සිවුමංසල කොලූගැටයා #201: ශ‍්‍රී ලංකාවේ අරාබි වසන්තයක් හට ගත හැකිද?

Anti-government demonstrators crowd Cairo's Tahrir Square in February 2011

Anti-government demonstrators crowd Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011

In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), published in the issue dated 4 January 2015, I pose a topical question: are there necessary and sufficient conditions for a spontaneous people’s uprising in Sri Lanka similar to what happened in the collective phenomenon known as the Arab Spring?

I address this because both the ruling party and opposition politicians in Sri Lanka have been loosely referring to Arab Spring during their current campaigns running up to the Presidential Election scheduled for 8 January 2015.

In this column, I briefly chronicle what happened in the Middle East and North Africa during 2010-11, and then explore the many factors that triggered or sustained the complex series of events. I discern three key factors: demographics (especially a low median age with large youthful populations); democracy deficit; and proliferation of information and communications technologies ranging from easy access to trans-boundary satellite television broadcasts, mobile phones and Internet.

I argue that while Sri Lanka of today has achieved the ICT factor in good measure, the other two factors fall short. With a median age of 31 years (in 2012), ours is no longer a youthful population and the demographic impetus for uprisings has passed. And while there are serious concerns about governance, the country’s democratic deficit is only partially present.

Thus, it is very unlikely that an Arab Spring style uprising could happen in Sri Lanka. So both the ruling coalition and opposition parties relax — and should let go of this much-hyped prospect.

Arab-Spring-women-Egypt

ශ‍්‍රී ලංකාවේ අරාබි වසන්තයක් හට ගත හැකිද? ඒ සඳහා අවශ්‍ය සාධක ප‍්‍රමාණවත් පමණින් පෙළගැසීමක් මෙරට හමු වේද?

අරාබි වසන්තය (Arab Spring) හරියට ‘සීතල යුද්ධය’ (Cold War) නැතහොත් ගෝලීයකරණය (Globalization) වැනි පුළුල් යෙදුමක්. එකිනෙකට යම් තරමකින් බැඳුණු සිදුවීම් මාලාවකට හා ප‍්‍රවාහයකට යොදනු ලබන්නා වූත් මාධ්‍ය විසින් ජනප‍්‍රිය කරන ලද්දා වූත් සංකල්පයක්.

අරාබි වසන්තය ගැන නිරවුල් අවබෝධයක් නොමැතිව එය ගෙඩි පිටින් ශ‍්‍රී ලංකාවට අදාල කරන්නට පාලක පක්‍ෂයේ මෙන්ම විපක්‍ෂයේ ද ඇතැම් දේශපාලකයන් උත්සාහ කරනු මෑත කාලයේ අපට අසන්නට ලැබුණා.

ඔවුන්ගේ ප‍්‍රකාශ දෙස බලන විට පෙනී යන්නේ නවීන සන්නිවේදන තාක්‍ෂණ මෙවලම්වලින් සන්නද්ධ වූ ජනයා ප‍්‍රජාතන්ත‍්‍රවාදී නොවන කලහකාරී අරගලයක් හරහා පවත්නා රජයක් වෙනස් කිරීම අරාබි වසන්තය ලෙස ඔවුන් තේරුම් ගන්නා ආකාරයයි. නමුත් සැබෑ තත්ත්වය මීට වඩා සංකීර්ණ මෙන්ම සියුම් ද වනවා.

අරාබි වසන්තය ආකාරයේ ජනතා අරගල හා නැගී සිටිම් මැදපෙරදිග, උතුරු අප‍්‍රිකාවේ හා සමහර නැගෙනහිර යුරෝපීය රටවල සිදු වුවත් වෙනත් රටවල සිදු නොවීමට සීමාකාරී සාධක මොනවාද?

Arab Spring යෙදුම මුල් වරට භාවිත කළා යයි සැළකෙන්නේ අමෙරිකාවේ ජෝර්ජ් වොෂිංටන් සරසවියේ දේශපාලන විද්‍යාව පිළිබඳ මහාචාර්ය මාක් ලින්ච් (Marc Lynch) විසින් 2011 ජනවාරි 6 වනදා. ජාත්‍යන්තර සබඳතා හා ලෝක විත්ති ගැන කථාබහ කරන Foreign Policy සඟරාවේ ලිපියක් ලියමින්. http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/01/06/obamas-arab-spring/

පසුව මෙයට විකල්ප යෙදුම් ද සමහරුන් භාවිත කරන්නට පටන් ගත්තා. එනම් ඉස්ලාමීය වසන්තය (Islamic Spring). හේතුව කලක් පැවති පාලනතන්ත‍්‍ර ඇද වැටුණු රටවල් ගණනාවකම එම තැනට ඒ වෙලේම හෝ ටික කලකින් හෝ පත් වූයේ ඉස්ලාමීය දේශපාලන පක්‍ෂ නිසා. මීට අමතර අරාබි පිබිදුම, අරාබි උද්ඝෝෂණ, අරාබි ජන අරගල ආදි නම් ද භාවිත වනවා.

කලක් තිස්සේ මැදපෙරදිග රටවල කැකෑරෙමින් තිබුණු ජනතා දුක් ගැනවිලි හා තරුණ අසහනයන් අන්තිමේදී පුපුරා ගියේ ටියුනීසියාවේ සිඩි බවුසිඞ් (Sidi Bouzid) නම් නගරයේදී.

Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi

Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi

මොහමඞ් බවුඅසීසි Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi නම් 26 හැවිරදි තරුණ වීදි වෙළෙන්දකු 2010 දෙසැම්බර් 17 වනදා ප‍්‍රසිද්ධියේ ගිනි තබා ගත්තා. ඔහු එය කළේ නගර සභාවේ දුෂිත නිලධාරින් තමන්ට දිගින් දිගටම අල්ලස් ඉල්ලා කළ හිරිහැර හා පොලිසියේ අඩන්තේට්ටම්වලට විරෝධය පෑමටයි. රෝහල් ගත කරනු ලැබූ ඔහු 2011 ජනවාරි 4 වනදා මිය ගියා.

මේ තරුණයාගේ අත්දැකීමට සමාන හිරිහැර ලද තවත් බොහෝ දෙනා තම විරෝධය පළ කිරීමට මෙය අවස්ථාව කර ගත්තා. ඒ සමග නගරයේ වීදි කලබල හට ගත්තා. මේ සිදුවීම් ස්මාට්ෆෝන් ජංගම දුරකථන හරහා වීඩියෝ ගත කළ ජනයා ඒවා රට පුරා සිටින තමන් හඳුනන අයත් සමග බෙදා ගත්තා.

