Do Journalist By-lines matter in Paradise? Three of us anxiously waited to find out…

To keep up with the silly season, here’s another photo taken in July 2011 in…well, read the sign behind us.

Waiting to be let in – surely they know our bylines? L to R – Nalaka Gunawardene, Kunda Dixit, Darryl D’Monte – Maldives, May 2011

PS: It’s actually in the Maldives, where fellow journalists Kunda Dixit, Darryl D’Monte and I were working hard to earn an honest living at a regional meeting on ozone and climate. Yes, we were let in — and we liked the salubrious settings…

L to R – Nalaka Gunawardene, Darryl D’Monte & Kunda Dixit in Paradise, May 2011

The Last Filming? Mystery of Missing Science Writer and Cameraman finally solved…

Taste the Waste: Uncovering a crime against humanity and Nature

Opening the lid...

“How can we explain the fact that one sixth of humanity goes to bed hungry every night, when the world already produces enough food for all?

“The short answer is that there are serious anomalies in the distribution of food. Capricious and uncaring market forces prevent millions of people from having at least one decent meal a day, while others have an abundance of it. For the first time in history, the number of severely malnourished persons now equals the number suffering from over-consumption: about a billion each!”

That was the opening of an article on the future of food, co-authored by Sir Arthur Clarke and myself in 2000. It was circulated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to mark World Food Day that year, and was reproduced in 2008 in The Hindu newspaper, India.

Nearly a decade after we wrote those words, the situation hasn’t really improved. There still are a billion people for whom chronic hunger is a grim fact of life. About 25,000 people die of hunger every day. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the number of obese people has grown to 1.5 billion.

Talk about a world of contrast and disparity!

Here’s more shocking news: we routinely throw away half of all food produced in this world. Between plough and plate, or from farms to homes, we waste almost as much food as we eat.

Eyes Wide Shut?
Many countries don’t have the slightest idea how much is wasted. Britain made an effort to measure the waste pile and came to a staggering 15 million tons of food a year. This includes 484 million unopened tubs of yoghurt, 1.6 billion untouched apples, bananas worth £370 million and 2.6 billion slices of bread.

In his recent book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, Tristram Stuart documented the extent of waste in the food industry worldwide.

Taste the Waste is a new documentary film linked to an online campaign that shows us what is being thrown away: where, why, when and by whom.

The film maker turned campaigner, Valentin Thurn, has come up with one more reason why we should stem this callous waste: “Cutting food waste is an easy solution to reduce climate emissions and hunger,” he says.

Reducing food waste means a big opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – if we threw away only half of the avoidable waste, the consequences for the climate would be the same as taking one out of five cars off our roads.

It would also help the hungry, because they also depend on the global food cycle. Cash crops from all over the world are traded on the stock exchange. The agricultural resources on this planet are limited. The farmland taken up to produce the food that we throw away could instead be producing food for them.

Young activists protest against this situation by rescuing the wasted food. People eating rubbish – a habit that sounds disgusting until you see the loads of perfectly edible food in the bins of your supermarket or sandwich shop around the corner.

Thurn’s call to action: “We need your help! Go out, look around and tell us about the food in the bins where you live. Send texts, photos, videos, and help to reveal the huge scandal of how we are wasting food.”

Watch the film’s trailer on YouTube:

According to the latest FAO figures, there are more hungry people in the Asia Pacific (642 million) than all other regions combined. This is followed by Sub-Saharan Africa (265 million), Latin America and the Caribbean (53 million), and the Near East and North Africa (42 million). Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest percentages of people living in hunger, while the Middle East and North Africa saw the most rapid growth in the number of hungry people (13.5%) during 2008.

The UN’s definition of hunger is based on the number of calories consumed. Depending on the relative age and gender ratios of a given country, the cutoff varies between 1,600 and 2,000 calories a day.

Starting in 2008, activist groups worldwide observe 16 October as World Foodless Day. Their argument: World Food Day is a mockery and is much better named World Foodless Day.

It’s a day of global action on the crises that beleaguer the people. The objectives are to: “create public awareness and media attention on the root causes of the food crisis; provide policy recommendations and organize meetings with government officials, opinion makers and leaders; organise activities to raise our voices against neoliberal policies and their impact; and highlight people’s recommendations to respond to the world food crisis.”

Watch PAN-Asia Pacific’s video for World Foodless Day 2008:

Read an excellent review of Tristram Stuart’s book: Watching our wasteline, By Darryl D’Monte

Linking ‘weather’ to ‘climate’: Journalists’ big challenge then…and now!

