Moving images blog, two years on: The journey continues…

Blogs put ME back into MEdia...

Blogs put ME back into MEdia...

The Moving Images blog completes two years today. So we pause briefly to look back – and forward.

I launched the blog with two posts from near-freezing Washington DC on 17 March 2007, while participating in the DC Environmental Film Festival. Both concerned my own offering to the festival: Children of Tsunami: The Journey Continues, product of monthly filming with 8 survivor families in 4 countries for nearly one year after the Asian tsunami.

Since then, this blog’s own journey has continued: in 24 months, we have produced 342 posts in 134 categories and with 562 tags. These elicited a total of 622 comments from readers who came from all walks of life, and all parts of the world. To the end of 16 March 2009, I received a cumulative total of slightly over 246,900 page visits. I now average 500 – 600 visits a day.

I share my blogging journey with these readers who have enriched it in various ways. Some commented under their own names; others used pseudonyms. Some left email details; others none. A few have actually suggested stories that I later wrote up as blog posts. I don’t know most of my readers in person, and have only met them online. As this blog enters its 25th month, I thank them all. You’ve kept me going in a particularly tough time in the world…and in my personal life.

Moving Images wasn’t my first blog – in late 2006 I had started another blog called Communicating Majority World under the name ‘Lost Alien’, which I somehow didn’t sustain for more than a few weeks and a handful of posts. For reasons that I can no longer quite recall, the Lost Alien abandoned his original blog – and migrated over here!

When I started Moving Images, I was driven by a simple motive: to discuss and reflect on the many and varied topics and subjects that interest me professionally. In one way or another, these fall into the area of communicating science, development and environment to the non-specialist public. Because my work at TVE Asia Pacific involves using television and video for this purpose, there is a bias on moving images in many things I do.

But by design, this is not an official blog of TVE Asia Pacific, or any other organisation that I am associated with. In fact, I regularly express here views that I cannot say wearing any of these hats — because we live in a world where most people still react not just to the song, but also the singer (and can’t separate the two).

Are we there yet? No!

Are we there yet? No!

So this blog is unashamedly, intentionally self-centred: it puts ME back in Media. I make no apologies for speaking my mind on a variety of topics, and for returning to some issues that I’m passionate about.

After 22 years in journalism, broadcasting or communicating development, I find I have sufficient perspective in which to anchor my thoughts, and to express my views in a way, I hope, interests and engages readers. Like the ancient Greeks, I try to ask the right questions – even when I don’t always know or get the right answers. And I have more than a few stories to spice up the narrative.

I’m well aware of the inherent danger of combining writer-editor-publisher all in one: personal blogs don’t always operate under the usual checks and balances that we expect and presume in the more structured media outlets (whether they are in the mainstream or new media spheres). On more than one occasion, I’ve written impulsively – in frustration, anger or elation, and sometimes on the run. Thanks to the training in my news reporter days, I can still churn out readable prose fast. And only once in all these 24 months and 342 posts have I regretted rushing to publish (so, using my absolute discretion as the media tycoon of this blog, I pulled it down).

Do I see myself as a citizen journalist? Yes and no. I don’t report news, and only very occasionally write on latest developments (or breaking news, as it’s now called). I see myself more as a citizen commentator – the op ed equivalent in the new media domain. Yes, I do occasionally report from large conferences that I attend as a speaker or panelist. But I have found how demanding it is to blog from events while keeping up with everything that is going on.

Do I see myself as a Sri Lankan blogger? Not really. Scanning the 342 blog posts I’ve written, I can count only a two dozen that have an appreciable reference to Sri Lanka. This is not because I’m aloof or disengaged; I have simply set a framework for myself that goes well beyond the country of my residence and social/cultural anchor.

Another reason for this intentional lack of geographical focus is that besides this blog, I regularly write op ed essays for other online outlets like Groundviews, and MediaHelpingMedia, and print news magazines like Montage. I use these platforms for commenting on Sri Lankan issues that interest or concern me.

I find it a bit incongruous that we who use the new media tools of web 2.0 – which signify the end of old geography – must contain ourselves to geographical or cultural cocoons. Thus, while I sometimes join gatherings of bloggers based in Sri Lanka, and share concerns for freedom of expression, I have consciously avoided joining Kottu, the leading aggregator of Sri Lankan blogs.

gvo-logo-lgAnd I get more than a little miffed when the excellent aggregation service Global Voices constantly labels me as a Sri Lankan voice (with a map of Lanka to boot!) whenever they helpfully flag my blog posts for wider attention. I have privately discussed this with GV’s South Asia coordinator who says their current tagging and categorisation do not allow anything else. Is this an example a new media platforms being trapped in an old media mindset?

If you really must pin me down to some place, call me a South Asian (or, as my friends at Himal would like to write it, Southasian).

Do I see myself as a new media activist?
I’m not sure. I’m not a geek, and have no great knowledge or insights on the back-end technologies that make all this possible. My interest is in how the new media tools shapes societies, cultures and politics in emerging Asia. Those braver and smarter than me are actually innovating and improvising new media tools for social activism. I just watch — and occasionally blog to critically cheerlead them. Mine is definitely the easy part…

Mainstream media...and bloggers

Mainstream media...and bloggers

On this blog, I place a higher premium on still and moving images. Regular readers know my fondness for cartoons, which I avidly search for and collect on a wide range of topics. In fact, I believe cartoonists are the best social and cultural commentators of our times – they say so much with such economy of words!

Similarly, I try to embed relevant online videos that I can find. Sometimes it takes me longer to scan YouTube and other platforms than to write the accompanying text for a blog post. And I get frustrated when WordPress does not allow embedding from certain online platforms like EngageMedia, a new Asia-based service that we have recently started to collaborate with.

