“For me as an editor, there is a compelling case for engaging with poverty. Increasing education and literacy is related to increasing the size of my readership. Our main audiences are indeed drawn from the middle classes, business and policymakers. But these groups cannot live in isolation. The welfare of the many is in the interests of the people who read the Daily Star.”
So says Mahfuz Anam, Editor and Publisher of The Daily Star newspaper in Bangladesh. I quoted him in my presentation to the orientation workshop for Media Fellows on Poverty and Development, held in Colombo on 24 September 2016.
Alas, many media gatekeepers in Sri Lanka and across South Asia don’t share Anam’s broad view. I can still remember talking to a Singaporean manager of one of Sri Lanka’s first private TV stations in the late 1990s. He was interested in international development related TV content, he told me, “but not depressing and miserable stuff about poverty – our viewers don’t want that!”
Most media, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, have narrowly defined poverty negatively. Those media that occasionally allows some coverage of poverty mostly skim a few selected issues, doing fleeting reporting on obvious topics like street children, beggars or poverty reduction assistance from the government. The complexity of poverty and under-development is hardly investigated or captured in the media.
Even when an exceptional journalist ventures into exploring these issues in some depth and detail, their media products also often inadvertently contain society’s widespread stereotyping on poverty and inequality. For example:
Black and white images are used when colour is easily available (as if the poor live in B&W).
Focus is mostly or entirely on the rural poor (never mind many poor people now live in cities and towns).
Under this, 20 competitively selected journalists – drawn from print, broadcast and web media outlets in Sinhala, Tamil and English languages – are to be given a better understanding of the many dimensions of poverty.
These Media Fellows will have the opportunity to research and produce a story of their choice in depth and detail, but on the understanding that their media outlet will carry their story. Along the way, they will benefit from face-to-face interactions with senior journalists and development researchers, and also receive a grant to cover their field visit costs.
I am part of the five member expert panel guiding these Media Fellows. Others on the panel are senior journalist and political commentator Kusal Perera; Chief Editor of Daily Express newspaper Hana Ibrahim; Chief Editor of Echelon biz magazine Shamindra Kulamannage; and Consultant Editor of Sudar Oli newspaper, Arun Arokianathan.
At the orientation workshop, Shamindra Kulamannage and I both made presentations on media coverage of poverty. Mine was a broad-sweep exploration of the topic, with many examples and insights from having been in media and development spheres for over 25 years.
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.
To keep up with the silly season, here’s another photo taken in July 2011 in…well, read the sign behind us.
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…
Given the surfeit of media stories on climate in the build-up to the Copenhagen climate conference (7-18 Dec 2009), it would appear that journalists have little or no difficulty in covering this literally hot topic, right?
Wrong. The planet is warming, but not all editors and other media gate-keepers have yet warmed up to the topic. (We might even say: some are thawing more slowly than glaciers these days!).
“While environment is fast becoming a trendy topic, environmental journalists say they are finding it increasingly difficult to sell their stories to editors. This is a confounding trend in the news media, given the increasing confusion – and resultant calls for clarity – about scientific data for climate change in the run up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The experts, however, say the trick is to repackage the story alluringly.”
This is the thrust of an article just written by the experienced Pakistani journalist and blogger Zofeen T. Ebrahim on Dawn.com. In Little strokes make big pictures, she probes the challenges that South Asian journalists continue to face in reporting and analysing on climate change in their mainstream media.
Zofeen, who was with me at the recent IFEJ congress in New Delhi a few weeks ago, quotes me in her article: “Nalaka Gunawardene, a senior award-winning science writer from Sri Lanka, recalls that his mentor, Tarzie Vittachi, once advised that ‘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.’ Of course, three decades ago, well before climate change was a hot topic, Vittachi was speaking metaphorically. But the words have great import today.”
She also quotes South Asian colleagues like Kunda Dixit, Joydeep Gupta, Nirmal Ghosh and Aroosa Masroor Khan (all men, although they are among the finest in the profession :)).
Her conclusion: environmental stories may still be a hard sell in many media outlets, but committed journalists have found ways to market their stories first within their organisations, and then to their respective audiences. That is some good news as the crucial climate talks open in the cool climes of Copenhagen.
Zofeen T. Ebrahim is a Karachi-based independent journalist and has been writing for IPS since April 2003. She also writes for Women’s Feature Service, IRIN and Indo Asian News Service. The stories she has covered include human rights, specially pertaining to women and children, health and how development impacts environment.
This century’s longest solar eclipsed moved across Asia on 22 July 2009, wowing scientists and the public alike. Asia’s multifarious media covered the solar eclipse with great enthusiasm and from myriad locations across the vast continent.
