Friday, 20 June 2014

Breaking on the Border

Some reflections on days spent on the Cambodian-Thai border. First published on www.iom,int
Cambodian mother and child stare out of a police van as they cross from Thailand into Cambodia. Joe Lowry/IOM
When you’re surrounded by the intensity and emotion of a live disaster situation it’s surprisingly easy to switch into a robotic state, where the hubbub, the hazards and the humanity blur into the background. Yes you are aware of the clamour, the heat, the smells but it seems to fade and retreat, so that it’s a movie screen wrapped around you, and you are performing one task, giving it your all, but disconnected from the cacophony.

I suppose it has to be like that. Perhaps after too many disasters, absorbing too much vicarious suffering, aid workers need to lose perspective to gain focus. You can feel the situation getting in through the pores of your skin but you need to block it, to leave it pooling in your innards, prevent it getting to the brain where it will cloud your mind and affect your judgement. You need to compartmentalise, to do one thing at a time: to select, prioritise and react. You can’t do that when your conscious mind is screaming “This Is All Wrong”.

And you know that there may be a cold can of beer waiting for you long after sundown. Perhaps a hot shower too, when you can purge the layer of chaos on your skin, feeling it washing down the plughole leaving you ready for a rapid sleep, which you already know will be broken in the quietest hours with a jolting memory of a task not done, a face in pain, an abandoned child, or simply an ache for the arms of your own loved ones.

Sometimes you just lose it, and you have to rely on your colleagues to bring you gently – even firmly – back to your role. You are no use burned out. You drag the team down. Let the tears out gently, in private. Even if you’re a veteran, there is no shame in emotion, if it brings you to a better place.

Here’s an example, of what happened to me on the Cambodian-Thai border last week, in a little town called Poi Pet. I know from experience when I am slipping into a land marked “caution”, and thankfully I have developed some coping mechanisms. (But it was hard. Seeing photos of dead children face-down in the mud in Myanmar, unable to travel the thirty miles to assist, corpses lining the pavement in  the Philippines, Port-au-Prince reduced to rubble, the cliché of the African baby, flies in eyes, sucking a leathery breast… something has to give. How do I cope? I work, I write, I expunge the demons like that. Like this.)

There was no heartache on the border last week as tens of thousands of people poured off buses and thronged a muddy roundabout in a flyblown town you’ll never hear of again, going to places that are just dots on the map, down roads that peter out into tracks, where they will be hugged and kissed and feted, before the solemn reality of more mouths to feed, day after day, kicks in. No heartache, just movement. Lots of movement. People, trucks, buses, bikes, taxis, tuk-tuks, stray dogs, chickens, soldiers, cats, cascading silver rain from mercury clouds, drying in the white sun and pushing waves of hot, wet air, drawing beads and rivulets of sweat which became a paste on the skin when the mud dried rapidly to dust.

So many lives congregating in one point. Thousands of stories, thousands of photos for the communicator that is me, notebook in hand, camera on shoulder, flip-cam in pocket. And when they all come together; impelled, compelled, propelled across this stinky, litter-strewn stream that denotes where Thailand ends, and Cambodia begins, like so many hundreds of thousands did when Cambodia was a vast killing field; then, yes then they become one story, and like it or not, I have to pimp that story to the media.

Where are the journalists? Apart from some bright young things from the Phnom Penh post they are all sitting in Bangkok, covering the alarming crises in Iraq and Ukraine, the Afghan elections, the opening of the World Cup. I’ll never drag them away from that, for this – comparatively – small story, especially when no one is dying, no one is being openly abused.

Then two things happen. Two of the sort of incidents that jerk me out of my melancholy and make me justify my salary.

I take a lift with an IOM driver, a man of about 60, with intelligent, lively eyes shining from a weather-beaten face. He speaks Khmer, excellent Thai and very good English. He learnt English in the school of life, and Thai when he lived in a wooden house across the border for ten years, as a refugee.

A cloud passes over his face.

“I lost ten years of my life. It’s terrible, being a refugee”.

I don’t meet many refugees who have gone home, trailing their possessions and their memories. If I talk to refugees it’s in the white heat of escape, or the dull misery of daily life “there”; a million metaphorical miles from their hearths and lintels, from the land that defines them, their suffering land, the fields and the houses and the good neighbours that are parched and burned and slaughtered.

“It’s terrible being a refugee”.

The people passing me on open trucks, jammed together in a solid mass of bodies are not refugees. They are returning migrants, fleeing from a rumour of a threat. They are disgorged from trucks that come from Thailand, they spill onto the mud and litter-spattered street like fish released en masse from a trawler. They wait, and some hours later, after they have combed through the plastic bags and the rice sacks that hold their earthly goods to be reunited with these paltry possessions, they board another truck for the big towns, where they will have to find more transport to get back up those paths and tracks to their villages.