As I travel around in Asia and Europe, and move across the sometimes overlapping circles of development, media and communications technology, I keep meeting readers who read and follow this blog. Some have never commented on any post; a few have chosen to write emails to me on specific matters.

This means some of the conversations inspired by this blog happen bilaterally — for example, film festival organisers have written asking me for contacts of specific film-makers whose work I have reviewed. Students often write to me seeking additional information or my own views. Long lost friends or associates have revived contact after stumbling upon this blog. I have no illusions of being famous, but it’s nice to stay engaged.

My policy on visitors’ comments is clearly stated in my intro page: “This is a moderated blog where I approve/disapprove the publication of readers’ comments to individual posts. I do allow all reasonable comments left by readers — including those that radically disagree with my own views. The basic rules of my moderation: I don’t publish comments that are outright libelous of individuals, or are so explicitly self-promotional bordering on spam.

Only once in the short history of this blog have I been threatened by someone whose conduct I questioned in the public interest. In late 2007, I wrote a hard-hitting comment on how certain media organisations are exploiting concerns surrounding climate change to their institutional advantage. I was standing by to publish their response, for the institution I named claims to promote public discussion and debate. None came my way, although some peer pressure was used, unsuccessfully, to make me remove the blog post. In mid 2008, when our paths accidentally crossed in a European capital, the individual concerned confronted me. I gave him a patient hearing, and reiterated my offer to publish his response in full. He insisted on my deleting the post (gosh, it must have hit a raw nerve!). He ended our unpleasant encounter saying: “If you lived in my jurisdiction, I would have sued you!”

There has never been a denial or rebuttal from this person or his institution on the substantive points in my blog post. But I was repeatedly told that my candid remarks are ‘not helpful’. Perhaps. But anyone who remotely believes in ‘illuminating debate’ would have engaged me on this blog, or theirs, or in a neutral forum (plenty exist).

Luckily, I've rarely faced this situation

Luckily, I've rarely faced this situation

Encouragingly, many others have done just that. This includes the reader who thinks I have an axe to grind with the BBC (I don’t, but I’m also not a fan of the ageing Auntie), and a few who feel I’ve been unkind to the fledgling global newscaster Al Jazeera English.

Then there are those who assume that I hate state-owned, so-called public broadcasters (again, I don’t, although I question their conduct more rigorously because they are public-funded). In fact, I have sung praise of Burmese TV as a model public broadcaster, and maintained excellent relations with NHK and other public broadcasters in Asia. I’m regularly invited as a speaker or panelist at gatherings of mainstream broadcasters – where I express pretty much the same views as I do on this blog.

Some think I’m too harsh on the United Nations, especially UNICEF. Again, I’m a great believer and supporter of the UN’s ideals, but never hesitate to critique the public communication policies and practices of individual UN agencies. I like to think that the United Nations is bigger (and deeper) than the inflated egos of its senior officials. In fact, middle level officials and experts working in various UN agencies have privately commended me for keeping the spotlight on their agencies. During the two years of this blog, I have worked closely with UN-OCHA, UNEP and UNAIDS, and they have been pluralistic enough to engage me in the greater public interest.

I believe that it’s not just the UN, but the entire development sector, that needs to get its act together when it comes to communicating policies, practices and choices. Having occasionally (and luckily, only briefly) forayed into the charmed development circles, I realise how detached from reality, self-referential and inward looking many development professionals and their institutions are. Communication is often no more than self-promotional publicity for overambitious agency heads. I have watched how the sector has struggled to adjust to the new realities in media and communications technology. Sometimes I have ridiculed their worse attempts on this blog; more often than not, I have quietly worked with them in small groups or bilateral meetings trying to build their capacity to do things better with greater focus and impact.

I survived mediasaurus - and lived to tell the tale!

I survived mediasaurus - and lived to tell the tale!

Precisely because I have access to various policy, development and research circles in Asia while (or despite?) being a blogger critiquing the same players, I exercise caution in quoting people or citing examples. Some meetings I attend discuss matters too sensitive for immediate publication; others operate on the Chatham House rule (generic points may be communicated, but without attribution). As a journalist, I’ve been trained to clarify what is on the record and what isn’t; in sourcing content for this blog, I follow the same principles.

Every writer, editor and publisher has her own agenda. Mine is fairly easy to discern, for example from the recurrent themes on this blog. These include: * humanising development communication (going beyond mere facts, figures, analysis and jargon); * demystifying and debunking self-serving development myths (for example, about community radio, or rural poverty); * practising what we preach (broadcasters addressing their own carbon emissions); * evolving more inclusive copyright policies (poverty and climate change as copyright free zones); and * engaging in simple, clear and effective communicating of science and technology in society.

For those who occasionally look for a hidden agenda, my only advice is: get a life. I write this blog for fun. I don’t set out to kick anyone – although I often get a kick out of receiving online or offline feedback.

And that’s my wish for the coming months and years: while I work hard to earn some honest bucks else where, may I continue to derive my kicks here. And if some of you also get a mental kick out of reading or commenting on this blog, that’s my bonus.

Since I remain open-minded and eager for new knowledge, my views on some topics and issues keep evolving over time. Although it’s tempting to go back and edit some of my earlier blog posts in the light of new knowledge or understanding, I refrain from doing so. And if that sometimes presents (minor) inconsistencies, I can only quote Walt Whitman in my defence:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Sharing archives: Will broadcasters (finally) put planet before profit?

