සිවුමංසල කොලුගැටයා #284: දකුණු ආසියානු රජයන්ගේ මාධ්‍ය මර්දනයේ සියුම් මුහුණුවර හඳුනා ගනිමු

East-West Center 2016 International Media Conference in New Delhi, India, from September 8 to 11, 2016

East-West Center 2016 International Media Conference in New Delhi, India, from September 8 to 11, 2016

In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala, appearing in the print issue of 18 Sep 2016), I discuss new forms of media repression being practised by governments in South Asia.

The inspiration comes from my participation in the Asia Media Conference organized by the Hawaii-based East-West Center in New Delhi, India, from September 8 to 11, 2016. Themed “South Asia Looking East”, it drew over 350 participants from across Asia and the United States.

Speeches and discussions showed how governments are more concerned about international media rights watch groups tracking the imprisonment and physical harassment of media and journalists. So their tactics of repression have changed to unleash bureaucratic and legal harassment on untamed and unbowed journalists. And also to pressurising advertisers to withdraw.

Basically this is governments trying to break the spirit and commercial viability of free media instead of breaking the bones of outspoken journalists. And it does have a chilling effect…

In this column, I focus on two glaring examples that were widely discussed at the Delhi conference.

In recent months, leading Bangladeshi editor Mahfuz Anam has been sued simultaneously across the country in 68 cases of defamation and 18 cases of sedition – all by supporters of the ruling party. Anam was one of six exceptional journalists honoured during the Delhi conference “for their personal courage in the face of threats, violence and harassment”.

In August, an announcement was made on the impending suspension of regional publication of Himal Southasian, a pioneering magazine promoting ‘cross-border journalism’ in the South Asian region. The reason was given as “due to non-cooperation by regulatory state agencies in Nepal that has made it impossible to continue operations after 29 years of publication”.

Bureaucracy is pervasive across South Asia, and when they implement commands of their political masters, they become formidable threats to media freedom and freedom of expression. Media rights watch groups, please note.

”බලවත් රජයක් හා ස්වාධීන මාධ්‍ය අතර ගැටුමකදී නිරන්තරයෙන්ම පාහේ මුල් වට කිහිපය ජය ගන්නේ රජයයි. බලපෑම් හා පීඩන කළ හැකි යාන්ත්‍රණ රැසක් රජය සතු නිසා. එහෙත් අන්තිමේදී ස්වාධීන මාධ්‍ය ජය ලබනවා!”

”කියවන විට ලිවීම සිය මාධ්‍ය කලාව ලෙස නිර්වචනය කර ගත් කීකරු මාධ්‍යවලට නම් කිසිදු රටක රජයකින් හෝ වෙනත් බල කේන‍ද්‍රවලින් තාඩන පීඩන එල්ල වන්නේ නැහැ. එහෙත් එසේ නොකරන, පොදු උන්නතිය වෙනුවෙන් පෙනී සිටින මාධ්‍යවලට (free press) පන්න පන්නා හිරිහැර කරන සැටි දේශපාලකයන් මෙන්ම නිලධාරී තන්ත්‍රය හොඳහැටි දන්නවා. හීලෑ කර ගත නොහැකි මාධ්‍යවේදීන් හා කතුවරුන් හිරේ දැමීම, ඔවුන්ට පහරදීම හෝ මරා දැමීම බරපතළ ලෝක විවේචනයට ලක් වන නිසා ඊට වඩා සියුම් අන්දමින් මාධ්‍යවලට හිරිහැර කිරීමට දකුණු ආසියානු ආණ්ඩු දැන් නැඹුරු වී සිටිනවා, මාධ්‍ය නිදහසට එල්ල වන ප්‍රකට තර්ජන (භෞතික ප්‍රහාර හා නිල ප්‍රවෘත්ති පාලනයන්) ගැන ඇස යොමා ගෙන සිටින ජාත්‍යන්තර ආයතනවලට පවා මේවා හරිහැටි ග්‍රහණය වන්නේ නැහැ!”

මේ වටිනා විග්‍රහයන්ට මා සවන් දුන්නේ 2016 සැප්තැම්බර් 8-11 දින කිහිපය තුළ ඉන්දියාවේ නවදිල්ලියේ පැවති ජාත්‍යන්තර මාධ්‍ය සමුළුවකදී (East-West Center 2016 International Media Conference).  අමෙරිකාවේ හවායිහි පිහිටි ඊස්ට්-ටෙස්ට් කේන‍ද්‍රය තවත් කලාපීය හා ඉන්දීය පාර්ශ්වකරුවන් සමග සංවිධානය කළ මේ සමුළුවට රටවල් හතළිහකින් පමණ 350කට වැඩි මාධ්‍යවේදී පිරිසක් සහභාගි වුණා.

මා එහි ගියේ ආරාධිත කථීකයෙක් හා එක් සැසි වාරයක මෙහෙයවන්නා ලෙසින්.

තොරතුරු අයිතිය, විද්‍යුත් ආවේක්ෂණය, සමාජ මාධ්‍ය, ගවේෂණාත්මක මාධ්‍යකරණය, පාරිසරික වාර්තාකරණය ආදී විවිධ තේමා යටතේ සැසිවාර හා සාකච්ඡා රැසක් තිබුණත් වැඩිපුරම අවධානය යොමු වුණේ මාධ්‍ය නිදහසට එල්ල වන පීඩන හා තර්ජන ගැනයි.

මෙය දේශපාලන සංවාදයකට සීමා නොවී මාධ්‍යවල වෘත්තියභාවය, ආචාරධර්මීය ක්‍රියා කලාපය හා මාධ්‍ය-රජය තුලනය ආදී පැතිකඩද කතාබහ කෙරුණා.