I take some more photos, speak to a few people, and damn the news agenda which is preventing this story getting out. My colleagues, young Cambodian men and women, a doctor from Myanmar, a stubbled Aussie from Victoria are out there doing life-changing, life-saving work. Others in Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Geneva are urging us on. All I have to do is witness, document, publicize. And I’m not doing it.

I go to the most unlikely of places – a glitzy casino right next to this madness, where the wheels spin and the slots whirr and dozens of people gamble their lives away – and I order a good coffee. I sit on the terrace, as more trucks go by. Several of the human cargo lock eyes with me, puzzled. And I think.

Time for me to gamble.

Halfway through the cup, almost before I know it, my phone is in my hand and I am calling all the senior journalists I know. I berate, I accuse, I castigate, I curse. I hound and I beseech. There are excuses, justifiable perhaps, but there’s also a hint of remorse. Journalists need to be where the stories are, their pride and their reputations are at stake.

CNN bites first. Then Al Jazeera, BBC, Reuters, AFP. By Sunday IOM is headline news. The pressure is on governments to react, to ensure the migrants’ dignity is preserved. Whatever is happening on the pitch in Brazil, I can safely say my team lifted my game on this muddy roundabout. Well played, IOM.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Southampton should keep it Swiss

So Mauricio Pochettino is gone. And although I have enjoyed the beautiful football he has brought to St Mary's this season, I have to say I feel a sense of deliverance now that he has gone. It would have been difficult to get behind him next season, knowing he was merely marking time.
Out: Mauricio Pochettino
In? Murat Yakin

Yes, he will be missed, and yes, I am worried that there will now be a fire sale and our best assets will be stripped. But we have come a long, long way.

The new board has come under a lot of fire for not communicating, despite new chairman Ralph Krueger's assertion that he would be open and honest. But what could he have said? The leaks were all true, it seems. They offered Pochettino a new and improved contract, they slapped huge price tags on the two most sought-after players, Lallana and Shaw, and seem to have put off (for now) the moves. I believe it will come good, and I believe the club will prosper.

Before I analyse Pochettino's record, there's something important that needs to be said about player sales. Southampton is rightly famed for bringing on new, local talent. At one stage last year we had five English teenagers on the pitch. There is a whole host coming through, with a bevvy of England under-21, under 19 and under 17 players showing massive promise, and playing in a European championship-winning side while they are at it.

The Southampton Way means making space for them, bringing them in and on. If their value increases from a thousand pounds to 25 million, as it appears to have done with Lallana, then that's an amazing achievement. We now have a mega-wealthy director in the form of Katarina Liebherr, we are solvent, so we can afford to let young talent blossom.

I confess now that I never really had much time for Pochettino. It took him almost a year to publicly thank the fans. He let them down massively by fielding a weak team against a beatable Sunderland in the FA Cup, denying us a morale-boosting cup run.

His signings: Lovren is a class act who will certainly become captain if Lallalna leaves (assuming that England under-21 captain James Ward-Prowse doesn't get the armband.) But the other flash signing, Danny Oswaldo was a terrible piece of work. The man came in with the air of a man who is owed a living, and went out, humbled, despised by his team mates for loafing the honourable and decent Jose Fonte.

As soon as Oswaldo came in, Lambert was either relegated to the bench or forced to play out of position. The result was the goals dried up, we slipped from 3rd to 9th (which also coincided with our "easy" opening schedule ending, remember, when we drew with West Ham and Sunderland at home?)

Victor Wanayama took time to settle, broke a leg, and came back stronger. Like Jay Rodriguez I feel he works hard as a man of honour, not "just" for a manager.

Pochettinos' tactics were not remarkably different to the way Nigel Atkins has the team playing, until his disgraceful sacking. No Saints fan will forget the opening day of the 2102-13 season and how we went at Champions Manchester city. Nor the "up for it" attitude against Manchester United; only to be denied a victory thanks to two last-gasp RVP goals. And the vaunted "pressing game" was quickly rumbled and unlocked by not only the artisans of Everton but also the morre prosaic hoofers of West 'Am.

Pochettino only won one more game than lost - we may have had 58 per cent possession (and it's true that the other team can't score when you have the ball) but we've also thrown away more leads under Pochettino than any other team. Worse, we've also lost more games from winning positions than any other team.
It was wonderful to see that only Roma had a better defence than us in all of Europe after 5 games, but that quickly crumbled. Yes, injuries played their part, but Pochettino insisted on playing Hoovield and Fox, the Laurel and Hardy of domestic defences. I can still see them, heads in hands, as own goal after own goal bobbles across the line.