I have long wondered if both radio and TV broadcasters store their archival material in black holes – into which everything disappears and nothing ever comes out. And certainly, nothing is shared with anyone else.

In a widely reproduced and commented op ed essay written for SciDev.Net in November 2008, titled Planet before profit for climate change films, I noted:
“It isn’t just climate-related films that are locked up with copyright restrictions. Every year, hundreds of television programmes or video films — many supported by public, corporate or philanthropic funds — are made on a variety of development and conservation topics.

“These are typically aired once, twice or at best a few times and then relegated to a shelf somewhere. A few may be released on DVD or adapted for online use. But the majority goes into archival ‘black holes’, from where they might never emerge again. Yet most of these films have a long shelf life and could serve multiple secondary uses outside the broadcast industry.”

Escape from the Southern 'black hole'?

Escape from the Southern 'black hole'?

Well, it seems things are changing, albeit very slowly. Last month, we welcomed the announcement from Al Jazeera sharing their news footage online through a Creative Commons license — the first time that video footage produced by a news broadcaster is released for commercial and non-commercial use.

Now comes the news that Australia’s public broadcaster ABC is releasing selected content from its vast archives for non-commercial use by others. And we must thank Charles Darwin for that.

On 12 February 2009, to celebrate Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, ABC started releasing some archival materials, all based loosely around the theme of evolution and mutation. This Australian first was achieved through ABC’s collaborative media site, Pool.

In an imaginatively named effort called Gene Pool, ABC started off with a recording from its archives of genetics professor Steve Jones talking about Darwin’s life and work.

The next offering to Gene Pool would be a clip from ABC’s Monday Conference in 1971 featuring Stanford entomologist Paul Ehrlich talking about climate change (yes, it’s from 38 years ago!).

These materials are being released under the Creative Commons 3.0 licence allowing people to reuse or remix them in any way they like — as long as it’s for non-commercial use.

On Gene Pool website, ABC said: “You can also create your own work exploring the themes of evolution and mutation in lateral ways, and share them back into the Gene Pool.”

A framework for sharing...

A framework for sharing...

As Creative Commons Australia explained: “This means that people can tweak, twist and remix the files to create their own creative interpretation of the themes of evolution and mutation, and share these results with the rest of the world. The idea is to build a whole community up around the project, remixing and reusing the ABC archival material in new and previously unthought of ways. This all culminates in a public exhibition of Gene Pool pieces at Melbourne’s RMIT on November 24th – the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s book The Origin of Species.”

They added: “Just imagine what gems might be hidden away in ABC filing cabinets, waiting to be discovered and put to good use by the population that payed for them in the first place.”

That’s precisely what I’ve been saying for a long time – the taxpayer-funded broadcasters like BBC, NHK or ABC (and their equivalents in other countries) have no moral right to lock away their archives on legal or technical grounds. And to think that some of the content thus held up could actually help us in winning history’s eternal race between education and catastrophe!

Nothing escapes this one...for now

Nothing escapes from this one...for now

The BBC – hailed as a model public broadcaster worldwide – is among the worst offenders on this count. It holds one of the largest archives on environment, natural history and wildlife filmed all over the planet for several decades, yet it stubbornly refuses to share this material with anyone, even when it’s only for strict non-commercial, educational use. Read one example in my July 2007 blog post, The Lawyers who locked up the Butterfly Tree.

This myopic selfishness is contrasted (and put to shame) by exceptional film-makers like Richard Brock (who worked with BBC Natural History Unit for 35 years before leaving it unhappy over its rights management) who have decided to open up their personal video archives for non-commercial use especially in the majority world where such material is in short supply.

We can only hope that ABC’s move would build up pressure on the stubborn old Auntie BBC to finally relent. In fact, this might be a chance for all those public broadcasters – many of them now ‘Aunties without eyeballs’ – to redeem themselves at last, ending decades of copyrights tyranny. (And if that puts their inhouse lawyers out of a job, they can join greedy bankers now lining up for public forgiveness!)

ABC says about its tentative steps to the world of open archives: “It’s a small offering to start but there’ll be a lot more to come. We’re working madly behind the scenes getting clearance to release more more more.”

Watch this space…and keep an eye on that Gene Pool!

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

Climate Neros: Films chained, unchained…


“Twenty centuries ago, Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Today, some media companies are squabbling over copyrights while the planet is warming.”

These words, which I first uttered during an Asian workshop on moving images and changing climate in Tokyo in early October 2008, have resonated with many journalists, producers and activists concerned about climate change.

The latest outlet to carry my views is Down to Earth, the fortnightly magazine on science and environment published from New Delhi, India. They have included a condensed version of my remarks in their issue for 15 December 2008, under the heading: Films chained, unchained

It’s part of a special issue to mark the 14th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the fourth meeting of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, being held in the Polish city of Poznan from 1 to 12 December 2008.

In fact, Down to Earth editor Pradip Saha was part of our Tokyo workshop which called for climate change to be recognised as a copyright free zone.

When Down to Earth editors first mooted the idea of carrying my views, they suggested a catchy headline: Climate’s Niros. I rather liked that…but that didn’t survive their copyediting. Ah, well…

Last chance for Kyoto Protocol? Courtesy Down to Earth

Last chance for Kyoto Protocol?

In its preamble to the special climate change issue, Down to Earth editors say:
“Eleven years after the Kyoto Protocol was signed — only to be consigned to irrelevance over the subsequent decade — nations are meeting in Poland to negotiate post-2012 action.