Mahfuz Anam speaks at East West Center Media Conference in Delhi

Mahfuz Anam speaks at East West Center Media Conference in Delhi

සමුළුවේ ප්‍රධාන භූමිකාවන් රඟපෑවේ (සහ මාධ්‍ය නිදහස උදෙසා අරගල කිරීම සඳහා පිරිනැමුණු විශේෂ සම්මානයක් හිමි කර ගත්තේ) මෆූස් අනාම් (Mahfuz Anam) මාධ්‍යවේදියායි.ඔහු බංග්ලාදේශයේ අද සිටින ජ්‍යෙෂ්ඨතම එසේම ලොව පිළිගත් පුවත්පත් කතුවරයෙක්. කලක් යුනෙස්කෝ සංවිධානයේ තනතුරක් හෙබ වූ ඔහු සියරට ආවේ මාධ්‍ය ක්ෂේත්‍රයේ සක්‍රිය වීමටයි.

ඔහු එරට මුල්පෙළේ පුවත්පතක් වන Daily Star කතුවරයා මෙන්ම ප්‍රකාශකයාද වනවා. ඩේලි ස්ටාර් බංගල්දේශයේ වඩාත්ම අලෙවි වන ඉංග්‍රීසි පුවත්පතයි. එය මීට වසර 25කට පෙර අනාම් ඇරඹුවේ එරට මිලිටරි පාලනයකින් යළිත් ප්‍රජාතන්ත්‍රවාදී මාවතට පිවිසි පසුවයි.

ප්‍රජාතන්ත්‍රවාදය, පුරවැසි අයිතිවාසිකම්, විවෘත ආණ්ඩුකරණය හා රාජ්‍ය විනිවිදභාවය වැනි පරමාදර්ශයන් වෙනුවෙන් ඔහුත්, ඔහුගේ පුවත්පතත් කවදත් පෙනී සිටිනවා.

බංග්ලාදේශයේ අතිශයින් ධ්‍රැවීකරණය වී ඇති පක්ෂ දේශපාලනය ඔහු විවෘතවම විවේචනය කරනවා. මේ නිසා දේශපාලකයන් ඔහුට කැමති නැහැ. මීට පෙරද නොයෙක් පීඩනයන් එල්ල වුවත් ඔහුගේ මාධ්‍ය කලාවට ලොකුම තර්ජනය මතු වී ඇත්තේ ෂේක් හසීනා වත්මන් අගමැතිනියගේ රජයෙන්.

බලයේ සිටින ඕනෑම රජයක් සහේතුකව විවේචනය කිරීම අනාම්ගේ ප්‍රතිපත්තියයි. අධිපතිවාදී රාජ්‍ය පාලනයක් ගෙන යන හසීනා අගමැතිනියට මෙය කිසිසේත් රුස්සන්නේ නැහැ. ඇය, ඇගේ ආන්දෝලනාත්මක පුත්‍රයා හා දේශපාලන අනුගාමිකයන් ඩේලි ස්ටාර් පත්‍රයට හිරිහැර කිරීමට පටන් ගත්තේ මීට වසර 3කට පමණ පෙරයි.

එහෙත් එය උත්සන්න වූයේ 2016 පෙබරවාරියේ. එරට ටෙලිවිෂන් නාලිකාවක් සමඟ කළ සාකච්ඡාවකදී අනාම් එක්තරා පාපෝච්චාරණයක් කළා. වත්මන් අගමැතිනිය 2007දී විපක්ෂ නායිකාව ලෙස සිටියදී ඇයට එරෙහිව මතු වූ දුෂණ චෝදනා සිය පුවත්පතේ පළ කිරීම ගැන ඔහු කණගාටුව ප්‍රකාශ කළා.

එවකට එරට පාලනය කළේ හමුදාව විසින් පත් කළ,  ඡන්දයකින් නොතේරුණු රජයක්. එම රජය හසීනා අගමැතිනියට එරෙහිව මතු කළ දූෂණ චෝදනා, නිසි විමර්ශනයකින් තොරව සිය පත්‍රයේ පළ කිරීම කර්තෘ මණ්ඩල අභිමතය අනිසි ලෙස භාවිත කිරීමක් (poor editorial judgement) බව ඔහු ප්‍රසිද්ධියේ පිළිගත්තා.

එම දූෂණ චෝදනා එරට වෙනත් බොහෝ මාධ්‍යද එවකට පළ කරන ලද නමුත් මෙසේ කල් ගත වී හෝ ඒ ගැන පසුතැවීමක් සිදු කර ඇත්තේ ඩේලි ස්ටාර් කතුවරයා පමණයි.

කතුවරුන් යනු අංග සම්පූර්ණ මිනිසුන් නොවෙයි. ඔවුන් අතින් ද වැරදි සිදු වනවා. ඒවා පිළිගෙන සමාව අයැද සිටීම අගය කළ යුත්තක්.

එහෙත් මේ  පාපොච්චාරණයෙන් හසීනා පාක්ෂිකයෝ දැඩි කෝපයට පත් වූවා. මහජන ඡන්දයෙන් නොව බලහත්කාරයෙන් බලයේ සිටි රජයක් එකල විපක්ෂ නායිකාවට කළ චෝදනා පත්‍රයේ පළ කිරීම ඇය දේශපාලනයෙන් ඉවත් කිරීමට කළ කුමන්ත්‍රණයක කොටසක් බව ඔවුන් තර්ක කළා.

අනාම් මේ තර්කය ප්‍රතික්ෂේප කරනවා. 2007-8 හමුදාමය රජයට එරෙහිව තමන් කතුවැකි 203ක් ලියමින් ප්‍රජාතන්ත්‍රවාදය යළි ස්ථාපිත කරන මෙන් ඉල්ලා සිටි බව ඔහු මතක් කරනවා. එසේම දූෂණ චෝදනා මත හසීනා අත්අඩංගුවට ගත් විට එයට එරෙහිව ප්‍රබල විරෝධතා මතු කළේත් තම පත්‍රය බව ඔහු කියනවා. (2008දී හසීනාගේ අවාමි ලීගය යළි බලයට පත් වූ විට එම චෝදනා සියල්ල කිසිදු  විභාග කිරීමකින් තොරව අත්හැර දමනු ලැබුවා.)