As for Pochettino's record - 40 per cent losses in his entire career, versus 34 per cent wins. It's unfair to compare him to Atkins (but I'm going to anyway), who won 67 of his 124 games in charge at Saints, losing just 32. He was fired for not having the type of ambition that ex-Chairman Cortese required. He also brought in a few clangers, but he does take the credit for bringing in Jay Rodriguez, one of the brightest striking talents in the Premiership.

In Pochettino's defence, the players are possibly the fittest in the UK (a long way form the days of Manager Paul Sturrock turning up to take training eating a fried egg sandwich).

In sum, Pochettino did some good things for the club but he is not irreplaceable. He's chosen to take a massive gamble by going to Spurs, and good luck to him there (apart from on two occasions next season). But if people don't want to be at the club, let them go.

So who is next?

We don;t want another tired old face. No Mackay, no McLaren, no Sherwood, no Poyet (maybe he's not old, but he is ugly). Certainly no one from a lower league (except perhaps Atkins) - we need a fresh and exciting name, and that of Murat Yakin keeps popping up. I very much like the idea, he has done wonders at Basel. Rafa Benitez, David Moyes, Michael Laudrup and Roberto Di Matteo's names are also being bandied about, but surely they are on downward trajectories now.

Yakin for me. Keep it Swiss.

Stop Press. Ronald Koeman also being touted. Hmmm,

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

A Pacific Solution from the World Bank

Off to work on the Marshall Islands (IOM/Joe Lowry 2013)
This blog was first published on 
I am no Pacific expert, but my trips to rural Papua New Guinea, and my marathon flight from Bangkok to Majuro (via Manila, Guam, Palau, Chuuk, Kwajelain, Pohnpei – and then from Majuro to a teeny tiny atoll in the midst of a turquoise ocean) got me thinking.
How do all these people find work?
It’s true that there does seem to be a spirit of mañana permeating the Pacific – on the surface of thing people seem to enjoy a more relaxed pace of life, in keeping with the stunning views and balmy climate. And many people stay busy doing things that are automated in the West – catching and preparing food, market gardening. But people have to eat; they have to have health services, water, shops, television, internet, mobile phones, the same as the rest of us, so you can be sure people are grafters.
Put another way, behind the exquisite Marshallese greeting “Yokwe!” (literally “you are a rainbow”) there is an urgency to keep the wheels moving and development charging forward.
But think of the challenges. First, there’s the distances involved. Then the topography. And the weather. Getting anything, from a frozen pizza to an industrial freezer from A to B is always a complex logistical exercise. These people have to be creative. (Lucking they pretty much invented human mobility, if you look at the historical spread of the Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanesian people.)
But now they have new factors to contend with, not least among them climate change, which is already causing droughts, floods and increased emigration. Demographics are colliding with higher expectations, a fact recognised in a recent World Bank report: “Wellbeing from Work in the Pacific Island Countries”. It issues a stark warning that increasing employment opportunities, especially for women and youth, will be critical for the sustainability of Pacific island economies, as populations grow, the number of young people increases, and people move to urban areas.
In fact, over half of Pacific islanders are under 24, the highest ratio in the world. More than half of those are out of work, which, the Bank warns, increases the risk of poverty and social unrest.
“The 10 countries studied in the report are all among the world’s 50 smallest and most remote nations, which poses distinct challenges for job creation,” said Tobias Haque, Economist for the Pacific Islands at the World Bank and lead author of the report. “Innovative solutions are needed from governments and partners if economies are to meet the employment aspirations of Pacific people.”
The report underscores the need for new ways of thinking about labour mobility. It is clear that not everyone will find work at home and remittances from large regional economies in Australia, New Zealand and the United States will continue to be of prime importance. Large infrastructural projects like the Liquid Natural Gas programme in Papua New Guinea are pivotal – will it enrich the underdeveloped nation, or will profits be repatriated? Time will tell.
The report hints that Australia could do more if it increased the size of its Seasonal Worker Programme to a par with New Zealand’s Recognized Seasonal Employer (RSE) programme, proportionally. The authors calculate that were this to happen, it could generate an extre 10 per cent of GDP across the participating countries, saving Australia 60 per cent of its aid budget.
Certainly something to consider.
The study looked at Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

"I'm looking for my mother"- poignant film from Moldova

This film brought a tear to my eye. It was made by a 12-year-old Moldovan girl, and won a prize at  2013 PLURAL+, a Youth Video Festival on migration, diversity and social inclusion. It is a joint initiative of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) and IOM, supported by partner organizations from around the world. The actress is just 10 and the music - full of poignant pathos - written by a 16-year-old. More on

It reminded me of a visit to rural Moldova in 2008 when I was working for the Red Cross, seeing the effects of drought in that former Soviet Republic. I wrote the following for the IFRC website after than visit (with apologies to my wife Lena - she wrote a far superior piece on trafficking in Moldova but it's no longer on the website. If we find it, I'll reprint it)