1987 සිට අයෝමය හස්තයකින් වියුනීසියාව පාලනය කළ ජනාධිපති අබිදීන් බෙන් අලීගේ රජය යටතේ රට පුරාම මෙබඳු දුෂණ හා අක‍්‍රමිකතා ඉහවහා ගොස් තිබුණා. එක් නරගයක එයට එරෙහිව විරෝධතා මතු වනු දුටු සෙසු ජනයා ද එයට එක් වුණා. මෙය ස්වයංසිද්ධියක් මිස කිසිවකු සංවිධානගතව සැළසුම්ගතව කළ දෙයක් නොවෙයි.

ටියුනිසියාව මධ්‍යම ආදායම් ඇති රටක් වුව ද බොහෝ දෙනා දුගී බවින් මිරිකී නිලධාරිවාදට හසු වී පීඩිතව සිටියා. මේ නිසා තරුණ අරගලයට බොහෝ ජනයාගේ ආශිර්වාදය හා සහාය ලැබුණා. රටපුරා වීදි කැළඹීම් හා විරෝධතා මැද අතිශයින් දුෂිත බෙන් අලී හා ඔහුගේ පවුලෙ උදවිය සෞදි අරාබියට පළා ගියා. ඒ 2011 ජනවාරි 14 වනදා.

එහෙත් මහජන උද්ඝෝෂණ නතර වූයේ නෑ. වසර 25කට ආසන්න කාලයක් රට පාලනය කළ අලිගේ RCD පක්‍ෂය තහනම් කිරීමට ජනයා බලපෑම් කළා. එය පිළිගත් එරට අධිකරණය RCD තහනම් කොට එහි සම්පත් රාජ සන්තක කළා. එසේම අලූතෙන් පත්වූ රජය අලි යටතේ ක‍්‍රියාත්මක වූ බිහිසුනු රහස් පොලිසිය වසා දැමුවා. 2011 ඔක්තෝබරයේ පැවති මැතිවරණයෙන් එන්නඩා ව්‍යාපාරය නම් වූ දේශපාලන කණ්ඩායම බහුතර ආසන දිනා රජයක් පිහිටවූවා.

Ripple that started in Tunisia had a domino effect...well, sort of. | Cartoon by Saieb Khalil; courtesy - doroob.com

Ripple that started in Tunisia had a domino effect…well, sort of. | Cartoon by Saieb Khalil; courtesy – doroob.com

ටියුනීසියාවෙන් ඇරැඹුණු මේ ජනරැල්ල දින හෝ සති කිහිපයක් ඇතුළත ජෝර්දානය, කුවේට්, ඊජිප්තුව, ඇල්ජීරියාව, යේමනය, බහරේන් හා සිරියාව වැනි රටවලට ද ව්‍යාප්ත වුණා.

උද්ඝෝෂණකරුවන් මේ හැම රටකම පාහේ යොදා ගත් ක‍්‍රමෝපායන්ගේ යම් සමානකම් තිබුණා. එනම් වැඩවර්ජන, වීදි උද්ඝෝෂණ, පෙළපාලි, මහජන රැස්වීම් හා ප‍්‍රසිද්ධ ස්ථානවල දිවා රාති‍්‍ර රැඳී සිටිමින් සත්‍යග‍්‍රහ කිරීම ආදියයි. සමහර රටවල ප‍්‍රචණ්ඩත්වයට පෙරළුනත් අනෙක් තැන්වල කලහයන්ට වඩා ප‍්‍රබලව මතුව ආයේ ජන ඒකරාශිවීම් හා සාමකාමී විරෝධතායි.

යම් තීරණාත්මක අවස්ථාවන්හිදී ඇතැම් රටවල පොලිසිය හා හමුදා සිය සහෝදර ජනතාවට පහර දී ජන විරෝධතා විසුරුවා හැරීම ප‍්‍රතික්‍ෂෙප කිරීම හරහා අධිපතිවාදී පාලකයන් බල විරහිත තත්ත්වයකට පත් වුණා. සමහර පාලකයන් එවිට කළේ ජන විරෝධය ඇතුළතින්ම බෙදීම් ඇති කොට ඔවුනොවුන් ඇණකොටා ගන්නා තැනට පත් කිරීමයි. (උදාහරණ සිරියාව).

අරාබි වසන්තය හමුවේ පාලකයන් හදිසියේ වෙනස්වීම සිදු වූයේ ටියුනීසියාව, යේමනය, ලිබියාව හා ඊජිප්තුව යන රටවල පමණයි. ජන උද්ඝෝෂණ හමුවේ රාජ්‍ය පාලන ප‍්‍රතිසංස්කරණ කිරීමට හා වඩාත් ප‍්‍රජාතන්ත‍්‍රවාදී රාමුවකට යොමු වීමට කුවේටය, මොරොක්කෝව, ලෙබනනය, ඕමානය, ජෝර්දානය යන රටවල නායකයෝ ක‍්‍රියා කළා.

තවත් රටවල කෙටි හෝ දිගු කාලීන දේශපාලන අස්ථාවරවීම හෝ සිවිල් යුද්ධ හට ගත්තා. අරාබි වසන්තය ටික කලෙකින් අරාබි සිසිරයක් (Arab Winter) බවට පත් වූ සිරියාව, ඊජිප්තුව වැනි රටවල ප‍්‍රජාතන්ත‍්‍රවාදී ප‍්‍රතිසංස්කරණ සඳහා අරගල තවමත් සිදුවනවා. සිරියාවේ සිවිල් යුද්ධය රට දෙපසකට ධ‍්‍රැවීකරණය කළ ඉමහත් මානුෂික ව්‍යසනයක් බවට ඉක්මනින් පත් වුණා. මෙහි අවසානයක් තවමත් දකින්නට නැහැ.

ඊජිප්තුවේ ජන උද්ඝෝෂණ හමුවේ වසර 30ක් එරට පාලනය කළ හොස්නි මුබාරක් බලයෙන් ඉවත් වූවත් දේශපාලන ස්ථාවර බවක් තවමත් එරටට ලඟා වී නැහැ. 2011 ජනවාරි – පෙබරවාරි වකවානුවේ කයිරෝ නුවර සාමකාමී ජන උද්ඝෝෂණවලට සහභාගී වූ වෘත්තික මට්ටමේ මගේ මිතුරන් දෙදෙනෙකු මේ වන විට මහත් කළකිරීමට හා ඉච්ඡා භංගත්වයට පත්ව සිටිනවා. හරිහැටි දැක්මක් හා ඉලක්කයකින් තොරව පාලකයන් පලවා හැරීමෙන් පමණක් රටක යහපාලනය ළඟා කර ගත නොහැකි බව ඔවුන් දැන් පිළිගන්නවා.

