fact, the very revolutionaries he too helped to bring into office – through elections – now don’t seem to like him much: he was recently dubbed ‘an Enemy of the People’.

He must be doing a few things right to be reviled by both monarchists and republicans!

But Kanak is much more than a media and political activist. He has too many involvements and interests to keep track of.

To cite but a few:

What Himal is all about…

• He is a great believer in the idea of South Asian integration, going well beyond the bureaucratic trappings of SAARC. (His Southasia, which he insists on spelling as one word, includes Tibet and Burma.)
• He founded Himal Southasian magazine in 1987, and sustained it for 25 years with great effort and dedication. It is the first and only regional news and analysis magazine in our region of 1.4 billion people.
• He promotes documentaries as a means of cultural self expression and exchange, and in 1997 founded Film South Asia, a biennial festival that brings the best of South Asian films.
• He nurtures social science research and scholarly exchange, and is endlessly incubating new ventures or institutions in the public interest.
• He supports spinal injury rehabilitation in Nepal, having realised the pitiful state of such care when he suffered serious spinal injury himself a few years ago after a mountain hiking accident.

Amidst all this, he finds time to write regular columns and op-eds – in both English AND Nepali – as well as occasional books.

For these and many other reasons, Kanak Dixit is one of my role models, and a constant source of inspiration. He is one of the few human beings that I’d like to CLONE if and when that becomes a real prospect.

We need many more Media Typhoons like him to drive change in South Asia.

In fact, I sometimes wonder if there is more than one Kanak Dixit already! But that’s only speculation. For now, my friends, meet the one and only Kanak Mani Dixit confirmed to exist…


සිවුමංසල කොලූගැටයා #67: විකල්ප ඉතිහාසය 2 – ජපන් ආක‍්‍රමණය සාර්ථක වූවා නම්…

In this week’s Ravaya column, published on 20 May 2012, I continue exploring alternative history scenarios for Sri Lanka, a quest started a couple of weeks ago.

I speculate WHAT IF there was a different outcome of the Battle of Ceylon, or the Easter Sunday Japanese air raid of Ceylon on 5 April 1942, exactly 119 days after the Pearl Harbour attack in Hawaii?

What if Ceylon fell to Japanese rule, just like Burma, Malaya and Singapore did? How might that have changed the course of World War Two, and the future of the then British colony of Ceylon?

“අපේ ශ්‍රේෂ්ඨ ඉතිහාසට අත නොතබනු!”

විකල්ප ඉතිහාසයන් ගැන විද්‍යා ප‍්‍රබන්ධ කථා ස්වරූපයෙන් පරිකල්පනය කළ හැකිදැයි 2012 මැයි 6දා කොලමින් මා ඇසූ පැනයට ලැබුණු එක් ප‍්‍රතිචාරයක් වූයේ එයයි. මා බලාපොරොත්තු වූ පරිදි ම ලංකාවේ ඉතිහාසය ශුද්ධ ලේඛනයක් සේ සළකන ඇතැම් දෙනා ඒ ගැන විවෘත මනසකින් විමසනවාට හෝ එය පාදක කර ගෙන නිර්මාණශීලිව කථා ගොතනවාට හෝ නොකැමති බව පෙනෙනවා. ඒ සමග ම එයට අනුබල දෙන ප‍්‍රතිචාර කිහිපයකුත්, “සිංහල පාඨකයන්ට ඕවා වැඩක් නැහැ” යන උදාසීන අවවාදයත් ලැබුණා.

ඉතිහාසය ගැන තනි විග‍්‍රහයකට මා එකග නොවන නිසාත්, ඉතිහාසගත පදනමක සිට පරිකල්පනය කිරිමේ නිර්මාණාත්මක නිදහස ගැන මා විශ්වාස කරන නිසාත් විකල්ප ඉතිහාස ගවේෂණයේ තව පියවරක් අද තබනවා.

මින් පෙර හැම කොලමකින් ම මා දැක් වූ අදහස් මෙන් ම මෙහි අන්තර්ගතය ද සංවාදයට විවෘතයි. එහෙත් ඉතිහාසයේ “උරුමක්කාරයන්” හැටියට පෙනී සිටින කිහිප දෙනෙකුගේ අධිපතිවාදය මා පිළි ගන්නේ නැහැ.

2012 අපේ‍්‍රල් 8දා මගේ කොලමේ තේමාව වූයේ 1942 අපේ‍්‍රල් මාසයේ ශ‍්‍රී ලංකාවට එල්ල වූ ජපන් ගුවන් ප‍්‍රහාරය හා එහිදී සිදු වූ සන්නිවේදන අවුලයි. වචන 1,300ක විග‍්‍රහය තුළ තනි වැකියක් ලෙස මා කියා තිබුණේ “යටත් විජිත පාලනයෙන් මිදීමේ කෙටි මාර්ගය හැටියට මෙරට වාමාංශික දේශපාලකයන් එවකට තර්ක කළේත් ජපන් ජාතිකයන්ට පක්ෂ වීම” යන්නයි. මේ වචන 16 ගැන හිතමිතුරු පාඨක දෙපලක් මගේ බ්ලොග් අඩවිය හරහා දින ගණනක් වාද විවාද කළා. මෙබදු සංවාද ඇති වනවාට මා කැමතියි. http://tiny.cc/EastAt

