Going beyond “Poor Journalism” that ignores the poor

Sri Lankan Media Fellows on Poverty and Development with their mentors and CEPA coordinators at orientation workshop in Colombo, 24 Sep 2016
Sri Lankan Media Fellows on Poverty and Development with their mentors and CEPA coordinators at orientation workshop in Colombo, 24 Sep 2016

“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).

The Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), a non-profit think tank has launched the Media Fellowship Programme on Poverty and Development to inspire and support better media coverage of these issues. The programme is co-funded by UNESCO and CEPA.

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.

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at orientation workshop for Media Fellows on Poverty and Development at CEPA, 24 Sep 2016
Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at orientation workshop for Media Fellows on Poverty and Development at CEPA, 24 Sep 2016

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.

Here is my PPT:

More photos from the orientation workshop:



Details of CEPA Media Fellowship Programme on Poverty and Development

List of 20 Media Fellows on Poverty and Development

[Op-ed] Major Reforms Needed to Rebuild Public Trust in Sri Lanka’s Media

Text of an op-ed essay published in the Sunday Observer on 10 July 2016:

Major Reforms Needed to Rebuild Public Trust

in Sri Lanka’s Media

 By Nalaka Gunawardene

Sri Lanka’s government and its media industry need to embark on wide-ranging media sector reforms, says a major new study released recently.

Such reforms are needed at different levels – in government policies, laws and regulations, as well as within the media industry and profession. Media educators and trainers also have a key role to play in raising professional standards in our media, the study says.

Recent political changes have opened a window of opportunity which needs to be seized urgently by everyone who desires a better media in Sri Lanka, urges the study report, titled Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka.

Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka (May 2016)
Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka (May 2016)

The report was released on World Press Freedom Day (May 3) at a Colombo meeting attended by the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and Minister of Mass Media.

The report is the outcome of a 14-month-long research and consultative process. Facilitated by the Secretariat for Media Reforms, it engaged over 500 media professionals, owners, managers, academics, relevant government officials and members of various media associations and trade unions. It offers a timely analysis, accompanied by policy directions and practical recommendations. I served as is overall editor.

“The country stands at a crossroads where political change has paved the way for strengthening safeguards for freedom of expression (FOE) and media freedom while enhancing the media’s own professionalism and accountability,” the report notes.

Politicians present at the launch could only agree.

“The government is willing to do its part for media freedom and media reforms. But are you going to do yours?” he asked the dozens of editors, journalists and media managers present. There were no immediate answers.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks at the launch of 'Rebuilding Public Trust' report in Colombo, 3 May 2016 (Photo courtesy SLPI)
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks at the launch of ‘Rebuilding Public Trust’ report in Colombo, 3 May 2016 (Photo courtesy SLPI)

Whither Media Professionalism?

The report acknowledges how, since January 2015, the new government has taken several positive steps. These include: reopening investigations into some past attacks on journalists; ending the arbitrary and illegal blocking of political websites done by the previous regime; and recognising access to information as a fundamental right in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (after the report was released, the Right to Information Act has been passed by Parliament, which enables citizens to exercise this right).

These and other measures have helped improve Sri Lanka’s global ranking by 24 points in the World Press Freedom Index (https://rsf.org/en/ranking). It went up from a dismal 165 in 2015 index (which reflected conditions that prevailed in 2014) to a slightly better 141 in the latest index.

Compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a global media rights advocacy group, the Index reflects the degree of freedom that journalists, news organisations and netizens (citizens using the web) enjoy in a country, and the efforts made by its government to respect and nurture this freedom.

Sri Lanka, with a score of 44.96, has now become 141st out of 180 countries assessed. While we have moved a bit further away from the bottom, we are still in the company of Burma (143), Bangladesh (144) and South Sudan (140) – not exactly models of media freedom.

Clearly, much more needs be done to improve FOE and media freedom in Sri Lanka – and not just by the government. Media owners and managers also bear a major responsibility to create better working conditions for journalists and other media workers. For example, by paying better wages to journalists, and allowing trade union rights (currently denied in many private media groups, though enjoyed in all state media institutions).

Rebuilding Public Trust acknowledges these complexities and nuances: freedom from state interference is necessary, but not sufficient, for a better and pluralistic media.

It also points out that gradual improvement in media freedom must now to be matched by an overall upping of media’s standards and ethical conduct.

By saying so, the report turns the spotlight on the media itself — an uncommon practice in our media. It says that only a concerted effort by the entire media industry and all its personnel can raise professional standards and ethical conduct of Sri Lanka’s media.