Mahfuz Anam, center, the editor of The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s most popular English-language newspaper, outside a court in Rangpur District, March 2016

Mahfuz Anam, center, the editor of The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s most popular English-language newspaper, outside a court in Rangpur District, March 2016 [Photo courtesy The New York Times]

පෙබරවාරි ටෙලිවිෂන් සාකච්ඡාවෙන් පසු සති කිහිපයක් තුළ රටේ විවිධ ප්‍රදේශවල උසාවිවල අනාම්ට එරෙහිව අපහාස නඩු හා රාජ්‍ය ද්‍රෝහිත්වය (sedition) අරභයා නඩු දුසිම් ගණනක් ගොනු කරනු ලැබුවා. මේ එකම නඩුවකටවත් බංග්ලාදේශ රජය සෘජුව සම්බන්ධ නැහැ. නඩු පැමිණිලිකරුවන් වන්නේ හසීනාගේ පාක්ෂිකයෝ.

මේ වන විට අපහාස නඩු 68ක් හා රාජ්‍ය ද්‍රෝහිත්වයට එරෙහි  නඩු 18ක් විභාග වෙමින් තිබෙනවා. මේවාට පෙනී සිටීමට රට වටේ යාමටත් වග උත්තර බැඳීමටත් ඔහුට සිදුව තිබෙනවා.

නඩු පැවරීමට අමතරව වෙනත් උපක්‍රම හරහාද තම පත්‍රයට හිරිහැර කරන බව අනාම් හෙළි කළා. පත්‍රයට නිතිපතා දැන්වීම් ලබා දෙන ප්‍රධාන පෙළේ සමාගම් රැසක් රාජ්‍ය බලපෑම් හමුවේ නොකැමැත්තෙන් වුවත් එය නතරකොට තිබෙනවා. මේ නිසා ඩේලිස්ටාර් දැන්වීම් ආදායම 40%කින් පහත වැටිලා.

”එහෙත් මධ්‍යම හා කුඩා පරිමානයේ දැන්වීම්කරුවන් දිගටම අපට දැන්වීම් දෙන බවට ප්‍රතිඥා දී තිබෙනවා. මේ ව්‍යාපාරිකයන්ගේ කැපවීම අගය කළ යුතුයි. ආණ්ඩු බලයට නතු නොවී, බිය නොවී, ස්වාධීන මාධ්‍යවලට අනුග්‍රහය දක්වන ව්‍යාපාර ඉතිරිව තිබීම අපට ලොකු සවියක්” අනාම් ප්‍රකාශ කළා.

කුඩා හා මධ්‍යම පරිමාන දැන්වීම් කරුවන්ට අමතරව බංගලාදේශයේ වෘත්තිකයන්, බුද්ධිමතුන් හා කලාකරුවන්ද ඩේලිස්ටාර් හා එහි කතුවරයා වෙනුවෙන් කථා කරනවා. සෙසු (තරඟකාරී) මාධ්‍ය කෙසේ වෙනත් මහජනයා මෙසේ ස්වාධීන මාධ්‍යවල නිදහස වෙනුවෙන් කථා කිරීම ඉතා වැදගත්.

මාධ්‍ය නිදහස රැකීමට වීදි උද්ඝෝෂණ කළාට පමණක් මදි. අන්තවාදීන්ගේ හා මර්දනකාරී ආණ්ඩුවල පීඩනයට ලක් වන මාධ්‍ය ආයතනවලට ප්‍රසිද්ධියේ සහාය දැක්වීම ද අවශ්‍යයි.

නවදිල්ලි සමුළුවේ අවධානයට ලක් වූ තවත් මාධ්‍ය මර්දනයක් නම් නේපාලයේ කත්මණ්ඩු අගනුවරින් පළ කැරෙන හිමාල් (Himal) සඟරාවේ අර්බුදයයි.

Kanak Mani Dixit (left) and Kunda Dixit struggling to save Himal South Asian magazine

Kanak Mani Dixit (left) and Kunda Dixit struggling to save Himal South Asian magazine

හිමාලයට සාමුහිකව හිමිකම් කියන භූතානය, ඉන්දියාව, නේපාලය, ටිබෙටය, පකිස්ථානය හා චීනය යන රටවල් කෙරෙහි මුලින් අවධානය යොමු කළ මේ ඉංග්‍රීසි සඟරාව, වසර කිහිපයකින් සමස්ත දකුණු ආසියාවම ආවරණය කැරෙන පරිදි Himal Southasian නමින් යළි නම් කළා.

සාක් කලාපයේ රටවල (විශේෂයෙන් ඉන්දියාවේ) හොඳ කාලීන පුවත් සඟරා ඇතත් දකුණු ආසියාව ගැන පොදුවේ කථා කරන එකම වාරික ප්‍රකාශනය මෙයයි. ජාතික දේශසීමාවලින් ඔබ්බට ගොස් සංසන්දනාත්මකව හා තුලනාත්මකව සමාජ, ආර්ථීක, දේශපාලනික හා සංස්කෘතික ප්‍රශ්න ගවේෂණය කිරීම දශක තුනක් තිස්සේ හිමාල් සඟරාව ඉතා හොඳින් සිදු කරනවා.

2016 අගෝස්තු 24 වනදා හිමාල් සඟරාවේ ප්‍රකාශකයන් වන දකුණු ආසියානු භාරය (Southasia Trust) විශේෂ නිවේදනයක් නිකුත් කරමින් කියා සිටියේ නේපාල රජයේ ආයතනවලින් දිගින් දිගටම මතුව ඇති බාධක හා අවහිර කිරීම් නිසා කණගාටුවෙන් නමුත් සඟරාව පළ කිරීම නතර කරන බවයි.

