Ray Wijewardene: Saluting a thinker who also tinkered

Working with a Genial Giant: Ray Wijewardene

As a communicator, I look for ways to say more with less. The ‘gold standard’ for brevity was set two centuries ago by the French poet, playwright, novelist and essayist Victor Hugo.

The story goes like this. Victor Hugo was travelling out of town and wanted to know how his latest book was selling. He messaged (telegraphed?) his agent: ?

The agent, not to be outdone, replied: !

Enough said. How I wish I could beat that economy of words…

I have a fondness for both question marks and exclamation marks — I used a good deal of both in my own speaking and writing. I use these as a metaphor in a tribute I just wrote about one of my mentors: Ray Wijewardene.

Ray Wijewardene: An Extraordinary Thinker and Tinkerer has just been published by Groundviews.org. It also appears on the official website about Ray Wijewardene, being formally launched today.

Here are the opening paras of my essay:

“If I had to condense the multi-faceted and fascinating life of Ray Wijewardene, I would reduce it to a whole lot of question marks and exclamation marks. In his 86 years, Ray generated more than his fair share of both.

“He was unpigeonholeable: engineer, farmer, inventor, aviator and sportsman all rolled into one. Whether at work or play, he was an innovative thinker who rose above his culture and training to grasp the bigger picture.”

Full essay: Ray Wijewardene: An Extraordinary Thinker and Tinkerer

The website was built by my team at TVE Asia Pacific (TEVAP) as a public education resource. read TVEAP News story:
TVEAP unveils new website on outstanding Sri Lankan scientist and visionary

Gasping for Fresh Air in Delhi and Colombo: Miles to go before we can breathe easily!

CSE TVEAP Media Briefing on Air Qualitry Issues in Colombo, 27 April 2011

Almost exactly four years ago, I wrote a blog post called Gasp! Asthma on the rise – and we made it all possible. I argued how we who suffer from Asthma — and our numbers keep increasing — are also contributing to making the bad problem worse.

So I write, speak and make films about clean air entirely with an enlightened self interest: I want to breathe more easily. This week, just a few days ahead of the annual World Asthma Day, I once again declared this as I opened a Media Briefing on the Challenges of Air Quality and Mobility Management in South Asian Cities organised in Colombo today by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi and TVE Asia Pacific.

I held up my life-saving inhaler that I always carry around wherever I go, and am never more than a few feet away from. This is not theatrics, but drama in real life. Almost exactly a year ago, I was rushed to hospital at night for nebulisation. I don’t suffer such attacks too often, thank goodness, but I also don’t want to take chances — as I can never count on good air in my home city.

And I’m far from being alone. Wherever I go, I find increasing numbers of fellow asthma sufferers: we gripe and groan, but only a few among us realise that our lifestyles, choices and apathy contributes to the worsening quality of our air.

Almost every South Asian city today is reeling under severe air pollution and gridlocked urban traffic congestion. Colombo, a medium sized city by South Asian standards, has the (slight) advantage of the sea breeze flushing out part of its polluted air — but Greater Colombo is still struggling with polluting fuels, outdated vehicle technologies and rising numbers of private vehicles leading to massive congestion. Air quality levels vary considerably as we travel to the interior of the island, but some provincial cities now have mounting air pollution problems.

Finding the 'Common Air' in everybody's self interest...

This is why we collaborated with CSE, which has a long track record in knowledge-based advocacy for clean air in India and other countries of developing Asia, to organise this event. It was an open forum where air quality experts in Sri Lanka and India engaged Sri Lankan journalists and broadcasters on the status of Sri Lanka’s air quality and what it can learn from the neighbouring countries.

In my remarks, I said: “The quest for clean air in developing Asia is much more than a simple pollution story. It has many layers and complex links to government policies, regulation, industrial lobbies and technology options.

I added: “Our big challenge, as professional story-tellers, is to ask tough questions, seek clarity and then connect the dots for our audiences. At stake is our health, prosperity and indeed our very lives. Air pollution kills, slowly but surely!”