L to R - Nalaka Gunawardene, Jesper Zolk and Bahar Dutt
At IFEJ 2009 Congress on 28 Oct 2009: From L to R: Nalaka Gunawardene, Jesper Zolk and Bahar Dutt

I used to describe my job as one where I try to make sense of our topsy-turvy world. But I’d happily settle for the simpler description ‘connecting the dots’. This is what we as journalists covering development issues must do everyday in our work:
• link the macro with the micro; and
• find inter-relationships and inter-dependencies that aren’t always very self-evident.

This reminds of me a piece of advice given by the late Tarzie Vittachi (1921-1993), the Sri Lankan-born journalist and editor who was a pioneer in development journalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Long before climate change became an issue, he was speaking metaphorically to fellow journalists when he said: “Ordinary people live and work in the day-to -day weather. Most can’t relate to long-term climate. It’s our job, as journalists, to make those links clear.”

When Tarzie made this remark, some three decades ago, he was speaking metaphorically. Times have changed and now we are literally dealing with weather and climate issues.

Making those links is not always easy, especially if we want to avoid sensationalism, scare-mongering and other excesses that often characterize media coverage on climate change.

I made these observations when chairing a session on the North-South differences in the electronic media (television) coverage of climate change in New Delhi, India, this week. It was part of the latest international congress of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), held at India Habitat Centre from 28 to 30 October 2009. Its theme was “Bridging North-South Differences in Reporting Climate Change: Journalists’ role in Reaching an Ambitious Agreement at COP15 in Copenhagen”.

Participants – over 100 journalists covering science and environmental issues, from all over the world – recognised how climate concerns have extended beyond strict environmental (or ‘green’) issues to mainstream political, business and even security coverage in the media.

Joining me on the TV panel were two experienced journalists from news and current affairs channels — Jesper Zolk, Climate Editor of TV2 News, Denmark, and Bahar Dutt, Environment Editor of CNN/IBN, India.

As it turned out, they were a great panel – they knew a lot, and being TV journalists, also knew how to say it well and concisely. This was the second time that Bahar – one of the best known faces on Indian television today – and I have been on a panel together: almost four years ago, at IFEJ Congress 2005, also in New Delhi, she joined me to discuss ‘Does TV do a better job on environmental reporting?’

I opened my panel by showing this cartoon, one of my favourite when it comes to climate coverage in the media:

Can we blame him for the confusion?
Can we blame him for the confusion?

We cannot assume much more knowledge and understanding in our average TV viewer than the confused guy in this cartoon, I said. So just how do we reach out and engage millions like him (and also the better informed viewers like his fellow viewer)? How do we tell this complex, still unfolding story within the time limits of 24/7 news television, I asked.

We didn’t find all the answers in 75 minutes of our session, but at least we clarified and agreed on a few points. Bahar Dutt’s observations were particularly relevant, especially since India now has over 500 news and current affairs TV channels broadcasting to a billion plus audience in over a dozen languages.

At a time when mainstream media elsewhere in the world are struggling to stay on in business, the Indian broadcast media remain ‘chaotic but robust’, she said. “But editorial filtering is not always very strong in some of our channels, which sees climate coverage ranging from no coverage at all to hysteria,” she added.

According to Bahar, much of the climate coverage in the Indian media overlooks the links with broader development issues. “Focus is often on climate treaty negotiations, or what individual experts or politicians say. These elements are only part of the bigger picture, and we need to look further and dig deeper.”

Bahar Dutt
Bahar Dutt at IFEJ 2009
“Environmental journalists are not green activists, and our role is to be watchdogs – keeping a sharp eye on government, industry and even civil society,” Bahar said. “But sometimes I find this watchdog role lacking in our media.”

Her advice to fellow journalists: stop seeing environment as simply a green and ‘cuddly’ sector, and move it into the political arena.

Jesper Zolk, Climate Editor of Denmark’s TV2 News, said his biggest challenge was how to get the pampered western viewers to change their lifestyles to be more climate friendly.

He urged journalists to focus not just on problems, but also on viable solutions. He expressed a concern that some journalists covering environmental issues sound more like green activists — a point that Bahar Dutt also agreed on.

She made another perceptive observation: people who have the least carbon footprint are the most keen to take action to mitigate climate change. That’s because they realise they are often the first to be impacted.

Our genial and erudite host Darryl D’Monte, chair of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI), had earlier asked participants to reflect on whether the media is part of the problem or the solution in the current crisis.

