Grassroots Journalism in the Digital Age: Innovate or Perish!

Grassroots Journalism in the Digital Age - by Nalaka Gunawardene
Grassroots Journalism in the Digital Age – by Nalaka Gunawardene

I just spoke to a group of 75 provincial level provincial journalists in Sri Lanka who were drawn from around the island. They had completed a training course in investigative journalism conducted by Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), with support from InterNews.

The certificate award ceremony was held at Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI), Colombo, on 2 October 2015.

In this talk, I look at the larger news media industry in Sri Lanka to which provincial journalists supply ground level news, images and video materials. These are used on a discretionary basis by media companies mostly based in the capital Colombo (and some based in the northern provincial capital of Jaffna). Suppliers have no control over whether or how their material is processed. They work without employment benefits, are poorly paid, and also exposed to various pressures and coercion.

A tale of two industries: one that evolved, and the other that hasn't quite done so...
A tale of two industries: one that evolved, and the other that hasn’t quite done so…

I draw a rough analogy with the nearly 150-year old Ceylon Tea industry, which directly employs around 750,000 people, sustains an estimated 2 million (10% of the population) and in 2014 earned USD 1.67 billion through exports. For much of its history, the Ceylon tea producers were supplying high quality tea leaves in bulk form to London based tea distributors and marketers like Lipton.

Then, in the 1970s, a former tea taster called Merrill J Fernando established Dilmah brand – the first producer owned tea brand that did product innovation at source, and entered direct retail. He wanted to “change the exploitation of his country’s crop by big global traders” – Dilmah has today become one of the top 10 tea brands in the world.

The media industry also started during British colonial times, and in fact dates back to 1832. But I question why, after 180+ years, our media industry broadly follows the same production model: material sourced is centrally processed and distributed, without much adaptation to new digital media realities.

I draw a parallel between tea small holders – those growing on lands less than 10 acres (4 ha) who account for 60% of Sri Lanka’s annual tea production – and the provincial journalists. Both are supplies at the beginning of a chain. Neither has much or any say in how their material is processed and marketed.

Provincial Journalists - Ground level ‘eyes and ears’ of media industry, unsung & often unknown
Provincial Journalists – Ground level ‘eyes and ears’ of media industry, unsung & often unknown

As usual, I don’t have all the answers, but I ask some pertinent questions:

Where are the Merrill Fernandos of our media industry?

Who can disrupt these old models and innovate?

Can disruptive innovators emerge from among provincial journalists?

How can they leverage digital tools and web based platforms?

What if they start value-adding at source and direct distribution via the web?

But since they have families to feed, how to make an honest living doing that?

PPT on SLIDEShare:

When Worlds Collide, by Nalaka Gunawardene

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 16 December 2012

“Did you hear about the man who lit a cigarette from a nuclear explosion?” Sir Arthur C Clarke was fond of asking his visitors some years ago.

The acclaimed science fiction writer and space visionary, whose 95th birth anniversary falls today (16 Dec 2012), loved to pose such baffling questions to visitors. He would gleefully volunteer the answer, and in that process, also share an interesting factoid.

In this instance, the answer was Theodore (Ted) Taylor (1925 – 2004), an American nuclear scientist who designed atomic weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. He apparently held up a small parabolic mirror during a nuclear test — the giant ‘fireball’ was 12 miles (19 km) away – which turned the focused light into heat.

“The moment I heard this, I wrote to Taylor, saying ‘Don’t…

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Ozone Friendly Pure Ceylon Tea: The Cup that Cheers now Saves Ozone!

Text of my article that appears in Ceylon Today newspaper, on 20 September 2012

Ozone Friendly Logo adorns Ceylon Tea packaging – photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

On 21 September 2012, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) will honour Sri Lanka for its long standing commitment to preserving the ozone layer.

At a special ceremony at Jana Kala Kendraya (Folk Art Centre) in Battaramulla, a global plaque is to be presented to the Speaker of Parliament and Minister of Environment by Marco Gonzalez, Executive Secretary of UNEP’s Ozone Secretariat.

This is one of six events worldwide to mark the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer — the world’s most widely subscribed international law.

Since it signed and ratified the Montreal Protocol in 1989, Sri Lanka has been active on several fronts to phase out various industrial and agricultural chemicals that damage the ozone layer – a natural occurring atmospheric phenomenon that protects all life from the Sun’s ultraviolet rays.

Among the many accomplishments is introducing the world’s first ozone friendly tea. The May 2011 launch of ‘Ozone Friendly Pure Ceylon Tea’ logo highlighted a remarkable success story of a developing country complying with a global environmental treaty while also enhancing a major export industry.