Temperatures last summer hit an incredible 70 degrees Celsius in the direct glare of the sun. Moldova's famous grapes "fried on the vine" according to one local farmer. All over the country the fields dried up, and farmers slaughtered their cattle for cash, compounding an already serious situation. The country, still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the effects of the breakaway Transnistria region, is withering.
Although the capital, Chisinau, is barely an hour's drive from the EU border with Romania it feels stuck in a time warp. Buildings and roads are crumbling, and the impoverished vast majority try to survive any way they can. For many, that means leaving their homeland. Up to a quarter of Moldova's population of four million now lives outside its borders, and villages are full of children who have forgotten what their parents look like.
Thousands of women have been driven to the last resort, emigrating to sell the last thing of value they possess - their bodies. While some might return, or at least send home money, as many gradually fade out of sight, out of mind. The poverty, up close and personal, is stark. In the southern region of Gagauzia, where the people speak a Turkic language and, in better times, celebrate with their robust local wine, everything seems to be ebbing away - the young people, hope, even the colour of the land.
Stepan Tatar, mayor of Congazchick, a village home to 2,080 souls says he has a monthly fund of 2,200 lei (about 200 USD) for emergency medical assistance. He has to spread it between 20 applicants a month, most of whom have a pension amounting to a little under a dollar a day.
He takes us to see a typical family. From outside, the house is a little ragged, a couple of ducks run through the yard, a rangy dog struggles against a chain. Inside, Feodora Zachariah, a 64-year-old invalid sits by the stove fuelled by vine roots (the gas has long since been cut off). She, her husband Mikhael and a brother are bringing up two girls and a boy, aged between 15 and eight. The household income is about 80 USD a month.
"Our daughter left three years and two months ago," says Feodora. "We have a phone number for her, but it just rings and rings. We think she’s in Turkey and her husband might be in Russia, but we don’t know". Like many families, they get by on potato soup and homemade bread. "We hardly ever eat meat," says Mikhael.
On the other side of the village, 15-year-old Stepan Stefu is getting ready to cook the evening meal for his blind father and his brother. Stepan looks like a ten-year-old, and weighs just 39 kilos. Although he's an exceptionally bright child he had to leave school to look after the family. His mother moved to Turkey five years ago and has only been back once. Stepan doesn’t want to discuss her visit.
Next door we find Dmitri Zavrichko (43) who is bringing up his family of four alone, on an official salary of 400 USD per year. Luckily his skills as a mechanic means he can occasionally borrow a tractor from the local farm to raise some more money, and his brother also pitches in. "My wife left when our youngest girl was 20 months old. Now she's eight and doesn’t know anything about her mother."
Yet somehow people survive. In Proteagaylovka village, on the outskirts of the town of Bendery in the Transnistria region, we meet Grigory and Maria Voloshchuk, both 40, and their ten children. "We have a cow, and that saved our lives last summer," said Grigory. He calculates that the cow provides dairy products worth 115 USD per month, whilst he can only earn a maximum of 35 USD a month as a freelance appliance fitter. "It was so hot last summer and things got so bad I thought we were going to have to kill the cow. Luckily I managed to do some work for a farmer and he paid me in fodder."

Friday, 16 May 2014

The making of "Portraits of Recovery"

IOM's Alan “Blue” Motus volunteered to tell the story of beneficiaries through his photographs on “Portraits of Recovery.” © IOM 2014

First off, apologies for the lack of blogging. I had changed the template to "dynamic views" which was, cut a long story short, a mistake. The piece below was written for by  Naomi Mihara, an intern I have been working with for six months. 

At the end of her time in Bangkok she got a consultancy to go to Manila to produce a multimedia project, including a photo-book, to commemorate the six-month anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan. 