Replace autocracy with democracy or theocracy? Changing the top isn't that easy! Cartoon by Clay Bennett on 1 February 2011. Cartoon courtesy timesfreepress.com

Replace autocracy with democracy or theocracy? Changing the top isn’t that easy!
Cartoon by Clay Bennett on 1 February 2011. Cartoon courtesy timesfreepress.com

එසේම ඒකාධිපතිවාදී සිවිල් පාලකයන් ඉවත් වූ සමහර රටවල එම හිදැසට හමුදා පාලකයන් හෝ ආගමික අන්තවාදීන් රිංගා ගැනීම ද ජනහිතවාදී ප‍්‍රතිඵලයක් නොවෙයි. කෙතරම් අඩුපාඩු හා විෂමතා තිබුණත් පිරිසිදු මැතිවරණයකින් ආණ්ඩු වෙනස් කිරීමේ සම්ප‍්‍රදාය මේ අරගලවාදී මාවත් සියල්ලට වඩා වටිනවා.

Arab Spring Timeline: A detailed review of major events looking back at three years of Arab Uprisings across the region.

අරාබි වසන්තය 2011-2012 වකවානුවේ උච්ච වුව ද එයට තුඩු දුන් පසුබිම් සාධක වසර හෝ දශක ගණනක් පුරා කෙමෙන් හා සෙමින් ගොඩනැගුණු බව දැන් පර්යේෂකයන් පිළි ගන්නවා. මේ සියළු හේතු නිසා අරාබි වසන්තය හුදෙක් හදිසි හා ස්වයංසිද්ධි (spontaneous) ආකාරයේ සිදුවීම් නොව දිගු කාලීන සමාජ ප‍්‍රවාහයන් පිටාර ගැලීමක් ලෙස වටහා ගැනීම වැදගත්. (මෙය අරාබි වසන්තයට පමණක් නොව වෙනත් බොහෝ අරගලවලට ද පොදු වූ ක‍්‍රියාදාමයක්. උදාහරණයකට ශ‍්‍රී ලංකාවේ 1971 හා 1988-89 තරුණ කැරළිවලටත් තිස් වසරක බෙදුම්වාදී යුද්ධයටත් තුඩු දුන් සමාජ – ආර්ථික හා දේශපාලන සාධක කලක් තිස්සේ පැන නැගී ආ ඒවායි.)

July 2014 status map by The Economist magazine

July 2014 status map by The Economist magazine

රටකින් රටකට සමාජයීය, ආර්ථික හා දේශපාලන යථාර්ථයන් වෙනස්. එකම තාක්‍ෂණය හෝ දේශපාලන මූලධර්මය වුව ද රටින් රටට අදාල වන්නේ වෙනස් ආකාරයටයි. එබඳු විවිධත්වයක් තුළ අරාබි වසන්තය මතු වී විවිධ මට්ටම්වලට දිග හැරී ගිය රටවලට මුළුමනින්ම නොවුවත් සැළකිය යුතු තරමකට පොදු වූ තීරණාත්මක සාධක තුනක් තිබුණා.

1. පළමුවැන්න ජනගහන සාධකයයි (demography). ජන සංයුතිය සළකන විට ජනගහනයේ මධ්‍යන්‍ය වයස (median age) අඩු වීමයි. මුළු රටෙන් බාගයක්ම ළමුන් හා තරුණ තරුණියන් වීම අරාබි වසන්තය පැන නැගුණු බොහෝ රටවල දක්නට ලැබුණා (ටියුනීසියාව මධ්‍යන්‍ය වයස අවුරුදු 29, ඇල්ජීරියාව 27.1යි, ඊජිප්තුව 24යි, සිරියාව 21.5යි).

අයිතීන් ඉල්ලමින් හා අසාධාරණයට එරෙහිව උද්ඝෝෂණ කිරිමේ නැඹුරුව වැඩිම වන්නේ තරුණ ජන කොටස අතරයි. තරුණයන් බහුල ජනගහනයකට ඇති තරම් අධ්‍යාපනික හා රැකියා අවස්ථා නොමැතිවීමත්, රටේ සුළුතරයක් පමණක් වරප‍්‍රසාද ලබමින් ඉසුරුමත් වන අතර බහුතරය දුගී දුකින් පීඩිත වීමත් මේ රටවල දැකිය හැකි වුණා.

2. දෙවැනි සාධකය නම් ප‍්‍රජාතන්ත‍්‍රවාදයේ සැබෑ ගුණාංග වන නීතියේ ආධිපත්‍යය, අදහස් ප‍්‍රකාශනයේ නිදහස, විකල්ප දේශපාලන මත දැරීමේ අවකාශය ආදිය සෝදාපාලූවට ලක් වී ප‍්‍රජාතන්ත‍්‍රවාදයේ හිදැසක් හෙවත් පරතරයක් (democratic deficit) පැවතීමයි. එයට සමාන්තරව මහා පරිමාණ දුෂණ, වංචා, පවුල්වාදය, පක්‍ෂවාදය හා වෙනත් විසමතා හරහා සුදුස්සාට සුදුසු තැන නොලැබී යාමත්, තරුණ අසහනය මතු වී ඒමත් සිදු වනවා. මේ සියල්ල අරාබි වසන්තය පැන නැගුණු රටවල සැළකිය යුතු අන්දමට තිබුණා.

සමහර රටවල් කලින් කලට මැතිවරණ පැවැත්වුවත් ඒවා නිදහස් හෝ අපක්‍ෂපාත වූයේ නැහැ. එසේම අදහා ගත නොහැකි තරම් ඉහළ ප‍්‍රතිශතයන් ලබා එකම පාලකයා හෝ ඔහුගේ ගජ මිතුරු පිරිස යළි යළිත් බලයට පත් වීම සුලබව සිදු වුණා. මේ නිසා ප‍්‍රජාතන්ත‍්‍රවාදී රාමුව හරහා සැබෑ යහ පාලනයක් බිහි කළ හැකිය යන්න විශ්වාස කළ තරුණ පිරිස ටිකෙන් ටික අඩු වුණා.

හුදෙක් බලයේ සිටින රජය පමණක් නොව සමස්ත රාජ්‍ය තන්ත‍්‍රය ගැනම තරුණයන් අතර විශ්වාසය බිඳී යාමක් ද දැකිය හැකි වුණා. එනම් අධිකරණය, සරසවි පාලකයන්, ප‍්‍රධාන ප‍්‍රවාහයේ ජනමාධ්‍ය ආදිය ද පාලකයන්ගේ පටු උවමනාකම්වලට නතු වී පොදු උන්නතිය නොතකා හරින බවට තරුණ පිරිස අතර ප‍්‍රබල හැඟීමක් පැවතුණා.

