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 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.
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.”
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.”
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.
This century’s longest solar eclipsed moved across Asia on 22 July 2009, wowing scientists and the public alike. Asia’s multifarious media covered the solar eclipse with great enthusiasm and from myriad locations across the vast continent.
The path of the eclipse’s totality –- where the sun was completely obscured by the Moon for a few astounding minutes –- started in northern India. It then crossed through Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and China, before heading out to the Pacific Ocean. Those who were lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time saw one of Nature’s most spectacular phenomena. It was certainly a sight to behold, capture on film, and cherish for a lifetime.
But many along the path missed this chance as clouds obscured the Sun. It’s the rainy season in much of Asia, where the delayed monsoon is finally delivering much-needed rain.
That’s what happened in Taregna, in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. The media had dubbed it the ‘epicentre’ of the solar eclipse, and estimated totality to be visible for at least three minutes and 38 seconds. Thousands who flocked to the village were disappointed when the clouds refused to budge. Nature doesn’t follow our scripts.
It’s rarely that totality crosses through countries with such high human numbers as China and India. This time around, millions of people and thousands of journalists took advantage.
Some travelled long distances hoping to get the best view from the 200-km wide path of totality. Others watched it one of Asia’s many and cacophonous 24/7 TV news channels. The event had all the elements of a perfect television story: mass anticipation, eager experts and enthusiasts, occasional superstitions, uncertainties of weather and, finally, a stunning display of Nature’s raw power.
‘Darkness at Dawn!’ screamed a popular headline, referring to the eclipse causing a sudden ‘nightfall’ after the day had begun. Other superlatives like ‘Spectacle of the century’ and ‘A sight never to be missed’ were also widely used.
Solar eclipses are indeed a marvel of Nature, and the media’s excitement was justified. For once, it was good to see them devoting a great deal of airtime and print/web space for something that was not violent, depressing or life-threatening.
How I wish Asia’s media took as much interest in another kind of ‘eclipse’ that surrounds and engulfs us! One that does not end in minutes, but lasts for years or decades, and condemns millions to lives of misery and squalor.
Stories of poverty, social disparity and economic marginalisation are increasingly ‘eclipsed’ in Asia by stories of the region’s growing economic and geopolitical might.
The mainstream media in Asia –- as well as many outlets in the West — never seem to tire of carrying reports of Asia rising. Indeed, that is a Big Story of our times: many Asian economies have been growing for years at impressive rates. Thanks to this, over 250 million Asians have moved out of poverty during this decade alone. According to the UN’s Asian arm ESCAP, this is the fastest poverty reduction progress in history.
We see evidence of increased prosperity and higher incomes in many parts of developing Asia. Gadgets and gizmos –- from MP3 to mobile phones — sell like hot cakes. More Asians are travelling for leisure than ever before, crowding our roads, trains and skies. Lifestyle industries never had it so good. Even the current recession hasn’t fully dampened this spending spree.
But not everyone is invited to the party. Tens of millions of people are being left behind. Many others barely manage to keep up -– they must keep running fast just to stay in the same place.
National governments, anxious to impress their own voters and foreign investors, often gloss over these disparities. The poor don’t get more than a token nod in Davos. National statistical averages of our countries miss out on the deprivations of significant pockets of population.
On the whole, the UN cautions that the Asia Pacific region is in danger of missing out the 2015 target date for most Millennium Development Goals – the time-bound and measurable targets for socio-economic advancement that national leaders committed to in 2000.
The plight of marginalised groups is ignored or under-reported by the cheer-leading media. For the most part, these stories remain forever eclipsed. Except, that is, when frustrations accumulate and blow up as social unrest, political violence or terrorism. Even then, the media’s coverage is largely confined to reporting the symptoms rather than the underlying social maladies.
“Half the children in South Asia go to bed hungry every night, but the covers of our news magazines are about weight loss parlors,” says Kunda Dixit, Chief Editor of The Nepali Times.
As he noted in a recent essay: “Maternal mortality in parts of Nepal is nearly at sub-Saharan levels, but we are obsessed with politics. Hundreds of cotton farmers in India commit suicide every year because of indebtedness, but the media don’t want to cover it because depressing news puts off advertisers. Reading the region’s newspapers, you would be hard-pressed to find coverage of these slow emergencies.”
