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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Making of ‘The Greenbelt Reports’ recalled in ‘The Green Pen’

The process of producing and distributing TVE Asia Pacific’s educational TV series, The Greenbelt Reports, is showcased in a new book on environmental journalism in South Asia, just published by Sage, a globally operating company that specialises in bringing out academic and professional books.

The book, titled The Green Pen: Environmental Journalism in India and South Asia, is edited by two senior Indian journalists, both good friends – Keya Acharya of Bangalore, and Frederick Noronha based in Goa. (In 2007, Fred and I co-edited Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book.)

Arranged in 10 sections, the book brings together contributions from three dozen journalists, broadcasters and film makers in South Asia. It opens with a foreword by Darryl D’Monte, one time editor of The Times of India and Chair, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI).

I co-wrote the chapter titled ‘Dispatches from the Frontline: Making of The Greenbelt Reports’ with my colleague Manori Wijesekera, TVEAP’s Regional Programme Manager. I was researcher and script writer of the 12-part, 4-country series that we made in 2006, in which Manori was series producer. The series looked at the environmental lessons of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The title reflects the lingering print bias in media related discussions: in our case, the content we produced was disseminated on broadcast television, narrowcast DVD and online. We wielded cameras rather than pens, but are still very glad to share our experience in this book.

Keya Acharya (left) and Fred Noronha

The publisher’s blurb says: “This collection of essays by some of the most prominent environmental journalists in Indian and South Asia gives deep insights into their profession and its need and relevance in society. It looks at this ‘specialisation’ of journalism both in the past and the present. Underlying almost all the essays is the changing nature of media in the region and the dilemmas facing environmental journalists. The varied background of the writers ensures the showcasing of a wide range of realities and experiences from the field. Contributions include essays by Darryl D’Monte, the late Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, among others.”

“This is the first book of its kind on environmental journalism, which would be an excellent resource to aid the future evolution of the enterprise in the region. Apart from essays from India, there are contributions from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives. The book will interest a wide readership, any informed reader, besides journalists and environmentalists.”

It’s an honour to be part of a book which features the work of respected seniors like Anil, Darryl and Sunita – all of who have influenced my own career and I’m privileged to count among my friends (alas, Anil is no longer with us). In fact, I have either met, worked with or am friends with more than half the three dozen contributing authors of this book.

Who says South Asia is large?

More in TVEAP news story: The Greenbelt Reports featured in new book on environmental journalism in South Asia

Children of Tsunami: No More Tears…

where Children of Tsunami stories were filmed for much of 2005

Four countries, eight locations: where Children of Tsunami stories were filmed for much of 2005


They have never met each other. Some have never travelled beyond their native village. On December 26 2004, the sea rose and rose and took everything they cherished.

Documented over the year, locally-based filmmakers returned to Asia’s battered coasts in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand to track the healing and the hurt through the eyes of children.

Asia’s recovery process from the tsunami is being captured through the stories of three girls and two boys aged 8 to 16 years.

Of different races, worshipping different Gods, they live on different shores in different countries. They are the tsunami generation, sharing the vulnerability of a child and the legacy of the tragic tides.

Young survivors of the Asian tsunami let us into their lives to personalise the mass of statistics, aid pledges and recovery plans. “Children of Tsunami” is a tapestry of intimate stories, woven by voices of individual and collective resilience, heroism and recovery.

Children of Tsunami: No More Tears – Part 1 of 3

Part 2 of 3

Part 3 of 3

Duration: 24 mins
Year of production: 2005
Countries filmed in: India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand
In each country, a locally based production crew carried out filming for TVE Asia Pacific.

Regional Production Team
Supervising Producer: Bruce Moir
Production Assistant: Yohan Abeynaike
Production Manager: Manori Wijesekera
Executive Producers: Joanne Teoh Kheng Yau and Nalaka Gunawardene

Co-Produced by: Channel News Asia, Singapore
In partnership with TVE Asia Pacific

Broadcast Asia-wide on the first anniversary of the Asian Tsunami, 26 Dec 2005

For more information, visit: www.childrenoftsunami.info

See also: Channel News Asia – Making of a pan-Asian news channel

Hitchhiker’s (Rough) Guide to the Media: Who wants a free ride?

If you got a message, hitch a ride...

If you got a message, hitch a ride...

How can research institutes and advocacy groups use the mainstream media effectively to communicate their findings and analyses?

What is the secret of some researchers receiving more media attention and coverage than others? Why are some ‘media darlings’?

Are there ways to secure quality coverage for public interest content without having to pay high rates for media space or air time?

TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP) addresses these important questions in a new framework to engage the mass media for communicating for influence and social change. We call it a Hitchhiker’s (Rough) Guide to the Media.

The framework, building on a dozen years of TVEAP experience in working with television broadcasters and other media outlets across the Asia Pacific region, guides individuals and institutions to get the best out of the media. One key to success is building sustained relationships with media professionals and their gatekeepers (the bosses at media organisations who decide what content to publish or broadcast).

We introduced the framework to a group of ICT researchers drawn from across Asia who came together for a two-day workshop in Hyderabad, India, on 1 – 2 December 2008. The workshop aimed to build their capacity to use different communication frameworks and tools to engage policy makers, various other stake-holders and the wider public.

Workshop participants were all drawn from various action research projects on ICT or ICT for development supported by the Pan Asia Networking programme of the International Development Research Institute (IDRC) of Canada.

Our friends at IDRC have recently edited highlights of our presentation into a short video, which mixes excerpts from an interview they filmed with me. It can be watched here:

More about the workshop is found on a dedicated blog.

Read more about our framework on TVEAP website.

“Development” is seen as a hard sell in the increasingly commercialised media in the Asia Pacific. Researchers, activists and educators engaged in development work often complain that they are blocked out of the print and broadcast media. Yet they fail to understand a basic truth about the media: there is no quota of print space or air time set aside for development. Information and opinions on development topics must compete with other areas of human endeavour for the limited space and time available.

It is unrealistic to expect any legally or otherwise guaranteed space or time for development content. Even if there were, that can only apply on the media owners and media professionals. There can be no guarantee that media audiences will accept such content.

I get rather weary when well-meaning development players complain about the airwaves being full of entertainment, as if that airtime is something they have been deprived of. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with entertainment. The world will be a very dull place if the broadcasters listened to development people and packed every minute of air time with ‘information and education’.

Hitch a hike, but don't expect to get in the driver's seat...

Hitch a hike, but don't expect to get in the driver's seat...

This is the big challenge to the development community — how to get that delicate balance right, and learn to co-exist with other forms of media products catering to the wide and varied human interests. Hitch-hiking with the media avoids confrontation, looks for the common ground and tries to nurture collaboration for mutual benefit.

As my colleague Manori Wijesekera (presenting in the photo above) told the Hyderabad workshop: “Researchers and activists are a good source of information and opinions for the media, who need a constant supply of these. This can be a win-win situation for both parties, but we have to remember that we are hitching a ride with the media. So we can’t get into the driving seat or demand too much at once!”

So here’s our commercial: TVEAP conducts short, customised training sessions and workshops for researchers and civil society groups to enhance their media skills. These offer guidance on how to build and sustain ‘bridges’ with the media, and receive quality coverage that go well beyond publicity and public relations. If interested, get in touch with us!

Photos courtesy TVEAP Image Archive