Beyond Babu SAARC: Liberating airwaves for South Asians

“Watching the current SAARC jamboree unfold over television news, my young daughter asked why none of the officials were smiling. The SAARC Secretary General, Dr. Sheel Khant Sharma, was always scowling. Others didn’t have smiles on their faces either, even insincere ones. They all looked stressed out, wearing glum, miserable faces.

“I could only hazard a guess. Perhaps the assorted babus have too much to worry about, as they get through their very serious and grim business of fostering regional cooperation. On the other hand, after all these years of endless meetings and declarations, they might have forgotten the simple joys of smiling and enjoying each other’s company.”

With these words I open my latest op ed essay, just published on the Sri Lankan citizen journalism website Groundviews.

Anti-people, Pro-Babu SAARC in Colombo

Anti-people, Pro-Babu SAARC in Colombo

The essay is my personal response to the meetings of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC, taking place in my home city of Colombo this week. Assorted babus (a derogatory South Asian term for pompous officials) from all over South Asia have invaded the city, displacing its people and severely disrupting normal life and work.

And all for what? So that the unsmiling babus can congratulate each other on how little they have accomplished since the last such gathering in New Delhi in April 2007!

As I note in my essay: Make no mistake: SAARC is a good idea hijacked by unimaginative and pompous, unsmiling babus of South Asia and run to the ground. The self-congratulatory rhetoric of the inter-governmental merry-go-round is once again deafening us as the 15th SAARC takes place in Colombo. In reality, SAARC at 23 has the mental development of a 3-year-old (if that). There isn’t, in fact, much to smile about.

The SAARC Sec Gen is always scowling, with never a smile on his face...

The SAARC Sec Gen is always scowling, with never a smile on his face...

I go on to note:
The proof of the SAARC pudding is not in over-hyped Summits or crusty declarations, but in the free flow of people, ideas, creativity and culture across the political boundaries jealously guarded by governments and their militaries. Most SAARC initiatives miserably fail this test. Typical of this arrested development is the SAARC Audio-Visual Exchange, SAVE.

The rest of my essay is a critique of SAVE, and how it has failed to foster greater regional understanding among the people of South Asia through the airwaves. This is because SAVE brought together only the state-owned radio and television stations of South Asia which are no more than propaganda organs for ruling parties and/or militaries that are running our countries.

I go on to cheer the recent initiative called TV South Asia, a collaboration involving 5 private TV broadcasters in South Asia. Without any of the pomposity of SAVE or SAARC, TV South Asia is quietly doing what SAVE has failed for nearly a quarter of a century.

The essay builds on my 6 July 2008 blog post TV South Asia: Nothing official about it, yipee!

Read my full op ed essay on Groundviews

More unsmiling SAARC babus - they certainly dont speak for me!

More unsmiling SAARC babus - they certainly don't speak for me!

Never a smile on their faces!

Foreign secretaries of SAARC: Never a smile on their faces!

All images courtesy Daily News, Sri Lanka

TV Southasia: Nothing official about this, yipee!

TV South Asia

Nearly one year ago, I wrote a blog post titled: Channel South Asia? Yes and No!

My closing words at the time were:
“I, for one, am relieved that South Asian governments are unlikely to come together in such a venture – we’ve suffered long enough and hard enough with our state-owned, government-controlled, ruling party mouthpieces (both radio and TV) that pollute our airwaves (a public commons) every day and night. Euphemistically called ‘national television’, these conduits of governmental propaganda have progressively lost audience share — and influence — since private channels started operating in the early 1990s. They are today reduced to vanity channels for vane politicians and bureaucrats. The mass audience has long ago abandoned them. I’d rather take chances with a South Asian Murdoch, than with our unaccountable, selfish governments.”

Chevaan Daniel, head of Sri Lanka’s enterprising Channel One MTV, posted a comment soon afterwards, on 27 July 2007, saying: “Maharaja Channels have pioneered this for Sri Lanka, by joining together in an initiative involving media companies from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh to launch ‘The SouthAsian’. This collaboration includes a weekly programme produced in Calcutta, aired at the same time in the region. The next step is indeed a SouthAsian Channel, which we are working towards.

Well, I’m delighted to find that over the past 12 months, they have indeed been investing time, creative effort and money in this venture. TV Southasia is now a reality!

