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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Asia’s Other Eclipse: The one that doesn’t make TV news!

This multiple exposure image shows the various stages of the total solar eclipse in Baihata village, 30 kms from Guwahati, the capital city of the northeastern state of Assam on July 22, 2009. The longest solar eclipse of the 21st century cast a shadow over much of Asia, plunging hundreds of millions into darkness across the giant land masses of India and China. AFP PHOTO/ Biju BORO

This multiple exposure image shows the various stages of the total solar eclipse in Baihata village, 30 kms from Guwahati, the capital city of the northeastern state of Assam on July 22, 2009. The longest solar eclipse of the 21st century cast a shadow over much of Asia, plunging hundreds of millions into darkness across the giant land masses of India and China. AFP PHOTO/ Biju BORO

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.

Eclipse watching in Taregna, Bihar, India - Photo: Prashant Ravi, BBC Online

Eclipse watching in Taregna, Bihar, India - Photo: Prashant Ravi, BBC Online

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.

That didn’t deter some affluent Indians -– if the eclipse won’t come to them, they just went after it. They chartered an airplane to fly above the rain clouds to catch the once-in-a-lifetime eclipse. Each seat cost US Dollars 1,650.

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.

Myanmar Buddhist novices watch solar eclipse through the filters, in Yangon, Myanmar

Myanmar Buddhist novices watch solar eclipse through the filters, in Yangon, Myanmar

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.

World map proportionate to number of poor people in each country/region - from Atlas of the Real World

World map proportionate to number of poor people in each country/region - from Atlas of the Real World

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.

For example, despite recent gains, over 640 million Asians were still living on less than one US Dollar a day in 2007 according to UN-ESCAP. Three quarters of the 1.9 billion people who lack safe sanitation are in Asia — that’s one huge waiting line for a toilet!

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.

Indonesian children look up through x-ray film sheets to watch a solar eclipse in the sky in Anyer Beach, Banten province, Indonesia

Indonesian children look up through x-ray film sheets to watch a solar eclipse in the sky in Anyer Beach, Banten province, Indonesia

“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.”

P N Vasanti, Director of the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies which monitors the leading newspapers and news channels in India, laments how “development” issues such as health, agriculture and education are not even on the radar of popular news sources. Her conclusion is based on a content analysis of the six major Indian news channels during the run-up to the recent general election in India.

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.

* * * * * *

Shorter version of the above comment was published by Asia Media Forum on 23 July 2009

Full length version appeared on OneWorld.Net on 23 July 2009

Reprinted in The Nepali Times, 24 July 2009

Waiting for his long eclipse to end...

Waiting for his long eclipse to end...