Enriching South Asian airwaves: Ujala TV is one year and counting…

Some of us dream about doing great things. Other agitate for reform. A few among us just go ahead and do it.

This story is about one such group, and its inspirational leader, who took on the formidable challenge of setting up an educational television channel for South Asia.

Just thinking about it can scare away most people. Home to over 1.5 billion people, including the largest concentration of poor anywhere in the world, South Asia is in a region full of disparities, divisions and desperation. It is not only the most militarised region in the world, but also one of the most highly bureaucratised (the British invented bureaucracy and we in South Asia perfected it!). Starting a new venture of any kind is fraught with endless permissions and paperwork.

None of this deterred Rashid Latif from launching Ujala TV in mid 2006 as a free, 24-hour satellite television channel dedicated to education and information with focus on South Asia.

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Ujala TV is wholly owned and operated by a non-profit entity called the People’s Education Network (PEN) that Rashid founded.

As the channel’s website says: ”A refreshing new television alternative, Ujala does not belong to any nation – it belongs to South Asia. Showcasing both local and international programs our goal is to help ease the barriers placed between us and within our own minds.”

Ujala TV’s test transmissions started on 2 July 2006 from Dubai, where Latif assembled his small team of hard-working professionals at the Dubai Media City. This was a smart move: not to be anchored in any single country in South Asia itself when broadcasting to the region.

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Photo shows (L to R) Rashid Latif, Nalaka Gunawardene and Sohail Khan in Dubai, May 2006

As Sohail Khan, Director Operations of Ujala TV, recalled recently: “I still cherish the excitement when I was at Samacom (the Uplink Earth Station at Dubai) at around 2 am Dubai Time to press the button to air Ujala for the very first time at 00:00 GMT on 2 July 2007 (4 am Dubai Time) to start the Test Transmission.”

They had worked long and hard to get to that point. A few weeks earlier, in mid May 2006, I stopped over in Dubai specifically to meet Rashid and his team who were busy preparing to launch. At that time, they were working out of their office for 16 – 18 hours a day, every day, and sleeping a few hours at the office itself.

This was no multi-million dollar start up channel. The entire operation was being financed by Rashid Latif from personal funds. Although the channel’s aims were entirely in the public interest, he declined to seek funding from development donors or philanthropic foundations.

A Pakistan-born Canadian citizen, Rashid worked in the Pakistan government as a senior broadcast manager before heading west to work in the corporate sector. He started Ujala TV after formal retirement.

“I started working on ‘Ujala’ project (at the age of 75) when most of my contemporaries had either played their innings or were about to pack up and leave for the pavilion,” Rashid said in a recent letter.

Until this letter, I had no idea that Rashid was 75. He has the energy and drive of someone in his late 50s or early 60s!

Sohail looks back on the first year: “During this first year, we came across many difficulties, including, changing laws in India and Pakistan for Landing Rights with huge financial requirements, and increase in running costs due to change in different rentals here in Dubai. These problems, however, do not have any effect on our determination, and we are still trying to eliminate the darkness from our part of the world, and to spread Ujala.

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The new channel still struggles to establish its brand identity and distribution networks — it’s not easy to compete with big corporations with their deep pockets.

But a modest start has been made. Now we need to sustain the momentum.

Meanwhile, Rashid is looking for a dynamic South Asian national to take over from him, so that he can fully retire. Now that’s going to be a tall order.

Declaration of interests:
1. I am on the honorary Board of Governors of People’s Education Network along with over a dozen academics, journalists and film-makers who share Rashid’s ideal for a South Asian public interest TV channel.
2. TVE Asia Pacific has supplied many development films to Ujala TV over the past few months.

Read Aman Malik’s article in Himal Southasian on Channel Southasia

All Online Data Lost after Internet Crash…

This report has just come in, from my favourite news source, Onion News Network….enjoy!

I wonder what I would do if all my blog posts were suddenly lost….irrevocably? Agh — perish the thought!

And this reliable news report confirms something I’ve suspected all along — when it comes to e-commerce, Nigeria’s is the southern economy that is best developed: I receive evidence of that in my email practically everyday…

UNESCO playing spoil-sport in new Seven Wonders

UNESCO is playing spoil-sport again…this time about the new Seven Wonders of the world.

The crusty, officious UN agency — not my favourite, as regular readers know — is sadly trapped in its own ideological rhetoric of the 1980s. Somebody should kick them hard to enter the 21st century!