See my PowerPoint presentation:

Read more: Gasping for Fresh Air, Seeking More Liveable Cities in South Asia

Taya Diaz: Amiable tour guide to a (biological) Treasure Island

Taya Diaz conducts film making master class during Wildscreen 2011 in Colombo

“Taya Diaz has the shortest name in Sri Lanka but is a big man with a personality to match and a bushy black beard. Apart from being an excellent guide with good knowledge of all aspects of Sri Lankan Wildlife, he’s also a writer and film maker and is excellent company.”

That’s how a bird-watching website once described Taya Diaz, Sri Lankan conservationist turned wildlife film maker.

During the past two decades, Taya has collaborated in making over 20 full-length international wildlife documentaries, all showcasing Sri Lanka’s rich biological diversity and ecosystems. He has been a scientific investigator, presenter, narrator or Sinhalese scriptwriter.

One of his earliest involvements in international film making was with The Temple Troop. Made in 1997, for the BBC and Discovery Channel, it documented a year in the life of a troop of monkeys living in Sri Lanka’s ancient city of Polonnaruwa. These monkeys have been the subject of a long-running study by the Smithsonian Institution’s Primate Biology Program.

Trained as a scientist, Taya has worked in a number of field based conservation projects including the Smithsonian study of monkeys. But it’s as a wildlife and natural history that he now makes a name both in Sri Lanka and overseas.

The Urban Elephant (2000, for PBS/National Geographic), and The Last Tusker (2000, for BBC/Discovery) are two other productions that used Taya’s ground knowledge and scientific expertise. He has provided local liaison for broadcasters such as New Zealand TV, Canal+, Discovery channel, and BBC1.

Taya Diaz: Enough stories to last a lifetime!

For all these reasons, Taya was a natural choice when TVE Asia Pacific was asked to recommend a Sri Lankan film maker to present a master class when the Wildscreen traveling film festival held in Colombo from 17 to 19 February 2011. His master class, titled “Untold Stories of Sri Lanka”, looked at Sri Lanka’s as yet largely untapped potential for authentic, factual stories related to wildlife, natural history and the environment.

He explained the premise for his master class: “Sri Lanka is a pot of plenty in every aspect — the opportunities for a documentary filmmaker are astounding. But sadly, what most audiences see on the airwaves is very standard and boringly similar, touching on the same topics year in and year out.”

Taya feels that documentary films and TV programmes are also essential for educating Sri Lankans about their own natural heritage. Sri Lanka has an impressively high number of plant and animal species for its relatively small land area — which makes it one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world.

“Sri Lankan naturalists, wildlife experts and environmentalists should collaborate more closely with film makers and/or broadcasters to make more local films aimed at local audiences,” he said during a panel discussion I moderated on February 17. “This is essential for raising awareness on environment and sustainable development issues as Sri Lanka pursues rapid economic development after the war.”

Read TVEAP News story on Taya’s master class: Story telling through the local eyes vital, says Taya Diaz

Bizarro: Turn off your brain cells before the screening!

A candid request from the management...

We’re all familiar with the request at cinemas, theatres and concert halls for everyone to turn off their cell phones (a.k.a. mobiles) before the show starts. Not that everyone complies — there are enough deviants among us who just can’t disengage themselves from their electronic leashes even for a couple of hours.

But here’s a new twist to that common (and much needed) request: I came across this in the Bizarro cartoon, which offers some fascinating insights into our topsy turvy times. There are times when I feel that every TV set should come with this line printed on top!

Everyone has a story about cell phones going off at the wrong time in the wrong place. Here’s my favourite.

Together with my TVEAP team, I was running the 2004 AIDS Film Festival in Bangkok, Thailand, during the 15th International AIDS Conference, in July 2004. The festival was held across three venues, and showcased over 50 film titles from around the world — we had nearly half the film makers turning up in person to be introduce their films.

One such film maker, an academic turned film maker, was eagerly talking about his film (an excellent one, unusual for academics) when somebody’s cell phone went off.