3. තෙවැනි සාධකය නම් නවීන සන්නිවේදන තාක්‍ෂණයන්ගේ ආගමනය හරහා තොරතුරු ගලනයත්, අන්තර් පුද්ගල සබඳතා වඩාත් ලෙහෙසි හා බහුලවීමත්. මෙය ජංගම දුරකථන බොහෝ සේ ප‍්‍රචලිත වී ඇමතුම් ගාස්තු ලාබදායක වීමේ සිට ඉන්ටර්නෙට් භාවිත කරන ජන ප‍්‍රතිශතය ඉහල යාම දක්වා විහිදුණු පරාසයක්.

සන්නිවේදන තාක්‍ෂණය නිසාම කලාපීය වශයෙන් හා ජාත්‍යන්තර මූලාශ‍්‍රවලින් එන ටෙලිවිෂන් පුවත් විකාශයන් වඩා පහසුවෙන් නැරඹීමේ හැකියාව රටේ බහුතරයක් ජනයාට ලැබීම ද ලෝකය ගැන ඔවුන්ගේ අවබෝධය අලූත් කළා. තමන්ට සමාන වෙනත් රටවල වඩාත් විවෘත හා ජනසම්මත සමාජවල ජනයා දිවි ගෙවන්නේ කෙසේ ද යන්න ඔවුන් දිනපතාම වාගේ ටෙලිවිෂන් හරහා දුටුවා.

මැද පෙරදිග ජනමතයට අල්ජසීරා අරාබි ටෙලිවිෂන් නාලිකා හරහා ද ඉංග‍්‍රීසි දත් අයට CNN, BBC හරහා ද ලෝකය ගැන දැන ගැනීමේ අවකාශය තිබුණා. ඉන්ටර්නෙට් හරහා විකිලීක්ස් වැනි හෙළිදරව් සිදු වූ විට තම රටේ පාලකයන්ගේ අසාධාරණකම් හා දුෂණ ගැන තොරතුරු පළමුවරට රටේ ජනයා දැන ගත්තා.

Huffington Post (May 2011): The Role of Al Jazeera in Arab Spring

World Affairs (July/Aug 2011): Did WikiLeaks Inspire Arab Spring?

එසේම ජංගම දුරකථන හරහා හසු කර ගන්නා ඡායාරූප හා වීඩියෝ පුද්ගලයන් අතර හුවමාරු වීම හා ඒවායෙන් සමහරක් වෙබ්ගත කොට සෙසු ජනයා නැරඹීම හරහා ජන උද්ඝෝෂණ ඊජිප්තුව වැනි විශාල රටවල විවිධ ප‍්‍රදේශවලට ඉක්මනින් පැතිර යාමට උපකාර වුණා.

twitterarabspring

අරාබි වසන්තයේදී සමාජ මාධ්‍ය (social media) සැළකිය යුතු කාර්යයක් ඉටු කළ බව සැබෑවක්. එහෙත් එය සමහරුන් සිතන තරම් සරල හෝ රේඛීය සංසිද්ධියක් නොවෙයි. අධිපතිවාදී පාලකයන් බලයෙන් පෙරළා දැමීමට වඩා සමාජ මාධ්‍යවල සංවාද බහුතරයක් ගොඩ නැගුණේ ප‍්‍රජාතන්ත‍්‍රවාදී හිදැස ගැන ජනතාවගේ (විශේෂයෙන්ම තරුණ තරුණියන්ගේ) සංවාද සිදු කිරීමට බව එම රටවල අදාල කාලයන්හි සමාජ මාධ්‍ය අන්තර්ක‍්‍රියා මිලියන් ගණනක් විශ්ලේෂණය කළ පර්යේෂකයන් සොයා ගෙන තිබෙනවා.

New Internationalist: The role of social networking in the Arab Spring

NPR, October 2013: What Did The Arab Spring Cost? One Estimate Says $800 Billion

එහෙත් සමාජ මාධ්‍ය මත පමණක් යැපීමෙන් තොරව බහුවිධ සන්නිවේදන උපක‍්‍රම යොදා ගන්නට විශේෂයෙන්ම ඊජිප්තුවේ ජන උද්ඝෝෂණයට නායකත්වය දුන් සරසවි සිසුන් හා සෙසු ක‍්‍රියාකාරිකයන් වග බලා ගත්තා. මෙයට හේතුව ඉන්ටර්නෙට් හා ජංගම දුරකථන වැනි සේවා අදාල ටෙලිකොම් සමාගම්වලට බල කිරීම හරහා ඉක්මනින් අඩාල කිරීමට හෝ නතර කිරීමට හෝ පාලකයන්ට හැකි බව සිසුන් දැන සිටීමයි.

2011 ජනවාරි 28 වනදා ඊජිප්තුව ගෝලීය ඉන්ටර්නෙට් සබඳතාවලින් කපා හරින්නට මුබාරක් රජය ක‍්‍රියා කළත් ඒ වන විට එබඳු අවහිරයකින් නතර කළ නොහැකි තරමට ජන උද්ඝෝෂණ ප‍්‍රබල වී තිබුණා.

අරාබි වසන්තය නම් සංකීර්ණ සිදුවීම් මාලාව දේශපාලනික, සමාජ විද්‍යාත්මක හා තාක්‍ෂණික වැනි දෘෂ්ටිකෝණ කිහිපයකින් විග‍්‍රහ කළ හැකියි. එහි විචල්‍යයන් (වෙනස් වන සාධක) විශාල සංඛ්‍යාවක් තිබූ නිසා එම සිදුවීම් තනි ආකෘතියකට සම්පිණ්ඩනය කිරීමට බැහැ. අවශ්‍ය වූ ප‍්‍රධාන සාධක තුනම එක මොහොතේ එක රටක සමපාත වූ විට ජන උද්ඝෝෂණ හට ගත් බව සැබෑයි. එහෙත් එබඳු අවස්ථාවල පවා ඒවා විකාශනය වූයේ හා අවසන් වූයේ එකිනෙකට වෙනස් ආකාරයෙන්.

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අරාබි වසන්තයට තුඩු දුන් ප‍්‍රධාන සාධක තුන ඇති පමණින් ශ‍්‍රී ලංකාවේ හමු වේද?

සන්නිවේදන තාක්‍ෂණ සාධකය (ටෙලිවිෂන්, ජංගම දුරකථන, ඉන්ටර්නෙට්) නම් සපුරා ගෙන තිබෙනවා. එහෙත් 2012 ජන සංගනනයට අනුව දැන් අපේ ජනගහනයේ මධ්‍යන්‍ය වයස අවුරුදු 31යි. එනිසා ජනගහන සාධකය තව දුරටත් තරුණ අරගල ජනනය කිරීමට හිතකර පසුබිමක් සපයන්නේ නැහැ. මෙරට ප‍්‍රජාතන්ත‍්‍රීය හිදැසක් පවතින බව සැබෑ වූවත් එය ජන උද්ඝෝෂණ බිහි වීමට තරම් ප‍්‍රබල ද යන්නත් විවාදාත්මකයි.