I have come across similar apathy in my travels across Asia trying to enhance television broadcasters’ coverage of development and poverty issues. As one Singaporean broadcast manager, running a news and entertainment channel in a developing country, told me: “I don’t ever want to show poor people on my channel.”
Don’t get me wrong. Trained as a science journalist, I can fully appreciate the awe and wonder of a solar eclipse. For years, I have cheered public-spirited scientists who join hands with the media to inform and educate the public on facts and fallacies surrounding these celestial events.
But there are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in our mainstream media’s breathless coverage of the march of capital. Journalists and their gate-keepers should look around harder for the many stories that stay eclipsed for too long.
Human trafficking – peddling and trading of human beings for slavery, sexual exploitation and servitude – has grown to alarming proportions in recent years. It’s among the top five illicit trades in the world, whose net annual worth is believed to be between 9 billion and 42 billion US dollars. The truth is, nobody knows exactly how big it is, but human rights activists and development agencies agree the problem is pervasive.
Of the estimated 2.5 million persons trafficked worldwide, more than half are in the Asia Pacific. At the UN General Assembly for Children in August 2007, it was reported that about 1.8 million children became victims of commercial sex trade in 2000. About one million children in Southeast Asia are said to be involved – Thailand is one centre of this shady trade, drawing on misery in its rural hinterlands as well as poorer neighbouring countries like Burma, Cambodia and Laos.
So what happens when someone goes to the trouble of studying the issue in depth, and then pools talent and resources to make a feature film that exposes international connections that sustain the child sex industry in Thailand? Instead of being welcomed as part of the effort to counter this scourge, the film gets banned.
Watch the official trailer of the film (Japanese soundtrack, Thai captions):
I haven’t seen the film, but according to one reviewer who did, Junji Sakamoto‘s film is based on a novel by Yan Sogil and scripted by Sakamoto himself, shows, with a documentary-like directness, how children caught in the web of a Thai prostitution ring are exploited, abused and, in some cases, murdered when they are no longer sexually salable.
Mark Schilling, writing in The Japan Times in August 2008, noted: “…In being so visually graphic — particularly in the sex scenes in the Thai brothel — Sakamoto treads a dangerous line between hard-hitting social drama and stomach-turning exploitation. He takes care never to show his young actors (whose average age looks to be about 10) and their adult ‘clients’ in the same explicit shot, but he films them engaged in sexual acts or their aftermath. Sakamoto may defend these scenes in the name of realism, but could he have filmed similar ones in Japan, using Japanese children? The short answer is “no.”
“The ban puts under the spotlight the country’s – or at least its higher-ups’ – seeming unwillingness to let go of the Film Act of 1930, when Thailand was still under absolute monarchy. That law gave a Board of Censors the power to impose cuts or to ban a film it deems inappropriate,” writes my friend and colleague Lynette Lee Corporal in an article just published on Asia Media Forum.
She quotes my Thai colleague and documentary filmmaker Pipope Panitchpakdi as saying: “Authorities always think that viewers need to be protected and shielded from real issues. They still have that kind of sentiment that the media should function as a gatekeeper. That is, let the good stories in and the bad ones out. It’s okay in certain circumstances but not when talking about real, serious issues.”
Pipope adds: “This country has no problem with hypocrisy; we don’t see anything wrong with double standards. We have sex workers in corners of the city, but we can’t watch people kissing.”
A Bangkok-based journalist who calls himself Wise Kwai, writing in his blog, asks: “When will they (Thai authorities) learn that when they ban or censor a film, the ensuing stink that’s raised causes more problems than if the film had been allowed to quietly unspool? Perhaps if people had seen it, they might criticise it, but they’d also talk about the problems in society that allow children to be exploited.”
Whenever Burma hits the international news headlines, I think of author Amitav Ghosh. His 2002 historical novel, The Glass Palace, was my introduction to Burma’s recent history. It describes – with historical accuracy and detail – how the British colonised a land of prosperity in 1824 and left it an impoverished nation in 1948.
I was intrigued, therefore, to read an excellent op ed essay by Amitav Ghosh in The New York Times of 10 May 2008. Titled When Death Comes Ashore, it is a commentary on the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis that particularly hit Burma in recent days. Ghosh offers both comfort and worry.
The bad news, as he puts it, is that “for the rapidly growing countries that surround the Bay of Bengal there is an increasing urgency to find a way to protect themselves. They have experienced some of the world’s most devastating storms.”
