Communication expertise as essential disease outbreak control

CBA President Moneeza Hashmi oepns workshop on Pandemics and broadcasting, Manado, 28 May 2013

CBA President Moneeza Hashmi opens workshop on Pandemics and broadcasting, Manado, 28 May 2013

The discussion on the role of information and communication in disaster situations continues. Media-based communication is vitally necessary, but not sufficient, in meeting the multiple information needs of disaster risk reduction and disaster management. Other forms of participatory, non-media communications are needed to create more resilient communities.

During the past decade, the world’s humanitarian and disaster management communities have acknowledged the central and crucial role of communications — not just for outreach, but as a frontline activity and a core component of response.

An Asian broadcasters’ workshop I just facilitated during Asia Media Summit 2013 in Manado, Indonesia, once again reaffirmed this. It was titled: Be Prepared: Managing Your Organisation through a Global Pandemic.

It was organised by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (CBA) in collaboration with the Asia Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD), and held on 28 May 2013.

WHO_CDS_2005_28enProviding vital context to our discussions was the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Outbreak Communication Guidelines of 2005 [WHO/CDS/2005.28].

Perhaps the most significant sentence in the booklet is this: “WHO believes it is now time to acknowledge that communication expertise has become an essential outbreak control as epidemiological training & laboratory analysis…”

It is preceded by this candid appraisal: “Communication, generally through the media, is another feature of the outbreak environment. Unfortunately, examples abound of communication failures which have delayed outbreak control, undermined public trust and compliance, and unnecessarily prolonged economic, social and political turmoil.”

The document is certainly a leap forward in thinking, but eight years since it was published, the ICT and media realities have changed drastically. As I noted in my opening remarks, social media, then fledgling, have exploded and completely changed the dynamics of emergency communications.

In a recent op-ed published in SciDev.Net, Rohan Samarajiva and I made this point: “The proliferation of ICTs adds a new dimension to disaster warnings. Having many information sources, dissemination channels and access devices is certainly better than few or none. However, the resulting cacophony makes it difficult to achieve a coherent and coordinated response…”

We added: “The controlled release of information is no longer an option for any government. In the age of social media and 24/7 news channels, many people will learn of distant hazards independently of official sources.”

Read full essay: Crying wolf over disasters undermines future warnings by Rohan Samarajiva & Nalaka Gunawardene, SciDev.Net, 6 February 2013

CBA - AIBD Workshop on 'Be Prepared Managing Your Organisation through a  Global Pandemic' - Manado, Indonsia, 28 May 2013

CBA – AIBD Workshop on ‘Be Prepared Managing Your Organisation through a Global Pandemic’ – Manado, Indonsia, 28 May 2013

Mano Wikramanayake (1951 – 2011): A Voice of Reason in Turbulent Times

Mano Wikramanayake (1951 - 2011): Image courtesy Commonwealth Broadcasting Association

We could always rely on Mano Wikramanayake to provide an incisive analysis of any given situation with a boyish grin on his face.

The senior Lankan broadcast manager, who died suddenly on 3 December 2011, was well informed and articulate without any intellectual or artistic pretensions so common in his industry. The one time cricketer turned avid golfer, he knew when to strike – with just enough force – and when to safeguard his wicket.

For over a decade, Mano was Senior Group Director of the Capital Maharaja Organisation and a Founder Director of the company’s electronic media operations, comprising three TV channels, four radio stations and three TV production houses in Sri Lanka. It is the closest the island nation has to an electronic media giant that is now extending also to the web.

Trained as a management accountant, Mano helped the Maharaja group to consolidate its pioneering ventures in privately owned radio and TV broadcasting. Media researchers and activists have faulted this liberalisation, which started in the early 1990s, as being imperfect, for example lacking a due process in the licensing. But one benefit is undeniable: it liberated us audiences from the tiresome state monopoly of the airwaves that had lasted for decades.

From the beginning, it was evident that the Maharaja group had a long time vision for their broadcasting ventures. In the early stages, they brought in Singaporean and Australian professionals but within a few years the company was run entirely by Lankans. Mano, in particular, groomed many young journalists, producers, technicians and business managers who shared his belief that a private broadcaster could do well while also doing good.

I cheered him every time he spoke out at national and international gatherings to broaden the traditionally narrow definition of public service broadcasting. In his book – and mine – PSB was not confined to state owned or public funded stations. Every channel transmitting on the public airwaves could serve the public interest, albeit in different ways.