”හිමාල් නිහඬ කරනු ලබන්නේ නිල මාධ්‍ය වාරණයකින් හෝ සෘජු භෞතික පහරදීමකින් හෝ නොවෙයි. නිලධාරිවාදයේ දැඩි හස්තයෙන් අපට හිරිහැර කිරීමෙන්. කිසිදු දැනුම් දීමකින් හෝ චෝදනාවකින් තොරව අපට ලැබෙන ආධාර සියල්ල අප කරා ළඟා වීම වළක්වා තිබෙනවා. අපේ සියලු ගිණුම් වාර්තා ඉහළ මට්ටමක ඇති බවත්, සියලු කටයුතු නීත්‍යනුකූල බවත් රාජ්‍ය ආයතන සහතික කළත්, අපට එල්ල වන පරිපාලනමය බාධක අඩු වී හෝ නතර වී නැහැ” එම නිවේදනයේ සඳහන් වුණා.

වෘත්තීය කර්තෘ මණ්ඩලයක් මඟින් සංස්කරණය කැරෙන, ලිපි ලියන ලේඛකයන්ට ගරුසරු ඇතුව ගෙවීම් කරන, දැන්වීම් ඉතා සීමිත මේ සඟරාවේ නඩත්තු වියදම පියවා ගත්තේ දෙස් විදෙස් දානපති ආධාරවලින්. සඟරාවට ආධාර ළඟා වීම වැළැක්වීම හරහා එය හුස්ම හිරකර මරා දැමීම එහි විරද්ධවාදීන්ගේ උපක්‍රමයයි.

මෙසේ කරන්නේ ඇයි? හිමාල් සඟරාවේ ආරම්භකයා හා අද දක්වාත් සභාපතිවරයා නේපාල ක්‍රියාකාරීක හා මගේ දිගු කාලීන මිත්‍ර කනක් මානි ඩික්සිත් (Kanak Mani Dixit). 2012 අගෝස්තු 12 මගේ තීරු ලිපියෙන් සිංහල පාඨකයන්ට ඔහුගේ ප්‍රතිපත්තිමය අරගලයන් මා හඳුන්වා දුන්නා.

සිවුමංසල කොලූගැටයා #78: කනක් මානි ඩික්සිත් – හිමාල කඳු සොළවන පුංචි වැඩකාරයා

කනක්ගේ මාධ්‍ය විවේචන හමුවේ දැඩි ලෙසි උරණ වී ඔහුට නිලබලයෙන් පහර දීමට මූලිකව සිටින්නේ නේපාලයේ බලය අයථා ලෙස භාවිත කිරීම විමර්ශනය කරන රාජ්‍ය කොමිසමේ ප්‍රධානියා වන ලෝක්මාන් සිං කාර්කි.

2013 දී කාර්කි මේ තනතුරට පත් කරන විට ඔහු එයට නොසුදුසු බව කනක් ප්‍රසිද්ධියේ පෙන්වා දුන්නා. එහෙත් දේශපාලකයන් පත්වීම ස්ථීර කළ අතර එතැන් පටන් මේ නිලධාරීයා නිල බලය අයථා ලෙස යොදා ගනිමින් සිය විවේචකයන්ට හිරිහැර කිරීම ඇරඹුවා.

2016 අප්‍රේල් මාසයේ දූෂණ චෝදනා මත කනක් ඩික්සින් අත් අඩංගුවට ගෙන ටික දිනක් රඳවා තැබුණා. මේ ගැන එරට හා විදෙස් මාධ්‍ය හා මානව හිමිකම් සංවිධාන දැඩි විරෝධය පළ කළා. අන්තිමේදී කනක් සියලු චෝදනාවලට නිදොස් කොට නිදහස් කරනු ලැබුවේ නේපාල ශ්‍රේෂ්ඨාධිකරණය විසින්.

කනක්ට සෘජුව හිරිහැර කිරීම ඉන් පසු අඩු වූවත් ඔහු සම්බන්ධ මාධ්‍ය ප්‍රකාශන, ස්වේච්ඡා ආයතන හා සිවිල් සමාජ සංවිධානවලට නොයෙක් බලපෑම් කිරීම දිගටම සිදු වනවා.

හිමාල් සඟරාවට හා දකුණු ආසියාව භාරයට හිරිහැර කිරීම මේ ප්‍රහාරයන්ගේ එක් පියවරක්. මේ අත්තනෝමතික නිලධාරියාට දේශපාලන බලයද ඇති නිසා අන් නිලධාරීන්  ඔහුට එරෙහි වීමට බියයි.

රාජ්‍ය තන්ත්‍රයේ මුළු බලය යොදා ගෙන පුංචි (එහෙත් නොනැමෙන) සඟරාවකට හිරිහැර කරන විට එයට එරෙහිව හඬක් නැගීමට බොහෝ නේපාල මාධ්‍ය ආයතන  පැකිලෙනවා. එයට හේතුව මර්දකයා තමන් පසුපස ද එනු ඇතැයි බියයි. මේ අතින් නේපාල තත්ත්වය බංග්ලාදේශයට වෙනස්.

පොදු උන්නතිය වෙනුවෙන් නිර්ව්‍යාජව පෙනී සිටින මාධ්‍ය ආයතනයක් හා කතුවරයෙක් මර්දනයට ලක් වූ විට ඔවුන් වෙනුවෙන් හඬ නැගීම ශිෂ්ඨ සමාජයක කාගේත් වගකීමක්. හිමාල් සඟරාව හා කනක් ඩික්සින් වෙනුවෙන් මේ හඬ වැඩිපුරම මතුව ආයේ ඔහුගේ මෙහෙවර අගයන සෙසු දකුණු ආසියාතික රටවලින්.