ඒ ඔස්සේ තවත් කරුණු සෙවූ මට දැන ගන්නට ලැබුණේ එවකට මෙරට දක්ෂිනාංශිකයන් පවා ජපන් නියෝජිතයන් සමග ගනුදෙනු පවත්වා ඇති බව. 1978 විධායක ජනාධිපති වූ ජේ. ආර් ජයවර්ධන 1979දී ජපානයේ නිල සංචාරයක නිරත වෙමින් හෙළිදරව්වක් කළා. තෝකියෝවේ අධිරාජ මාලිගාවේ භෝජන සංග‍්‍රහයකදී ඔහු කීවේ 1940-42 වකවානුවේ මෙරට ජපන් පාලනයකට නතු වුව හොත් කළ හැකි දේ ගැන තමන් රහසිගතව ජපන් නියෝජිතයන් සමග සාකච්ඡ කළ බවයි. ජපන් පාලනයකින් පසු ලංකාවට නිදහස ලබා ගැනීමේ යම් ප‍්‍රතිඥාවක් තමන් ජපන් නියෝජිතයන්ගෙන් බලාපොරොත්තු වූ බවත් ජේ. ආර්. කියා සිටියා!

මේ නිසා මෙරට වාමාංශික මෙන් ම දක්ෂිණාංශික ජන නායකයන් ද ජපන් ආක‍්‍රමණයක හැකියාව තක්සේරු කරමින් සිටි බව සිතා ගත හැකියි. මේවා ගැන විවෘතව කථා කිරීම කිසිවකුට අපහාස කිරිමක් හෝ යම් දේශපාලන සම්ප‍්‍රදායයකට නිගරු කිරීමක් හෝ නෙවෙයි. ඉතිහාසයේ අභියෝගවලට විවිධ පුද්ගලයන්, ජන සමාජ හා රටවල් මුහුණ දෙන එකිනෙකට වෙනස් ආකාරයන් ඔස්සේ ඔවුන්ගේ අනාගතය තීරණය වෙනවා.

අපේ‍්‍රල් 8දා මා විස්තර කල පරිදි ජපන් ආක‍්‍රමණය ගැන පැය 12ක පමණ අනතුරු ඇගවීමක් ලැබුණේ ඉන්දියානු සාගරයට ඉහළින් නිරීක්ෂණ චාරිකාවක යෙදී සිටි කැනේඩියානු ගුවන් නැවියකුගෙන්. එය නොලැබී යාමෙන් හෝ ලැබීමෙන් පසුව වුවත් ආරක්ෂක සුදානමේ දුර්වලකමකින් හෝ 1942 අපේ‍්‍රල් ජපන් ආක‍්‍රමණය සාර්ථක වූවා යයි මොහොතකට සිතන්න. ඉන්දියානු සාගරයේ බල තුලනය ඉතා සියුම්ව පැවති ඒ අවස්ථාවේ ලංකා දුපත අල්ලා ගැනීමට හොඳ ඉඩක් ජපන් හමුදාවට තිබුණා.

සිංගප්පුරුව දෙවන ලෝක යුද්ධ සමයේ ජපන් හමුදා අතට පත් වුයේ 1942 පෙබරවාරි 15 වනදා. ඔවුන් එය සියොනන්තෝ ලෙස නැවත මේ නම් කර වසර තුනකට වැඩි කාලයක් දරදඩු පාලනයක් ගෙන ගියා. එම පාලනය බිඳ වැටුණේ 1945 අගෝස්තුවේ ජපානය යටත් වීමෙන් පසුවයි.

එවකට සිංගප්පුරුවේ රදවා තිබු මිත‍්‍ර පාක්ෂික හමුදා හා යුද්ධ අවිවලට වැඩි ප‍්‍රමාණයක් ලංකාවේ තිබු බව වාර්තාගතයි. ලංකාවේ සාගර බල පදනම යොදා ගනිමින් ජපන් හමුදා සමස්ත ඉන්දියානු සාගරය හා මැදපෙරදිගට බලය පතුරුවා හැර දෙවන ලෝක යුද්ධයේ ඉරණම වෙනස් කරන්නට පවා හැකියාවක් තිබුණා.

එසේ වූවා නම් අපේ ඉතිහාසය කෙලෙස වෙනස් විය හැකිව තිබුණා ද? පෘතුග‍්‍රිසි, ලන්දේසි හා බි‍්‍රතාන්‍ය පාලකයන්ට අමතරව ජපන් ආඥාදායකත්වයකට ද නතු වීමෙන් පසු මෙරට සාමාන්‍ය ජනතාවගේ හා දේශපාලන නායකයන්ගේ ආකල්ප හා ක‍්‍රියාකලාපය කෙසේ වෙනස් වෙයි ද?

එසේ නම් මෙරට රඳවා සිටි සියළු මිත‍්‍ර පාෂික හමුදා නිලධාරින් හා හමුදා භටයන් ජපානයේ යුධ සිරකරුවන් බවට පත් වනවා. සිවිල් පරිපාලනයේ නිරතව සිටි සියළු දෙනා ජපන් හමුදා පාලනයකට නතු වනවා. මෑත ඉතිහාසයේ කිසි විටෙක පුර්ණ හමුදා පාලනයකට යටත් වී අත්දැකීම් නැති ලාංකිකයන්ට මෙහි ඵල විපාක එක්වර සිතා ගන්නටත් අමාරුයි.