The logo is already displayed by many Ceylon Tea manufacturers and distributors. It marks another value addition to the island’s best known export product, an industry worth US Dollars 1.5 billion a year.

The logo reminds Ceylon Tea drinkers worldwide that their favourite ‘cuppa’ has been produced without harming the Ozone Layer. That means our tea is growing without any Methyl Bromide on tea plantations. Instead, ozone-friendly substitutes are now used as fumigants to protect tea bushes from pest attacks, particularly the nematodes (roundworms).

The Montreal Protocol requires all Methyl Bromide use to end by 1 January 2015 (except in emergency situations and quarantine purposes). Sri Lanka got there ahead of schedule.

“Sri Lanka is renowned for its creative activities to raise public awareness on ozone layer protection. The Ozone-Friendly Ceylon Tea logo is another significant achievement of Sri Lanka,” says Atul Bagai, Senior Regional Coordinator of UNEP’s OzonAction team based in Bangkok, Thailand.

He sees multiple benefits from this branding exercise: “Considering the worldwide popularity of Ceylon Tea, this initiative will greatly contribute to the global efforts to protect the ozone layer.”

Searching for Substitutes

It took many years and involved collaboration between government agencies, private companies, scientists and the international community.

Producing Ceylon Tea — known for its distinctive and diverse range of flavours — is as much an art as it’s a science. In recent years, Sri Lanka’s tea industry has modernised manufacturing, distribution and marketing. It has also responded to rising consumer expectations and regulatory requirements in export markets.

The Sri Lanka Tea Board believes that ‘Ozone Friendly’ status could give a competitive advantage for Ceylon Tea at a time when ethically and environmentally responsible products are gaining markets around the world.

Methyl Bromide, also known as Bromo-methane, is a colourless, odourless and highly toxic gas at normal temperatures and pressures. It has been widely used in agriculture since the 1930s to fumigate the soil against weeds, harmful insects and worms. It is a versatile pesticide that works against various creatures that attack crops both in the field and at storage.

UNEP says alternatives have been identified for most Methyl Bromide applications. These include using other chemicals, as well as non-chemical measures such as solarisation, exposure to steam or hot water, and crop rotation.

The National Ozone Unit of the Ministry of Environment initiated action to phase out Methyl Bromide in tea plantations over a dozen years ago. The Tea Research Institute (TRI), working with tea plantation companies, found some environmentally friendly alternatives. The Registrar of Pesticides, the state regulator for all agro-chemicals, was also consulted.

In fact, the search for substitutes started in the mid 1990s when the Ministry of Environment alerted the TRI about on-going discussions at Montreal Protocol meetings about controlling Methyl Bromide.

Perceptive officials realised how the highly technical discussions being held in far away places could one day affect how Ceylon Tea was grown and marketed.

Dr Janaka Ratnasiri, then head of the Ministry’s Montreal Protocol Unit, recalls negotiations at Montreal Protocol meetings in the late 1990s. “We had to persuade other countries to get tea included in the list of crops eligible for research funding to eliminate Methyl Bromide. Initially only five other crops – grown mainly in the west – were on that list.”

To make matters more difficult, no other tea-growing country was using this chemical. But his ‘scientific diplomacy’ worked, and Sri Lanka’s case to add tea to the crop list was accepted.

In 1995, the TRI responded with a proposal to research for substitutes. Initial funding support came from the Norwegian aid agency NORAD. The Multilateral Fund of the Montreal Protocol, set up to assist developing countries in protecting ozone, helped continue that research and field testing.

“TRI scientists, led by Ms Sushila Vitarana, worked with meagre sums of money and came out with several recommendations for adoption by the tea plantations,” says Dr Ratnasiri.

Many Hands, One Aim

During the past few years, all Sri Lankan tea plantations – large and small – have gradually introduced substitutes to Methyl Bromide. For example, plantations owned by Sri Lanka’s Dilmah Tea, among the top five global tea brands, have switched to using Basamid-Granular for soil fumigation.

“Although the new methodology is cumbersome, our plantations have adopted it unreservedly in order to reduce the damage to ozone layer,” says Dilhan C Fernando, marketing director of Dilmah Tea.

It was the partnership between policy makers, researchers, tea plantation companies and the development donors that enabled the Sri Lankan tea industry to wean itself from a decades-long dependence on a trusted chemical.