මේ සියුම් යථාර්ථයන් හරිහැටි සළකා නොබලා මෙරට අරාබි වසන්තයක් ගැන කථා කිරීම තේරුමක් නැති හා අනවශ්‍ය ලෙස අවධානය වෙනතකට යොමු කරවන ක‍්‍රියාවක්.

ඉන්දියාවේ ප්‍රමුඛ පෙළේ සිවිල් සමාජ නායකයකු හා එම විෂය ගැන ලොව පිලිගත් විද්වතකු වන ආචාර්ය රාජේෂ් ටැන්ඩන් (Dr Rajesh Tandon) සමග 2014 මැද මා ටෙලිවිෂන් සාකච්ඡාවක් කළා. සන්නිවේදන තාක්ෂණනන් ප්‍රචලිත වීමෙහි දේශපාලනික විපාක මොනවාදැයි මා ඇසුවා.

ටැන්ඩන් කියන්නේ අරාබි වසන්තය අවාසනාවකට මෙන් අරාබි සිසිරයකට පෙරැලූනත් සිසිරය සදා කල් නොපවතින බවයි. සිසිරය හමාර වී යළි කෙදිනක හෝ වසන්තය එළඹෙනු ඇති බවත්, මර්දනකාරී හා ඒකාධිපති පාලනයන් දිගු කලක් අල්ලාගෙන සිටිය ද එය ඉතිහාසයේ ජනතාවාදී ප‍්‍රවාහයන්ට එරෙහිව රැඳී තිබෙන්නේ සීමිත වකවානුවකට පමණක් බවද ඔහුගේ මතයයි.

Dr Rajesh Tandon, in conversation with Nalaka Gunawardene on YATV, June 2014

Dr Rajesh Tandon, in conversation with Nalaka Gunawardene on YATV, June 2014

See also my recent other columns on elections, digital democracy and social media:

සිවුමංසල කොලූගැටයා #199: සමාජ මාධ්‍ය, මැතිවරණ හා ඩිජිටල් ප‍්‍රජාතන්ත‍්‍රවාදය

සිවුමංසල කොලූගැටයා #200: ඩිජිටල් තාක්‍ෂණයෙන් මැතිවරණ ක‍්‍රියාදාමය පිරිසුදු කළ ඉන්දුනීසියාව

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Channel News Asia at 10: Making of a pan-Asian news channel

Asian voice in a global village

Asian voice in a global village

“We’re the messenger for all the stories that might not have been told…that’s our job,” says Glenda Chong, the Shanghai-based China correspondent (and former anchor) of Channel NewsAsia (CNA), the Singapore-based Asian regional news broadcaster that just turned 10.

For a decade, CNA has covered Asia for Asians and the rest of the world. It has uncovered stories missed – or ignored – by other, global news channels. Just as important, it has also found the Asian voices and angles in mega stories originating from Asia that gripped the world’s attention — such as the outbreak of SARS, Indian Ocean tsunami, earthquakes in Sichuan and Kashmir.

Started on 1 March 1999 and owned by Singapore’s MediaCorp, CNA is now a major Asian news broadcaster with programmes telecast to more than 20 Asian countries and territories. Visit CNA’s 10th anniversary website for a look back…and forward.

“In the early days, when we talked about a news channel from Singapore, you could cut the cynicism with a knife,” said Woon Tai Ho, managing director of MediaCorp News.

That was inevitable for any media venture anchored in Singapore, ranked currently at 144 out of 173 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. But CNA has shown that geography need not be destiny.

Asians telling their own story

Asians telling their own story

In 10 years, it has emerged as a primary source of news in Asia, and along the way, has picked up a plethora of high-profile awards — including two silver medals at the New York Festivals 2009 and three awards at Asia Television Awards 2008.

Channel News Asia turns 10 – article in Today newspaper, Singapore: 2 March 2009

Started as a business news channel at the tail end of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, CNA later evolved into a fully-fledged news and current affairs channel covering all facets, aspects and territories of Asia – the world’s largest region, home to half of humanity. Map showing CNA geographical coverage

Ironically, CNA enters double-digits chronicling the region once again in the midst of a financial crisis, this time of global proportions and repercussions.

Unlike Al Jazeera English (AJE), the global news channel launched from Qatar in November 2006, CNA has relied on Asian talent for anchoring and reporting. While AJE has shamelessly and desperately tried to ape the BBC, CNA has forged its own identity in offering a world class product.

Whereas AJE tries so hard to please its audiences in Europe and North America (is it so anxious for western acceptance?), CNA has focused its energies in telling the myriad stories of emerging Asia primarily for Asia’s upwardly mobile, burgeoning middle classes.

For example, when an interviewee gives his/her views in a language other than English, Channel NewsAsia does not voice-over the original audio with an anglo-saxon voice like other major news channels do. Instead, an English subtitle appears, preserving and complementing the original audio.

At TVE Asia Pacific, we have had a positive experience of engaging this regional broadcaster. In late 2005, we were looking for a broadcast partner to co-produce a documentary looking back at the first year after the Indian Ocean tsunami through the eyes of eight survivor families – in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand – that we had tracked on video under the Children of Tsunami project. We had a mass of professionally and ethically filmed material, and a unique collection of stories we were keen to be amplified to the world.

When we approached Channel NewsAsia through a friend, they immediately welcomed the collaboration. They invested their time, resources and talent to edit Children of Tsunami: No More Tears, a half hour that distilled some of the stories that we had painstakingly captured for a year. No money changed hands. Legalities were kept to a minimum. CNA saw we had a story that was relevant and important for their viewers. They found the story authentic, as captured by local crews who spoke the language in each country and who lived through the traumas of the tsunami themselves (no ‘parachute film crews’ were involved). So CNA just did it — with none of the airs of pomposity and self importance that so characterise the BBC in any collaboration.

CNA producer Joanne Teoh Kheng Yau shared her experience in telling this story at a regional event we organised in December 2006. The full experience is now documented in a chapter in our book, Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book.

Children of Tsunami: No More Tears was first broadcast globally on Channel NewsAsia in the last week of December 2005 to mark the tsunami’s first anniversary with this intro: “Young survivors of the Asian tsunami let us into their lives to personalise the mass of statistics, aid pledges and recovery plans. ‘Children of Tsunami’ is a tapestry of intimate stories, woven by voices of individual and collective resilience, heroism and recovery.”

Children of Tsunami: No More Tears Part 1:

Al Jazeera shares broadcast footage through Creative Commons

Al Jazeera has done it again.

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

Uncommon move, once again!

Uncommon move, once again!

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

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

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

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

Gaza in darkness

Gaza in darkness

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

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

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

Gaza under siege...

Gaza under siege...