මගේ බ්ලොග් අඩවියේ සංවාදයට පිවිසුණු එක් පාඨකයකු පෙන්වා දී ඇත්තේ දෙවන ලෝක යුද්ධයේ තමන් යටත් කර ගත් ආසියාතික රටවල සාමාන්‍ය ජනතාවට ජපන් හමුදා ඉතා කෲර ලෙස සළකා ඇති බවයි. බුරුමය, මලයාව, සිංගප්පුරුව වැනි රටවල් වසර කිහිපයක් නිර්දය ජපන් පාලනයකට නතු වී සිටියා.

එවකට ජපන් හමුදාවල තිබුණු එක ම ඉලක්කය හා අරමුණ වුයේ අමෙරිකාව, බි‍්‍රතාන්‍ය, සෝවියට් දේශය ප‍්‍රමුඛ වු මිත‍්‍ර පාක්ෂික රටවල් පරදවා ජර්මනිය හා ඉතාලියන් සමග ලෝකයේ ප‍්‍රබලතම රට බවට පත්විමයි. මේ සඳහා යන ගමනේදී ඕනෑ ම කැපවීමක් මෙන්ම විනාශකාරී ක‍්‍රියාවක් කිරිමට ඔවුන් නැඹුරුව සිටියා.

මා මෙසේ කියන්නේ ඉතා හොදින් තහවුරු වූ ඓතිහාසික වාර්තා අනුවයි. මෙහිදී අප සිහි තබා ගත යුත්තේ එසේ ආක‍්‍රමණකාරී වූයේ ස්වභාවයෙන් ම සියුම් හා සංවේදී ජපන් ජනයා නොව යුධ කාමයෙන් හා ජාතිකත්වයෙන් උමතු වී සිටි ජපන් හමුදා බවයි. මේ නිසා ලංකාව එදා ජපන් ආක‍්‍රමණයට නතු වූවා නම් අපේ රට කබලෙන් ලිපට වැටෙන්නට ඉඩ තිබුණා.

ජපන් සමාජය හා ජපන් රට ගැන මගේ ලොකු පැහැදීමක් තිබෙනවා. මට ජපන් මිතුරන් රැසක් සිටිනවා. වසර විස්සකට සිට මා අවස්ථා ගණනාවක් ජපානයේ සංචාරය කොටල ජපන් සරසවිවල දේශන පවත්වාල ජපන් චිත‍්‍රපට උළෙලවල ජුරි සභිකයකු ලෙස කටයුතු කොට තිබෙනවා. දෙවන ලෝක යුද්ධය හා එහිදී ජපන් හමුදා කළ හිරහැර ගැන අද දක්වා ජපන් ජාතිකයන් සමාව භජනය කරනවා. මේ නිසා අද අප දන්නා හිතමිතුරු ජපානය හා 1942 බලකාමී ජපන් හමුදා ක‍්‍රියා කලාපය පටලවා නොගත යුතුයි.

ශ‍්‍රි ලංකාවේ 1970 ගණන්වල සිට පදිංචිව මෙරට ඉතිහාසය ගැන ගවේෂණාත්මකව පොතපත ලියන බි‍්‍රතාන්‍ය ජාතික රිචඞ් බොයිල් මගේ විමසීමට ප‍්‍රතිචාර දක්වමින් මෙසේ කීවා: “ජපනුන් ලංකාව අල්ලා ගත්තා නම් දහස් ගණනක් මිත‍්‍ර පාක්ෂික හමුදා ඔවුන්ගේ යුධ සිරකරුවන් බවට පත් වනවා. බි‍්‍රතාන්‍ය පාලකයන් සමග වෙළඳ, සිවිල් හෝ වෙනත් සබඳතා පවත්වා ගෙන ගිය ලාංකිකයන් දහස් ගණනක් ද ඔවුන්ගේ සැකයට හා හිරිහැරවලට ලක් වනවා. සිංගප්පුරුවේදී කළ විදියට රටවැසියන්ට හා යුද්ධ සිරකරුවන්ට දරුණු ලෙස සැලකීම සිදු වූවා නම් ජපන් පාලනයෙන් මෙරට මුදවා ගන්නට යටිබිම්ගත කැරැල්ලක් ඇරඹිය හැකිව තිබුණා ද? එබන්දකට නායකත්වයක් දිය හැකිව තිබුණේ කාට ද? වඩාත් රණකාමී හෝ සාමකාමී වාතාවරණයක් බිහි වී කවදා කුමන පදනමක් මත ලංකාවේ ස්වාධිනත්වය ලබා ගනීද? මේවා ගැන අපට කළ හැක්කේ පරිකල්පනය පමණයි.”

සිංගප්පුරුව ජපන් පාලනයට යටත් වීමේ 70 වන සංවත්සරය මේ වසරේ ඔවුන් සමරනවා. මේ අරභයා ලියැවුණු ලිපි හා නිෂ්පාදිත වාර්තා වැඩසටහන් දෙස බලන විට පෙනී යන්නේ ජපනුන් සිංගප්පුරුව අල්ලා ගත් සතියේ හා ඉනික්බිති සිදු වූ මිනිස් ඝාතන, බලහක්කාරකම් හා අසාධාරණ දේපල අත්පත්කර ගැනීම ගැන 70 වසරකට පසුවත් සිංගප්පුරු වැසියන් තුළ කම්පනයක් හා පිළිකුලක් පවතින බවයි. එහෙත් තම කුඩා දුපතට වඩා විශාල බල අරගලයකට හසු වී තමන්ගේ එදිනෙදා ජිවිතය හා ඉතිහාසගත ඉරණම වෙනස් වූ ආකාරය ගැන ඔවුන් උපේක්ෂා සහගතව ආවර්ජනය කරනවා.