The film maker wasn’t amused. He told the full house: “Unless you’re a person with nuclear trigger responsibility, can everyone PLEASE turn off their cell phones?”

But the cell phone ring continued, getting louder.

It took a full minute for its owner to be found — who turned out to be our speaker himself! His own cell phone had been ringing in his trouser pocket all this time, disrupting his own talk.

Moral of the story: Turn off your cell phone at a public performance, especially if it’s your own performance!

Asia Pacific Rice Film Award 2008/09 – And the winner is…

Winners of the Asia Pacific Rice Film Award 2008-2009 were announced this week. The award was established ‘to recognise excellence in audio-visual creations on rice-related issues in Asia, where most of the world’s rice is grown and consumed’.

The co-organisers, Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP), TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP) and Public Media Agency (PMA) of Malaysia, invited innovative film-makers from the Asia Pacific region to submit short creative television, video or cinematic films on rice. I was part of the regional panel of judges.

The film winning the first prize is titled SRI – Challenging Traditions, Transforming Lives (10 mins, 2008). It is directed by Gautam Chintamani in Haryana, India.

I found it a well-focused, positive story compellingly told, with an unhurried script — just enough information, not bombarding the viewer with facts and figures. It’s about a new, more efficient way of growing rice called System of Rice Intensification (SRI).

But this is far from a boring instructional film. It focuses on lives of farmers on and off the field (e.g. SRI’s benefits to women farmers – such as less labour and time intensive). The visual experience is completed by the excellent camera work, sound track and seamless editing – altogether a highly professional production that is also a persuasive advocacy film.

Here’s the official synopsis for the film, taken from Vatavaran 2009 film festival website:
A revolutionary method, System of Rice Intensification (SRI) requires almost no standing water for paddy to grow and is fast transforming the rice cultivation. Developed by a French priest Henri De Launi in the 1980’s in Madagascar, SRI not only uses almost half of the water required but drastically reduces the physical labor associated with rice farming besides increasing the yield by almost one and a half times. For a country like India rice is more than just a mere crop.

There are myths attached to its cultivation. While SRI offers an alternate and a very sustainable method of growing rice it also battles hard with the age-old traditional approach of growing rice. The perils of global warming, the drying up of perennial rivers and the excessive use of fertilizers pose numerous threats to rice cultivation; making life very hard for the humble farmer. SRI offers a workable solution to all problems related to traditional rice cultivation.

SRI- Challenging Tradition, Transforming Lives looks at how SRI is helping the modern farmer cultivate India’s traditional crop without the burden that it had become. In addition the film highlights the transformation in the lives of millions of women who toil the hardest in Indian farmers thanks to SRI reducing the need for manual labor. To its critics the System of Rice Intensification might not be the greatest thing but the fact that SRI significantly reduces the demand for water for rice cultivation makes it worthwhile in the current scenario of the world.

Starting out in 2001-02, Gautam Chintamani worked in the capacity of Associate Producer on India’s first daily news spoof show Khabarein Khabardar. There on he did freelance writing for numerous shows for MTV, Sony and Zee amongst others. He has written and directed an 18 min short film, Alterations. In addition to writing for television Gautam Chintamani regualraly writes for the print and electronic media. He has extensively written for Man’s World, Hard News, Media Trans-Asia and MidDay, rediff.com and Buzz in Town. Gautam also worked in the capacity of Associate Director and Executive Producer of the Hindi feature film, Amavas. Of his television work the law drama, Siddhanth (Star One) was nominated for an Emmy in the International Drama section. Gautam’s episode dealing with an HIV positive college student who fights for her basic right to education was selected as a case study for a Writers workshop conducted by Hero’s Group in Hyderabad & Chennai.

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

Asia Pacific Rice Film Award: Say thank you to rice in moving images!

Have a rice day!

Have a rice day!

If an alien spaceship were to randomly descend to the one third of our planet that is not covered by ocean, chances are high that it would land on a rice field.