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

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

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

Screams, amplified by media?

Screams, amplified by media?

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

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

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

Burmese television: Meet Asia’s model public broadcaster!

Photo courtesy Associated Press

In the wake of Cyclone Nargis that wreaked havoc in Burma, the world has once again realised the brutality and ruthlessness of the military regime that runs the country.

And as the United Nations and aid agencies struggle with the incredibly uncaring Burmese bureaucracy to get much needed emergency relief for the affected Burmese people, the media outside Burma are having great difficulty accessing authentic information and images.

Despite the massive disaster and resulting tragedy, Burma remains closed to foreign journalists, especially the visual media. No doubt the memories of the monk-led pro-democracy protests of late 2007 are still fresh in the minds of the ruling junta and their propagandists. The few courageous foreign reporters who managed to get in at the time ran enormous personal risks, and Japanese photojournalist Kenji Nagai was shot dead by a Burmese soldier while filming demonstrations.

Unable to report from the multiple scenes of disaster, and lacking a wide choice of reliable local sources willing to go on the record, international news agencies and broadcasters have been forced to quote the government-owned Burmese television station, MRTV.

Global news leaders like Al Jazeera, BBC and CNN have all used MRTV visuals to illustrate their news and current affairs reportage. A recent example from Al Jazeera, posted on 8 May 2008:

The image monopoly by MRTV wouldn’t have mattered so much if they at least provided an accurate account of the unfolding events in its own country. But that seems far too much to expect of this mouthpiece of the Rangoon regime. In Burma’s darkest hour in recent memory, MRTV would much rather peddle the official propaganda – never mind the millions made homeless by the recent disaster.

Here’s an insight from the Inter Press Service, the majority world’s own news agency, reporting from their Asia Pacific headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand:

BURMA: Cyclone Nargis Exposes Junta’s Anti-People Attitude
By Larry Jagan, IPS

Worse, there is evidence emerging that the military authorities had ample warning of a storm brewing in the Bay of Bengal but chose to ignore, or even suppress, it.

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) which keeps a close track of geo-climatic events in the Bay of Bengal and releases warnings not only to provinces on the Indian east coast but also to vulnerable littoral countries said it warned Burmese authorities of Cyclone Nargis’ formation and possible approach as early as on Apr. 26.

“We continuously updated authorities in Myanmar (as Burma is officially called) and on Apr. 30 we even provided them a details of the likely route, speed and locations of landfall,’’ IMD director B.P. Yadav told IPS correspondent in New Delhi, Ranjit Devraj.

Burma’s meteorology department did post a warning on its official website on Apr. 27 but no effort was made to disseminate information to the people, much less to carry out evacuations along the coastline or from the islands on the Irrawaddy Delta.

By the time state-run media, which has been continuously spewing propaganda and exhorting the public to vote ‘yes’ to Saturday’s constitution referendum, issued its first cyclone alert on Friday afternoon it was too late for the hapless residents of Rangoon.

courtesy Reuters

Elsewhere in the report, IPS says:

Pictures of soldiers removing fallen trees and clearing roads in Rangoon on the state-run television have further infuriated many in the city. “This is pure propaganda and it’s far from the truth,” e-mailed a Burmese journalist, asking not to be identified for fear of the consequences. “Why do foreign broadcasters show them too –Burmese government propaganda is a disgrace enough to journalism,” he fumed.

“I saw some soldiers getting onto a truck yesterday,” said a 50-year-old resident. “They had no sweat on their shirts, despite what was shown on TV!”

“My wife saw three truckloads of soldiers parked in front of a fallen tree, none of them got down to remove it,” he added.

And here is what Dinyar Godrej has to say on the website of New Internationalist, another pro-South, liberal media outlet. In a post titled ‘Seeing but not believing’, he says:

“Burma is shut off from foreign journalists (unless they are invited in by the military regime to cover specific showpiece events). Western news channels have had to rely on state run television for their moving images.

“So while the death toll is now officially 22,000 (unofficially up to 50,000), with 40,000 people missing and a million homeless; and while the regime is coming in for bitter criticism for its foot-dragging over opening up to international aid and the utter incompetence of its own relief effort so far (which has reached only a tiny fraction of the people affected), we are watching on our television screens soldiers handing over food parcels. We can see nothing of the grief or rage of the people going hungry and thirsty (many water sources are too contaminated to use). They do not talk on camera. Instead they sit obediently in the state TV images, taking what’s given to them. And we watch them, while listening to the numbers and being told of the heightening crisis.”

Appalling as these revelations are, they don’t surprise us. Indeed, MRTV is not alone in this kind of shameless abuse and prostitution of the airwaves, a common property resource. A vast majority of the so-called ‘public’ broadcasters in Asia behave in exactly the same callous manner. This is why I don’t use the term ‘public broadcaster’ to describe these government propaganda channels – because, whatever lofty ideals their founding documents might have, most of them are not serving the public interest any more (if they ever did).

As I commented in Feb 2008: “In developing Asia, which lacks sufficient checks and balances to ensure independence of state broadcasters, the only thing public about such channels is that they are often a drain on public money collected through taxes. Their service and loyalties are entirely to whichever political party, coalition or military dictator in government. When the divide between governments and the public interest is growing, most ‘public’ channels find themselves on the wrong side. No wonder, then, that discerning views have abandoned them.”

Read Feb 2008 post: Why do development Rip van Winkles prefer ‘Aunties’ without eyeballs?

I don’t hold a grudge against the hapless staff of MRTV, who simply must remain their Masters’ Voice at all times to stay alive. Those working for government channels in countries with greater levels of democratic freedom can’t take refuge in this excuse. They must be held accountable for their continuing propagandising and the disgusting pollution of the airwaves.

And the incredibly naive and sycophantic UN agencies – especially UNESCO – also share the blame for their feeble yet persistent defence of the so-called public broadcasters. Years ago, I stopped attending meetings discussing public service broadcasting (PSB) in Asia, which these agencies equate with what the government channels are doing. I see yet another of these exercises in futility being lined up as part of the Asia Media Summit 2008 coming up in a few days in Kuala Lumpor.

As I wrote in February, if these development agencies are seriously interested in broadcasting that serves the public interest, they must engage the privately-owned, commercially operated TV channels, which are the market leaders in much of Asia.

Except, that is, in tightly controlled, closed societies like Burma, where government channels are the only terrestrial TV available for the local people.

Images courtesy AP and Reuters, as published by The New York Times online

Al Jazeera English is one: Getting better at imitating its rival BBC World!

al-jazeera.jpg

Al Jazeera English (AJE), the world’s newest global news and current affairs channel, completed one year on the air on 15 November 2007.