She did a pretty good job. JJB

By Naomi Mihara, IOM
In a tent city of evacuees in Tacloban, I met Leonarda, a 62 year old widowed market trader, five months after she had lost her husband to the typhoon.  As I started to interview her for the book Portraits of Recovery, she told me in Tagalog “habang may buhay, may pag-asa” – as long as there’s life, there’s hope.
My colleague Alan ‘Blue’ Motus snapped away with his camera as we talked. His photo of Leonarda is on page 7 of the book and shows her embracing her grandchild as if her embrace would protect the child against the struggles of life that have already shattered her family.
In one way or another, everyone we met along the way moved me and deepened my understanding and respect for this wonderful country. 
When typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines, I read the news about it from afar and followed IOM’s relief efforts without really understanding the realities of what was happening on the ground.  I was an intern in Bangkok helping IOM’s Communications department where I read and heard the many tales of survival and perseverance.
I didn’t think I’d ever get the opportunity to meet these courageous people and hear their stories firsthand.  But that is what the past month has been – a fascinating, humbling experience meeting all kinds of people who still have hope that their lives will begin to move forward again, even if they don’t yet have a home to call their own. 
After arriving in Manila six weeks ago, I went on a whistle-stop tour through the Visayas region visiting some of the areas worst hit by the typhoon.  I was joined by ‘Blue’ who, besides being a superb photographer, is also an IOM field health coordinator in Roxas, the most westerly area to be hit.  
For one amazing week we were on the road together and I watched in admiration as he used his charm to get people to relax and always photographed them in ways they would be proud to see and be seen.
Even in its devastation, this part of the world is still breathtakingly beautiful and vibrant.  But it also screams of vulnerability, and even though people are slowly restoring their former lives, inevitably more disasters will come their way.  While there’s hope, there’s also an understanding that this is something that people will have to deal with time and time again, leaving a feeling of uncertainty, especially for those still without a permanent place to live.
We visited all kinds of displacement sites as well as people’s homes and workplaces, assisted by the staff in the IOM sub-offices – many of whom are young, new recruits from the affected areas - who gave up their time to help us.  We met people of all ages, personalities and backgrounds, all of whom had experienced different degrees of suffering and loss.  We met IOM staff who are also survivors of the typhoon, now living in displacement sites along with the communities they are working to help and proving that ‘aid workers’ and ‘beneficiaries’ are not so different after all. 
Hearing the stories, the enormity of what had happened here suddenly came home to me.  I realized that so many people didn’t really stand a chance against this great force of nature.  But what really struck me was that, for the most part, the feeling of hope remained.  There may be massive challenges still to come, yet time and again I was reminded of the Filipino spirit that fails to be beaten.  Two of the most inspiring interviews were the youngest and the oldest to feature in the book: Raymundo, who I met along with other members of the youth organization that he is a part of (Eclipse), who passionately spoke of his goal to improve things for young people from poor, rural areas.   And Leonarda, who despite everything she has been through could still speak hopefully about the future.
For more information please go to: Donate Here to get a Limited Edition copy of Typhoon Haiyan: Portraits of Recovery.
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Tuesday, 15 April 2014

A Musical Journey

Ridicule is nothing to be scared of...
There's a post going around Facebook, asking me to name 12 albums that have stayed with me over the years. I haven't (yet) got round to answering for a number of reasons. One, I barely remember what albums I have. (OK, I lie, I could probably name them all, together with the singles, but they are not "with" me, they are in a plastic bag in a shed in Wicklow.) My "tapes", once my proudest possessions, have long wriggled off into eternity. Even my CDs are in a few of those black folder-type cases in a cupboard in Bangkok. My music is digitized across several machines, and in clouds. More germainely, people filling out that list seem to feel duty bound to put in something clever by Sibelius or a Guatemalan one-legged Woodie Guthrie ("WHAT? You've never heard of  Nelson Cincodedos Del Pie?"). Or comment like the illuminati on the virtues of the Spoon versus The Lovin' Spoonful.

MY nostalgia is for a day when I would sit by the radio ("studying") during a chart show, with my digits rigid over the first and fourth buttons on the two-in-one, to record a gem like "Just What I Needed" by the Cars (which I last heard on the radio about 13 years ago on a Russian FM station, as we roared across the tundra). These days, you want to hear your favoruite song? Shazam. There's an app for that, no need to buy a record, or call a pirate of the airwaves.

But, the world seems to demand lists, so a list is what I will give you.

Travelling up from the coast on Sunday, from Hua Hin to Bangkok, I was squished between my daughters in the back of the car. Polina, 6, was immersed in Minecraft, but Maya, 7, wanted to know more about the song Mama Mia, which she had heard someone singing. So I told her all about Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn and Annefrid, and how the name ABBA was formed, how they all got married and then split up, and even, under pressure of questioning, which of the girls I fancied (Agnetha, of course, later changed to the more worldly Frida, like most males, I have since discovered.)

And then I realised I probably had Mama Mia, in fact all of ABBA Gold, on my phone. And once I realised that, and that I had a captive audience, I decided to expand the musical lesson. Bearing in mind that I didn't want to scare the driver too much, that my wife's tastes also needed to be included, and that I didn't know how long I would keep Mme Maya's attention, here's the list of songs I introduced her to.

What do you think? (Nirvana was a no-brainer, she's been a fan since the age of 5... God help me when she finds the full back catalogue.) Remember this is peretty much random DJing, with not much thought put into it).

ABBA - Mama Mia, Fernando, Does Your Mother Know, Waterloo, Super Trouper (my personal favourite)...

and then ...

Smells Like Teen Spirit - Nirvana
Heroes - David Bowie (Live in Paris)\
Ashes to Ashes - Bowie
Maria - Blondie
All My Loving - The Beatles
With a Little Help From My Friends - The Beatles
Different for Girls - Joe Jackson
No Woman No Cry - Bob Marley
Sunday Girl - Blondie
One Way or Another - Blondie
Baker Street - Gerry Rafferty
Video Killed the Radio Star - Buggles
One Love - U2 ft Mary J Bligh... that was when she said "Enough! Can I have Minecraft back?"