“The realities of climate change are clearer than ever, and the cost of action is mounting. Rich countries, historically responsible for climate change, are proposing new mechanisms to share the burden. Leading developing countries such as India and China need to negotiate hard as well and make a big push for renewables…” Read full story

On 5 November 2008, SciDev.Net published my op ed essay:
Planet before profit for climate films

On 7 November 2008, Asia Media Forum published a longer version of this essay:
Climate Change or (c)limate (c)hange: Guarding copyrights on a warming planet

These have been linked to, or commented upon, by various blogs and websites. Interestingly, the big time TV/video production companies and broadcasters have been keeping quiet in this debate.

Perhaps they are too busy counting their money accruing from license fees?

Climate change and copyrights: What intellectual property on a dead planet?

Twenty centuries ago, Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Today, some media companies are squabbling over copyrights while the planet is warming.

This is the main thrust of my latest op ed essay, just published by the Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net) anchored in London, UK. It’s titled: Planet before profit for climate change films.

I have adapted for this commentary some of my ideas initially expressed on this blog – especially the post on 12 Oct 2008: Climate in Crisis and planet in peril – but we’re squabbling over copyrights!

Broadcasting on a warming planet

Broadcasting on a warming planet

In writing this essay, I’ve also drawn on the excellent discussions we had last month during the Asia Pacific workshop on Changing Climate and Moving Images in Tokyo.

I’m challenging broadcasters to put their money where their mouth is.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Broadcast mandarins routinely support global struggles against poverty, HIV, corruption and climate change by offering free airtime to carry public interest messages. But few let go of their own products on these very subjects for non-broadcast uses.

“Making climate change a ‘copyright free zone’ for media products would increase the resource materials available to thousands of educators, social activists and trainers struggling to communicate this complex topic to audiences across the world. Moving images would make their task easier.

“The climate crisis challenges everyone to adopt extraordinary measures. Broadcasters and film-makers need to balance their financial interests with planetary survival.

“What use is intellectual property on a dead planet?”

Read my full essay on SciDev.Net: Planet before profit for climate change films.

In September 2006, speaking at the United Nations headquarters (photo below), I called for poverty to be recognised as a copyright free zone. The idea was to have broadcasters and other electronic publishers release copyrights on TV, video and online content relating to poverty and development issues -– at least until (MDG target year of) 2015.

The TV broadcast and film communities have reacted to this proposal with disdain or indifference, but I keep badgering on. If poverty didn’t motivate broadcasters to change business as usual, I hope, the planetary threat posed by climate change would.

‘Climate Challenge’ marks turning point in Vietnam’s climate concerns

Seeking local solutions for a global problem

Climate Challenge TV series: Seeking local solutions for a global problem

Many media reports and documentaries on climate change tend to be scary. Even the most balanced and scientifically informed ones caution us about dire scenarios that can rapidly change the world as we know it.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Like every crisis, climate change too presents humanity with formidable challenges that can become opportunities to do things differently — and better.

Climate Challenge is a rare TV series that adopts this positive attitude. The 6-part series co-produced by One Planet Pictures in the UK and in Switzerland, links the global climate crisis with location action for both mitigation (trying to reduce further aggravation) and adaptation (learning to cope with impacts).

It also makes the point: in the fight against global warming, developed and developing countries must work hand-in-hand to find viable solutions for all.

The film-makers of Climate Challenge focus on some of the most promising approaches to turning down the global thermostat. Climate Challenge goes in search for solutions that won’t put a break on economic growth.

The series had its original run on BBC World News in April – May 2007. Shortly afterwards, TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP) started distributing it to TV channels, educational institutions and civil society groups across the Asia Pacific region. It has been one of the more popular items on our catalogue of international TV films on sustainable development and social justice.

Our deal with Asia Pacific broadcasters is a barter arrangement. TVEAP clears copyrights for developing countries in our region (more than 30 countries or territories) and offers films free of license fee that normally prevent many southern broadcasters from using this content.

We offer a new set of titles every two months to our broadcast partners – now numbering over 40 channels. They select and order what interests them, and often pay for the cost of copying on to professional tape and dispatch by courier.

When they receive the tapes, accompanied by time-coded scripts, many TV stations version the films into their local language/s using sub-titles or voice-dubbing. They do this at their expense, and then assign a good time slot for airing the films once or several times. They are free to re-run the films as often as they want. The only expectation is that they give us feedback on the broadcasts, so that we can report to the copyright owners once a year.

This arrangement works well, and bilateral relationships have developed between TVEAP’s distribution team and programme managers or acquisition staff at individual TV stations across Asia. Everything happens remotely — through an online ordering system and by email. It’s rarely that we at TVEAP get to meet and talk with our broadcast colleagues in person.

Pham Thuy Trang speaks in Tokyo

Pham Thuy Trang speaks in Tokyo

I was delighted, therefore, to meet one of our long-standing broadcast colleagues in Tokyo earlier this month when we ran a regional workshop on changing climate and moving images. Pham Thuy Trang, a reporter with news and current affairs department of Vietnam Television (VTV), was one of the participants. She turned out to be an ardent fan of our films.

She told the Tokyo workshop how the Climate Challenge series marked a turning point in Vietnam’s public discussion and understanding of climate change issues.

In mid 2007, VTV was one of many Asian broadcasters who ordered Climate Challenge. Having versioned it into Vietnamese, VTV broadcast the full series in December 2007 to coincide with the 13th UN climate change conference in Bali, Indonesia.

“This was the first time the issue received indepth coverage on TV,” Trang said. This was particularly significant because a 2007 survey had revealed low levels of interest in climate issues by the media in Vietnam.