මේ ලිපිය ආරම්භයේ මා උපුටා දැක්වූ පලමු උධෘතය මෆූස් අනාම්ගේ. ඊළඟ උධෘතය කනක්ගේ  සොහොයුරු කුන්ඩා ඩික්සිත්ගේ. මෆූස්, කනක් හා කුන්ඩා වැනි කතුවරුන්ට සහයෝගිතාව දැක්වීම නවදිල්ලි සමුළුව පුරාම දැකිය හැකි වුණා.

අවසානයේ මාධ්‍ය ජය ගන්නා තුරු මර්දනයට ලක් වන මාධ්‍ය ආයතන හා මාධ්‍යවේදීන් සමඟ සහයෝගයෙන් සිටීම ඉතා වැදගත්.

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Drowning in Media Indifference: Who cares for the backwoods?

Cartoon in Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka, on 12 November 2010

Why do movie audiences in this part of the world cheer every time they see alien invaders blow up the White House? For a long time I thought it had something to do with anti-American sentiments; then I heard that many US audiences react the same way. Perhaps some among us get a kick out of seeing overbearing governments in trouble?

That might explain the gleeful tone with which the Colombo media reported the Sri Lankan Parliament being flooded after torrential rains in mid-November. Newspapers and television channels repeatedly showed images of the Parliamentary complex – built three decades ago on a marshland – completely marooned. The hapless people’s representatives were ferried across the expanse by the military, to take part in a brief session to extend Emergency Regulations. The symbolism was inescapable.

When the trapped rainwater engulfed many areas in and around Colombo, thousands of affected people groaned, but no one was really surprised. By now Sri Lankans know this is almost an annual routine. As I sat knee-deep in my own flooded office, I had a strong sense of déjà vu.

This is the opening of an op ed essay I’ve just written for Himal Southasian magazine, whose March issue carries a cover story on disasters in South Asia.

My essay, titled Drowning in media indifference, takes a personalised look at how the Lankan media have covered different disasters in the past two decades.

“Once again, the mainstream media in Sri Lanka has proven itself irrelevant in reporting and responding to catastrophic flooding,” says the intro — and that pretty much sums it up.

Sri Lankan Parliament flooded after torrential rains in mid-November 2010. The complex, built on a marshland, was completely marooned.

I recall how, back in 1992-93, the then media (fewer in number, with broadcasting still a state monopoly) provided saturation coverage for a major flood in the capital Colombo while under-reporting an even worse flood in the provinces a few months later.

“Fast forward to the present – and how little things have changed! During the past three months, as the fury of the formidable little girl (La Niña, the global weather anomaly) played havoc on the island, I have been struck by the similarly lop-sided coverage in the country’s mainstream print and broadcast media. Urban flooding once again received ample front-page coverage and ‘breaking news’ treatment. Everyone, from cartoonists and editorialists to talk-show hosts and radio DJs, ranted about what was taking place. Yet the much worse flooding, once again in the north, east and centre of the country, received proportionately much less attention. There were a few honourable exceptions, but by and large the 1992-93 disparity was repeated wholesale.”

I have been both an insider and outsider in this issue. I consider myself to be part of the extended mass media community in Sri Lanka for over two decades: I have worked for newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations. At the same time, I retain the ability – and independence – to steps back and take a more critical and objective look at the media industry and community.

My interest in how disasters are covered and communicated go back to the time when my own house was flooded in mid 1992. I have since researched and commented extensively on this issue, and co-edited the 2007 book Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book (TVEAP/UNDP).

In this latest essay, I reiterate an argument I’ve been making for sometime: “Media researchers have long accused the Western and globalised news media of having an implicit ‘hierarchy’ of death and destruction, in terms of how they report disasters in developing countries. But Sri Lanka’s own media’s indifference is equally appalling – the story of a quarter-million displaced people languishing in squalid conditions for weeks on end did not constitute front-page news. A starlet entering hospital after a domestic brawl excites news editors more than thousands of flood-affected provincial people starving while waiting for relief.”

Read the full essay, Drowning in media indifference, on Himal Southasian magazine’s website.

Sri Lanka: Can Spice island turn into a bland nation?

Ancient Lanka: Open and engaged with the world - image courtesy http://nabataea.net

Ancient Lanka: Open and engaged with the world - image courtesy http://nabataea.net

I am neither a historian nor chef, but have a healthy interest in the subject areas of both. The two rarely come together, except when one goes in search of culinary history. I have just written an essay titled ‘Sri Lanka: Spice Island or Bland Nation?’ which blends the two in a social commentary highlighting a challenge we face as we rebuild our island nation after the war.

This is how the short version of the essay, published in Groundviews website, opens:

“Located strategically in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka was a hub in the maritime silk and spice routes for millennia. It drew traders from the east and west for both business and pleasure. Notable among the attractions were spices, whose many aromas and flavours formed an integral part of the tropical paradise experience.

“The traditional Lankan curry contained up to 13 spices and herbs. Most plants were not native – cardamom came from South India, cloves from Indonesia and chilli all the way from the Americas. Cinnamon was Sri Lanka’s unique contribution to this delightful mix. The origins didn’t really matter: the islanders knew just how to mix the native and the foreign to achieve legendary results.

Groundviews “As Sri Lanka embarks on national integration after three decades of highly divisive war, it is worth recalling these aspects of its heritage. For the war not only devastated our economy and blighted the prospects of a generation; it also nurtured high levels of insecurity, insularity and mutual suspicion. In recent years, democratic dissent has become ‘unpatriotic’. Everything foreign is suspect – especially if from the west.

“Suddenly, the spice island is in danger of turning into a ‘bland’ nation with xenophobia the only condiment in use.”

Himal SouthasianThe longer version appears in Himal Southasian magazine, July 2009 issue.

Both versions of the essay end with an ardent plea for a return to pluralistic, cacophonic society we have been for much of our long and well-chronicled history.

