Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Hypocrisy and double talk

This year's General Conference of the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD) is being held in Fiji which suffered a military coup on 10 April. Despite the military government censoring all media, and censors from the Ministry of Information being placed in all newsrooms to ensure that nothing critical of the military government is published, the AIBD decided to still go ahead and hold its annual conference in Fiji. So much for its advocacy of freedom of the press!

On 14 April, the Fiji government deported Australian and New Zealand journalists and cameramen from Fiji, and on 15 April the government announced that "free speech causes trouble" and media freedoms need to be curbed. The government then switched off the relay transmitters of Radio Australia in Suva and Nadi, effectively isolating Fiji from the international media. After that it was widely assumed that the AIBD would cancel or move its conference, but the Director of the AIBD, Javad Mottaghi, made no move to do so.

By the end of May it was clear he was intending to go ahead with his conference in Fiji, despite the continued crackdown on the media, but I decided not to go. I couldn't in all conscience go to a meeting being hosted by a military dictatorship (the AIBD is an inter-governmental organisation, so the Fiji government was the host) that was imposing such strict censorship on the media.

This afternoon I was alerted by a friend at Radio New Zealand International that they would be broadcasting an interview with Mottaghi as to why he had decided to proceed with his conference in Fiji, despite the fact that he'd had more than two months to find an alternative venue.

I listened to the interview online. He was asked whether it was wrong to censor the media in Fiji. He replied: "You see, you have certain definitions when it comes to certain issues. Then we have other definitions of the issues you are raising. The only way forward is to discuss. My maxim is to agree on disagreement of certain issues and to agree on agreement on certain issues".

Talk about avoiding the question!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

A feast of the Rana Maharajas

I had a one day stopover in Kathmandu today for meetings with Radio Nepal and Nepal Television. The radio meetings were in the morning, and afterwards I was treated to lunch by Radio Nepal at Babar Mahal Revisited – a complex of old palace buildings that were built in the early 1900s and which have now been renovated into upmarket shops and galleries selling clothes, antiques and handicrafts:

The complex was nearly deserted when I was there. The shops looked expensive, so I guess they were catering only for wealthy overseas visitors. My hosts told me that the political unrest in Nepal was deterring many tourists from visiting the country, and those that were coming were mainly backpackers – and they certainly wouldn't be shopping at Babar Mahal Revisited.

We headed to a restaurant upstairs called Baithak from where we had a lovely view over a central courtyard, shaded by a jacaranda tree:

The restaurant was almost deserted too, except for two locals who were having an early lunch ahead of us:

The maitre d' handed us a menu prepared specially for us on parchment paper which explained the background to the food that we would be eating. It read:

“For a little over a century (1846 – 1951) the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Nepal was ruled by the Rana Maharajas, a dynasty of hereditary prime ministers popularly remembered for opulent European palaces and autocratic rules. The glamour of court life in the Rana years derived from an eclectic mix of the best from many worlds, imported worlds that is, from Japanese horticulture to French musical instruments, Belgian crystal, British tailoring. Italain marble and Chinese decorative arts”

(I wondered who had written this and described the prime ministers as being “popularly” remembered for their opulent lifestyles. But I didn't like to ask and spoil the atmosphere).

The menu went on:

“While artistic taste leaned to the West, the cuisine of the Ranas stayed closer to home, borrowing heavily from the nearby Moghul Court of North India. From the Moghul palaces came Muslim cooks called khansamas who developed an array of Nepalese-Indian hybrids in tandem with the traditional Nepalese Brahman female cooks (bajais). The Rana cuisine is at once more refined and subtle than the Nepalese and Moghul dishes which it incorporates.”

That all sounded pretty good to me as I love North Indian food, and I was not disappointed when the starters arrived. They comprised:

Chicken Momo (steamed chicken dumplings)
Maas Daal ko Bara (ground black lentils deep fried into fluffy balls)
Aaloo ko Achar (marinated and spiced potatoes)
Syamali, Kerau, Badam Sande ko (spiced marinated peas, riverweed and peanuts)

The riverweed was a little bitter, but everything else was very tasty.

Then came the main course served on individual silver platters:

The dishes on the platter comprised:

Khasi ko Bhutauwa (cubes of mutton cooked with spices)
Chara ko ledo (chicken cooked in an aromatic tomato gravy)
Lapsi hale ko Daal (black lentils cooked with lapsi – a fruit that that the maitre d' said was found only in Kathmandu)
Aaloo tare ko (spiced fried potatoes 'Rana style')
Kaauli Hariyo Pyaj (sautéed cauliflower with green onions)
Golbeda ko Achar (charcoal grilled tomatoes, spiced and ground to a pickle)
Kakro, Syano Kerau ko Achar (spiced cucumber and chickpeas marinated in a light yoghurt paste)
Basmati Bhuja (long grained rice simmered in water and clarified butter)

Every dish was delicious and combined on the one platter provided a real kaleidoscope of flavours and textures. We finished off the meal with something called Malpua Kurauni which was a Rana pancake with concentrated milk.