On the road to Copenhagen and beyond, we have our work cut out for us. As the Danish Ambassador to India, Ole Lønsmann Poulsen, quoted John F Kennedy in his opening remarks as saying: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”

A, B, C and E of good journalism: Reporting as if the planet and people mattered

Candid weather reporting?
Candid weather reporting?

“Environmental journalism would be a whole lot better if it had more of the three Ss: science, substance and (good) stories. First and last, it has to be good journalism, and that requires accuracy, balance and credibility. Trying to save the world – as some environmental journalists claim to do – does not give them a license to indulge in sloppy journalism, or to peddle conspiracy theories or half-truths.”

This has been my view on environmental journalism for sometime. Several years ago, my good friend (and former editor, The Times of India) Darryl D’Monte quoted me as saying this in UNEP’s Our Planet magazine while surveying the environmental coverage in the media in developing countries.

I reiterated these views today in a talk given to an international group of environmental journalists. The occasion was the 18th APFEJ Congress of Environmental Journalists being held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from 19 to 21 October 2009.

My topic was a familiar one: Changing climate and moving images. I used it as a spring board from which to explore some broader issues that concerns every journalist who cares for life on Earth.

I returned to the time-honoured core values of good journalism – Accuracy, Balance and Credibility – and suggested we need one more letter, E – for Empathy. Without this latter attribute, our reportage and analysis would remain clinically cold while the planet warms up, I cautioned.

I also reflected on what it means to be an ‘environmental journalist’ in our troubled times.

For several years, I proudly called myself an ‘environmental journalist’. But I now question whether the growth of environmental journalism as a media specialisation has, inadvertently, ghettoised environmental issues within the editorial considerations of media organisations.

This is not to argue against media professionals specialising in environment or other development sectors such as health, gender or human rights. As issues become more complicated, journalists require sufficient background knowledge, sustained interest and some specialisation to do their job well. But it’s poor strategy to leave sustainable development issues entirely in the hands of ‘environmental journalists’.

At best, they can only weave part of the much-nuanced, multi-faceted tapestry of sustainable development. To grasp that bigger picture, and to communicate it well, we need the informed and active participation of the entire media industry -– from reporters, feature writers and producers to editors, managers and media owners.

Climate change, rapidly emerging as the charismatic mega-issue of our troubled times, could become a rallying call to unify the media and communication industries for this purpose.

Already, there is recognition of climate change’s far-reaching impacts. the UN’s Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change urged a couple of years ago for the global issue to be ‘re-branded’ as a development problem rather than an environmental one.

In this scenario, we urgently need more good journalism that covers sustainable development concerns as an integral part of the mainstream of human affairs. Noble intentions of saving endangered species or ecosystems do not give anyone the license to engage in shoddy journalism.

The pursuit of plain good journalism will make us:
• rigorous in our field investigations and amassing of facts;
• balanced in our analysis of issues, impacts, choices and alternatives;
• committed to staying with evolving, fast-moving stories; and
• adaptable to accommodating new perspectives and knowledge.

It will also give us the courage of our convictions to question conventional ‘wisdom’, challenge established notions and take unfashionable positions when we have to.

April 2007 blog post: Can journalists save the planet?

From City of God to Slumdog Millionaire: Filming ‘underbelly’ of nations…

From 'Slumdog Millionaire'
From 'Slumdog Millionaire'

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

In his long years of journalism in India, my friend Darryl D’Monte had faced all sorts of questions and situations. But this was one question that stunned and left him speechless for a while.

A visiting Canadian TV crew made this request in the 1970s, when Darryl was resident editor of The Times of
. He was giving them some insights on the extent of poverty in his city of Bombay, since renamed as Mumbai. The crew had heard of the deliberate maiming of street children, before being employed as beggars. A disabled child would evoke more sympathy, increasing the daily collection for gangsters operating them from behind the scenes.

Darryl wasn’t willing to be associated with this ‘staging’. “Well, it’s going to happen anyway,” was the film crew’s cynical answer.

Now, fast forward 30 years to the present. At one point in the British-Indian movie Slumdog Millionaire, we see a young girl being blinded by a gangster who shelters and feeds a small army of children — all unleashed on Mumbai on a daily basis to tug at the heart strings of its teeming millions.

The film’s protagonist Jamal escapes the same fate by making a mad dash for freedom with his brother, Salim. But years later, they cross the gangster’s path again, with devastating results – for him.

Look what I've started...
Vikas Swarup: Look what I've started...
Set and filmed in India, Slumdog Millionaire is the story of a young uneducated man from the slums of Mumbai who appears on the Indian TV’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (Kaun Banega Crorepati) and does so well to reach the final question that the game show host and the police suspect him of cheating.