Janaka Gunawardana, Director of the National Ozone Unit with ozone friendly Ceylon Tea
“This is a good example of public-private partnership (PPP),” says Janaka Gunawardana, Director of the National Ozone Unit. “It was with the support from the private sector tea plantation companies that Sri Lanka was able to eliminate Methyl Bromide use. And now, we are using this environmentally responsible conduct to enhance the brand value of Ceylon Tea worldwide.”

“Public-private partnerships are very helpful in implementing international treaties such as the Montreal Protocol,” says Gunawardana. “They can be challenging at times, but we want to build up more collaborations with the private sector.”

The Tea Board aims to have all tea exports displaying the ozone friendly logo by end 2012.

“All tea grown in Sri Lanka is now 100% ozone-friendly. This is a distinction of which no other tea-producing nation can boast,” says the Tea Board website,

It adds: “When you reach for a cup of Ceylon Tea, you’re not just refreshing yourself; you’re also helping refresh and renew an environmental resource critically important to all life on Earth.”

From Ceylon with Love: Tea for the Titanic?

This short feature was published in The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) of 15 April 2012. However, for some reason, their web edition didn’t include it.

A poster for A Night to Remember, 1958

From Ceylon with Love: Tea for the Titanic?

by Nalaka Gunawardene

Many consider the 1958 British movie A Night to Remember as the most authentic Titanic film of all time. Directed by Roy Ward Baker, it was based on the 1955 book of the same name by Walter Lord, and made in consultation with many survivors.

One scene unfolds inside the turbine engine room soon after the crew realised their ship was doomed. The chief engineer discusses how to keep the lights going for as long as possible. “I’ll give the word when it’s time to go — and then it’s every man for himself,” he says.

His deputy tries to calm down the crewmen: “If any of you feel like praying, you’d better go ahead. The rest of you can join me for a cup of tea!”

Even in such dire circumstances, the quintessentially British habit kept them going. But what kind of tea was served on board the Titanic? Did some of it come from Ceylon? That is plausible, given the cosmopolitan nature of the floating city and diverse tastes of its wealthy passengers.

Harney & Sons Fine Teas, a tea blender in New York, recently launched RMS Titanic Tea Blend as “a commemorative tea to honour the 100th anniversary of those who perished when the Titanic sank”. Their website says: “Reflecting the quality of tea that was served on the Titanic, this blend includes Chinese Keemun, one of the last teas the British still consumed in 1912, as Britain had mostly switched to black teas from Assam, India and Ceylon.” (see for more).

Perhaps an aficionado of tea could dig (dive?) deep for evidence. Interestingly, Sir Arthur C Clarke once wrote a science fiction thriller where Ceylon Tea was indeed on board the Titanic — albeit for a different purpose.

In his 1990 novel The Ghost from the Grand Banks — where British-American and Japanese teams are competing to raise the wreck in time for the centenary — he imagined how crates of Ceylon Tea were used as the perfect packing material for precious and fragile cargo.

“The Chinese had discovered centuries ago that their wares could travel safely the length of the Silk Road if they were packed in tea leaves. No one found anything better until polystyrene foam came along,” he wrote.

In Clarke’s story, which culminates in 2012, a wealthy English aristocrat travelling first class had carried exquisite glassware – Medici Goblets from Venice – packed in standard 80-pound Ceylon Tea chests. Nearly a century later, his great-grandson uses deep remote operating vehicles (ROVs) to recover some from the bottom of the Atlantic.

Clarke describes the first item that came up: “The chest still displayed, in stencilled lettering unfaded after a century in the abyss, a somewhat baffling inscription: BROKEN ORANGE PECKOE, UPPER GLENNCAIRN ESTATE, MATAKELLE.”

Despite journeying across (most of) the Atlantic and then sinking four kilometres to the bottom of the sea, the glassware is found intact – thanks to the ship’s designers or the tea producers (or both)…

William MacQuitty
Clarke was well known for plugging his adopted homeland whenever possible in his writing, public speaking and global TV shows. ‘Addicted’ to the brew, he once called himself a ‘machine that turned fine Ceylon Tea into science fiction’.

In his novel’s acknowledgements, Clarke highlights another link between the Titanic and Ceylon, this time for real. William MacQuitty (1905 – 2004), the Belfast-born writer, photographer and filmmaker who produced A Night to Remember, had been based in Ceylon in the 1930s working for the Standard Chartered Bank. He returned to the island in 1954 to produce Beachcomber, a British movie that was partly shot on location here.

Having drawn much inspiration and insights from A Night to Remember, Clarke dedicated his own novel as follows: “For my old friend Bill MacQuitty – who, as a boy, witnessed the launch of RMS Titanic, and, forty-five years later, sank her for the second time.”