So I was told a few years ago, when spending time with some rice researchers. Rice is the most widely cultivated food crop in the world. It is also the most important staple food for a large part of the world’s human population, especially in East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the West Indies. From risotto to sushi to paella, food-savvy consumers are using rice as the main ingredient in recipes from around the world. Rice lends substance and texture to many dishes.

Despite all this, rice is under some pressures both economically and culturally. For one thing, it has been taken for granted by many of those who regularly have a ‘rice day’ and think nothing further about it.

That’s the reason for the first-ever Asia Pacific Rice Film Award – a regional competition to celebrate the role of rice in Asian cultures and societies. This is a regional partnership involving Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific (PAN-AP), my own organisation TVE Asia Pacific and Public Media Agency of Malaysia.

APRFA logo

APRFA logo

I have just given an interview to TimeOut Kuala Lumpur magazine, October 2009 issue. In my capacity as head of the seven-member international jury, I answered questions from the magazine’s Brian Kwan. Here is the full text of the interview, which is also available online here:

How effective do you think this award will be?
When we set out on this joint effort, we posed two big questions: What feeds 3 billion people? And what is slowly but surely disappearing without anyone noticing it? The answer to both questions is Rice! We wanted this film award to draw attention to the central role that rice plays in Asian and Pacific cultures and economies. The measure of our success will be a long term one, and will depend on how many take part in this competition and how far and wide we will be able to distribute their creative efforts.

Why do you think Asia is in need for a wake up call on the subject of rice?
Rice one of our most revered treasures in the Asia Pacific, and many of us take it for granted. It is central to the Asian way of life — its cultural heritage and diversity, spirituality and traditions. This precious rice heritage is under threat from corporate or industrialized agriculture, neo-liberal globalization, private control of the rice seeds, and genetic engineering of the rice genome. Rice lands are also being torn away from small rice farming communities in the name of “development” projects such as special economic zones, cash cropping, and agro-fuel plantations.

Time Out KLPesticide Action Network Asia Pacific (PAN-AP) has for the last two decades championed the food sovereignty of the grassroots, namely, farmers, agricultural workers, indigenous people and consumers. In 2003, PAN-AP launched the SAVE OUR RICE CAMPAIGN. It is founded on Five Pillars of Rice Wisdom: Rice Culture, Community Wisdom, Biodiversity based Ecological Agriculture, Safe Food and Food Sovereignty. Last year, PAN-AP joined TVE Asia Pacific and Public Media Agency to organise this film competition as part of the on-going campaign. We all share the ideals of promoting rice in Asia and the Pacific.

APRFA co-organisers

APRFA co-organisers

What would you be looking out for in the short films?
The Asia Pacific Rice Film Award will be presented to creators of short innovative television, video or cinematic films that effectively educate the public on the role of rice in Asian cultures, economies and communities/societies. The films should use the ‘Five Pillars of Rice Wisdom’ as guiding principles. They should enhance appreciation of the rice heritage of Asia; raise public awareness of the issues on and threats to rice; highlight the role of small farmers, women in rice; strengthen the people’s resolve and action to save rice; and encourage a stronger role for youth in rice.

Any tips for the participants?
We are looking for short films that are innovative, imaginative and ultimately effective in raising public awareness. Rice may be a pervasive topic in Asia, but the threats to rice are not yet widely appreciated. How do we take this message to the three billion rice growers and eaters of Asia using moving images? How do we engage the YouTube generation – predominantly youthful populations of Asia – with films that open eyes and provoke minds to think further? What would work best — factual reportage, drama, humour, performing arts or other formats? These questions are worth pondering. As organisers, we are open to all formats. We want to be surprised!

After all this, what would be the next step/project?
As I said, this is an on-going campaign, so the winning and commended entries will become new tools and resources for that campaign. Making films and ranking them is only the first half of our shared challenge. We then have to get these films distributed far and wide, using broadcast, narrowcast, webcast and mobile platforms. Three billion people means six billion eye balls that need to be reached! That should keep all of us busy for a while…

Read more about the Asia Pacific Rice Film Award 2008/2009

Deadline for entries is 31 December 2009!