I relented, secure in the knowledge that I had planted a seed or two, which will germinate, mushroom, bloom and blossom as she and her sister discover there is more than One Direction that music can take. When the 16-year-old Maya hears that soaring, triumphant sax at the beginning of Baker Street, will her mind's eye see the Thai countryside rolling by?


Da Daam dam dadda daaam....Baker Street?

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Orange and Saffron: Media and social change in Ukraine and Burma

Herewith an essay for the Masters in Communications I am doing by distance learning with Leicester University. It looks at what happened to media during Ukraine's short Orange Revolution in 2004 but was written before current events (hence my sweeping and woefully wrong statement: "Ukraine has lost the appetite for revolution"!

Maybe the following has some lessons to be learned in terms of how media matters during a revolution. The essay called on us to write about media in two countries that had undergone, or were undergoing profound social change. I chose Burma as my other country, looking at how media has been set free, but how the bogeyman of extremism is threatening freedom of expression. If I was to write this again, I would dwell longer on ownership of media. This essay was submitted untitled.

When society goes through major turbulence it follows that there will also be implications for media systems, as they are part of society. Sometimes media will be changed by external forces, sometimes changes in media will change society. This essay will consider the role of the media during the so-called “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in the second half of 2004 and the current changes in Myanmar[1]. The guiding premise will be Sankaran Ramathan’s assertion that “the extent to which the media can be regarded as free and independent in any of these countries depends very much on the philosophy and system of government that they have adopted.” (Ramanathan, 2007). This is as true for post-Communist Ukraine as it is for Myanmar, moving towards democracy after years of authoritarian military rule.

In times of crisis or transition, information and its provision are crucial. Control of  the media means control over information, of what the public consumes and comes to believe. This essay sets out to show that non-traditional media and peer-to-peer messaging are becoming more influential and that traditional media is less important in achieving major shifts in political structure. However, mainstream mass media is essential to build international support for local actions and to hold authoritarian regimes accountable.

Over time, people have come to need increasingly sophisticated information in order to make the choices they need to  function and succeed. They need to know how local, national and world issues will affect them individually and as communities. They need to be able to make their voices heard in order to shape their society for their benefit. All of this depends on their ability to get information which is, “useful, sufficient and trustworthy”. (Williams & Delli Carpini, 2010)

When the state intervenes, or when the state controls the sources of information there will be tensions, especially at moments of “significant economic, cultural and technological change” which will render fundamental questions about provision of information “especially salient and visible as well as making their essentially contestable nature more apparent.” (Ibid)

The same authors use the term “media regime” for media system, defining it as a historically specific, relatively stable set of institutions, norms, processes and actors that shape the expectations and practices of media producers and consumers. (Ibid)

Furthermore, “while driven by systemic change and historical context, the specific outcomes that emerge from these moments of disjuncture, reflection and debate … are not predetermined but rather result from political struggle, the outcomes of which can be either conducive to or corrosive of democratic politics.”

Ukraine’s Orange Revolution has not resulted in the flourishing of democracy nor of a free media system. The signs in Myanmar are more encouraging, but progress is not guaranteed, due in no small part to the lack of preparedness of the media and a tendency towards self-censorship, but also due to the abuse of the media by extremist nationalist/religious factions.

In post-Soviet Ukraine, corruption was pervasive. Media was either state controlled or (with very few exceptions) owned by oligarchs who were close to the state apparatus. The presidential administration shaped the news that the public consumed through unsigned directives called temenky sent to station or newspaper managers. “Managers knew that if they did not please the ‘key viewer’, the President and his regime, they would be in danger of losing their jobs”. (McFaul & Aslund, 2006) Or worse. There were attempts to challenge this state of affairs. Georgy Gongadze, editor of the first web news site, Ukrayinsky Pravda, regularly exposed official corruption. He was murdered in 2000 but his death strengthened the opposition movement. Three days before the end of the first round of voting in 2004’s presidential elections, 40 journalists from five television stations publicly refused to follow presidential instruction. (Prytula, 2006)

Due to the almost total control by the state and by those who benefitted from limiting information very little seemed to change. However, on the evening of 25 November, when the news was broadcasting the results of the rigged election, a sign-language translator called Natalia Dmytruk ignored the set text and signed “the official results from the Central Election Commission are falsified. Do not trust them. Yushchenko is our president. I’m really sorry that I had to translate the lie before.”

Commentators like Olena Prytula say that censorship then crumbled “like a house of cards” but the truth is more complicated. While Dmytruk’s actions were credited with lighting a touchpaper (Boustany, 2005) the protests that followed the stealing of the elections had been planned for many months, and involved veterans of pro-democracy movements in Georgia and Serbia. A new way of working with media was part of the overall plan.