Vietnam has a 3,000km long coastline

Vietnam has a 3,000km long coastline

“In fact, the World Bank has identified Vietnam, with its 3,000 km long coastline, as among the countries most vulnerable to climate change impact. Our media has been reporting some developments – such as increased coastal erosion – as purely local incidents without making the climate link,” she noted.

The series, originally broadcast in the foreign documentaries slot, was noticed by the VTV senior management who then arranged for its repeat broadcast in the long-established environmental slot. The latter slot, well established for a decade, commands a bigger audience.

“Our Director General was impressed by our receiving such a good series on an important global issue,” Trang recalled. She added: “We need more films like this – that explain the problem and help us to search for solutions.”

Trang kept on thanking TVEAP for Climate Challenge and other films that bring international environment and development concerns to millions of Vietnamese television viewers. I said we share the credit with generous producers like One Planet Pictures and, who let go of the rights to their creations for the global South.

If only more producers of TV content on climate and other development issues think and act as they do. That was also the call we made at the end of our workshop: recognise climate change as a copyright free zone.

Related blog post: Climate in crisis and planet in peril – but we’re squabbling over copyrights!

Climate in Crisis and planet in peril – but we’re squabbling over copyrights!

Climate in Crisis - a global documentary

Climate in Crisis - a global documentary

On my recent visit to Tokyo for a regional workshop on changing climate and moving images, I watched a number of excellent documentary films on the subject. One of them was Crude: The Incredible Journey of Oil, the excellent Australian film that I wrote about in March.

Another was Climate in Crisis, an outstanding global documentary in two parts (2 x 52 mins) co-produced in 2006 by Japan’s public broadcaster NHK together with The Science Channel and ALTOMEDIA/France 5.

Directed by Fujikawa Masahiro, the film draws heavily on the Earth Simulator — one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers — which Japanese scientists used to project the climatic disasters in next 100 years. The system was developed in 1997 for running global climate models to evaluate the effects of global warming and problems in solid earth geophysics. It has been able to run holistic simulations of global climate in both the atmosphere and the oceans — down to a resolution of 10 km.

NEC Earth Simulator in Japan

NEC Earth Simulator in Japan

The results, captured in this documentary, are truly mind-boggling. Atmospheric temperatures may rise by as much as 4.2 degrees Celsius, more hurricanes may attack and deserts may spread from Africa to southern Europe, and half of the Amazon rainforest may be gone. Climate in Crisis shows a severe projection on environmental destruction based on rigorous scientific data and considers whether humankind can avoid this.

This film, made in the same year as Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth, has won several awards including the Earth Vision Award at the 15th Earth Vision Tokyo Global Environmental Film Festival.

I was curious why this excellent film – in my view, better made than Al Gore’s one – hasn’t been more widely seen, talked about and distributed. To be honest, I’d not even heard of this one until my Japan visit — and I try to keep myself informed on what’s new in my field of endeavour.

The reasons soon became apparent: copyright restrictions! The co-producers are keeping the rights so tight that only the highest bidders will be allowed to acquire it on a license fee.

This is a standard broadcast industry practice that didn’t surprise me. But I was taken aback by how jealously the rights are guarded. All other films that were part of our event, including high budget commercial productions like Crude, were screened to the public at the Parthenon in Tama New Town in Tokyo.

Not so with Climate in Crisis, which we – the overseas participants to the workshop – had to watch at a theatre inside NHK’s Tokyo headquarters. No public screening was possible. As we later heard, NHK itself was willing to allow a public screening (after all, it draws a good part of its income from the Japanese public), but their international co-producing partners, especially the Science Channel, would simply not agree to it. Wow.

Twenty centuries ago, emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Today, some people are squabbling over copyrights while the whole planet is in peril.

Earth in 2100 - as seen by Earth Simulator

Earth in 2100 - as seen by Earth Simulator

Our workshop participants came from solid backgrounds in broadcasting or independent film-making, and we are not naive activists asking hard-nosed broadcasters to let go of their precious rights which generates vital income. But we would have expected them to allow films such as Climate in Crisis to circulate a bit more freely in everybody’s interest.

This reminded me of correspondence I had last year with the Canadian producers of another outstanding climate film titled The Great Warming. The initial discussions with its director were promising, but when the distribution people started talking about ‘revenue optimising’, our negotiations stalled.

It also reminded me of similar experiences of other environment and natural history film makers, such as South Africa’s Neil Curry. He had a long struggle with the BBC to clear the non-broadcast use rights of his own film that he wanted to take back to the locations in Botswana where it was filmed.

Many broadcast and production companies in the west don’t realise that TV broadcasters in developing Asia operate on a very different basis. Talking about broadcast ‘pre-sales’ or ‘commissions’ loses meaning when many stations are operating on tiny budgets — or in some cases, no budgets — for factual content. Many are struggling to survive in tough, emerging economies.

Is this our future?

Is this our future?

TVE Asia Pacific operates a regional film distribution service that brings environment and development films within reach of such broadcasters. We operate without getting mired in license fees or royalties.

Our 2-day workshop called for climate change to be recognised as a ‘copyright free zone’. This would enable audio-visual media content on the subject to move freely across borders and to be used widely for broadcast and narrowcast purposes.

Here’s the full reference from our statement of concern:

“Prevailing copyright regimes prevent the sharing and wider use of outstanding TV programmes and video films on climate and development issues. We are deeply concerned that even content developed partly or wholly with public funding (government grants, donor funds or lottery funds) remain unfairly locked into excessive copyright restrictions. Sometimes film-makers and producers themselves are willing but unable to allow their creations to be used for non-commercial purposes by educational, civil society and advocacy groups. We appreciate the media industry’s legitimate needs for intellectual property management and returns on investment. At the same time, the climate crisis challenges us to adopt extraordinary measures, one of which can and should be recognising climate change as a ‘copyright free zone’. Such agreement would encourage media organisations and independent producers to share content across borders, and with entities outside the media industry engaged in climate education, advocacy and activism.”