A similar sentiment is expressed by Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, an experienced journalist turned media trainer who was part of the report’s editorial team (and has since become the Director General of the Department of Information). “Sri Lanka’s media freedom has gone up since January 2015, but can we honestly say there has been much (or any) improvement in our media’s level of professionalism?” he asks.

Media in Crisis

Tackling the dismally low professionalism on a priority basis is decisive for the survival of our media which points fingers at all other sections of society but rarely engages in self reflection.

Rebuilding Public Trust comes out at a time when Sri Lanka’s media industry and profession face many crises stemming from an overbearing state, unpredictable market forces and rapid technological advancements. Balancing the public interest and commercial viability is one of the media sector’s biggest challenges today.

The report says: “As the existing business models no longer generate sufficient income, some media have turned to peddling gossip and excessive sensationalism in the place of quality journalism. At another level, most journalists and other media workers are paid low wages which leaves them open to coercion and manipulation by persons of authority or power with an interest in swaying media coverage.”

Notwithstanding these negative trends, the report notes that there still are editors and journalists who produce professional content in the public interest while also abiding by media ethics.

Unfortunately, their good work is eclipsed by media content that is politically partisan and/or ethnically divisive.

For example, much of what passes for political commentary in national newspapers is nothing more than gossip. Indeed, some newspapers now openly brand content as such!

Similarly, research for this study found how most Sinhala and Tamil language newspapers cater to the nationalism of their respective readerships instead of promoting national integrity.

Such drum beating and peddling of cheap thrills might temporarily boost market share, but these practices ultimately erode public trust in the media as a whole. Surveys show fewer media consumers actually believing that they read, hear or watch.

One result: younger Lankans are increasingly turning to entirely web-based media products and social media platforms for obtaining their information as well as for speaking their minds. Newspaper circulations are known to be in decline, even though there are no independently audited figures.

If the mainstream media is to reverse these trends and salvage itself, a major overhaul of media’s professional standards and ethics is needed, and fast. Newspaper, radio and TV companies also need clarity and a sense of purpose on how to integrate digital platforms into their operations (and not as mere add-ons).

L to R - Lars Bestle of IMS, R Sampanthan, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Paranawithana, Gayantha Karunathilake with copies of new study report on media reforms - Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene
L to R – Lars Bestle of IMS, R Sampanthan, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Paranawithana, Gayantha Karunathilake with copies of new study report on media reforms – Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

Recommendations for Reforms

The report offers a total of 101 specific recommendations, which are sorted under five categories. While many are meant for the government, a number of important recommendations are directed at media companies, journalists’ and publishers’ associations, universities, media training institutions, and development funding agencies.

“We need the full engagement of all stakeholders in building a truly free, independent and public interest minded pluralistic media system as a guarantor of a vibrant democracy in Sri Lanka,” says Wijayananda Jayaweera, a former director of UNESCO’s Communication Development Division, who served as overall advisor for our research and editorial process.

In fact, this assessment has used an internationally accepted framework developed by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Known as the Media Development Indicators (MDIs), this helps identify strengths and weaknesses, and propose evidence-based recommendations on how to enhance media freedom and media pluralism in a country. Already, two dozen countries have used this methodology.

The Sri Lanka study was coordinated by the Secretariat for Media Reforms, a multistakeholder alliance comprising the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media; Department of Mass Media at University of Colombo; Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI); Strategic Alliance for Research and Development (SARD); and International Media Support (IMS) of Denmark.

We carried out a consultative process that began in March 2015. Activities included a rapid assessment discussed at the National Summit for Media Reforms in May 2015 (attended by over 200), interviews with over 40 key media stakeholders, a large sample survey, brainstorming sessions, and a peer review process that involved over 250 national stakeholders and several international experts.

Nalaka Gunawardene, Editor of Rebuilding Public Trust in Media Report, presents key findings at launch event in Colombo, 3 May 2016 - (Photo courtesy SLPI)
Nalaka Gunawardene, Editor of Rebuilding Public Trust in Media Report, presents key findings at launch event in Colombo, 3 May 2016 – (Photo courtesy SLPI)

Here is the summary of key recommendations:

  • Law review and revision: The government should review all existing laws which impose restrictions on freedom of expression with a view to amending them as necessary to ensure that they are fully consistent with international human rights laws and norms.
  • Right to Information (RTI): The RTI law should be implemented effectively, leading to greater transparency and openness in the public sector and reorienting how government works.
  • Media ownership: Adopt new regulations making it mandatory for media ownership details to be open, transparent and regularly disclosed to the public.
  • Media regulation: Repeal the Press Council Act 5 of 1973, and abolish the state’s Press Council. Instead, effective self-regulatory arrangements should be made ideally by the industry and covering both print and broadcast media.
  • Broadcast regulation: New laws are needed to ensure transparent broadcast licensing; more rational allocation of frequencies; a three-tier system of public, commercial and community broadcasters; and obligations on all broadcasters to be balanced and impartial in covering politics and elections. An independent Broadcasting Authority should be set up.
  • Digital broadcasting: The government should develop a clear plan and timeline for transitioning from analogue to digital broadcasting in television as soon as possible.
  • Restructuring state media: The three state broadcasters should be transformed into independent public service broadcasters with guaranteed editorial independence. State-owned Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (Lake House) should be operated independently with editorial freedom.
  • Censorship: No prior censorship should be imposed on any media. Where necessary, courts may review media content for legality after publication. Laws and regulations that permit censorship should be reviewed and amended.
  • Blocking of websites: The state should not limit online content or social media activities in ways that contravene freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and international conventions.
  • Privacy and surveillance: Privacy of all citizens and others should be respected by the state and the media. There should be strict limits to the state surveillance of private individuals and entities’ phone and other electronic communications.
  • Media education and literacy: Journalism and mass media education courses at tertiary level should be reviewed and updated to meet current industry needs and consumption patterns. A national policy is needed for improving media literacy and cyber literacy.

Full report in English is available at: https://goo.gl/5DYm9i

Sinhala and Tamil versions are under preparation and will be released shortly.

Science writer and media researcher Nalaka Gunawardene served as overall editor of the new study, and also headed one of the four working groups that guided the process. He tweets as: @NalakaG

Crying Wolf in the Global Village? Managing Disaster Early Warnings in the Age of Social Media

Participants of SHER (Science, Health, Environment & Risk) Communication - Role of S&T Communication in Disaster Management and Community Preparedness held in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 8-9 Dec 2015
Participants of SHER (Science, Health, Environment & Risk) Communication – Role of S&T Communication in Disaster Management and Community Preparedness held in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 8-9 Dec 2015

On 8 – 9 December 2015, I attended and spoke at the Asian Regional Workshop on “SHER (Science, Health, Environment & Risk) Communication: Role of S&T Communication in Disaster Management and Community Preparedness” held in Jakarta, Indonesia.

It was organised by the Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia (AASSA) in collaboration with the Indonesian Academy of Sciences (AIPI), Korean Academy of Science and Technology (KAST) and the Agency for Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) in Indonesia.

The workshop brought together around 25 participants, most of them scientists researching or engaged in publication communication of science, technology and health related topics. I was one of two journalists in that gathering, having been nominated by the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka (NAASL).

I drew on over 25 years of journalistic and science communication experience, during which time I have worked with disaster managers and researchers, and also co-edited a book, Communicating Disasters: An Asian Regional Handbook (2007).

Nalaka Gunawardene speaking at Science, Health, Environment & Risk Communication Asian regional workshop held in Jakarta, Indonesia, 8-9 Dec 2015
Nalaka Gunawardene speaking at Science, Health, Environment & Risk Communication Asian regional workshop held in Jakarta, Indonesia, 8-9 Dec 2015

The challenge in disaster early warnings is to make the best possible decisions quickly using imperfect information. With lives and livelihoods at stake, there is much pressure to get it right. But one can’t be timely and perfectly accurate at the same time.

We have come a long way since the devastating Boxing Day tsunami of December 2004 caught Indian Ocean countries by surprise. Many of the over 230,000 people killed that day could have been saved by timely coastal evacuations.

The good news is that advances in science and communications technology, greater international cooperation, and revamped national systems have vastly improved tsunami early warnings during the past decade. However, some critical gaps and challenges remain.

The Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (IOTWS) was set up in 2005 under UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. Over USD 400 million has been invested in state of the art equipment for rapid detection and assessment. However, the system’s overall effectiveness is limited by poor local infrastructure and lack of preparedness. Some countries also lack efficient decision-making for issuing national level warnings based on regionally provided rapid assessments.

Warnings must reach communities at risk early enough for action. False warnings can cause major economic losses and reduce compliance with future evacuation orders. Only governments can balance these factors. It is important that there be clearer protocols within governments to consider the best available information and make the necessary decisions quickly.

Now, the proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) is making this delicate balance even more difficult. To remain effective in the always-connected and chattering Global Village, disaster managers have to rethink their engagement strategies.

Controlled release of information is no longer an option for governments. In the age of 24/7 news channels and social media, many people will learn of breaking disasters independently of official sources. Some social media users will also express their views instantly – and not always accurately.