Many icons made the story enduring and ensured it was top news for the vital time between the two rounds of elections and the runoff vote. The images of a scarred, allegedly-poisoned Viktor Yushchenko on a stage in the main square every night with the flamboyant Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, cheered on by hundreds of thousands of orange-draped protestors, the thousands of tents erected by protesters in the deep snow, all helped ensure the success of the revolution by keeping it uppermost on the international news agenda. (McFaul & Aslund, 2006)

The only opposition channel, Channel 5, broadcast live from Kiev’s main square every evening, as celebrities joined the politicians  on stage. Satellite TV meant that the images were also carried live on the main international channels such as CNN and BBC World, both of which broadcast live from Kiev every day for several weeks.

The revolution would surely have been short-lived had it relied on protest alone: the media exposure was the oxygen on which it thrived. Although history will judge the Orange Revolution a failure (the pro-Moscow forces which attempted to steal power now control the country and the opposition is fractured) there is one aspect of the Orange Revolution that was truly new. It is judged to have been the first internet-based revolution. Internet usage trebled by some estimates in and around the time of the protests. Neither Facebook nor Twitter existed, so text messaging and email were the vectors for messages which could not be distributed via traditional media. (Goldstein, 2007)

Pora (“It’s Time”) was the main group of pro-democracy activists. It benefitted from the fact that Ukrainian law considered the internet not as a mass media platform but a peer-to-peer communication tool. Pora described what it did as follows: “under conditions of far-reaching censorship the idea of Pora is the creation of alternative mass media in which volunteers drive election related information from hand to hand directly to people throughout Ukraine. The active use of modern communications systems in the campaign’s management and mobile phones played an important role for a mobile fleet of activists.” (Goldstein, 2007)

Myanmar’s media restrictions have been maintained from within. Up to January of this year, when the Government dissolved it, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) approved “every song, book, cartoon, news story and piece of art”. (Tun, 2011)

Myanmar, although still belonging to what Gunaratne classes as the Authoritarian group of Asian nations, is, at least superficially, democratizing. The icon of the pro-democracy movement and Nobel laureate Aang San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010 and changes in the media landscape followed.

During the most repressive years Myanmar had a vibrant exiled press which took full advantage of the platform offered by the internet to build on the momentum of the Saffron revolution in 2007, which was ended by a government crackdown which saw many journalists and monks imprisoned. It also saw the murder, captured on video, of Japanese photojournalist Kenji Nagai, an image that was quickly diffused around the world via exiled news networks, underlining how mainstream media was using citizen journalism[2] to gather news.
That exile press is now becoming the mainstream press, with the official ending of censorship on 1 April 2013. The landscape it is emerging into has advanced from Ukraine’s in 2004. Thirteen new daily newspapers have been established but the real growth will be in digital media. In 2011 only 0.2 per cent of the estimated population of 56 million had access to the internet. By 2015 this is expected to rise to tens of millions of people with internet phones, consuming media electronically.

A massive test of the role of media in Myanmar will be in how it navigates the rise of extremism. The risk existed in Ukraine in 2004, with a tense standoff between Ukrainian-speaking nationalists in the West of the country against the Russian-speaking west, home to the regime (and Russia’s) candidate Viktor Yanokovich. Although Ukraine subsequently polarized on language lines, the success of the Orange revolution lay in getting the Yushchenko vote out in the East.

In Myanmar the issue is unrest between Buddhists and Moslems, centred on the situation of a group of stateless Moslem Rohingya people in the west of the country. Websites run by media organisations have been used to fan the flames of sectarian unrest. Observers see the violence, and reporting thereof, as as big a test for the country’s media and for its government, which needs to present a picture of reform and calm to the outside world, in order to attract investment.

Western and local journalists working for the newly-legitimized Myanmar media agree that a reintroduction of censorship is not the answer, rather the need is for balanced and responsible reporting. (Reuters Business and Financial News, 2012)
The cases of Ukraine and Myanmar on the surface seem very different: a post-Communist drama played out over three weeks in the heart of winter, versus a half-century of determined opposition in an enchanting Asian land. However, there are several very similar elements which kept both in the headlines, allowing the media to play a crucial role.

In both countries media was completely controlled by state, with all stories pre-approved. Thus activists had to find new ways to mobilize the masses. Ukraine’s Orange and Myanmar’s saffron became shorthand for the complex pro-democracy protests, as well as instantly-recognizable brands.  

Mass protests were not just events, they were icons. The tent cities on Ukraine’s frozen streets and the saffron-clad, bare-headed monks in Myanmar were irresistible images for cameras.

Meanwhile, the leaders were both photogenic and epitomized suffering for a cause. Viktor Yushchenko’s famous good looks looks were ruined by alleged dioxin poisoning; Aung San Suu Kyi endured years of house arrest.