Reporting disasters: How to keep a cool head when all hell breaks loose

WCSJ London

News by definition looks for the exception. What goes right, and according to plan, is hardly news. Deviations, aberrations and accidents hit the news.

It’s the same with disasters. Reducing a hazard or averting a disaster does not make the news; when that hazard turns into a disaster, that typically tops the news. Yet, as we discussed during a session at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London from June 30 – July 2, 2009, both aspects are important — and both present many challenges to journalists and the media.

The session, titled Covering a disaster from Sichuan to Sri Lanka, saw three science journalists share their own experiences and insights in covering two major disasters in Asia. Richard Stone (Asia News Editor, Science) and Hujun Li (senior science writer with Caijing magazine, China) both spoke about covering the Sichuan earthquake that occurred on 12 May 2008. I spoke on my experiences in covering the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004. The session was chaired by the veteran (and affable) British journalist Tim Radford, who has been The Guardian‘s arts editor, literary editor and science editor.

Covering a disaster from Sichuan to Sri Lanka: L to R: Hujun Li, Nalaka Gunawardene and Richard Stone

Covering a disaster from Sichuan to Sri Lanka: L to R: Hujun Li, Nalaka Gunawardene and Richard Stone

I recalled the post-tsunami media coverage in two phases — breaking news phase (first 7 – 10 days) and the aftermath, which lasted for months. When the news broke on a lazy Sunday morning, ‘Tsunami’ was a completely alien term for most media professionals in Sri Lanka. In newspaper offices, as well as radio and TV studios, journalists suddenly had to explain to their audiences what had happened, where and how. This required journalists to quickly educate themselves, and track down geologists and oceanographers to obtain expert interpretation of the unfolding events. We than had to distill it in non-technical terms for our audiences.

My involvement in this phase was as a regular ‘TV pundit’ and commentator on live TV broadcasts of MTV Channels, Sri Lanka’s largest and most popular broadcast network. Night after night on live TV, we talked about the basics of tsunami and earthquakes, and summed up the latest information on what had taken place. We also acknowledged the limits of science -– for example, despite advances in science and technology, there still was no way of predicting earthquakes in advance.

One question we simply couldn’t answer was frequently raised by thousands of people who lost their loved ones or homes: why did it happen now, here — and to us? Was it an act of God? Was it mass scale karma? As science journalists, we didn’t want to get into these debates — we had to be sensitive when public emotions were running high.

There were enough topics during the breaking news phase that had a scientific angle. Clinically cold as it sounded, the mass deaths required the safe, proper and fast burial of bodies with identities established. The survivors had to be provided shelter, food, safe drinking water and counselling. And when rumours were spreading on the possibility of further tsunamis, both officials and public needed credible information from trusted, competent sources.

Tsunami waves lashing Kalutara beach on western Sri Lanka on 26 December 2004: satellite image courtesy DigitalGlobe Quickbird satellite, http://www.digitalglobe.com

Tsunami waves lashing Kalutara beach on western Sri Lanka on 26 December 2004: satellite image courtesy DigitalGlobe Quickbird satellite, http://www.digitalglobe.com

After the breaking news phase passed, we had more time to pursue specific stories and angles related to the tsunami. As an environmentally sensitive journalist, I was naturally interested in how the killer waves had impacted coastal ecosystems. Then I heard some interesting news reports – on how some elements of Nature had buffered certain locations from Nature’s own fury.

Within days, such news emerged from almost all Tsunami-affected countries. They talked about how coral reefs, mangroves and sand dunes had helped protect some communities or resorts by acting as ‘natural barriers’ against the Tsunami waves. These had not only saved many lives but, in some cases, also reduced property damage. Scientists already knew about this phenomenon, called the ‘greenbelt effect’. Mangroves, coral reefs and sand dunes may not fully block out tsunamis or cyclones, but they can often reduce their impact.