“Throughout history, the spice island nurtured plurality without losing its identity or integrity. It withstood numerous invasions, colonialism and tsunamis. Sri Lanka is more resilient than many of its citizens think — and more vibrant and diverse than it appears at first glance. That’s the legacy of good geography and open frontiers.

“Let genes, ideas and spices flow freely again! We have nothing to lose – except our temporary blandness.”


Read my blog post on 29 May 2009: Living with diversity – Salad or soup, asks Mallika Sarabhai

Mumbai siege revisited: Live television, terrorvision or mass hysteria?

Courtesy Daylife.com

Courtesy Daylife.com

“The attack on Mumbai by ten highly trained gunmen on the night of Wednesday, November 26, and the drama that followed over the next 60 hours, was physically confined to one corner of a very big city. But it extended its ambit to the rest of the city, the country and the world because of the non-stop media coverage.

“For two days and three nights, television channels gave blanket coverage to the drama around the siege of two hotels, the Taj Mahal Palace and Towers, and the Oberoi and Trident Hotels, as well as Nariman House in Colaba, a synagogue and centre for a Jewish sect. And the entire country watched in horror and fascination.”

This is how my friend Kalpana Sharma, one of the most respected journalists in India, looks back at the momentous events that took place in her home city of Mumbai from 26 to 30 November 2008. In a thought-provoking analysis published on Tehelka.com, Kalpana assesses 60 hours of continuous media coverage of the Mumbai crisis and notes the significant gaps.

As Mumbai and India recover from the daring attack, the media continue to play the dramatic images over and over. I was in Hyderabad, in southern India (more than 700 km away from Mumbai) for a few days from November 30 and saw this first hand – especially on India’s several dozen 24/7 TV news channels in English and many local languages. Even before arriving in India, I was following the unfolding events on India’s leading English news channel NDTV 24/7 and their website.

Kalpana Sharma

Kalpana Sharma

I could see that the high adrenaline that every channel and reporter drew on during the 60 hours of drama has now changed into a mix of patriotism, jingoism and an incredible suspension of journalistic ethics and norms. This makes Kalpana’s reflections extremely timely and important.

She is not an armchair critic of the media, and understands the tough challenges that reporters and their gatekeepers face on a daily basis. “When such developments hit a city, it is understandable that there is a time lag before the media, particularly the electronic media, can react,” she acknowledges in her essay, and asks: “The electronic media, in particular, has to ask whether at a time when they were the only source of information for most of the city, and indeed the country, there should have been some restraint placed on information given out.”

I have met some professors of mass communication who have never been inside a news room and well-meaning media activists whose naive idealism makes me laugh. Kalpana, in contrast, counts over three decades of mainstream media experience and retired last year as Deputy Editor of The Hindu newspaper.

Read Kalpana’s full essay here: Unpacking The Pixel

Breaking News 24/7?

Breaking News 24/7?

Others inside and outside India are also offering critical analysis of media’s role in the siege of Mumbai, or India’s 26/11 as it’s being called. One is by Anjali Deshpande and S K Pande of the Delhi Union of Journalists who have written an interesting commentary in the South Asian mediawatch website, The Hoot.

They acknowledge how “24×7 reporting of terror has indeed been has also been a traumatic experience for our colleagues” and go on to say that “Some of them really did a good job under the circumstances”. But their piece is are less charitable than Kalpana when they say: “If there is one thing the electronic media helped in particular to do in the last three days was to bolster the confidence of terrorists and to give them a sense of achievement far greater than their action may have provided them.”

They note: “The initial role of some of the media was to grab the eyeballs rather than ask questions and reflect all facets of life as they unfold without adding to the tension strife and trauma in such situations. In some cases the ethics evolved over the years was thrown into the dustbin. Add to it all the fact, that when some restraint began more than a touch of jingoism took over.”

They add: “The media behaved as if the country was so terrified it came to a standstill. As if Madhya Pradesh did not go to polls, as if Delhi did not vote, as if a former Prime Minister, V P Singh did not pass away, as if nothing else happened in the country.”

Read the full essay in The Hoot: Three Days of Mumbai terror reporting.

There are dozens of other debates underway in the passionately argumentative Indian society, some of which are being conducted in the newspapers, news magazines, on the air and online. One that especially interested me was the role elitism played in how the media covered the siege of Mumbai.

The attacks took place at multiple locations in the heart of Mumbai, which included two leading hotels, a synagogue and Jewish centre and the main train station. But not all attacks lasted as long, and certainly not all of them received equal coverage.

Gnani Sankaran, a writer based in Tamil Nadu, southern India, asks some pertinent questions in a blog post titled Hotel Taj: Icon of whose India? “Watching at least four English news channels surfing from one another during the last 60 hours of terror strike made me feel a terror of another kind. The terror of assaulting one’s mind and sensitivity with cameras, sound bites and non-stop blabbers. All these channels have been trying to manufacture my consent for a big lie called — Hotel Taj the icon of India.

He adds: “It is a matter of great shame that these channels simply did not bother about the other icon that faced the first attack from terrorists – the Chatrapathi Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station. CST is the true icon of Mumbai. It is through this railway station hundreds of Indians from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Tamilnadu have poured into Mumbai over the years, transforming themselves into Mumbaikars and built the Mumbai of today along with the Marathis and Kolis

Chatrapathi Shivaji (Victoria) Terminus - the true icon of Mumbai

Chatrapathi Shivaji (Victoria) Terminus - the true icon of Mumbai

“But the channels would not recognise this. Nor would they recognise the thirty odd dead bodies strewn all over the platform of CST. No Barkha Dutt went there to tell us who they were. But she was at Taj to show us the damaged furniture and reception lobby braving the guards. And the TV cameras did not go to the government-run JJ hospital to find out who those 26 unidentified bodies were. Instead they were again invading the battered Taj to try in vain for a scoop shot of the dead bodies of the Page 3 celebrities.