The media played a part in making the rulng regines appear ridiculous.  The Ukrainian and Russian establishment’s preferred candidate Yanukovich fell down as if gravely wounded when hit by and egg, an action which was lampooned in the media and in online games. His isHiswife’s comments that protestors had been drugged by American oranges was widely reported. In Myanmar, the moving of the Myanmar capital to a greenfield site in Nay Pyi Taw due to astrologers warnings, a reliance on numerology, and massive monuments were all held up in the (exile and international) media to show that the regime had lost touch.

In both countries journalists have been rather cowed and docile unsure what to do with the freedoms they have been given or lacking the training to take their proper place.
Nationalist extremism has posed a threat to national stability as well as to the independence and neutrality of the media.

Finally, one cannot overestimate the effect of the violent deaths of working journalists to galvanize opposition to a regime that played a part in their murder. As such, Gongadze’s abduction and murder in Ukraine, and Kenji Nagai’s public in Myanmar were highly significant.

All these events, planned and unplanned, tragic and dramatic, game the media a series of pegs to portray the story in a black-and-white way;  a noble pro-democracy movement was frustrating a powerful, abusive regime.

Many different traditions of media analysis might be relevant to draw conclusions about the role of media in period of major transition such as happened in Ukraine in 2004 and is happening now in Myanmar. One of the most relevant is the phenomenistic approach promulgated by Klapper: “A shift away from the tendency to regard mass communications as a necessary and sufficient cause of audience effects, toward a view of the media as influences, working with other influences in a total situation”. (Klapper, 1995)

But the phenomena did not just happen, they were planned, often meticulously. Thus the two-step process developed by Katz and Lazarsfeld is a useful model for understanding how new and traditional media worked together to effect change in Ukraine and Myanmar. Activists strove to reach the opinion-leaders, influential journalists, students, religious leaders – those with the best networks – in as direct a way possible, to ensure transmission of their message. As international support for protest gathered pace, protestors gained confidence and courage. The simple gesture of a politician, musician or sportsperson wearing an orange or saffron piece of clothing on a live TV appearance (even if unlreated to the protests) was a strong message of support, and evidence of a well-prepared media strategy.

The flow is even being reversed in today’s Myanmar. The Democratic Voice of Burma, formerly banned and published in exile, now uses Google chat as an anonymous source cultivation tool, and Facebook “likes” exceed circulation figures of most newspapers.

Criteria for assessing the media’s role
The criteria available for assessing the role of media during times of crisis are – broadly speaking – the same as those used when considering if media are free. Reporters Without Borders considers six general criteria to measure the level of freedom of information in 180 countries, and has just developed a global benchmark for measure the state of the world’s media.

The criteria are Pluralism, or to what degree opinions are represented, the independence of media from the authorities, the environment in which journalists work (violence against them and the practice of self censorship), the quality and effectiveness of media-related laws, the transparency of institutions and procedures that effect the production of news and information, and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information.

Using this system, the group’s 2013 report presents a depressing picture for Ukraine, nine years after the Orange Revolution. It slips ten places to 126th on the global list, primarily due to high levels of violence against journalists and pressure on independent news outlets.

By comparison, Myanmar jumped 18 places to 151st thanks to the freeing of all imprisoned journalists, the end of censorship, and the return of media organizations from exile. (Reporters without Borders, 2013)

In conclusion, the media’s role should always be to witness, to inform, to analyse, and to influence. The prominence of internet and mobile information-sharing, and its evolution between Ukraine in 2004 to today’s Myanmar shows that traditional media is no longer such an influence on political change as it was in the past. Furthermore, it is evident that the impact of change on the media system depends to a great extent on the outcome of that change. In Ukraine media systems have not seen much transformation because the Orange Revolution did not succeed. Ukraine was not able to break away from the orbit of Russia, where the media system has, after a short period of freedom been returned to tight state control.

At this present time, print, TV and radio can be blocked or controlled by central government but it is proving less easy to regulate the flow of information on new media, based on the internet and transmitted by mobile phones and other smart devices. These are the instruments of social change as they allow direct messaging to the intended audience to effect change at a local level. Individuals have the power to contribute through posting photographs and video witnessing events which are becoming as readily accepted testimony as the work of professional news crews. Even in one-party states like China and Iran it is difficult to control totally the internet. 

In Ukraine, the appetite for revolution has been lost. In Myanmar there are more grounds for optimism as laws are being written to liberate the media. We can only conclude that the implications for media depend on the outcome of radical shifts of political structure. Gains in media and other freedoms must be consolidated at the political level in order for the media to become an enduring agent of change.

[1] Although the country is often called Burma I am using the official United Nations name, found at
[2] “When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another”, (Rosen, 2008 )