It was a delicious meal and I thanked my hosts letting me experience such interesting cuisine. I wondered how much the meal cost (I thought that it would have been quite expensive) but when I looked up a review of the restaurant on a Nepalese website later, it said the restaurant offered a 12 course Rana feast (which I guess is what we had) for 995 rupees (about US$13). Yes, that is very expensive by Nepalese standards, but for many overseas visitors it would be quite affordable for the quality of the food offered and the ambiance of the restaurant.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mugabe holidays in Malaysia

I just received an update from Avaaz.org on the latest situation in Zimbabwe. An extract from their newsletter:

“Zimbabwe's crisis - cholera, hyperinflation, hunger, and Mugabe's brutality - keeps worsening. But as the stakes rise, the movement for change is growing stronger and bolder. The European Union just tightened sanctions targeting Mugabe's regime. Hunger strikers in Southern Africa, trying to deliver a petition to leaders Monday, were blasted by riot police shooting rubber bullets. And Tuesday morning, after all-night talks, Mugabe's latest attempt retain control collapsed as the opposition refused to join a false 'unity' government that would leave Mugabe's party in power, political prisoners in jail, and Zimbabweans' urgent needs unmet.” (end of quote)

Of course, Mugabe doesn't have to worry about things like cholera, hyperinflation and hunger. He's just had a nice vacation in Malaysia.

How sad that the country in which I live chose to let this brutal dictator holiday on its shores. They should have kicked him out on arrival.

Oh, I almost forgot, they couldn't do that because Petronas – Malaysia' national oil company – has big investments in Zimbabwe.

I wonder if Mr Mugabe got a private tour of the Petronas Twin Towers? Or maybe he preferred to keep his feet on the ground fearing that someone might kick him off the top. (What a service to the world that would be!)

Monday, January 26, 2009

The bias of the Malaysian press

One of the English language dailies in Malaysia carried a big story today – the defection of a government politician to the opposition. It was something that had been predicted by the opposition for some time and which the government had constantly been telling people would never happen.

According to the story in The Star the crossover had left the leaders of the Barisan Nasional (the ruling coalition) in a state of shock.

But where was this big news story. On page 1?

No, the front page story comprised a photo of a happy family celebrating Chinese New Year and an innocuous story about the fact that the use of debit cards in Malaysia was growing by 13% per month.

Page 3 then? No, that page comprised a photo of Kuala Lumpur's empty highways (after the CNY exodus) and a 'colour story' about the resilience of people born in the Year of the Ox.

The story about the defection to the opposition was buried on page 12. And the other English language daily, the New Straits Times, didn't even carry the story at all.

Now of course if it had happened the other way around – a member of the opposition defecting to the government benches – then it would have been all over the front pages, and probably occupied another two or three pages after that.

After the opposition made its massive gains in the election last year – despite the blatant bias of the government controlled mainstream press – the new Information Minister promised that in the future there would be more balanced coverage.

Hollow words it seems.

Or maybe the papers have been entrenched for so long in reporting only government propaganda, that they are no longer capable of recognising what is news.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Malaysian roads to be star rated

The front page story in one of the local papers, The Star, today featured an announcement by the Malaysian Transport Minister that roads in Malaysia were to be star rated like hotels – which according to The Star would cut the road toll by 30%

This will mean the worst roads will be rated one star and the best roads five stars.

The announcement was in response to a story a few days ago that there had been 5,976 road deaths in Malaysia in the first 11 months of 2008.

That is an appalling figure. It means that Malaysia's annual road death toll of about 6,500 persons is four times that of Australia (around 1,600 a year), even though both countries have a similar population.

It clearly reflects the lack of regard for road rules in Malaysia, and shows the effect of a small but significant percentage of drivers that use the roads like a racetrack and show utter contempt and disregard to others who may be driving more safely.

But that's not the point of this commentary. The point is that nowhere in the story did it explain how rating the roads would cut the road toll – and the story didn't say who had made the claim (which is bad journalism in itself).

The story didn't carry a byline, so perhaps it was written by a junior reporter who didn't have the initiative to ask the question “how”.

One of the problems with journalists in Malaysia is that there is a culture of not challenging authority, and this often flows through to press conferences and not being prepared to challenge statements made by Ministers and others in authority.

I recall once I was observing a press conference by a Malaysian Minister and a young female reporter asked a searching but extremely relevant question to the Minister. I could see looks of surprise on some of the other reporters' faces that she had the 'audacity' to ask such a question – and clearly the Minister didn't like it.

Instead of answering the question he scolded her by saying: “Don't ask questions about subjects that you don't know about lass – leave that to the experts.” It was clearly a question he didn't want to answer (and probably didn't know the answer to). It was a question that should have been followed up by other journalists in the room – but they had got the message from the Minister and left it alone.

The quality of journalism unfortunately still has a long way to go in Malaysia.