මීට සියවස් පහකට පෙර පෘතුගීසි ආගමනයටත් කලින් අපේ දිවයින චීන බල පරාක‍්‍රමයට නතු වී නම් අපේ අද දවස කුමක් විය හැකි ද? මේ ගැන තවත් කොලමකින් විපරම් කරමු!


Gene Sharp: Every dictator’s worst nightmare?

Gene Sharp - NYT Photo

Is this man, now 82 years old, giving the world’s assorted dictators their worst nightmares?

This is Dr Gene Sharp, a Professor Emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in the US, he is widely known for his extensive writings on nonviolent struggle, which have influenced numerous anti-government resistance movements around the world. He is now credited with the strategy behind the recent toppling of the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak.

The New York Times on 17 Feb 2011 profiled him with the title: “Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in a Revolution”. The article noted: “Few Americans have heard of Mr Sharp. But for decades, his practical writings on nonviolent revolution — most notably “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” a 93-page guide to toppling autocrats, available for download in 24 languages — have inspired dissidents around the world, including in Burma, Bosnia, Estonia and Zimbabwe, and now Tunisia and Egypt.”

“Gene Sharp is the world’s foremost expert on non-violent revolution. His work has been translated into more than 30 languages, his books slipped across borders and hidden from secret policemen all over the world,” says Ruaridh Arrow, Director of the upcoming documentary titled ‘Gene Sharp – How to Start a Revolution’.

In 2009 Arrow, a producer with Sky News in the UK, began filming a documentary following the impact of Sharp’s work from his Boston house, across four continents and eventually to Tahrir square in Cairo, “where I slept alongside protesters who read his work by torchlight in the shadow of tanks”.

Arrow shares the story of the film in the making on BBC Online: Gene Sharp: Author of the nonviolent revolution rulebook

Extract: “Gene Sharp is no Che Guevara but he may have had more influence than any other political theorist of his generation. His central message is that the power of dictatorships comes from the willing obedience of the people they govern – and that if the people can develop techniques of withholding their consent, a regime will crumble.”

The film is due for release in the Spring of 2011. More info on its official website.
Director Ruaridh Arrow
Director of Photography Philip Bloom
Composer Tom Smail

Gene Sharp – How to Start a Revolution Trailer

Here’s another interesting video featuring Gene Sharp:

Gene Sharp: A Primer on YouTube:

Read “From Dicatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation” by Gene Sharp.


Wanted: More courageous little ‘Mack’s to unsettle Yertle Kings of our times!

Yertle the Turtle King: My mental image of a despotic ruler!

Related blog post on 7 Feb 2011: Of Dictators and Terrible Cockroaches: A Russian children’s story…from 1925!

January 2011 has been an eventful month for democratic reform in the Middle East. As People Power successfully toppled the deeply entrenched dictator Ben Ali in Tunisia, and the ordinary Egyptians intensified their pressure on own 30-year-long regime of Hosni Mubarak, commentators around the world have been trying to make sense of the rapidly unfolding developments. One of them, David Kravets, writing in Wired linked to a blog post of mine that talked about the experience of one of the earliest successful demonstrations of people power — in the Philippines, when they toppled a long-misruling dictator in 1986.

Amidst all this, and while following the developments on the web, I have been re-reading my Dr Seuss. In particular, the delightfully inspiring tale of Yertle the Turtle King. To me, that is the perfect example of People Power in action — cleverly disguised as children’s verse!

The story was first published in April 1958, in a picture book collection by Theodor Geisel, published under his more commonly-known pseudonym, Dr. Seuss. In 2001, Publishers Weekly listed it at No 125 on a list of the best-selling children’s books of all time.

For those poor Seuss-deprived readers, here’s a helpful summary I have adapted from Wikipedia:

The story is about Yertle the Turtle, the king of the pond in the far-away island of Sala-ma-Sond. Unsatisfied with the stone that serves as his throne, he commands the other turtles to stack themselves beneath him so that he can see further and expand his kingdom (he considers himself the master of all he can see). However, the stacked turtles are in pain. Mack, a very ordinary little turtle at the very bottom of the pile, asks Yertle for a respite, but Yertle just tells him to shut up. Dissent is suppressed.

King Yertle is still not happy: he wants ‘to expand his kingdom’. So he commands more and more turtles to add to his throne. Mack again asks for a respite because the increased weight is now causing extreme pain to the turtles at the bottom. Again Yertle yells at Mack to shut up. At this point, little Mack decides he has had enough and decides to do something to vent his anger and frustration: he just burps. That simple action shakes up the entire stack of turtles, and the mighty king comes crashing down into the pond — and all turtles are freed at last!

Required reading for all despots?Years ago, when I first read the story to my then very young daughter, I could immediately see strong parallels between the vain, merciless Yertle the turtle king and the equally egotistic megalomaniacs in the world of human politics and governance. I would later learn that Dr Seuss meant Yertle to be Adolf Hitler: the turtle’s rule of the pond and takeover of the surrounding areas signified Hitler’s regime in Germany and invasion of surrounding Europe.