How can this multiplicity of information sources and peddlers be harnessed in the best public interest? What are the policy options for governments, and responsibilities for technical experts? How to nurture public trust, the ‘lubricant’ that helps move the wheels of law and order – as well as public safety – in the right direction?

As a case study, I looked at what happened on 11 April 2012, when an 8.6-magnitude quake occurred beneath the ocean floor southwest of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Several Asian countries issued quick warnings and some also ordered coastal evacuations. For example, Thai authorities shut down the Phuket International Airport, while Chennai port in southern India was closed for a few hours. In Sri Lanka, panic and chaos ensued.

In the end, the quake did not generate a tsunami (not all such quakes do) – but it highlighted weaknesses in the covering the ‘last mile’ in disseminating early warnings clearly and efficiently.

Speakers on ‘ICT Applications for Disaster Prevention and Treatment’ in Jakarta, Indonesia, 8-9 Dec 2015
Speakers on ‘ICT Applications for Disaster Prevention and Treatment’ in Jakarta, Indonesia, 8-9 Dec 2015

See also: Nurturing Public Trust in Times of Crisis: Reflections on April 11 Tsunami Warning. Groundviews.org 26 April 2012

I concluded: Unless governments communicate in a timely and authoritative manner during crises, that vacuum will be filled by multiple voices. Some of these may be speculative, or mischievously false, causing confusion and panic.

My full PowerPoint:


Op-ed: Why We Need Science for All

The Sunday Observer newspaper in Sri Lanka recently sought my views on the concept of ‘Science for All’, which comes into focus with World Science Day observed globally on November 10. I sent them an op-ed of 700 words, from which they have quoted extensively in a long feature published today: http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2014/11/09/spe05.asp

Here, for the record, is my full essay in original form:

We can take the citizen to Science but...? Cartoon by Awantha Artigala
We can take the citizen to Science but…? Cartoon by Awantha Artigala

Why We Need Science for All

 By Nalaka Gunawardene

World Science Day for Peace and Development is celebrated worldwide on 10 November each year.

The annual, global event was initiated in 2001 by UNESCO, the UN agency covering education, science and culture. It is an opportunity to remind ourselves why science is relevant to our daily lives.

World Science Day aims to ensure that everyone is kept informed of new developments in science, and the role scientists in society is understood and valued.

The notion of ‘Science for All’ is not confined to scientific subjects studied in school or university. Science is much more than textbooks, laboratories and experts.

Some among us are drawn to studying science and technology in depth and pursue careers in medicine, engineering or other specialized fields. Sri Lanka certainly needs such highly skilled persons to transform the economy and society.

Beyond this, however, every citizen needs a certain minimum knowledge and understanding of science and technology to lead productive and safe lives today. Without it, we can get easily confused, sidelined or exploited by various scams.

Consider a few recent headline-making developments.

Last month, an international health conference held in Colombo heard that no new malaria cases had been reported in Sri Lanka since October 2012. It suggests that we have probably eliminated the ancient disease from our island. Science based disease surveillance and control measures were responsible for this feat in public health.

Yet there is no time to rest, as other mosquito borne diseases pose new threats. Since 1988, dengue fever (DF) and dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF) epidemics have been regular occurrences in Sri Lanka, which is among the 30 most dengue endemic countries. Dengue is preventable and evidence shows it can be contained. Once again we need scientific research to inform health policies and control measures.

The Koslanda landslide on 29 October destroyed an entire settlement, instantly burying many innocent people and making hundreds more homeless. That was a national tragedy, especially as the hazard was identified by scientists at the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) who had repeatedly warned the people at risk to relocate.

Alas, that did not happen for socio-economic reasons. A key lesson of Koslanda is that hazard information and warnings need timely and effective communication. To be effective, they need to be accompanied by viable alternatives to those at risk.

We often read media reports that can be scary. We hear about pesticide residues in our food, the rising number of road traffic accidents, and the danger of digital identity theft. Some basic scientific knowledge and technical skills become essential survival tools in the 21st century. Science cannot be left to scientists alone.

We can understand this with a sporting analogy. Our national passion of cricket is played professionally by a handful of men and women who make up the national teams and pools. But practically all 20 million Lankans know enough about cricket to follow and appreciate the game.

Similarly, we have a few thousand professionals practising or teaching science and technology for a living. The rest of society also needs to know at least the basic concepts — and limits — of science.

Science for All would be a 'good idea' for a nation obsessed with astrology! Cartoon by Awantha Artigala
Science for All would be a ‘good idea’ for a nation obsessed with astrology! Cartoon by Awantha Artigala

For example, the scientific method involves questioning and investigating before accepting anything. A healthy dose of scepticism is very useful to safeguard ourselves from superstitions and increasingly sophisticated – but not always honest – product advertising.

The Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation (COSTI, website: http://costi.gov.lk), set up in 2013 under the Senior Minister of Science and Technology, has recently set up a National Coordinating Council on Science for All in Sri Lanka. Its mandate is to empower Lankans of all ages and walks of life with science knowledge to enable them to make informed decisions in everyday life.

The Council wants to play a catalytic role, inspiring media, education and professional institutions to promote science communication as an essential survival skill for modern times. It will collaborate with such message ‘multipliers’ who can help reach large numbers of people quickly. A national policy on science communication is to be drawn up to guide future activities.

American astronomer Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996) was at the forefront in promoting science for its sense of wonder and also for countering pseudoscience. As he used to say, “Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.”

[Award-winning science writer Nalaka Gunawardene counts over 25 years of national and international experience, and serves as co-chair of the recently established National Coordinating Council on Science for All in Sri Lanka.]

So you want to help develop the media? Read this first!

Some weeks ago, I wrote a post about How to become a global publisher or broadcaster in just 100 minutes! That was compiled by my British media activist friend David Brewer , who showed how it could be done using free tools that can be downloaded and activated in minutes.

This week, David has brought out another handy guide — this time aimed at those involved in media development. UNESCO defines it in lofty, technocratic terms, but it basically means strengthening the media institutions, media people (practitioners and managers) and media consumers so that the media can best serve the public interest.

Everyone seems to have their own recipe for media development, and that’s part of the media’s huge diversity. Media Helping Media asked a number of people who have benefited from media development projects what they felt needs to change in the year ahead. The replies have so far come from The Russian Federation, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Macedonia, Ukraine, Bhutan and Nepal. They make up a challenging list of tips for those who try to help media in need.

Its introduction says: “You have as much to learn as you have to give. That’s the message to those offering media assistance in transition and post-conflict countries from some of those on the receiving end.”

Here’s my own contribution to this interestingly crowd-sourced distillation. David had asked for three key points, but you can see below why I was never very good in arithmetic…

Media operate as a business, not charity: All media have a social responsibility, but that must be balanced with commercial viability. This is so with state, corporate or community owned media. Bankrupt media can’t serve any public interest.

‘Media’ is a plural: Media is a basket term for entities with enormous diversity and variability. One size does not fit all, no matter how well intended. It’s crucial to understand before engaging any media.

Follow the eyeballs: If you want the biggest bang for your limited buck, start with the mass market end of media such as FM radio, tabloid newspapers and music TV channels. Leave your broadsheet/classical prejudices out of investment decisions.

Take it easy: Audiences need entertainment as much as information and education. Supporting quality entertainment in the media is just as important for the public good as nurturing investigative journalism or advocating media freedom.

Sparks of hope: Real world is not an all-or-nothing game. Find oases of innovation and resilience, and nurture them to survive and grow in turbulent times. Back media underdogs of today who can become fierce watchdogs of tomorrow.

In responding to David’s request last month, I’d added this covering sentence which sums up my thinking: “All this is common sense that is often uncommon. I really wish media development organisations would listen and reflect more, and also step beyond their comfort zones and romanticised little bubbles.”

The entire collection is well worth reading, for it distills decades of ground level experience and insight. This guide will help many well-meaning organisations (UN agencies, philanthropic foundations, CSR arms of media companies and others) to be more focused, sensitive and ultimately more effective in developing the media.

Read the related 12 tips for international media trainers

Restored GAMPERALIYA: A cultural treasure saved from the elements

Gamperaliya (1964): A Sri Lankan film classic
Last evening, at the gala opening of the European Film Festival in Colombo, I sat two rows in front of a living treasure of the Asian cinema and watched his recently restored 1964 cinematic masterpiece, a cultural treasure in its own right.

The doyen of the Lankan cinema, Lester James Peries, made Gamperaliya (Changes in the Village, 35mm, 108 minutes) based on the Sinhala novel of the same name, written by Martin Wickremasinghe, himself a leading light of Lankan literature during the 20th century.

The movie was groundbreaking in Sinhala cinema, and was shot entirely outside of a studio using one lamp and hand held lights for lighting (at a time when most films were still being made within studios). Although not an immediate commercial success, it was critically and internationally acclaimed, and won the Golden Peacock at the Grand Prix International Film Festival in India and the Golden Head of Palenque in Mexico, both in 1965. It was one of the first Lankan films to be internationally recognised.