Here’s the simple question I raised during the workshop, which is worth being posed to all those who hesitate to even discuss this issue:

Can anyone manage their intellectual property rights on a dead planet?

This is the real question!

Vulnerability Exposed: Micro films on how climate change affects YOU!

Vulnerability Exposed!

Vulnerability Exposed!

Never underestimate the power of moving images. Al Gore tipped the balance in the long-drawn climate change debate with his Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth. The rest is recent history.

Thanks to the film – and sustained advocacy of hundreds of scientists and activists – climate change is no longer a speculative scenario; it’s widely accepted. The challenge now is to understand how it impacts different people in a myriad ways.

Now the World Bank wants people to use their video cameras to capture how climate change may already be affecting their ways of living and working. The Bank’s Social Development Department has just announced the launch of a worldwide documentary competition that will highlight the social aspects of climate change as experienced and/or observed by the film-maker(s).

Called Vulnerability Exposed, the contest is open to anyone anywhere in the world who wishes to have their voice heard. The submitted films should innovatively illustrate the consequences of climate change through one of the following theme categories: conflict, migration, the urban space, rural institutions, drylands, social policy, indigenous peoples, gender, governance, forests, and/or human rights. The submission period ends on 24 October 2008.

Caroline Kende-Robb, Acting Director, Social Development Department, said, “There is a need to see climate change as an issue of global social justice. The rights, interests and needs of those affected by climate change must be acknowledged.”

Watch the Bank’s short video, where she explains further:

The contest has two award categories:
1) Social Dimensions of Climate Change Award (general category) – open to professional and amateur; and
2) Young Voices of Climate Change (youth category) – open to entries submitted by filmmakers under 24 years old.

Award winners will be chosen through a combination of public voting and a judging panel. The film with the most public votes in each theme category will receive honorable mention.

Judging process

Vulnerability Exposed film competition: Judging process

This contest indicates that the World Bank is slowly but surely opening up to the currently untapped communication potential of web 2.0 – the very point I made in a recent op ed essay.

There are several noteworthy aspects in this competition, some more positive than others. I offer this critique in the spirit of improving a commendable initiative.

Three cheers to the bank for accommodating both amateurs and professionals. It’s about time those who don’t video film for a living (some of who are no less talented in the craft) had more opportunities to showcase their products.

It’s good to see the preference for shorter films, in this contest defined between 2 and 5 mins in duration. This certainly resonates with TVE Asia Pacific’s experience with Asian broadcasters, many of who now prefer shorter films. Longer films have their place, of course, but shorter ones are clear favourites of 24/7 news channels and also online.

Most film contests are judged exclusively by an all-powerful jury (I’ve been on several over the years), but here the online public have a chance to vote for their favourite entries. Let’s hope the judges will consider the story telling power of entries as the most important deciding factor. (The examples in the YouTube film given above are misleading – they all seem extracts from expensively made documentaries.)

The big challenge for many aspiring contestants would be to relate climate change to daily realities in their societies. Despite global headlines and the development community’s current frenzy about it, climate change as a phrase and concept still isn’t clearly understood in all its ramifications. If science now knows 100 facts about the murky processes of climate change, the average public knows less than 25 and understands even less. So it will be interesting to see how entries relate the big picture to their individual small pictures.

I’m a bit disappointed that the World Bank is not offering any cash prize to the winners. Instead, “the winners will receive an all expenses paid trip to Washington, DC for a screening of their film and will have the opportunity to attend a series of networking and learning events organized by…the World Bank in December 2008.” This is all useful, but video – even at the low end – is not exactly cheap, and even labour of love creations cost money to make. We are currently running a comparable the Asia Pacific Rice Film Award – which seeks entries no longer than 10 mins on any aspect of rice – and despite being a non-profit, civil society initiative we have a prize of US$ 2,000 to the winner. And we wish we could offer more.

But my biggest concern is the unequal, unfair terms of copyrights found in the small print of the competition rules. This is where the lawyers have done their usual handiwork, and with the usually lopsided results. The World Bank wants all contestants to make absolutely sure that all material used is fully owned by the contestants, or properly licensed. That’s fine. But tucked away on page 7, under section 12 titled Entrant’s permission to the organiser, is a set of conditions which will allow all affiliated institutions of the World Bank group to use the submitted material for not just promoting this contest (a standard clause in most competitions), but for ‘climate change work program of the organiser’.

What this means, in simpler terms, is that without offering a single dollar in prize money, the World Bank is quietly appropriating the unlimited user rights for any and all the submitted material. These are the core materials in the moving images industry, and nothing is more precious to their creators.

I have long advocated a more balanced, equitable and liberal approach to managing copyrights and intellectual property by both the broadcast television industry and development community — especially where public funded creations are concerned. I have nothing but contempt for lawyers and accountants who often determine the copyrights policies in large broadcast and development organisations. They set out terms that may be justified in strict legal terms, but are totally unfair, unjust and, in the end, counterproductive to the development cause and process. It seems that while our friends in the social and communication divisions were not looking, the Bank’s lawyers have done their standard hatchet job.

While this doesn’t detract from the overall value of Vulnerability Exposed, it diminishes its appeal and potential. Many professional video film-makers who value their footage – gathered with much trouble and expense – may not want to sign future user rights away for simply entering this contest. And worse, the unsuspecting enthusiasts who don’t necessarily earn their living from making films – but are entitled to the same fair treatment of their creations – would be giving away material whose industrial value they may not even fully appreciate.