The ordinary but courageous Mack epitomises long-suffering Everyman and Everywoman in all countries where autocratic or dictatorial regimes rule, piling ever more burdens on their people. Like the turtles in the stack, the people can go on for years taking a great deal of suffering and sacrifice while the despots plunder and make merry. But there comes a day when a ‘Mack’ says enough is enough…and emits a humble ‘burp’ that shakes up everyone.

As Dr Seuss wrote (and this is my favourite part!):

But, as Yertle, the Turtle King, lifted his hand
And started to order and give the command,
That plain little turtle below in the stack,
That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack,
Decided he’d taken enough. And he had.
And that plain little lad got a bit mad.
And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing.
He burped!
And his burp shook the throne of the king!

And Yertle the Turtle, the king of the trees,
The king of the air and the birds and the bees,
The king of a house and a cow and a mule…
Well, that was the end of the Turtle King’s rule!
For Yertle, the King of all Sala-ma-Sond,
Fell off his high throne and fell Plunk! in the pond!

And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course… all the turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.

Read the text of Yertle the Turtle King

I don’t mean to oversimplify or belittle the enormous courage and resolve it takes for ordinary people to take on a brutal regime, but as pop-culture metaphors go, it’s hard to find a better one than Mack and his defiant burp. That little burp by a tiny turtle brought a vain king down, and its real-world equivalent is called people power: when long-oppressed ordinary people take to the streets to protest against the accumulated excesses of their rulers, demanding reform or regime change.

Not all such ‘burps’ bring all ‘Yertles’ down in the real world. The mighty Soviet Union crumbled in the late 1980s thanks to the courage and persistence of ordinary people who stood up and stepped out. It also worked twice in the Philippines: first against an outright dictator (Marcos) in 1986, and then against a renegade elected president (Estrada) in 2001. A variation of it happened in Nepal against the brutal King Gyanendra, who was dumped into the dustbin of history with the entire monarchy in 2006. Each case had its own history, dynamics and outcomes but shared the common feat of people power.

Sounds familiar? That's because it's all too common!

But elsewhere, as in Tiananmen Square of China (1989) Burma (2007) and Thailand (2010), people power failed to change regimes and led to much violence and bloodshed. What particular combination of social, political and technological factors make people power work is currently the subject of intense study and debate among scholars, diplomats and activists.

But there’s no doubt that recent history has been shaped and made by Macks who broke the silence and, figuratively speaking, burped. Some such burps were heard around the world, and some Macks went on to lead prolonged revolutions that ended with them becoming rulers themselves: Lech Walesa, Cory Aquino and Valclav Havel come to mind.

For every ‘Mack’ who succeeds, though, there are many who go unsung —or much worse. We still have no idea what happened to that much photographed and celebrated ‘Tank Man’ who stood up against the Red Army’s tanks on Tiananman Square one fateful day in June 1989. We don’t even know his name, but his defiance against such enormous odds still inspires assorted Macks all over the world.

For sure, our world is a tiny bit larger — and more complex — than that muddy pond in far away Sala-ma-Sond. And we have an abundance of Yertles, of various colours and hues, riding literally on the backs of their fellow people.

At least some of these tyrants must be following the recent developments in Tunisia and Egypt with growing anxiety. We can only hope that there will be a steady stream of courageous little ‘Macks’ in all such countries who will finally speak up and say: ‘Oi, Enough is enough!’

And then…BURP!

PS: Interesting footnote: Dr Seuss was the first to use the word “burp” in print. That apparently was cause for some concern before publication. According to him, the publishers at Random House, including the president, had to meet to decide whether or not they could use “burp” because “nobody had ever burped before on the pages of a children’s book”.

See also this interesting poem The Vain King, by American poet Henry Van Dyke (1852 – 1933)


The Mekong: One river, six countries, two films — and many views

Mekong River flows through 6 countries, nurturing 65 million Asians

The Mekong is one of Asia’s major rivers, and the twelfth longest in the world. Sometimes called the ‘Danube of the East’, it nurtures a great deal of life in its waters – and in the wetlands, forests, towns and villages along its path.

The Mekong’s long journey begins in the Tibetan highlands. It flows through China’s Yunan province, and then across Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia…before entering the sea from southern Vietnam. It’s a journey of nearly 5,000 kilometres, or some 3,000 miles.

The Mekong River Basin is the land surrounding all the streams and rivers that flow into it. This covers a vast area roughly the size of France and Germany combined.

On its long journey across 6 countries, the Mekong provides a life-line to over 65 million people. They share Mekong waters for drinking, farming, fishing and industry. Along the way, the river also generates electricity for South East Asia’s emerging economies.

Naturally, these teeming millions who share the river feel differently about how best to manage the river waters in their best interests. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) tries to nurture cooperation among the Mekong river countries, but differences still remain.

Some of these surfaced during the Mekong Media Forum being held in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai from 9 to 12 December 2009. As IPS reporter Marwaan Macan-Markar reported, “A heated debate about the future of the Mekong River at a media conference in this northern Thai city exposed a fault line triggered by the regional giant China’s plans to build a cascade of dams on the upper stretches of South-east Asia’s largest waterway.”