He makes a strong call for cooperation among the countries who surround the Bay of Bengal, which means Bangladesh, Burma, India, (part of) Indonesia and Thailand.
As he says: “Nation-states tend to see their interests as being confined within their own borders. But the reality is that the people who live around the Bay of Bengal have a vital interest in common that they do not share with their compatriots in the hinterlands: they are joined by the furies (and let it be said also, the blessings) of that body of water.”
“Recent experience has demonstrated in spectacular ways that rich, technologically advanced nations are not invulnerable to extreme weather. What has also been demonstrated, but more quietly, is that a nation need not be wealthy or technologically advanced to be well prepared for natural disasters.”
Ghosh talks about Mauritius, a small Indian Ocean island that meteorologists call a ‘cyclone factory’, which has “evolved a sophisticated system of precautions, combining a network of cyclone shelters with education (including regular drills), a good early warning system and mandatory closings of businesses and schools when a storm threatens.”
He adds: “Mauritius is a country that has learned, through trial and experience, that early warnings are not enough — preparation also demands public education and political will. In an age when extreme weather events are clearly increasing in frequency, the world would do well to learn from it.”
Let’s hope the Indian Ocean rim countries – especially those that share the Bay of Bengal’s blessings and lashings – would heed the celebrated Indian author’s call. After the 2004 tsunami, we saw a flurry of activity to set up high-tech and high cost early warning systems for future tsunamis. The United Nations and development donors huddled together in various exotic locations of our region to work out the details.
But I wrote in a SciDev.Net opinion piece in December 2005: “Setting up a state-of-the-art, high tech and high cost system is not a solution by itself. Because the most advanced early warning system in the world can only do half the job: alert governments and other centres of power (e.g. military) of an impending disaster. The far bigger challenge is to disseminate that warning to large numbers of people spread across vast areas in the shortest possible time“.
I called it the Long Last Mile (sorry, metric fans, it just doesn’t read right to say the last kilometre!), a phrase that I also used in the book chapter and the short film that I scripted for TVE Asia Pacific in 2007.
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.
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:
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.
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.
“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.”
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
A wounded Japanese photographer, Kenji Nagai, lay before a Burmese soldier yesterday in Yangon, Myanmar, as troops attacked protesters. Mr. Nagai later died. Published 28 September 2007 (Adrees Latif, Reuters)
This dramatic photograph, one of the harrowing and yet enduring images of 2007, has just won its photographer a Pulitzer Prize, announced in New York on 7 April 2008.
Ironically, the last defiant act of one courageous photojournalist has landed one of journalism’s most prestigious awards for another of his kind. Adrees Latif, a Pakistan-born American, had concealed his identity by blending in with the crowd in Rangoon/Yangon, and captured Nagai’s killing on film.
For a distinguished example of breaking news photography in black and white or color, which may consist of a photograph or photographs, a sequence or an album, in print or online or both, Ten thousand dollars ($10,000).
Awarded to Adrees Latif of Reuters for his dramatic photograph of a Japanese videographer, sprawled on the pavement, fatally wounded during a street demonstration in Myanmar.
Born in Lahore, Pakistan on July 21, 1973, Adrees Latif lived in Saudi Arabia before immigrating with his family to Texas in 1980. Latif worked as a staff photographer for The Houston Post from 1993 to 1996 before joining Reuters. Latif graduated from the University of Houston in 1999 with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. Latif has worked for Reuters in Houston, Los Angeles before moving to Bangkok in 2003 where he covers news across Asia.
Latif’s collection of photos from his days in Burma, “Myanmar Marooned,” recently won an award given by the prestigious Japanese photographic magazine Days Japan.
What’s one of the biggest reasons for suffering from violence?
Is it War? Racism? Extremism?
Or simply being born a woman?
One in 3 women is a victim of violence.
This is the powerful message in this one-minute-long public service announcement (PSA), which can be viewed here:
It was produced by the London-based advertising agency Leo Burnett for UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women. With a striking series of images, it reveals that violence against women is one of the most common forms of violence in the world.
As UNIFEM says: “Violence against women and girls is a problem of pandemic proportions. At least one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime — with the abuser usually someone known to her. Perhaps the most pervasive human rights violation that we know today, it devastates lives, fractures communities, and stalls development.”
The campaign has elements on awareness raising as well as a call to action. The latter includes an online signature campaign that seeks to collect at least 100,000 signatures from those who oppose violence against women.