Our paths crossed more often outside of Sri Lanka, at various regional and global media gatherings in Asia and Europe. He spoke at such events with authority, clarity and honesty. He chose his words carefully, but didn’t gloss over the thorny issues. While I tend to be cheeky and provocative – for example, calling former state monopoly broadcasters ‘Old Aunties Without Eyeballs’ – he was more circumspect. Yet he never berated Sri Lanka even at the worst of times, most notably when his main station came under a daring arson attack in early 2009.

If Mano was measured, sharp and articulate in his public remarks, he could still be jovial and easy-going in private conversation. We were regular (and vocal) participants at the annual Asia Media Summits organised by the Asia Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD). Another regular Asian broadcaster once called him the ‘Lankan pragmatist’ while labelling me the ‘Lankan idealist’. To him, at least, Mano and I appeared to bat on from the opposite ends, but working to a common goal.

During Asia Media Summit 2006, Mano spoke at a plenary session on ‘Local Content for Global Audience: An uphill battle?’ that my organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, put together on behalf of the UN’s regional body, ESCAP. It explored the role of broadcasters in promoting the Millennium Development Goals that all countries have committed to achieving by 2015.

Mano Wikramanayake (second from left) at MDG and Local Content Plenary Session at Asia Media Summit 2006

Soon after he’d spoken, my colleague Manori Wijesekera good-naturedly challenged him to “put his money where his mouth was”. He readily agreed — and kept his word. Two years later, we co-produced with his station a TV debate series called Sri Lanka 2048 that explored pathways for creating a more sustainable island nation.

“This could be a forerunner to programmes which encourage public debate on issues that concern all of us,” he said when the series premiered in May 2008.

Mano was always ready to partner with development or charitable organisations on well-conceived projects, but he had no time for random do-gooders with vague ideas. He ensured that the Maharaja group’s considerable presence in the airwaves was put to good use in support of carefully selected educational, cultural and sporting endeavours.

Mano was equally sharp with numbers as he was with words. As a senior manager, he minded the financial bottomline of the companies under his charge. He also realised that the media business was very different from, say, marketing soft drinks or manufacturing PVC. His team bore witness to how ably he balanced the regulatory, political, journalistic and commercial interests while raising the bar for quality news, information and entertainment for his audiences.

In later years, he shared this vast experience with other developing country broadcasters, for example through training programmes and manuals for the AIBD, and the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (CBA) in which he was a leading light. From Afghanistan to Fiji, and from Barbados to South Africa, the voice of practical and pragmatic Mano Wikramanayake will be missed.

But he has energised a generation of broadcasters, and not just in Sri Lanka. In the evolutionary perspective, all of us are transmitters — we constantly pass on ideas, experience and values to our children, students, colleagues and others in our spheres of influence. Such transmission happens 24/7, in all directions and across generations. Some among us are better transmitters than others: they amplify and value-add before passing on.

Mano was one of the finest ‘transmitters’ in the broadcast business, and that is how I shall remember him. His “transmissions” will continue in the teams and establishments he leaves behind.

Who’s Afraid of Citizen Journalists 2: Reflections from Asia Media Summit 2008

On World Press Freedom Day 3 May 2008, I wrote a blog post titled Who is Afraid of Citizen Journalists. The answer included the usual suspects: tyrannical governments, corrupt military and business interests, and pretty much everybody else who would like to suppress the free flow of information and public debate.

By end May, I realised that some people in the mainstream media (abbreviated MSM, and less charitably called old media or dinonaur media) are also afraid of citizen journalists. That was one insight I drew from attending Asia Media Summit 2008 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (27-28 May 2008).

Asia Media Summit 2008

The two day event drew 530 broadcast CEOs, managing directors, media experts and senior representatives of development and academic institutions from more than 65 countries in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Over eight plenary sessions and twice as many pre-summit events, they examined ‘new visions and new strategies broadcasters need to pursue to address the demands of new technologies, stiff competition, media liberalization and globalization’.

As I shared in my first impressions from the Summit, this annual event is still warming up to the new media. That’s understandable considering that most participants are those who work in MSM/OM/DM. Some, like myself, have been flirting or experimenting with new media in recent years, but even my own organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, still works largely with television broadcasters going out on terrestrial, cable or satellite platforms.

While the death of MSM/OM/DM has been greatly hyped, it’s a fact that they face more competition today than ever before. And instead of competing for eyeballs (and other sensory organs) with better content and higher levels of product customisation, some sections of MSM/OM/DM are trying to impose their own, obsolete mindset on the new media.

A session on ‘Regulations and New Media Models’ brought this into sharp focus. The session raised questions such as: Should we apply some principles from traditional media (meaning MSM) to the new media? Should we adopt some minimum rules to allow for sufficient legal space for new media businesses to find their niche in the market and evolve to fit the needs of consumers? What are the policy implications of User-Generated Content (UGC) with regard to copyright infringement, information accuracy and content quality?