It’s certainly necessary and relevant for development organisations like the World Bank and the UN system to engage web 2.0. But they must be careful not to import or impose rigid, one-sided and outdated copyright regimes of the past on this new media.

I hope the Bank would consider revising these unfair copyright terms, and treat the submitted material with greater discretion and respect. If not, all entrants risk seeing their material popping out of bluechip films produced by top-dollar production companies in North America and Europe who have ‘mining rights’ to the Bank’s video archives.

Vulnerability Exposed can have more meanings than one. We’d rather not consider some.

UNEP’s search for God: Here’s the way forward to save the planet!

Satinder Bindra

Satinder Bindra: Voice of the Planet?

“Content is king — but distribution is God!”

With these words, UNEP’s newly appointed Director of Communications and Public Information, Satinder Bindra (photo, above), engaged my attention at a meeting in Paris earlier this week.

I almost jumped up in total agreement — this is just what we’ve been saying for years, especially to those who support information, education and communication activities in UN agencies.

Unlike many career UN officials, Satinder knows what he’s talking about. He comes to UNEP with over two decades of wide and varied experience in journalism and broadcasting – the last 10 years spent as a Senior International Correspondent/South Asia Bureau Chief for CNN based in New Delhi, India.

In the hard headed and hard nosed world of international news and current affairs television, distribution and outreach can make or break any content provider. This is something that the two leading news channels BBC World and CNN International know very well — and the more recent entrant Al Jazeera English is still finding out.

Satinder’s remark, in this instance, was more to do with how to get information and analysis on sustainable development out to as many people as possible in all corners of the planet. This is part of UNEP’s core mission since its founding in 1972 — and as chief of communication and public information, Satinder now takes on this formidable challenge.

In Paris, he was listening, taking notes and talking to everyone in the small group who’d come together for the annual partner meeting of the Com Plus Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development.

Com+ is a “partnership of international organizations and communications professionals from diverse sectors committed to using communications to advance a vision of sustainable development that integrates its three pillars: economic, social and environmental”. TVE Asia Pacific was admitted to the partnership a few months ago.

As I’m sure Satinder realises, at stake in his new assignment is a lot more than audience ratings, market share or revenue stream of a single broadcaster. Those are important too, but not in the same league as ensuring life on Earth – in all its diversity and complexity – continues and thrives.

Satinder struck me as a practical and pragmatic journalist who wants to get the job done efficiently. We can only hope the rest of UNEP will keep up with him — or at least they don’t get too much in his way!

As he finds his way around the globally spread, multidisciplinary and sometimes heavily bureaucratic UN organisation, Satinder will come across some incongruities, cynicism and institutional inertia all of which have held UNEP back from being the dynamic global leader in our pursuit of elusive sustainable development.

At the big picture level, communication at UNEP has often been defined narrowly as institutional promotion – delivering UNEP logo to the news media of the world, or boosting the image of its executive director and other senior officials. We don’t grudge anyone enjoying their 15 minutes of fame, but a technical agency like UNEP has so much more to offer — in terms of rigorous science, multiple perspectives, wide ranging consultation and bringing diverse players to a common platform.

The Nobel Peace Prize winning Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), co-supported by UNEP and World Meteorological Organisation, is a good recent example of how solid science, communicated through the media, can inspire governments, industry and rest of society to find solutions to a major global challenge.

The 20-year success of the Montreal Protocol to save the ozone layer is another example. Again, UNEP was a key player in this accomplishment, and is still engaged in the race to phase out the use of a basket of chemicals that damage the protecting ozone layer in the upper atmosphere.

There’s a lot more good science and tons of good stories lurking inside UNEP — if only its experts know how to get these out, and if only its bean-counters won’t stand in the way.

Ironically, elsewhere in the same UNEP Paris building that we were having the Com Plus meeting, the adorable cartoon character Ozzy Ozone (below) was being holed up by excessive rules and regulations. He is one of the best known public communication products to come out of the organisation. Yet, as I wrote earlier this year, he is bottled up and kept captive by an unimaginative UN system.

Then there is the whole scandalous situation where UNEP-funded environmental films are released with needlessly excessive copyright restrictions. As I have been saying, this is the big mismatch in environment and development film-making: many films are made using donor (i.e. public or tax payer) funds, but due to the ignorance or indifference of funders, the copyrights are retained by private individuals or companies involved in the production.

In UNEP’s case, for years it has been commissioning (and sometimes funding) a London-based production company, with a charitable arm, to produce environmental films. That’s certainly a choice for UNEP if the agency feels it continues to get value for its money. But tragically, the producers jealously guard all the copyrights, releasing these only under rigid conditions to a select few.

Whatever outreach figures they might claim, these cannot match what the same films would achieve if the copyrights were not so restrictive. Freed from crushing rights, such environmental films – made with UNEP funding or blessings or both – could benefit thousands of groups engaged in awareness, advocacy, activism, education and training.

For sure, we’ve heard the arguments in favour of tight copyright regimes. Film-makers have every right to be acknowledged for their creative efforts, but public funded products must not be locked up by greedy lawyers and accountants — or even by selfish film-making charities. And millions of users around the world should be able to access such products without having to get through the eye of the copyright needle first.
July 2007 blog post: Lawyers who locked up the butterfly tree

Can Satinder Bindra overcome these hurdles that have for so long inhibited UNEP from reaching its potential? We just have to wait and see.