Lester James Peries
Lester: 20 feature films in a 50-year career...
Gamperaliya was the first independent film made in Sri Lanka. There was no film studio involvement, and the film maker and friends invested Lankan Rupees 170,000 to make it (roughly USD 30,000 at the time, although today the same amount of the much weaker Rupee converts to less than USD 1,500).

Critic David Chute wrote: “Gamperaliya launched a revolution, not only in the way films were made but also in content…[director] Peries sought an alternative to the Bollywood-influenced melodramas that dominated commercial cinema…With an elegant narrative style comparable to Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, [the film’s] aesthetic choices also have a moral dimension.”

Gamperaliya is two years older than myself, and although I’d watched it on television, I had never seen it in a cinema on a large screen with proper sound. It was a real treat. For nearly two hours, I was transported back to two periods of recent history: the newly independent Dominion of Ceylon (not yet renamed Sri Lanka) in the early 1960s when the film was made, and the early 20th century colonial Ceylon where the actual story takes place. To engage in such time travel in the company of the maestro film maker himself was a unique experience.

However, it was sobering to reflect how many who were involved in the creative effort to make Gamperaliya are no longer with us. Among them are screenplay writer Regi Siriwardena, actor Gamini Fonseka and co-producer Anton Wickremasinghe. It was only a few months ago that Tissa Abeysekera, who started his long and colourful association with the Lankan cinema by working as a dialogue writer and assistant director in Gamperaliya, abruptly departed.

Lester, who turned 90 in April 2009, was making a rare public appearance. We were told that this is only the second time he has ventured out since he retired from film-making two years ago. He looked a bit frail, but walked up and down the isle supported by his wife Sumitra Peries, his partner both in life and cinema.

In some ways, cine film is even more prone to the decay of elements than humans. Gamperaliya was almost totally lost. Last evening’s celebrated reunion of the master and his masterpiece was the outcome of a major restoration that involved substantial efforts and investments by concerned cinephiles on both sides of the Atlantic.

Gamperaliya was rescued from the brink of disaster. A few years ago, UNESCO launched a project to collate a World Heritage of cinema and selected another film of Lester’s, Nidhanaya (Treasure, 1972) as a work of art that should be preserved for future generations. But when Lester and UNESCO representatives went to the Sarasavi studio in Dalugama, north of Colombo, where almost all the films made in Lankan cinema are kept, they found that the master Negative (the Mother Copy from which fresh copies could be made) was burnt due to vinegar syndrome – a condition when negatives start deteriorating.

“This was not due to the failure of anybody in Dalugama studio or the National Film Corporation but due to the failure of all governments that came to power since 1956. The late journalist Ajith Samaranayake and many others fought for a film archive but we were not able to persuade any government,” the disappointed film maker was quoted as saying at the time.

Gamperaliya French poster
Gamperaliya French poster

This news reached Pierre Rissient, a French national and a guardian of Lankan cinema who is attached to ‘Pathe’ one of the biggest film companies in the world. He urged Lester to help restore the equally important film Gamperaliya, which was also in a state of decay but could still be salvaged.

In one email, Rissient wrote to Lester: “Dear Lester you made a great masterpiece, not only of the cinematography of your country but also universally. It is your duty to make possible this restoration; it is not for your friend Pierre, but for the world.”

So Pierre Rissient pursued this and arranged for it to be carried out at the film restoration unit of the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). The UCLA Film and Television Archive is the largest university-based collection of film and television materials in the world,

Some 14 sound reels and 14 picture reels of Gamperaliya, weighing 60 kilos, were couriered to UCLA in May 2007. The film was restored to the visual and audio perfection by Rob Stone and Jere Guldin. The restoration with latest digital sound and visual quality will enable the film to be shown all over the world after 45 years.

In May 2008, the restored Gamperaliya was screened at the Cannes Film Festival under the section ‘Restored Classics’.

At the time, Lester wrote to Pierre Rissient: “It is a tremendous campaign that made it possible for Gamperaliya to survive and your incredible faith in our film that made this miracle possible. We do hope and pray that there is no serious deterioration that will destroy any chances of a glorious restoration. Sumithra and I thank you and are joined by the Sri Lanka film industry for your valiant effort.”

And all of us movie lovers in Sri Lanka and across the world join them in this gratitude, for saving the cultural treasure that is Gamperaliya.

Essay by D B S Jeyaraj, April 2009: Lester James Peries – Liberator of Sinhala Cinema

Satinder Bindra: It’s the message, stupid (and never mind the UN branding)!