At the centre of this debate was Pipope Panitchpakdi, my Thai film-maker friend who recently made the documentary Mekong: The Untamed. He is both an outstanding journalist and an outspoken media activist.

He told the Forum: “The most important issue for people who live along the banks (of the lower stretches) of the Mekong are the dams and how these affect them. They cannot see the river as a pretty sight.”

Mekong: The Untamed chronicles the journey of Suthichai Yoon, a leading Thai media personality, from the headwaters of the Mekong River in Tibet to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The question he seeks to answer through his travels is how the planned Chinese dams affect communities who live along the banks of the river.

“My Mekong journey goes to the heart of Asia’s complexities,” says the narrator as he makes his way from China’s southern province of Yunnan to the north-eastern Thai town of Chiang Khong. The scenes he passes range from the raging waters of the Mekong and hills swathed with mist to riverside communities being torn apart by a building frenzy. “I wonder if the Chinese realise what the people who are impacted by the dam feel?” Suthichai asks at one point.

According to Pipope, another documentary film about the Mekong made by Chinese filmmakers overlooks some serious issues: “There was nothing about a lot of villages disappearing, that there are floods and the doubts people have about the Chinese dams.”

This second film, also showcased at the Mekong Media Forum, is a 20-episode series titled Nourished by the Same River, and has been made by China Central Television (CCTV).

A Chinese journalist on the panel conceded that the planned development targeting the Mekong would provoke a range of responses. “It is natural that different people will have different perspectives on similar issues,” said Zhu Yan, a senior editor at the national broadcaster China Central Television. “In China there is a debate (around the question) of environment or dams.”

The Mekong is both a mighty river and a massive bundle of issues for any film or film series to tackle. And given the multitude of countries, interests and viewpoints involved, it’s unlikely that there will be consensus.

But it’s good that films are sparking off discussion and debate…just what we need for more informed choices to be made in the future.

Read full IPS story: Chinese Dams Expose Fault Lines, By Marwaan Macan-Markar


Moving images to animate the Mekong Media Forum in Chiang Mai

Some 225 participants, the bulk of them journalists from Mekong countries, are set to discuss, are debating and taking stock of their media environment against a backdrop of changing and often quite different news cultures at the Mekong Media Forum, being held in Chiang Mai from 9 to 12 December 2009.

I very much wanted to be there, for I’ve been covering the Mekong region as a journalist for 20 years, beginning with my first location filming visit to southern Vietnam in 1990. I’ve visited and worked in five of the six Mekong countries – Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam – with the exception of Burma.

But I’m missing this interesting event due to scheduling difficulties – I must try harder on my omnipresence act in the coming year…

The four-day media conference brings together a mix of participants, from print, television journalists and photojournalists to civil society, academics and developments, who will be discussing a menu of issues such as changes in the Mekong media scene, new trends, citizen journalism and new media, training, media challenges and reporting on water governance, children, as well as gender and sexuality.

Cinema Mekong, a strand within the forum, features the work of documentary filmmakers and video journalists who have been part of the Imaging Our Mekong Media Fellowship since 2002 — making this unique series of films very much from the lens of local filmmakers — as well as other films that focus on the Mekong region.

The films cover trans-boundary topics on environment, culture, children, women and cultural identity. TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP)’s latest Asian regional television series, Saving the Planet is among the many regional and international films being screened

Watch Mekong Media Forum 2009 viral video:

The Mekong Media Forum is being organised by IPS Asia-Pacific news agency and Probe Media Foundation, Inc., which since 2002 have been running the Imaging Our Mekong media fellowships. More than 220 journalists from the region have been fellows in this programme.

Read more coverage on IPS TeraViva online newspaper


Adrian Cowell and ‘The Decade of Destruction’: A film can make a difference!

The Amazon burning

The Decade of Destruction A unique chronicle of the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest.

Whatever we might think about Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, I’m glad it has settled one question: can a single film make a difference in tipping public opinion about a matter of global importance? The answer, where climate change is concerned, is a resounding yes!

But years or decades before Al Gore, other film makers have had their own impact on other environmental issues. One of them is Adrian Cowell, the award-winning British film maker whose quest to tell the story of the destruction of the Amazon forest made politicians listen and the world take note.

According to the Centre for Social Media at the American University, “He catapulted the environmental movement to save the Amazonian rain forests through the television series The Decade of Destruction and Banking on Disaster.”

Adrian Cowell

Adrian Cowell

Adrian, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting and talking on several occasions, is a world acclaimed leader in our field. Born in Tongshan, China in 1934 and educated at Cambridge University, Adrian has been making films longer than I have been alive — and luckily for all of us, he is still at it.

He began filming his path-breaking series called The Decade of Destruction in 1980, when the Amazon was first opened up to settlers and developers. He has documented the systematic destruction of the rainforest there into late 1990 when, for the first time, there was an indication that the fires were being brought under control.

As the synopsis says: “Each episode follows the real life stories of people caught up in the frontier’s web of need and greed, stories of personal tragedy and great courage. The programs relate the individual’s struggle to the wider developments going on around them. Together they illustrate the principal issues of Amazonia during the 1980s – its decade of greatest destruction.”

The Chicago Tribune called it an epic, “a brilliantly told story of greed, death, politics, violence, heroism and environmental holocaust.”