This in itself is a commendable accomplishment, and we extend heart-felt first birthday greetings to the channel that entered the highly competitive arena of global newscasting offering to ‘balance the information flow from South to North, providing accurate, impartial and objective news for a global audience from a grass roots level, giving voice to different perspectives from under-reported regions around the world.

AJE wanted to revolutionise English language TV in the same way Al Jazeera turned Arabic TV world upside down, ending the monopoly of the airwaves by state broadcasters.

First, the good news. AJE has done well on some fronts, adding to the diversity in international news and current affairs television, and enriching the often endangered media pluralism in a world that is, ironically, having more broadcast channels than ever before in history. It has brought to us stories ignored by other news outlets, while offering us somewhat different takes on widely covered stories.

In a self-congratulatory note and video clip posted this week on YouTube, the channel says: “A year ago Al Jazeera English was launched, marking the start of a new era in international journalism. In the last 12 months we have brought a fresh perspective to world events and shed light on many of the world’s little reported stories.”

Here are some of the highlights compiled by AJE.

In another post on its own website, AJE offers a selection of exclusive video stories from its correspondents to show how it ‘continues to set the news agenda’.

We also salute AJE for withstanding the unofficial yet widespread ‘block out’ of its distribution by North American cable operators, depriving most viewers in the US and Canada the opportunity of watching it on their TV screens. In a nifty move, the channel started placing some of its more consequential content on YouTube, making it available to anyone, anywhere with a sufficiently high speed Internet connection.

Image courtesy Al Jazeera

And now, on to the not-so-good news…

If AJE in its first year somewhat stood apart from the other two global newscasters – BBC World and CNN International – that was occasional and superficial, and not quite consistent or substantial. In fact, the only thing that AJE has consistently done is to under-deliver on its own lofty promise of doing things differently.

As I wrote in a blog post in August 2007: “I’m looking long and hard for the difference that they (AJE) so emphatically promised. Instead, I find them a paler version of BBC World, at times trying oh-so-hard to be just like the BBC!”

Of course, AJE – or any other broadcaster, for that matter – is fully entitled to set a trend or follow a model already set by another channel, even that of a rival. But to so blatantly imitate the BBC while all the time claiming to be different is simply not credible.

And credibility is the most important virtue for a news and current affairs media operation. Earn and sustain it and the world will be on their side. Lose it, and they will be the laughing stock on the air.

I’m not suggesting that has happened yet. But as I cautioned in an op ed written days after AJE started broadcasting in November 2006, “unless it’s very careful and thoughtful, AJE runs the risk of falling into the same cultural and commercial traps that its two rivals are completely mired in.”

Here’s a simple test. If viewers were to watch AJE, BBC World and CNN International without logos and any other tell-tale branding, how many would be able to tell the channels apart?

To me, CNN is in a league of its own for a variety of positive and negative reasons. Their offering is technically and professionally superior, even if I have objections to some of their editorial choices and analysis.

However, it’s harder to discern differences between the often befuddled BBC World and its enthusiastic imitator, Al Jazeera English. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the latter has a significant number of former BBC reporters and presenters, many of who have been poached. While that again is a choice for AJE’s management, they must realise that we the viewers in the global South do not want a global channel rooted in our part of the world to dress up in the BBC’s increasingly discredited clothes.

And then there is the whole question of ethical sourcing of content — an important consideration which most global, regional and national TV channels continue to ignore. Many roaming news journalists’ key operating guideline seems to be: get the story ahead of rivals, no matter what — or who gets hurt in that process.

That business as usual must end. As I have argued in this blog and elsewhere: “If products of child labour and blood diamonds are no longer internationally acceptable, neither should the world tolerate moving images whose origins are ethically suspect.”

Aug 2007 blog post: Wanted: Ethical sourcing of international TV news

Nov 2005 op ed on SciDev.Net: Communication rights and communication wrongs, by Nalaka Gunawardene

In August 2007, I critiqued some Sri Lanka related stories appearing on AJE’s People & Power strand, pointing out some ethically questionable practices in how their reporter got the story, possibly placing some of her sources and interviewees at personal risk. To her credit, the reporter Juliana Ruhfus engaged me in this blog, explaining her side. Read the full exchange here.

But there are other key areas where AJE needs to very carefully guard its image and credibility. In the past year, the world’s assorted development and humanitarian agencies have realised that it’s ‘cool’ to be seen on Al Jazeera than on BBC and CNN. Some of their propagandists (sorry, public information officers) had beaten a path to AJE offices in London, Doha and Kuala Lumpur, seeking to cut various deals to get coverage.

Yes, the development and humanitarian communities certainly have worthwhile messages and issues to communicate, many of which need urgent, wide dissemination. Tragically, what most agencies seek is self-promotion and ego-massaging, not issue based discussion. It is precisely this alarming trend of paying media outlets to carry agency propaganda that I have labelled ‘cheque-book development’.

Aug 2007: ‘Cheque-book Development’ – paying public media to deliver development agency logos

It’s no secret that BBC World has shamelessly allowed its airwaves to be sold for cash by assorted ‘touts’ claiming to have privileged access to the once-respected broadcaster. In the past year, some of these touts have extended their tentacles to AJE. We don’t yet know if these are entirely pro bono acts of goodwill by AJE, or if money has exchanged hands somewhere along the line.

If the latter has happened, we ardently hope that someone within AJE would blow the whistle in their own collective self interest. Or perhaps AJE wants to be too much like BBC World in every respect — including the corruption part?

Meanwhile, the real challenge to Al Jazeera remains exactly what I said one year ago: to usher in real change, it needs to transform not just how television news is presented and analysed, but also how it is gathered.

Despite having a code of ethics for its conduct, the well-meaning, south-cheering channel has yet to rise to that part of the challenge. Let’s hope that in its second year, Al Jazeera English would spend less time imitating its rivals, and more time in living up to its own promise.

Personal note: Some readers have asked why I continue to hold AJE to higher standards in a world where media ethics are being observed in the breach all the time. It’s simply because I still see AJE as the best hope for the majority world to tell its own stories in its own myriad voices and accents. I desperately want AJE to succeed on all fronts, not just in audience ratings, signal coverage and market penetration. For that, it must fast find its identity and stop defining itself by its rivals.

“Can you help us to film a child’s leg being broken?”

“Can you help us to film a child’s leg being broken?”

This question, posed by a visiting Canadian TV crew in the 1970s, startled my good friend Darryl D’Monte, one of the most senior journalists in India and former editor of the Times of India.

Darryl was having a chat with the crew, giving them some insights on the extent of poverty in his home city of Bombay, since renamed as Mumbai. It is routine for visiting journalists to have such chats with their local counterparts to get context and advice.