Gnani Sankaran

Gnani Sankaran

“In all probability, the unidentified bodies could be those of workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh migrating to Mumbai, arriving by train at CST without cell phones and PAN cards to identify them. Even after 60 hours after the CST massacre, no channel has bothered to cover in detail what transpired there.”

Read his full blog post: Whose India, whose icon?

Another interesting critique that touched on elitism in media coverage appeared in The Telegraph newspaper, published from Kolkata on 4 December 2008. Titled “WE, THE PEOPLE: The Mumbai tragedy and the English language news media”, it was penned by Indian writer Mukul Kesavan.

He echoes the same point as Gnani Sankaran about the Victoria Terminus being much more iconic than the Taj hotel, and comes to the same conclusion: “I can’t remember the last time that social class so clearly defined the coverage of a public event, or one in which people spoke so unselfconsciously from their class positions. The English news channels became mega-churches in which hotel-going Indians found catharsis and communion. Person after person claimed the Taj as home. Memories of courtship, marriage, celebration, friendship, the quick coffee, the saved-up-for snack, the sneaked lavatory visit, came together to frame the burning Taj in a halo of affection.”

In his closing para, Kesavan also touches on how the foreign media covered the Mumbai attacks: “English and American papers treated the terror attack as an assault on the West. The terrorists had, after all, specifically looked for American and British citizens to murder. Ironically, even as NDTV, CNN-IBN and Times Now put hotel guests at the heart of the horror and bumped train commuters to its periphery, older English-speaking peoples counted their dead and dimly regretted all Indian casualties as collateral damage. In that residual category, if nowhere else, the Indian dead remained one People.”

Read full commentary by Mukul Kesavan

Another dimension in the media coverage following the Mumbai attacks is how it is affecting the relations between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers. As The Hindu reported on 1 December 2008: “The escalating tensions between India and Pakistan over the Mumbai attacks have led to the declaration of hostilities in unexpected quarters – Pakistani media has declared a virtual war on Indian media for its ‘knee-jerk’ finger-pointing across the border, and its unquestioning acceptance of the Indian government’s ‘Pakistan-link’ theory.”

Moderate journalists and media-watchers across South Asia are calling for more restraint, self-reflection and plain common sense. On 4 December 2008, Himal Southasian – the independent and outspoken voice of South Asia – ran a special editorial which opened with these words:

“There is an attempt on to generate mass hysteria in India as television channels compete for ratings. The channels are using the Bombay attacks of last week in a dangerous game of TRP-upmanship which can well derail the political process and set back the India-Pakistan peace train. Going far beyond what is required of them even in times of crisis, some media houses are leading campaigns to get citizens to take pledges of patriotism. They are pushing a brittle, monochromatic vision of the resilient country we know as India.”

Read the full Himal editorial: No to mass hysteria

My journalist friend Beena Sarwar, based in Karachi, voiced her concerns in an op ed published in the leading Pakistani newspaper Dawn on 3 December 2008:

Beena Sarwar

Beena Sarwar

“Media might have brought the people closer but when nationalism rears its head, the beast of 24-hour television news also fuels conflict. This is where the commercial aspect comes in. When something big happens, the public seeks answers. The channels which cater to this need improve their ratings. Sensation sells. With viewers glued to the screens, channels keep them there with a continuous virtual reality show. They fill the time with speculative commentary, ‘expert’ guests and whatever footage is available. Sometimes such footage is repeated ad nauseum — like when the Twin Towers were destroyed on 9/11, when the Marriott hotel was attacked, when the FIA building in Lahore was struck.”

She adds: “Some Indian channels are running the Pakistan factor like a movie trailer, complete with sound effects and watch-for-the-next-episode commentary. This obviously fuels Pakistani indignation. However, this indignation could be tempered by being less reactive and empathising with the Indians’ pain and grief that many Pakistanis share. Zealous commentators could also recall the times that their own media houses sensationalised an issue.

“Journalists may argue that they are just the messenger, reflecting official or public opinion. But the media must also question, and get people to think. The stakes are high in our nuclear-armed countries, in a post-9/11 world where the major players include armed and trained men around the world who subscribe to the ideology of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”

Full op ed by Beena Sarwar: Media falls into old trap

Ordinary people outside the media industry have also started expressing their concern.

“Media on both sides of the border has stopped reporting and started indulging in senseless rants. The media, particularly in India seems to have thrown logic to the wind,” wrote Anand Bala from Bangalore, in a letter to the South Asian mediawatch website The Hoot. “The screaming for war on the Indian side has reached a din. The media is manufacturing consent for a war and manufacturing consent for the very people who they are blaming – the politicians.

I would give the last word to Kalpana Sharma: “Media rarely pauses to analyse itself as it hurtles from one breaking story to another. But the Mumbai terror attack shows us that it is essential that reporters be trained to handle such extraordinary situations, that they learn the importance of restraint and cross-checking as at such times the media is the main source of information. Professionalism and accuracy will ensure that we don’t contribute to prejudice and panic.”

TV Southasia: Nothing official about this, yipee!

TV South Asia

Nearly one year ago, I wrote a blog post titled: Channel South Asia? Yes and No!

My closing words at the time were:
“I, for one, am relieved that South Asian governments are unlikely to come together in such a venture – we’ve suffered long enough and hard enough with our state-owned, government-controlled, ruling party mouthpieces (both radio and TV) that pollute our airwaves (a public commons) every day and night. Euphemistically called ‘national television’, these conduits of governmental propaganda have progressively lost audience share — and influence — since private channels started operating in the early 1990s. They are today reduced to vanity channels for vane politicians and bureaucrats. The mass audience has long ago abandoned them. I’d rather take chances with a South Asian Murdoch, than with our unaccountable, selfish governments.”

Chevaan Daniel, head of Sri Lanka’s enterprising Channel One MTV, posted a comment soon afterwards, on 27 July 2007, saying: “Maharaja Channels have pioneered this for Sri Lanka, by joining together in an initiative involving media companies from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh to launch ‘The SouthAsian’. This collaboration includes a weekly programme produced in Calcutta, aired at the same time in the region. The next step is indeed a SouthAsian Channel, which we are working towards.