Researching this led to the production of TVE Asia Pacific‘s regional TV series called The Greenbelt Reports, which was filmed at a dozen tsunami impacted locations in South and Southeast Asia. By the time we released the series in December 2006, sufficient time had passed for the affected countries to derive environmental lessons of the tsunami.

The other big story I closely followed was on early warnings for rapid on-set disasters like tsunamis. Some believed that the tsunami caught Indian Ocean rim countries entirely by surprise, but that wasn’t quite true. While the countries of South and Southeast Asia were largely unprepared to act on the tsunami, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) in Hawaii, who had detected the extraordinary seismic activity, did issued a tsunami warning one hour after the undersea quake off western Sumatra. This was received at Sri Lanka’s government-run seismological centre in good time, but went unheeded: no one reacted with the swiftness such information warranted. Had a local warning been issued, timely coastal evacuation could have saved thousands.

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...

Part of my sustained coverage focused on logistical, technological and socio-cultural challenges in delivering timely, credible and effective early warnings to communities at risk. I did this by writing opinion essays on SciDev.Net and elsewhere, partnering in the HazInfo action research project in Sri Lanka, and leading the Communicating Disasters Asian regional project. A lasting outcome is the multi-author book on Communicating Disasters that I co-edited in December 2007.

All this shows the many and varied science or development stories that journalists can find in the aftermath of disasters. Some of these are obvious and widely covered. Others need to be unearthed and researched involving months of hard work and considerable resources. Revisiting the scenes of disasters, and talking to the affected people weeks or months after the event, often brings up new dimensions and insights.

My own advice to science journalists was that they should leave the strictly political stories to general news reporters, and instead concentrate on the more technical or less self-evident facets in a disaster. During discussion, senior journalist Daniel Nelson suggested that all disaster stories are inherently political as they deal with social disparities and inequalities. I fully agreed that a strict separation of such social issues and science stories wasn’t possible or desirable. However, science journalists are well equipped to sniff out stories that aren’t obviously covered by all members of the media pack that descends on Ground Zero. Someone needs to go beyond body counts and aid appeals to ask the hard questions.

As Hujun Li said recalling the post-Sichuan quake experience, “Politics and science are like twins – we can’t separate the two. What we as science journalists can do is to gather scientific evidence and opinion before we critique official policies or practices.”

Another question we were asked was how journalists can deal with emotions when they are surrounded by so much death and destruction in disaster scenes. Reference was made to trauma that some reporters experience in such situations.

I said: “We are human beings first and journalists next, so it’s entirely normal for us to be affected by what is happening all around us. On more than one occasion in the days following the tsunami, I spoke on live television with a lump in my throat; I know of presenters who broke down on the air when emotions overwhelmed them.”

SciDev.Net blog post: Finding the science in the midst of disaster

And now...the sequels

And now...the sequels

Summing up, Tim Radford emphasized the need for the media to take more interest in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), which basically means preventing disasters or minimising the effects of disasters.

“DRR is perhaps less ‘sexy’ for the media, as it involves lots of policies and practices sustained over time,” he said. “But the potential to do public good through these interventions is enormous.”

As Tim reminded us, disasters already exact a terrible and enduring toll on the poorest countries. This is set to get worse as human numbers increase and climate change causes extreme weather and creates other adverse impacts. Living with climate change would require sustained investments in DRR at every level.

Read Tim Radford on how disasters hit the poor the hardest (The Guardian, 22 May 2009).

The stories are out there to be captured, analysed and communicated. In the coming years, the best stories may well turn out to be on disasters averted or minimised

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

‘Climate Challenge’ marks turning point in Vietnam’s climate concerns

Seeking local solutions for a global problem

Climate Challenge TV series: Seeking local solutions for a global problem

Many media reports and documentaries on climate change tend to be scary. Even the most balanced and scientifically informed ones caution us about dire scenarios that can rapidly change the world as we know it.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Like every crisis, climate change too presents humanity with formidable challenges that can become opportunities to do things differently — and better.