The online ‘signature book’ opened for signatures on 26 November 2007 with an appeal from actress and UNIFEM Goodwill Ambassador Nicole Kidman. She called the violence many women worldwide face “an appalling human rights violation that can be stopped”, and asked everyone to add their names to a growing number of supporters saying “NO” to violence against women at http://www.saynotoviolence.org.
She added: “The more names we collect, the stronger our case to make ending violence against women a top priority for governments everywhere.”
I have just signed up, on this leap day 29 February 2008. Three months since the campaign was launched in New York, it has so far gathered a little over 58,500 signatures.
It’s certainly commendable – but not nearly enough, and still more than 40,000 needed to reach the modest target of 100,000.
Not that it’s just a numbers game, of course. The quality and sincerity of commitment matter a great deal. At the same time, UNIFEM and other UN agencies trying to engage the public through online interactive methods should study how successful activist groups do the same — with much better and faster results.
Avaaz.org is a leader among these. It is a new global web movement with a simple democratic mission: to close the gap between the world we have, and the world most people everywhere want. Set up in early 2007, it has quickly evolved into online community through which hundreds of thousands of concerned people are taking action together on urgent issues like climate change, poverty, human rights and the crises in the Middle East and Burma.
The Burmese junta may not care for millions of people protesting or donating online, but the leaders of the democratic world – pondering their response to the atrocities in Burma – would find it hard to ignore this surge of public concern.
But it’s a long leap from Burma to the bed room or backyard. A major difficulty faced by those campaigning to focus on violence against women: they are countering actions that are widely distributed, pervasive and sustained over time. Much of it happens at personal and family level, necessarily beyond the public and media’s glare. Incidents flare up only occasionally to spill over to the public space to become news events or talking points.
So, as in many similar instances, out of sight often means out of mind.
The campaign needs more than just star power or the UN’s clout to galvanize mass action. For a start, UN agencies need to get out of their fondness for coining and using endless acronyms. Even with my regular forays into the development community’s acronym jungle (read my post on the alphabet soup), I was recently puzzled when a film-maker colleague referred to GBV in an email without explaining it. It took me full five minutes to realise that she meant gender-based violence.
And some imaginative ways of raising the public profile would also help. Browsing on YouTube, I came across this video from Ireland. As one article described it:
“The ghosts and spirits of the millions of women who have been murdered, violated, oppressed, excluded, driven into exile, denied freedom of speech, denied participation in any decisions concerning their lives, because of war, religion, race, culture, age, disability, sexuality, poverty, bonded slavery, domestic violence or bureaucracy, glided in and out of the shoppers of Galway on 7 December 2007.”
Hollywood’s attempts to support progressive causes in movies continue with Rambo 4, starring Sylvester Stallone.
In the fourth and latest installment of the violent adventures of John Rambo, the Vietnam veteran takes on the Burmese junta who have held the Southeast Asian country in its crushing, ruthless grip since 1962.
“In his latest caper, a bored-looking Rambo ekes out a living catching cobras in the jungles of Mae Sot in Thailand, near the border with Burma. But the arrival of a group of Christian missionaries, whose idealism and naivete literally led them to a slaughterhouse, changes Rambo’s zombie-like existence and brings back the days of gore and bloodbath.
“The film is unapologetic in its use of cliches. It’s the same tired story: Everything is black and white, good and evil, with lots of do-or-die moments thrown in for good measure.
“‘Rambo IV’ – which started showing in Asian cinemas in January and is due to open in mid-March in Thailand — is replete with stereotypes, especially when it comes to pointing out differences between the east and the west, symbolically played out in the kindness, idealism and determination of the Caucasian missionaries and the uncouth, barbaric bad guys in the form of the Burmese pirates and military.”
She says that while reports of the cruelty of the Burmese junta have been well-documented, the depiction of these stereotypes glosses over much more complex issues too deep to dig up in a 90-minute action movie.
Her article quotes freelance Burmese journalist Phyo Win Latt as saying: “The Burmese army in the movie is different from real-life. The film is filled with exaggeration and inaccuracies. Army officers, for example, don’t wear sunglasses while engaged in battle and although there are rape cases in remote ethnic villages, I’ve never heard of such things like ethnic women being forced to dance in front of the soldiers.”
Exiled Burmese appear to have given it some positive feedback. According to a report by the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), about 600 Burmese who watched the film in Singapore became very emotional, chanted slogans and distributed political leaflets at the screening.