Some Indians feel their country’s ugly underbelly has been magnified by locating and filming part of the story in the slums of Mumbai. But director Danny Boyle, who sees his film as a Dickensian tale, says he shot in real, gritty locations “to show the beauty and ugliness and sheer unpredictability” of the city.

Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, who wrote the 2005 novel Q and A on which the movie is based, has a similar view. “This isn’t social critique,” he told The Guardian in an interview. “It’s a novel written by someone who uses what he finds to tell a story. I don’t have firsthand experience of betting on cricket or rape or murder. I don’t know if it’s true that there are beggar masters who blind children to make them more effective when they beg on the streets. It may be an urban myth, but it’s useful to my story.”

To me, Slumdog Millionaire feels like a cross between the acclaimed Brazilian slum movie City of God (Portuguese name: Cidade de Deus, 2002) and Quiz Show, the 1994 American historical drama film about TV quiz scandals in the 1950s.

City of God (2002) was filmed in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro
City of God (2002) was filmed in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro

City of God is a Brazilian crime drama film directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, released in its home country in 2002 and worldwide in 2003. It was adapted by Bráulio Mantovani from the 1997 novel of the same name written by Paulo Lins.

The film’s depiction of narcotic drug rings, hold-ups, street violence and police corruption may not have been what the upper middle class Brazilians wanted to showcase to the rest of the world, but the film’s stark if grisly authenticity resonated with movie audiences around the world. Most of the actors were residents of favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro, such as Vidigal and the Cidade de Deus itself. City of God became one of the highest-grossing foreign films released in the United States up to that time.

The makers of Slumdog Millionaire adopted a similar approach. Its co-director Loveleen Tandan says she likes to get as close to reality as possible. This drove her to the slums of East Bandra to look for young children who resembled the protagonists in the story.

As she recalled in a recent interview with Tehelka: “I was very keen to get real slum kids, which is why I convinced them (producers) to do one-third of the scenes in Hindi. I made a scratch tape with real street kids. The team was surprised that Hindi actually made it brighter and more alive.”

Indeed, Slumdog doesn’t feel like a ‘foreign film’ despite it having a fair number of English subtitles, which only enhance the overall cinematic experience.

But how realistic should films try to become, before the local realities are distorted or local sensibilities are affected? Where does documentary end and drama begin? These questions will continue to be debated across India and elsewhere while Slumdog enthralls millions on its first theatrical release.

Feature film makers can exercise their creative license far more than factual film makers. I doubt if the creators of authentic, close-to-the-ground movies like City of God and Slumdog Millionaire set out with any specific social agenda. They are in the business of entertainment, and just happen to find plenty of drama in real life in places like urban slums. We might argue that in the right hands, dramatised movies can draw mass attention to development issues and challenges far more effectively than the often dull and dreary documentaries.

Eyes wide open
Kalpana Sharma: Eyes wide open
“If through (the movie) the world gets a peek at an India inhabited by millions of people who continue to live their lives without clean water, sanitation or electricity, what is the problem?” asks another Indian friend and long-time Mumbai resident Kalpana Sharma.

In a perceptive essay titled Shantytowns of the Mind, written in The Indian Express in early January 2009 before she saw the film, Kalpana flagged important concerns: “Slumdog Millionaire’s success raises some deeper questions. How do we depict poverty as writers, filmmakers, journalists? Is it fair to expect us all the time to give a full, balanced, sensitive portrayal? Or is it inevitable that we write, film, for our audiences? And if, as a byproduct, people are sensitized, so be it. Also, if they are annoyed, so be it. If we are considered exploitative, so be it.”

Kalpana speaks with authority, and not just because she lives in the megacity of Mumbai (population: 13 million and rising) which, she points out, is half made up of slums. In 2000, she wrote a book titled Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum. Far from being a cold, clinical analysis of facts, figures and trends, it’s a book about the extraordinary people who live there, “many of whom have defied fate and an unhelpful State to prosper through a mix of backbreaking work, some luck and a great deal of ingenuity”.

Kalpana ends her essays with these words: “In the end you realise as a writer, a journalist or a filmmaker, that the best you can do is to shine a torch, a searchlight, on an entrenched problem. But the solution will not be found merely by that illumination. For that, there are many more steps to be taken.

Slumdog Millionaire has focused its lens on the children of India’s slums through a work of fiction. What we do to change their future is the non-fiction that has yet to be written.”

Read Shantytowns of the Mind by Kalpana Sharma, Indian Express, 14 January 2009

India rising...but not for all slumdogs?
India rising...but not for all slumdogs?