I recently came across this brief account by Adrian Cowell himself, looking back at his long engagement with the Amazon:

“In January 1980 we started 10 years of recording the destruction of the Amazon forest. We began by filming colonists invading the territory of the then unknown, and very vulnerable, tribe, the Uru Eu Wau Wau, in the Brazilian state of Rondonia. Many colonists had received, free of charge from the government, plots of 40-50 hectares in the forest traditionally hunted by the Indians. Tragically, within a decade, this ‘colonisation’ process, called the Polonoroeste Project, would not only leave three-quarters of the Indians dead, but also prove a disaster for the colonists themselves. They had been given such poor soil that, within six years, 60% of the land they had so hopefully deforested would be abandoned.

Amazon: The last frontier?“So we were astounded when the World Bank moved in to lend nearly half a billion dollars to the project, and were even more astonished when we realised that what was being played out in front of our cameras was evidence of one of the most disastrous loans the Bank had ever made. Not unnaturally, I went to Washington to find out what could explain the Bank’s loan. And there I met three environmentalists, Bruce Rich, Barbara Bramble and Brent Blackwelder, respectively from the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Policy Institute. They were campaigning on how international economic development affected the environment. But by a remarkable coincidence they had decided to focus, not only on the World Bank, but on – of all its hundreds of loans all over the world – the very Polonoroeste Project that we were filming. They asked me to show our film in Congressional hearings and I telephoned José Lutzenberger – more or less the father of Brazilian environmentalism – to ask him to testify. By yet another happy coincidence, an American researcher, Brent Millikan, had written a report giving academic detail to the facts behind what we had filmed. And an American expert on Amazonia, Dr Philip Fearnside, added his authority to the diagnosis of what was going wrong.

“And so, some months later – after a complex chain of legislative and political developments – we were able to record Senator Robert Kasten, the chairman of the powerful Appropriation Committee’s subcommittee on foreign operations, cutting off 20% of the money the US donated annually to the World Bank. Nothing concentrates a banker’s attention more than the withdrawal of some of his money. Within a few months we were able to conclude our programme, Banking on Disaster, by filming World Bank president Barber Conable admitting, for the first time, that a Bank loan, specifically the Polonoroeste Project, had gone wrong. This was to be the beginning of a very slow and gradual greening of World Bank policies.

“Obviously, our television film had played a part in this political change. But though a film may sometimes be the most dramatic way to present a case, it is an illusion to think that it can be more than just one tool or facet of the very complex process behind international and environmental evolution.”

* * * * *

Here’s more biographical background about Adrian:

The Decade of Destruction - book cover

Book of the TV series

Adrian Cowell has been making documentary films for five decades. In 1955-56, he joined the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition, an experience which launched his film career and his interest in Burma. The following year, he made his first foray into the rain forest of Brazil, part of a joint Oxford-Cambridge expedition of young filmmakers. These early trips became the seeds of Cowell’s award-winning epic projects. His series Opium was filmed over an eight-year period (including nine months when he was trapped behind the lines in Burma). His ten-year chronicle of the destruction of the Brazilian rain forests during the 1980’s—broadcast as the television series The Decade of Destruction —stirred the world and contributed to the international debate on how the Amazon should be developed. In 1990, The Decade of Destruction was broadcast on Channel Four in Britain and on PBS FRONTLINE in the U.S. Adrian Cowell’s more recent British TV series include The Heroin Wars. It is a follow-up to The Opium Trail (1966), The Opium Warlords (1974) and Opium (1978).

Cowell is an environmental activist, co-founder of the Television Trust for the Environment and the author of two books on Brazilian Indians, The Heart of the Forest (Knopf) and The Tribe that Hides from Man (Stein and Day). He also wrote a companion book to the TV series The Decade of Destruction (Henry Holt and Company).

Read PBS interview with Adrian Cowell on another of his film series, on opium trade in Southeast Asia


Cory Aquino (1933 – 2009): Unleashed People Power, still haunting tyrants worldwide

The remains of former Philippine president Corazon Aquino passes through the historical EDSA road with some 300,000 supporters waving to pay their last respect. The road is remembered in 1986 as then anonymous Cory and some 2 million people rallied out the streets to fight a 20-year government dictatorship through peaceful people power revolution. Photo by Arwin Doloricon/ Voyage Film

The remains of former Philippine president Corazon Aquino passes through the historical EDSA road with some 300,000 supporters waving to pay their last respect. The road is remembered in 1986 as then anonymous Cory and some 2 million people rallied out the streets to fight a 20-year government dictatorship through peaceful people power revolution. Photo by Arwin Doloricon/ Voyage Film

I know this post appears rather late, but I couldn’t let Cory Aquino’s death on 1 August 2009 pass without comment. The original inspiration for People Power that toppled one of the worst tyrants of the 20th Century, she would now turn the Patron Saint of peaceful democratic struggles everywhere.

Last week, I was reduced to tears reading two links that my Filipino friend Ruth Villarama, who runs Voyage Films in Manila, sent me of new comments posted on their website.

In the first post, A housewife, a leader, an angel in yellow (3 August 2009), Joan Rae Ramirez wrote: “Her death at 3 AM on August 1 has stopped a nation from its apathetic works to once again remember what was once fought by this ordinary housewife. It is on these rarest moments where the oligarchs came down from their kingdoms to pay their respect and mingle with the people who truly represent the real state of the Philippine nation.”