When he talks about distribution being God, we have to readily agree. But he will soon find some elements within UNEP – or in crony partnerships with UNEP – that stand between him and this God.

To be fair, there’s only so much that an inter-governmental agency like UNEP – beholden to its member governments – can really accomplish. That’s why it needs partners from corporate, civil society, activist and academic spheres. Some of us can easily say and do things that UNEP would, in all sincerity, like to — but cannot.

Satinder sounds like he can forge broad alliances that go beyond monopolist partnerships. Here’s wishing him every success….for everyone’s sake!

Photo courtesy UNEP Climate Neutral Network

Release Ozzy Ozone held prisoner by brand guardians!

In September 2007, I wrote about Ozzy Ozone, an energetic, cheerful little ozone molecule – part of the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere that prevents the Sun’s harmful ultra-violet rays from coming through and causing skin cancer, cataract and other health problems.

Ozzy Ozone is part of a global public education effort by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to tell everyone how harmful UV rays are to our health, and how Ozzy and his fellow ozone molecules are literally protecting life on earth from being zapped out.

I called Ozzy the little molecule on a big mission — to tell all humans to soon phase out using certain chemicals that, when released to the air, go up and destroy his kind.

Last week, while attending a UNEP meeting in Bangkok to plan the next ozone communication strategy for Asia Pacific, I heard some disturbing news: little Ozzy has become a prisoner of his brand guardians. As a result, he is not as free as he could be to roam the planet, spreading the vital ozone message.

Anne Fenner, Information Officer of UNEP’s OzonAction Programme revealed how she routinely turns down requests to produce toys and other material using the popular character.

“I have had so many requests from companies, but we cannot allow commercial exploitation of this brand,” Anne said.

I was stunned. Here is one of the more popular communication products to emerge from the UN, not generally known for such successful engagement of popular culture. And there we were, brainstorming on ways to get the ozone message to large, scattered (and distracted) audiences.

Ozzy was created by a graphic artist in Barbados, as part of a government-supported campaign to raise public awareness on ozone layer thinning. This cartoon character served as a “mascot” and was very effective in raising awareness in Barbados. The cartoon series was printed in local newspapers. Additionally, promotional items produced for local public awareness and education campaigns using the Ozzy graphic include posters, key rings, rulers, erasers, refrigerator magnets, mouse pads, pens, pencils, stickers, and envelopes.

The character was so popular that UNEP struck a deal with Barbados to ‘globalize’ Ozzy. An animated video was produced, along with a dedicated website, comic strips and other media adaptations.

Ozzy has been a run-away success, giving UNEP a high profile, widely popular character — and a great deal of media coverage and interest. The kind of media engagement that is typically enjoyed by Unicef, the most media-savvy of all UN agencies.

But we now know that Ozzy’s brand guardians don’t allow him to go as far as he could. They may be playing by the rules, but do they realise that huge opportunities are being lost?

There we were, a small group of journalists, communicators, scientists and government officials discussing for three days how to get the biggest bang for our collectively limited buck where ozone messaging is concerned.

It was frustrating to know that the best brand ambassador has been locked up in brand integrity and copyright restrictions.

I suggested to Anne Fenner that protecting the brand integrity need not be so rigidly pursued. For example, careful franchising could be undertaken based on a set of guidelines — and the royalty could go into a trust fund that supports ozone communication work.

Indeed, the challenge for development communicators everywhere is to find the common ground between the public interest and the commercial interest. In this era of globalised media and CSR, the two interests are no longer mutually exclusive. Some might argue they never were.

The long-established copyright regimes themselves are being questioned, challenged and bypassed by a growing number of research, advocacy and activist groups. Many now publish their academic or artistic work under Creative Commons licenses, that enable their creators to be acknowledged and retain some control — and yet allow many types of uses without excessive restriction.

When TVE Asia Pacific recently released an Asian regional book called Communicating Disasters, our co-publisher UNDP Regional Centre in Bangkok proposed that the book be under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license. We were happy to go along.

UNEP has some catching up to do. Turning the pages of lavishly illustrated Ozzy Ozone comic story books (of which 3 titles have come out so far), I found that UNEP has the standard copyright restriction. However, they add a line: “This publication may be reproduced in whole or part and in any form for educational or non-profit purposes without special permission from the copyright holder, provided acknowledgement of the source is made.”

That’s encouraging – but not good enough. What happens if a commercially operated media organisation wants to use this content for public interest? Will they qualify under ‘educational or non-profit purposes’?

Probably not. And that’s when the dreaded copyright lawyers could come marching out.

It’s the assorted lawyers and over-cautious officials who are keeping Ozzy Ozone a virtual prisoner.

And sadly, little Ozzy is not alone. Everywhere in the publishing and media world, we can find many examples of how creative works are being held back – usually by over-protective lawyers or accountants. Sometimes that’s the case even if the artistes or media professionals themselves would much rather let go of the rights.

In July 2007, I wrote a blog post called ‘The lawyers who locked up the butterfly tree’ — which revealed how lawyers working for the publicly-funded BBC had systematically blocked a multi-award winning African documentary film from being used for environmental education, awareness and advocacy. All because the BBC had partly funded its production, and therefore had a claim on its copyright.

So here’s our plea to Ozzy’s brand guardians in UNEP: let him roam free, taking the vital message to millions. And while at it, let him make some money (from franchisees) which can suppot the rest of UNEP’s ozone communication work.

And if some spoilsport of a copyright lawyer gets in the way, tell him/her to take a beach vacation — without sunblock.

Related links:
Sep 2006: Make poverty a copyright free zone

May 2007: TVEAP renews call for poverty as a copyright free zone