Satinder Bindra (left) and Keya Acharya
Satinder Bindra (left) and Keya Acharya at IFEJ 2009 Congress

Satinder Bindra left active journalism a couple of years ago when he joined the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) as its Director of the Division of Communications and Public Information (DCPI) based at UNEP Headquarters in Nairobi. But thank goodness he still thinks and acts like a journalist.

Satinder, whom I first met in Paris in the summer of 2008 soon after he took up the new post, gave a highly inspiring speech to the latest congress of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), held at India Habitat Centre in New Delhi from 28 to 30 October 2009.

We have gone beyond the cautionary stage of climate change, and are now acting out ‘Part II’ where we have to focus on what people can do, he said. “Climate change is no longer in doubt, and if anything, the IPCC’s scenarios are turning out to be under-estimates.”

He was referring to the IFEJ congress theme, “Bridging North-South Differences in Reporting Climate Change: Journalists’ role in Reaching an Ambitious Agreement at COP15 in Copenhagen”.

Satinder sounded emphatic when he said: “We have a limited time in which to reach as many people as possible. Environment is the single biggest challenge we face in the world today, and we as journalists have a tremendous responsibility in providing the latest, accurate information to our audiences.”

He added: “There is still a debate among journalists on whether or not we should be advocates for the environment. We should not be scared to push the best science, even if we don’t choose to engage in advocacy journalism.”

Satinder mentioned the “Paris Declaration on Broadcast Media and Climate Change,” adopted by delegates at the first UNESCO Broadcast Media and Climate Change conference held in Paris on 4-5 September 2009. It resolved to “strengthen regional and international collaboration, and encourage production and dissemination of audiovisual content to give a voice to marginalized populations affected by climate change”.

Satinder, who was a familiar face on CNN as its South Asia bureau chief until 2007, acknowledged that the media landscape was evolving faster than ever before. “Thanks to the web and mobile media, our distribution modes and business models are changing. YouTube has emerged as a key platform. Viral is the name of the game.”

His message to broadcasters, in particular, was: “You may be rivals in your work, but when it comes to saving the planet, put those differences aside.”

Copy of Seal the Deal
A call to the whole planet...
Satinder is spearheading, on behalf of UNEP, the UN-wide Seal the Deal Campaign which aims to galvanize political will and public support for reaching a comprehensive global climate agreement in Copenhagen in December.

To me at least, the most important part of Satinder’s speech was when he said that he was not seeking to promote or position the UNEP or United Nations branding. His open offer to all journalists and broadcasters: “If you need to use the hundreds of UNEP films, or make use of our footage in your own work, go right ahead. We want you to make journalistic products. There’s no need or expectation to have the UN branding!”

Wow! This is such a refreshing change — and a significant departure — from most of his counterparts at the other UN agencies, who still think in very narrow, individual agency terms. They just can’t help boxing the lofty ideals of poverty reduction, disaster management, primary health care and everything else within the agenda setting and brand promotion needs of their own agencies.

I have serious concerns about this which I have shared on a number of occasions on this blog. See, for example:
May 2007: Feeding Oliver Twists of the world…and delivering UN logos with it!
August 2007: ‘Cheque-book Development’: Paying public media to deliver development agency logos
October 2007: The many lives of PI: Crisis communication and spin doctors
July 2009: Why can’t researchers just pay the media to cover their work?

In a widely reproduced op ed essay published originally on MediaChannel.org in August 2007, I wrote:

“As development organisations compete more intensely for external funding, they are increasingly adopting desperate strategies to gain higher media visibility for their names, logos and bosses.

“Communication officers in some leading development and humanitarian organisations have been reduced to publicists. When certain UN agency chiefs tour disaster or conflict zones, their spin doctors precede or follow them. Some top honchos now travel with their own ‘embedded journalists’ – all at agency expense.

“In this publicity frenzy, these agencies’ communication products are less and less on the issues they stand for or reforms they passionately advocate. Instead, the printed material, online offerings and video films have become ‘logo delivery mechanisms’.”

Let’s sincerely hope that the pragmatic and passionate Satinder Bindra will be able to shake up the communication chiefs and officers of the UN system, and finally get them to see beyond their noses and inflated egos. It’s about time somebody pointed out that vanity does not serve the best interests of international development.

See also April 2007 blog post: MDG: A message from our spin doctors?

Nollywood rising: Low cost, high volume film industry entertains Africa

Lights, camera...budget action! Image courtesy 'This Is Nollywood'
Lights, camera...budget action! Image courtesy 'This Is Nollywood'
Here’s a general knowledge question: Everyone knows India’s Bollywood is the world’s largest producer of movies (by number). Which country’s movie industry comes second?