The new Seven Wonders of the World is an attempt to create a modern-day alternative to historical lists of the Seven Wonders of the World. Based on a worldwide online poll organised by the private, Swiss-based, non-profit New Open World Corporation (NOWC), the final list was announced on 7 July 2007 in Lisbon, Portugal.

The winners were selected from among dozens of initial nominations. The new Seven Wonders of the world are: The Great Wall of China; Petra of Jordan; Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Machu Piccu ruins of Peru; Chichen Itza archaeological site in Mexico; The Colosseum of Rome, Italy; and the Taj Mahal of India.

Read more in the NOWC description or Wikipedia description

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This campaign was launched in 2000 as a private initiative by the Swiss philanthropist, adventurer and film-maker Bernard Weber – his idea was to encourage citizens around the world to select seven new wonders of the world by popular vote.

And he turned to the Internet as a mass medium for people to express their preferences.

This is what seems to have irked UNESCO the most — allowing ordinary people to have their say about the common heritage of humankind.

After the new Seven Wonders were announced on 7 July 2007, two UNESCO spokespersons ridiculed the whole idea. Their contempt for the (rival?) process was palpable. This is not how any media spokespersons should behave. Read a widely reproduced media report: UNESCO slams new seven wonders

Earlier, in an official statement full of pomposity and self-importance, UNESCO had distanced itself from the initiative (even if the former UNESCO director general, Frederico Mayor of Spain, is heading the expert panel advising the new Seven Wonders selection process). Here’s an extract:
“There is no comparison between Mr Weber’s mediatised campaign and the scientific and educational work resulting from the inscription of sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The list of the ‘7 New Wonders of the World’ will be the result of a private undertaking, reflecting only the opinions of those with access to the internet and not the entire world. This initiative cannot, in any significant and sustainable manner, contribute to the preservation of sites elected by this public.”

Note the word ‘mediatised’ — which I suppose means media-based and web-driven. This piques me the most. What is wrong in using the mass media, including the web, to generate new levels of interest and enthusiasm about cultural heritage, as the New Seven Wonders initiative has succeeded in doing.

Ironically, UNESCO has an entire division on Communication and Information, which says it promotes the use of media in socio-cultural development. They claim to work with both the conventional media (TV, radio, print) as well as the new media (web, mobile devices and other ICTs).

Is it that UNESCO is such a multi-headed, mixed-up creature that its World Heritage division can publicly condemn the use of media in the public interest while another division upholds it?

Or, could it be that when UNESCO talks about media in development and democracy, it expects the poor, suffering people in the Majority World to just stick to the issues of bread and butter, livestock and water? Does UNESCO expect the ordinary people and private citizens to stay away from the lofty issues of cultural heritage? Are those only discussed by diplomats and experts, many of them as crusty and officious as UNESCO itself?

And can somebody please explain to me how a process involving 100 million online votes is less valid than the ‘scientific and educational work’ of UNESCO in selecting World Heritage sites — involving no more than a few hundred persons at the most (all government officials and academics)?

image from n7w image from n7w image from n7w

The grand old lady of Paris should realise that she can’t have it both ways. If UNESCO sincerely advocates the free flow of information, media freedom and the promotion of ICTs in development, then it must be prepared for the resulting public engagement of issues in the media — ranging from the frivolous to lofty, and everything in between. It cannot and must not set the agenda, or expect certain issues to be left aside to boffins who claim to know more than the rest of us.

Whether UNESCO likes or not, the web has truly let the genie out of the bottle. Gone — hopefully forever, and not a moment too soon! — are the days when a handful of men in suits (it’s usually graying men, with very few women involved) could decide matters of global public interest behind closed doors.

By its aloofness, UNESCO made itself irrelevant in the seven wonders selection process. The smarter option would have been to stay engaged and use the massive popular interest to draw attention to the need to invest more time, effort and resources to conserve cultural heritage everywhere. A great opportunity was missed.

But thankfully, other arms of the UN were a bit more pragmatic. For example, the United Nations Office for Partnerships recognised the value of new Seven Wonders.

The stark choice for UNESCO is to rethink its intellectual arrogance, or risk being sidelined — and seen as the biggest hypocrite in the entire UN family.

At a minimum, UNESCO must heed the timeless advice of Rabindranath Tagore:
If you can lead, lead.
If you cannot, then follow.
If you cannot lead or follow, get out of the way!


Now, nominate your natural Seven Wonders of the world — new online poll now underway! Never mind what UNESCO has to say about it!