Climate Challenge is a rare TV series that adopts this positive attitude. The 6-part series co-produced by One Planet Pictures in the UK and dev.tv in Switzerland, links the global climate crisis with location action for both mitigation (trying to reduce further aggravation) and adaptation (learning to cope with impacts).

It also makes the point: in the fight against global warming, developed and developing countries must work hand-in-hand to find viable solutions for all.

The film-makers of Climate Challenge focus on some of the most promising approaches to turning down the global thermostat. Climate Challenge goes in search for solutions that won’t put a break on economic growth.

The series had its original run on BBC World News in April – May 2007. Shortly afterwards, TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP) started distributing it to TV channels, educational institutions and civil society groups across the Asia Pacific region. It has been one of the more popular items on our catalogue of international TV films on sustainable development and social justice.

Our deal with Asia Pacific broadcasters is a barter arrangement. TVEAP clears copyrights for developing countries in our region (more than 30 countries or territories) and offers films free of license fee that normally prevent many southern broadcasters from using this content.

We offer a new set of titles every two months to our broadcast partners – now numbering over 40 channels. They select and order what interests them, and often pay for the cost of copying on to professional tape and dispatch by courier.

When they receive the tapes, accompanied by time-coded scripts, many TV stations version the films into their local language/s using sub-titles or voice-dubbing. They do this at their expense, and then assign a good time slot for airing the films once or several times. They are free to re-run the films as often as they want. The only expectation is that they give us feedback on the broadcasts, so that we can report to the copyright owners once a year.

This arrangement works well, and bilateral relationships have developed between TVEAP’s distribution team and programme managers or acquisition staff at individual TV stations across Asia. Everything happens remotely — through an online ordering system and by email. It’s rarely that we at TVEAP get to meet and talk with our broadcast colleagues in person.

Pham Thuy Trang speaks in Tokyo

Pham Thuy Trang speaks in Tokyo

I was delighted, therefore, to meet one of our long-standing broadcast colleagues in Tokyo earlier this month when we ran a regional workshop on changing climate and moving images. Pham Thuy Trang, a reporter with news and current affairs department of Vietnam Television (VTV), was one of the participants. She turned out to be an ardent fan of our films.

She told the Tokyo workshop how the Climate Challenge series marked a turning point in Vietnam’s public discussion and understanding of climate change issues.

In mid 2007, VTV was one of many Asian broadcasters who ordered Climate Challenge. Having versioned it into Vietnamese, VTV broadcast the full series in December 2007 to coincide with the 13th UN climate change conference in Bali, Indonesia.

“This was the first time the issue received indepth coverage on TV,” Trang said. This was particularly significant because a 2007 survey had revealed low levels of interest in climate issues by the media in Vietnam.

Vietnam has a 3,000km long coastline

Vietnam has a 3,000km long coastline

“In fact, the World Bank has identified Vietnam, with its 3,000 km long coastline, as among the countries most vulnerable to climate change impact. Our media has been reporting some developments – such as increased coastal erosion – as purely local incidents without making the climate link,” she noted.

The series, originally broadcast in the foreign documentaries slot, was noticed by the VTV senior management who then arranged for its repeat broadcast in the long-established environmental slot. The latter slot, well established for a decade, commands a bigger audience.

“Our Director General was impressed by our receiving such a good series on an important global issue,” Trang recalled. She added: “We need more films like this – that explain the problem and help us to search for solutions.”

Trang kept on thanking TVEAP for Climate Challenge and other films that bring international environment and development concerns to millions of Vietnamese television viewers. I said we share the credit with generous producers like One Planet Pictures and dev.tv, who let go of the rights to their creations for the global South.

If only more producers of TV content on climate and other development issues think and act as they do. That was also the call we made at the end of our workshop: recognise climate change as a copyright free zone.



Related blog post: Climate in crisis and planet in peril – but we’re squabbling over copyrights!