The path of the eclipse’s totality –- where the sun was completely obscured by the Moon for a few astounding minutes –- started in northern India. It then crossed through Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and China, before heading out to the Pacific Ocean. Those who were lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time saw one of Nature’s most spectacular phenomena. It was certainly a sight to behold, capture on film, and cherish for a lifetime.
But many along the path missed this chance as clouds obscured the Sun. It’s the rainy season in much of Asia, where the delayed monsoon is finally delivering much-needed rain.
That’s what happened in Taregna, in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. The media had dubbed it the ‘epicentre’ of the solar eclipse, and estimated totality to be visible for at least three minutes and 38 seconds. Thousands who flocked to the village were disappointed when the clouds refused to budge. Nature doesn’t follow our scripts.
It’s rarely that totality crosses through countries with such high human numbers as China and India. This time around, millions of people and thousands of journalists took advantage.
Some travelled long distances hoping to get the best view from the 200-km wide path of totality. Others watched it one of Asia’s many and cacophonous 24/7 TV news channels. The event had all the elements of a perfect television story: mass anticipation, eager experts and enthusiasts, occasional superstitions, uncertainties of weather and, finally, a stunning display of Nature’s raw power.
‘Darkness at Dawn!’ screamed a popular headline, referring to the eclipse causing a sudden ‘nightfall’ after the day had begun. Other superlatives like ‘Spectacle of the century’ and ‘A sight never to be missed’ were also widely used.
Solar eclipses are indeed a marvel of Nature, and the media’s excitement was justified. For once, it was good to see them devoting a great deal of airtime and print/web space for something that was not violent, depressing or life-threatening.
How I wish Asia’s media took as much interest in another kind of ‘eclipse’ that surrounds and engulfs us! One that does not end in minutes, but lasts for years or decades, and condemns millions to lives of misery and squalor.
Stories of poverty, social disparity and economic marginalisation are increasingly ‘eclipsed’ in Asia by stories of the region’s growing economic and geopolitical might.
The mainstream media in Asia –- as well as many outlets in the West — never seem to tire of carrying reports of Asia rising. Indeed, that is a Big Story of our times: many Asian economies have been growing for years at impressive rates. Thanks to this, over 250 million Asians have moved out of poverty during this decade alone. According to the UN’s Asian arm ESCAP, this is the fastest poverty reduction progress in history.
We see evidence of increased prosperity and higher incomes in many parts of developing Asia. Gadgets and gizmos –- from MP3 to mobile phones — sell like hot cakes. More Asians are travelling for leisure than ever before, crowding our roads, trains and skies. Lifestyle industries never had it so good. Even the current recession hasn’t fully dampened this spending spree.
But not everyone is invited to the party. Tens of millions of people are being left behind. Many others barely manage to keep up -– they must keep running fast just to stay in the same place.
National governments, anxious to impress their own voters and foreign investors, often gloss over these disparities. The poor don’t get more than a token nod in Davos. National statistical averages of our countries miss out on the deprivations of significant pockets of population.
On the whole, the UN cautions that the Asia Pacific region is in danger of missing out the 2015 target date for most Millennium Development Goals – the time-bound and measurable targets for socio-economic advancement that national leaders committed to in 2000.
The plight of marginalised groups is ignored or under-reported by the cheer-leading media. For the most part, these stories remain forever eclipsed. Except, that is, when frustrations accumulate and blow up as social unrest, political violence or terrorism. Even then, the media’s coverage is largely confined to reporting the symptoms rather than the underlying social maladies.
“Half the children in South Asia go to bed hungry every night, but the covers of our news magazines are about weight loss parlors,” says Kunda Dixit, Chief Editor of The Nepali Times.
As he noted in a recent essay: “Maternal mortality in parts of Nepal is nearly at sub-Saharan levels, but we are obsessed with politics. Hundreds of cotton farmers in India commit suicide every year because of indebtedness, but the media don’t want to cover it because depressing news puts off advertisers. Reading the region’s newspapers, you would be hard-pressed to find coverage of these slow emergencies.”
I have come across similar apathy in my travels across Asia trying to enhance television broadcasters’ coverage of development and poverty issues. As one Singaporean broadcast manager, running a news and entertainment channel in a developing country, told me: “I don’t ever want to show poor people on my channel.”
Don’t get me wrong. Trained as a science journalist, I can fully appreciate the awe and wonder of a solar eclipse. For years, I have cheered public-spirited scientists who join hands with the media to inform and educate the public on facts and fallacies surrounding these celestial events.
But there are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in our mainstream media’s breathless coverage of the march of capital. Journalists and their gate-keepers should look around harder for the many stories that stay eclipsed for too long.