Karen Lim, who works with Voyage Films as a producer and project coordinator, wrote a more personalised piece titled The Famous Anonymous.

It opened with these words: “I see her on TV. In some instances I even covered her for a story. Our relationship did not go deeper than the reporter-subject, or the audience and the watched. Yet I feel a certain affinity to the most revered President. And when she died I got sad, a strange feeling of sadness where the source is unknown.”

Karen was too young to have remembered much of those heady days of the People Power Revolution of February 1986 — a series of nonviolent and prayerful mass street demonstrations in the Philippines that eventually toppled the 20-year autocracy of Ferdinand Marcos. Indeed, a whole generation of Filipinos has been born since. But that doesn’t stop them from relating to the monumental events that unfolded at at Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, known more commonly by its acronym EDSA, in Quezon City, Metropolitan Manila and involved over 2 million ordinary Filipinos as well as several political, military and religious figures.

As Karen wrote in her tribute: “Cory’s life became ours too. We watched her, sometimes we joined her. We experienced her highs and lows. We are her “Mga minamahal kong kababayan”(my beloved fellowman). She did what no stranger did in my family – unite us in prayer for the country, unite us in laughter amidst the uncertainties of those times. I had no personal connection to this lady, but I have now every reason to mourn her passing.”

Woman of the Year 1986

Woman of the Year 1986

I can only echo her Karen’s words. As a politically curious 19-year-old, I had followed with much interest the daring gamble and eventual triumph of People Power unfolding thousands of kilometres away from my Colombo home. In the pre-Internet era, and before satellite TV channels provided 24/7 coverage across Asia, my sources were daily newspapers, evening news bulletins on local TV and, once every few weeks, the second-hand copies of Time magazine passed on to me by an uncle. The housewife in yellow ended up becoming Time Woman of the Year for 1986, with Pico Iyer writing a suitably reflective piece.

In the years since the return of democracy – with all its imperfections and idiosyncrasies – I have stood at EDSA more than once, and wondered what it must have been like to mobilise millions of ordinary, concerned people in the days before email, Internet and mobile phones — communication tools that today’s political activists, and indeed everyone else, take for granted. There is a thin line between a non-violent struggle and a passionate yet violent mob that, ultimately, works against their own interests. I am amazed that Cory and her activists didn’t cross the line, despite provocations and 20 years of repression.

Of course, it wasn’t just the human numbers that turned the tide in EDSA. Cory Aquino’s charismatic leadership and moral authority persuaded other centres of power – including the Catholic church and sections of the military – to align with the struggle to restore democracy. It was this combination, and the sudden change of mind by the Americans who had backed Marcos all along, that enabled People Power to triumph.

Elsewhere in Asia, where these elements didn’t align as forcefully and resolutely in the years that followed, the outcome was not as dramatic or positive. We’ve seen that, for example, in places as diverse as Tiananmen Square in China (1989), Burma (2007) and most recently, in the streets of Tehran, Iran. In contrast, it did indeed work and ushered in regime change in places like Nepal, even though it entailed more protracted struggles.

What interests me, in particular, is the role played by information and communication technologies (ICTs) in such People Power movements. Alex Magno, a political analyst and professor of sociology in Manila, sees clear links between new communications technologies and political agitation. Interviewed on the Canadian documentary Seeing Is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News (2002), he said: “In the last two decades or so, most of the political upheavals had some distinct link to communications technology. The (1979) Iranian Revolution was closely linked to the audio cassette. The first EDSA uprising in the Philippines was very closely linked to the photocopying machine and so we called it the ‘Xerox Revolution’. Tiananmen, the uprising that failed in China, was called the ‘Fax Revolution’, because the rest of the world was better informed than the rest of the neighbourhood because of the fax machine. The January (2002) uprising in the Philippines represents a convergence between electronic mail and text messaging. And that gave that uprising its specific characteristics.”

Mobile phones' role in People Power II acknowledged in a Manila mural

Mobile phones' role in People Power II acknowledged in a Manila mural

But it was People Power II in the Philippines that is perhaps the best known example of ICTs fuelling and sustaining a revolution. The ability to send short text messages on cell phones helped spawn that political revolution in early 2001, a full decade and a half after the original wave that swept Cory Aquino into office.

President Estrada was on trial facing charges of bribery, corruption and breach of the public trust. Despite mounting evidence against him, the President was let off the hook. That was the turning point. According to Ramon Isberto, a vice-president at Smart Telecom in the Philippines: “People saw it on television, and a lot of people were revolted. They started text messaging each other, sending each other messages over the Internet, and that thing created a combustion.”

Because of texting and email, within two hours over 200,000 people converged in the main street of Manila demanding the president’s resignation. The vigil lasted for four days and four nights, until President Estrada finally got the message and stepped down. It ended with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo taking her oath of office in the presence of the crowd at EDSA, becoming the 14th president of the Philippines.

Those events have been documented, analysed and interpreted by many people from various angles. The Cold War had ended and the geopolitical map of the world had been redrawn. By this time, 24/7 satellite television was commonplace in Asia and the mobile phone was already within ordinary people’s reach. Gloria was no Cory, and Estrada wasn’t Marcos. But the forces and elements once again aligned on EDSA, and with history-making results. The role that the humble mobile phone played is acknowledged, among other places, in a mural in Manila.