The crowd “clapped non-stop for 80 seconds to show respect to the movie audience gathered there and to show unity” in their fight for democracy, DVB reported.
I’ll just take Lynette’s word for all this, because I’m not going to see this film – I can’t take a killing every few seconds.
Watch Rambo 4 official trailer on YouTube: Caution: Extreme violence – but then, what else do you expect in Rambo?
Rambo may have discovered Burma’s long-drawn suffering only recently, but activist film-makers have been using moving images for many years to sustain international attention on Burma’s human rights and humanitarian issues.
Almost five years ago, in May 2003, TVE Asia Pacific website ran a feature titled ‘Documentaries keep Burma issues alive‘. It was written by Indian film-maker and journalist Teena Amrit Gill, who at that time was based in Chiang Mai, Thailand — where many Burma activists are concentrated.
“Long drawn internal conflicts are often overlooked or completely ignored by the global media that often chase the latest stories as they unfold. It often takes a few dedicated activists and committed film-makers to sustain focus on conflicts that no longer grab headlines – but continue to affect hundreds of thousands of people.
“As Burma and the struggle of its people, especially its ethnic minorities, against four decades of military dictatorship begin to fade from international attention, a number of new television documentaries are attempting to keep the issue alive.
“Some have been made by television professionals for international broadcast. Others have used amateur or activist footage and aim at mobilising public concern and supporting campaigns to maintain pressure on the regime.”
Teena reviewed three new films that had been produced in 2001-2002 about the plight of minority groups like the Karen, Shan and Karenni who live along Burma’s borders with Thailand, China and Laos. These minorities are the target of repressive policies of the ruling military junta in Rangoon.
Something remarkable is happening with online public video sharing platforms: progressive non-profit groups worldwide are seizing their power to do good.
YouTube started off more like the people’s version of funniest home videos. But it’s no longer confined to that category. Activist and social groups are increasingly uploading their videos. As broadband Internet rolls out around the world, more people are actually able to watch these videos online.
In response, YouTube, owned by search giant Google, is creating a special section for nonprofits to air their videos and link them to its Google Checkout online payment system to receive funds directly.
“Nonprofits understand that online video isn’t just a way to broadcast public service announcements on a shrunken TV set,” Reuters quoted Steve Grove, head of news and politics at YouTube, as saying. “It’s a way to get people to do more than just absorb your message but to engage with their user generated content as well.”
Pure Digital, maker of the Flip video camera, has said it plans to give away a million video cameras to non-profit organizations around the world to capture images and moments in places traditional media outlets might not be able to reach.
“Video has power and media has power but the challenge is that the media is limited to telling stories that are controlled by a very small number of people,” Jonathan Kaplan, chief executive of Pure Digital, told Reuters. “This program along with YouTube and other sites will expand the media universe for learning what’s really going on in the world,” he said.
Reuters quotes the recent example of the impact of clips of the Myanmar army’s confrontations with local protesters which were posted on YouTube and other Web sites. Some of the clips made their way to mainstream news media, which were blocked out of entering or covering events in Burma.
See an example of a YouTube video on what’s happening in Burma:
Our friends at Witness, an activist group founded by the musician Peter Gabriel in 1992, has long specialised in raising awareness of such previously unseen events through video. Sam Gregory, programme director at Witness, says online distribution has made it easier to put videos in front of the right people such as decision makers and others with a personal connection to the cause.
“It’s not necessarily about the size of the audience it’s about placing targeted video and turning ‘watching’ into action,” said Gregory.
What’s happening with online video has a parallel in how activist groups seized the potential of the hand-held video camera. The handicam was invented in 1985 by Sony. Intended originally for entertainment and domestic documentation purposes only (ranging from family vacations and weddings), it did not take long to find new uses for this revolutionary technology.
The Handicam Revolution in media began when a video camera captured police beating Rodney King on a Los Angeles highway. The shocking amateur footage was broadcast on TV around the world. The acquittal of the police officers after their first trial sparked outrage, and riots erupted in a 20 block section of Los Angeles, leaving 54 people dead and over 2,000 injured.
Ever since Rodney King, broadcasters have been using amateur video to provide images of events that their own camera people have not captured. And human rights activists have started relying on the power of video images to capture the attention of the broadcasters to expose acts of human rights abuse and violation.