The panel comprised three Europeans and one American, all working in MSM or academia (it wasn’t immediately clear if any of them blogged personally). For the most part, they said predictably nice and kind things about new media. It was interesting to see how these professionals or managers – who have had their careers entirely or mostly working in or studying about MSM – were trying to relate to a new and different sector like the new media.

But the panel’s cautious attitude about the new media went overboard on the matter of regulation. This is where matters are highly contentious and hotly debated: while most of us agree that there should be some basic regulation to ensure cyber security and to keep a check on content that is widely deemed as unacceptable – for example, hate speech – there is no consensus on what content should be regulated by whom under which guiding principles.

Ruling unanimously in Reno v. ACLU, the US Supreme Court declared the Internet to be a free speech zone in 1997, saying it deserved at least as much First Amendment protection as that afforded to books, newspapers and magazines. The government, the Court said, can no more restrict a person’s access to words or images on the Internet than it could be allowed to snatch a book out of a reader’s hands in the library, or cover over a statue of a nude in a museum.

It was during question time that the discussion took a cynical – even hostile – attitude on the new media. Some members of the audience engaged Dr Venkat Iyer, a legal academic from University of Ulster in the UK, in a narrowly focused discussion on how and where bloggers may be sued for the opinions expressed on their blogs. The issue of multiple jurisdictions came up, along with other aspects of cyber libel and how those affected by criticism made online by individual bloggers (as opposed to companies or organisations producing online content) may ‘seek justice’.

These discussions were more than academic, especially in view of worrying trends in host Malaysia and neighbouring Singapore where bloggers have been arrested or are being prosecuted in recent weeks.
Asia Media Forum: Restrictions follow critics to cyber space
IHT: Malaysian blogger jailed over article

From the floor, I remarked that I was disturbed by the tone and narrow vision of this discussion, which merely repeated new media bashing by those who failed to understand its dynamics. Acknowledging the need for restraint where decency and public safety were concerned, I argued that it is a big mistake to analyse the new media from the business models or regulatory frameworks that suit the old media.

There are mischief makers and anti-social elements using the new media just as there have always been such people using the old media. Their presence, which is statistically small, does not warrant a knee-jerk reaction to over-regulate or over-legislate all activity online, as some Summit participants were advocating. To do that would be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I continued: “This is not a healthy attitude to adopt, especially when we look at the bigger picture. In many countries where freedom of expression and media freedom are threatened or suppressed by intolerant governments and/or other vested interests, new media platforms have become the only available opportunity for citizens to organise, protest and sustain struggles for safeguarding human rights, better governance and cleaner politics. In countries where the mainstream media outlets are either state owned or under pressure from government (or military), and where newspapers, radio and TV have already been intimidated into silence, citizen journalists are the last line of defence…”

I also noted with interest that on this panel was Mogens Schmidt, UNESCO’s Deputy Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information (in charge of freedom of expression), and said that this was not the kind of rolling back of freedoms of expression that UNESCO was publicly advocating. In a brief response immediately afterwards, Schmidt said that he fully agreed with my views, and that this was UNESCO’s position as well.

Another panel member, Dr Jacob van Kokswijk, secretary of the International Telecom User Group in the Netherlands, noted that the new media required a totally new thinking and approach where its content is concerned – the rules that have worked for the old media can’t be applied in the same manner. He added that only 3 to 4 per cent of Internet content could be considered as ‘bad’ (by whatever definition he was using), and that should not blind us to seizing the potential of new media.

Another panel member, Joaquin F Blaya, a Board member of Radio Free Asia (RFA), made a categorical statement saying he was opposed to any and all forms of censorship. He knows what that means – RFA says its mission is ‘to provide accurate and timely news and information to Asian countries whose governments prohibit access to a free press’.

By the end of the session, I was relieved to see a more balanced view on the new media emerging in our discussion, with more moderate voices taking to the floor. No, we didn’t resolve any of the tough issues of new media regulation during the 90 mins of that session, but we at least agreed that the old media mindset of command-and-control was not going to work in the new media world.

From its inception in 2003, the annual Asia Media Summit has been very slow to come to terms with this reality, but this year the event moved a bit closer to that ideal – partly because they invited leading new media activist Danny Schechter to be a speaker.

We just have to wait and see if this momentum can be sustained next year when the Summit is hosted by the Macau Special Administrative Region of China.

I’m going to keep an open mind about this — but won’t bet on it…

3 May 2008: Who’s afraid of citizen journalists? Thoughts on World Press Freedom Day