Well, I’m delighted to find that over the past 12 months, they have indeed been investing time, creative effort and money in this venture. TV Southasia is now a reality!

It’s a collaborative venture of commercial broadcasters in five countries of South Asia, who have joined hands to produce and share content across their national borders. Mercifully, no governments are involved and certainly none of the state-owned broadcasters (Babu TVs) whose lack of vision and creativity is only matched by their depleting audiences these days.

TV Southasia

Indeed, there’s nothing official about TV Southasia (TVSA), and that’s to be celebrated on its own merit. And if they get it right, TVSA founders — Rtv of Bangladesh, TARANEWS of India, Image Channel of Nepal, Aaj TV of Pakistan and News 1st of Sri Lanka — can tap into an enviably large audience. Between them, their countries have more than 1.5 billion people, most of who have access to television.

TVSA founders are taking one step at a time, perhaps knowing very well that cross-border ventures in South Asia need to be nursed slowly and incrementally, while dealing with assorted historical hang-ups and tonnes of red tape (or these days the colour could well be saffron or khaki, depending on where you live!).

It all started when a group of broadcasters and activists from across South Asia came together in Kolkata in December 2006 and agreed to forge the Southasian initiative. They swapped content to start producing a half-hour magazine programme (containing news analysis, music, features and interviews) from April 2007. Called Southasian, it was produced by Taranewz drawing on content from the participating channels, who then broadcast it weekly and also made it available online.

Taking the next logical step, the five broadcasters decided in August 2007 to form a channel, branded as TV Southasia. It started being previewed on 19 April 2008.
Read more about TV Southasia on its own website

The channel is being distributed by Thailand’s ThaiCom5 satellite, and would be available through cable operators across South Asia. It’s an English language channel, based on the reality that English is the only link language shared and understood by all countries of South Asia.

TVSA says it’s concentrating on talk shows, interviews, lifestyle, music, short films, sports, cuisine and quiz — most of this content is already available through many national channels and occasionally from global channels too. But TVSA can bring in a trans-boundary, pan South Asian outlook which is largely missing in these channels. In fact, it would be refreshing to see a TV channel covering South Asia as a whole, without giving into the frequent pressures or temptations of national tribalism and geopolitical posturing that we see all the time on both BabuTVs and many commercial channels.

Click here for programme lineup on TV Southasia

I have so far only caught glimpses of their offering, when Channel One MTV shows the Southasian magazine show. Going by this limited exposure, I can confirm that the products of this collaboration are superior to what BabuTVs have been struggling to do for two decades through the very official (read: officious and unimaginative) framework of SAARC Audio-Visual Exchange, or SAVE.

Started in 1987, just two years after the South Asian governments formed the regional grouping called South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC, SAVE brought together the so-called national broadcasters in radio and TV. Trapped in inter-governmental bureaucracies, they tried to share and carry each other’s broadcast content. The officially sanctioned programmes, often made by committees, completely failed to capture the diversity and vibrancy of what’s going on in each South Asian country that interests the rest of the sub-region. I have no idea if SAVE still exists, because I don’t watch BabuTV anymore (does anybody?). Even in its formative days, I could tell that SAVE was beyond saving…

TV Southasia

Enter TV Southasia – and not a moment too soon. As its website says: “It is for the first time in history that the private electronic media channels have come together and have formed a collaborative channel sharing the same view points on diversity, heritage, bondage and possibilities.”

Unlike many broadcast ventures, TVSA declares its agenda – and it’s a lofty one. It wants to promote highly desirable values like liberalism, scientific temperament, education, heritage and cultural diversity. Rather courageously, it also declares what it is explicitly opposed to, which includes superstition, fundamentalism, corruption, violence, cultural hegemony and communalism — the long and depressing list of evils that keeps hundreds of millions of South Asians in misery, fear and trapped at the bottom of the development ladder. Read TVSA’s vision, mission and ideals

This agenda resonates with the equally passionate, secular idealism of Ujala TV, another satellite broadcast venture aimed at beaming to South Asia since mid 2006. I have been cheering them from the beginning, while my organisation TVE Asia Pacific has been a regular supplier of factual programming for them. Read my July 2007 blog post on Ujala TV – Enriching South Asian airwaves

Well, we need as many idealists as we can find in South Asia. Encouragingly, TV Southasia has already involved Himal Southasian founder and editor Kanak Mani Dixit, a great champion of people-to-people collaboration in South Asia. Perhaps it’s due to Kanak’s influence that the brave new channel is spelling Southasia as one word, as Himal Southasian has been doing for some years now. It might seem an aberration in spelling to some, but in fact, it separates these entirely unofficial, people’s ventures from the many committees and initiatives of the official SAARC, which are endlessly meeting yet constantly failing to forge regional trust, cooperation and cohesion.

The official, officious and unproductive SAARC will be on parade once again at the next Summit due in late July 2008. My SAARCasm is shared by many journalists, intellectuals and activists across South Asia who have tracked the origins and evolution of this grouping since its founding in Dhaka in 1985. To put it charitably, at 23 years of age, SAARC has the mental development of a 3-year-old (if that). We only need to take a look at the People’s SAARC Declaration, adopted in Kathmandu in March 2007, to realise how much the official SAARC has failed to accomplish.

That’s in spite of its frequent and highly expensive meetings. Alas, this time they have chosen to meet in my city of Colombo, which means – after footing a massive Summit bill of LKR 2.8 billion (over USD 27 million) – we ordinary citizens will very likely be kept under virtual house arrest for its duration. All in the name of security, of course.

I hope I can catch a bit more of TV Southasia when the visiting SAARC-babus drive us off our own streets.

Photos and images all courtesy TV Southasia

Below – photos from TV Southasia launch