It was when the conversation turned to beggars, that this western TV crew asked if they could film the intentional breaking of a poor child’s leg — a brutal practice that was believed to exist so that maimed children could be employed as beggars. A disabled child would evoke more sympathy, and consequently, more alms.

darryl-dmonte-speaking-at-ifej-2005-congress.jpg

The articulate Darryl must have expressed his exasperation in strong terms. But even he couldn’t have anticipated the response.

“It’s going to happen anyway,” was how the film crew rationalised their bizarre request.

So why not be there, capture it on film, and get a great story out of it — which can be packaged as the brutal side of India’s poverty! This must have been the crew’s line of reasoning. Maybe their editors had exerted pressure to come back with something out of the ordinary.

I quoted this incident in my essay, Ethical newsgathering challenge for Al Jazeera International, published in November 2006. It was a plea for the newest entrant to international TV newsgathering to play by a different, and more ethical, set of rules.

These and worse practices are certainly not confined to India, or to TV crews originating from any single country. And sadly, these have not been abandoned after the 1970s. In fact, the emergence of 24/7 satellite news channels since the 1980s has inspired much more competition in the TV newsgathering industry, creating an alarming race to the bottom.

Such journalists’ only operating guideline seems to be: get the story, no matter what — or who gets hurt in that process.

In filming wildlife documentaries, film-makers sometimes have to make a choice: do they interfere in the processes of Nature, such as a predator setting on a hapless prey? There is an unwritten rule that things must be allowed to happen, with humans only capturing actuality on film.

But when it comes to filming wild life of our species in our cities and villages, the ethical dilemmas are not so easily resolved. This is why all journalists and film-makers, especially those in newsgathering, need a strong ethical framework for their work.

Journalists represent the public’s right to know, which is extremely important. Media coverage and exposes can trigger much needed aid, reform or public outcry on certain issues. But that is not a justification for getting the story by any means.

Darryl D’Monte shared the above story at panel discussion on ‘Does TV do a better job on environmental reporting?’ which I chaired during the annual congress of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), held in New Delhi, India, in November 2005. That year it was part of the Vatavaran 2005, the national environmental film festival of India.

panel-discussion-at-ifej-2005-congress-new-delhi.jpg

I was reminded of this story because the 4th CMS Vatavaran film festival is round the corner: it will be in New Delhi from 12 to 16 September 2007. I won’t be there in person; my colleague Manori Wijesekera is representing TVEAP this time.

TVE Asia Pacific News: Environmental film-makers call for ethical framework

Read official report of IFEJ Congress in 2005

Related blog posts:

Al Jazeera: Looking hard for the promised difference

Wanted: Ethical sourcing of international TV news

Cheque-book Development: Paying public media to deliver development agency logos

Al Jazeera International: Looking hard for the promised difference

Image courtesy Al Jazeera

This is how Al Jazeera International (AJI), which started broadcasting on 15 November 2006, promoted itself.

In its own words, the 24/7 English language channel set out to ‘balance the information flow from (global) South to North, providing accurate, impartial and objective news for a global audience from a grass roots level, giving voice to different perspectives from under-reported regions around the world.’

Noble ideals, indeed — and we fervently hope they succeed. That’s what I said in my op ed, Ethical Newsgathering: Biggest Challenge for Al Jazeera, published online within days of the new channel going on the air.

I said: “In recent years, the self righteous arrogance and the not-so-subtle biases of BBC and CNN have become increasingly intolerable. But unless it’s very careful and thoughtful, AJI runs the risk of falling into the same cultural and commercial traps that its two older rivals are mired in.

“CNN can’t get out of its US-centric analysis even in its international broadcasts. And the BBC news team is like a hopelessly mixed up teenager: one moment they are deeply British or at least western European; the next moment they are more passionate about Africa than Africans themselves.

“Desperately seeking legitimacy and acceptance, these global channels have sometimes traded in their journalistic integrity for privileged access, exclusives or -– dare we say it? -– to be embedded.”

I admit that I haven’t been watching enough of AJI to come to any firm conclusions. One reason: the new channel is still not widely available in some countries that I visit and spend time in.

But going by what is on their YouTube channel, where some 1,300 video segments have been placed so far (as at 29 August 2007), I have a rough idea of AJI’s first few months of coverage.

I’m looking long and hard for the difference that they so emphatically promised. Instead, I find them a paler version of BBC World, at times trying oh-so-hard to be just like the BBC!

Take, for example, the coverage they have recently done on the bloody and protracted civil war in Sri Lanka. Being where I live and work, I take a particular interest in this topic.

In a 2-part edition of AJI’s People & Power programme, Juliana Ruhfus investigates the impact of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

People & Power: How the East was Won: Part 1 of 2

People & Power: How the East was Won: Part 2 of 2

I don’t have a problem with AJI’s analysis in this documentary, which tries hard to be balanced and fair in what I know is a very difficult subject to cover, with intolerant hardliners on both sides of the conflict.

But I have several issues with how it has been put together – the norms and ethics of their newsgathering.

* A white blond woman, so evidently a parachute journalist, is reporting and presenting the story. Why isn’t an Asian telling this story?

* She is repeatedly mispronouncing all the local names. Just like the BBC does as a matter of routine.

* She gestures, interviews and talks exactly like those know-all reporters from the BBC. At times I detect a faint condescension in her voice, but that may be my imagination.

* For part of the coverage, the intrepid AJI reporter becomes embedded with the Sri Lankan armed forces, and interviews civilians under the watchful eye of military men. This is hardly a credible way of eliciting any honest responses!

* More importantly, she shows little regard for the personal safety of some people she interviews. At one point, she asks three muslim men if the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka is now any safer than before it was ‘liberated’ by the government forces. The men are clearly uncomfortable with this question. Honest answers can cost them dearly. But why should she care? She persists, showing close-ups of these individuals.

* Even when she interviews people who had explicitly asked for concealment of their identity, she leaves tell-tale signs for those identities to be easily guessed. A woman whose teen-aged son has been coerced into joining a paramilitary group is filmed in silhouette — not a good enough cover. Real voices have not been altered through a synthesizer.

These and other observations blur the difference between BBC and AJI in my mind. With a few notable exceptions, most BBC reporters don’t care one bit about the hapless, distressed people whom they interview. All they want is to get a ‘good story’ with dramatic visuals.

AJI is desperately trying to outdo the BBC in all the latter’s wrong aspects. Otherwise why should Juliana Ruhfus try so hard to get a damning comment from an interviewee evidently ill-at-ease of being ambushed by this western woman?

I still want to have an open mind about AJI’s promised difference, and keep hoping that it will emerge sooner rather than later. But this kind of newsgathering and film-making don’t augur well.

If this is the ethical standard of journalism that AJI aspires to, we who had high hopes of their becoming a real alternative to the dominant two are going to be disappointed.

Read my earlier post: Wanted: Ethical sourcing of international TV News

Watch Al Jazeera on YouTube

AJI AJI