If you said Hollywood, that’s a dated answer. America’s movie industry used to be the second largest in the world — until an unlikely contender turned up from…Nigeria!

India remains the world’s leading film producer but Nigeria is closing the gap after overtaking the United States for second place, according to a global cinema survey conducted by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS).

Bollywood produced 1,091 feature-length films in 2006 compared to 872 productions (in video format) from Nigeria’s film industry, commonly referred to as Nollywood. In contrast, the United States produced 485 major films.

The three heavyweights were followed by eight countries that produced more than 100 films: Japan (417), China (330), France (203), Germany (174), Spain (150), Italy (116), South Korea (110) and the United Kingdom (104).

Nigerian filmmakers rely on video instead of film to reduce production costs. And as the survey points out, Nigeria has virtually no formal cinemas. About 99% of screenings occur in informal settings, such as “home theatre”.

This is Nollywood
This is Nollywood
The UNESCO survey reveals another key element of the Nigerian success story: multilingualism. About 56% of Nollywood films are produced in Nigeria’s local languages, namely Yoruba (31%), Hausa (24%) and Igbo (1%). English remains a prominent language, accounting for 44%, which may contribute to Nigeria’s success in exporting its films.

Nollywood’s rising has been chronicled in a 2007 documentary by Franco Sacchi and Robert Caputo. Called This is Nollywood, it tells the story of the Nigerian film industry – a revolution enabling Africans with few resources to tell African stories to African audiences. Despite all odds, Nigerian directors produce between 500 and 1,000 movies a year. The disks sell wildly all over the continent – Nollywood actors have become stars from Ghana to Zambia.

Says Zambia-born director Franco Sacchi: “When I first read about Nigerian directors producing hundreds of feature-length films with digital cameras, a week, and a few thousand dollars, I found the subject irresistible. Here was not only a rare positive story about Africa, but one that embodied the egalitarian promise of digital technology—anybody can make a movie. And Nollywood was virtually unknown.”

This is Nollywood takes us behind the sets and scenes in one Nigerian movie being made on the cheap — and fast. Acclaimed director Bond Emeruwa sets out to make a feature-length action film in just nine days. Armed only with a digital camera, two lights, and about $20,000, Bond faces challenges unimaginable in Hollywood and Bollywood.

Emeruwa says: “We are telling our own stories in our own way, our Nigerian way, African way. I cannot tell the white man’s story. I don’t know what his story is all about. He tells me his story in his movies. I want him to see my stories too.”

Watch This is Nollywood: Movie Trailer

I then came across this TED Talk by Franco Sacchi, where he takes us through Nollywood (at the time he gave his talk, the world’s third largest and now second only to Bollywood). He talks about ‘guerrilla film-making’ and brilliance under pressure from crews that can shoot a full-length feature in a week.

Welcome to Nollywood is another 2007 documentary film, directed by Jamie Meltzer, that looked at the Nigerian film industry. Its findings were similar to those of This is Nollywood. Traveling to the country’s chaotic capitol, Lagos, Meltzer spent ten weeks following three of Nigeria’s hottest directors, each different in personality and style, as they shot their films about love, betrayal, war, and the supernatural.

At around US$250 million per year (and rising), Nollywood’s capital outlay is far below that of Hollywood and Bollywood. For perspective, that’s a bit less than what it cost to make Spiderman 3 in 2007 (budget: US$ 258 million) — the second most expensive film made. See list of most expensive Hollywood films.

Telling their own stories....
Telling their own stories....
But what it lacks in capital, Nollywood more than makes up in numbers and mass appeal. As the Wikipedia notes, Nigerian directors adopt new technologies as soon as they become affordable. Bulky videotape cameras gave way to their digital descendents, which are now being replaced by HD cameras. Editing, music, and other post-production work is done with common computer-based systems.

As Colin Freeman wrote in the Daily Telegraph, UK: “While the likes of Serpent in Paradise and Evil Finger may not be as slick as their Hollywood counterparts, they offer one thing that the likes of George Clooney and Brad Pitt can never provide: characters and stories with which an African audience can identify.”

And according to The Economist, it all started in 1992, when Kenneth Nnebue, a Nigerian trader based in Onitsha, was trying to sell a large stock of blank videocassettes he had bought from Taiwan. He decided that they would sell better with something recorded on them, so he shot a film called “Living in Bondage” about a man who achieves power and wealth by killing his wife in a ritualistic murder, only to repent later when she haunts him. The film sold more than 750,000 copies, and prompted legions of imitators.

The rest, as they say, is now Nollywood history.

Read my August 2007 blog post: “If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will”