It’s a collaborative venture of commercial broadcasters in five countries of South Asia, who have joined hands to produce and share content across their national borders. Mercifully, no governments are involved and certainly none of the state-owned broadcasters (Babu TVs) whose lack of vision and creativity is only matched by their depleting audiences these days.

TV Southasia

Indeed, there’s nothing official about TV Southasia (TVSA), and that’s to be celebrated on its own merit. And if they get it right, TVSA founders — Rtv of Bangladesh, TARANEWS of India, Image Channel of Nepal, Aaj TV of Pakistan and News 1st of Sri Lanka — can tap into an enviably large audience. Between them, their countries have more than 1.5 billion people, most of who have access to television.

TVSA founders are taking one step at a time, perhaps knowing very well that cross-border ventures in South Asia need to be nursed slowly and incrementally, while dealing with assorted historical hang-ups and tonnes of red tape (or these days the colour could well be saffron or khaki, depending on where you live!).

It all started when a group of broadcasters and activists from across South Asia came together in Kolkata in December 2006 and agreed to forge the Southasian initiative. They swapped content to start producing a half-hour magazine programme (containing news analysis, music, features and interviews) from April 2007. Called Southasian, it was produced by Taranewz drawing on content from the participating channels, who then broadcast it weekly and also made it available online.

Taking the next logical step, the five broadcasters decided in August 2007 to form a channel, branded as TV Southasia. It started being previewed on 19 April 2008.
Read more about TV Southasia on its own website

The channel is being distributed by Thailand’s ThaiCom5 satellite, and would be available through cable operators across South Asia. It’s an English language channel, based on the reality that English is the only link language shared and understood by all countries of South Asia.

TVSA says it’s concentrating on talk shows, interviews, lifestyle, music, short films, sports, cuisine and quiz — most of this content is already available through many national channels and occasionally from global channels too. But TVSA can bring in a trans-boundary, pan South Asian outlook which is largely missing in these channels. In fact, it would be refreshing to see a TV channel covering South Asia as a whole, without giving into the frequent pressures or temptations of national tribalism and geopolitical posturing that we see all the time on both BabuTVs and many commercial channels.

Click here for programme lineup on TV Southasia

I have so far only caught glimpses of their offering, when Channel One MTV shows the Southasian magazine show. Going by this limited exposure, I can confirm that the products of this collaboration are superior to what BabuTVs have been struggling to do for two decades through the very official (read: officious and unimaginative) framework of SAARC Audio-Visual Exchange, or SAVE.

Started in 1987, just two years after the South Asian governments formed the regional grouping called South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC, SAVE brought together the so-called national broadcasters in radio and TV. Trapped in inter-governmental bureaucracies, they tried to share and carry each other’s broadcast content. The officially sanctioned programmes, often made by committees, completely failed to capture the diversity and vibrancy of what’s going on in each South Asian country that interests the rest of the sub-region. I have no idea if SAVE still exists, because I don’t watch BabuTV anymore (does anybody?). Even in its formative days, I could tell that SAVE was beyond saving…

TV Southasia

Enter TV Southasia – and not a moment too soon. As its website says: “It is for the first time in history that the private electronic media channels have come together and have formed a collaborative channel sharing the same view points on diversity, heritage, bondage and possibilities.”

Unlike many broadcast ventures, TVSA declares its agenda – and it’s a lofty one. It wants to promote highly desirable values like liberalism, scientific temperament, education, heritage and cultural diversity. Rather courageously, it also declares what it is explicitly opposed to, which includes superstition, fundamentalism, corruption, violence, cultural hegemony and communalism — the long and depressing list of evils that keeps hundreds of millions of South Asians in misery, fear and trapped at the bottom of the development ladder. Read TVSA’s vision, mission and ideals

This agenda resonates with the equally passionate, secular idealism of Ujala TV, another satellite broadcast venture aimed at beaming to South Asia since mid 2006. I have been cheering them from the beginning, while my organisation TVE Asia Pacific has been a regular supplier of factual programming for them. Read my July 2007 blog post on Ujala TV – Enriching South Asian airwaves

Well, we need as many idealists as we can find in South Asia. Encouragingly, TV Southasia has already involved Himal Southasian founder and editor Kanak Mani Dixit, a great champion of people-to-people collaboration in South Asia. Perhaps it’s due to Kanak’s influence that the brave new channel is spelling Southasia as one word, as Himal Southasian has been doing for some years now. It might seem an aberration in spelling to some, but in fact, it separates these entirely unofficial, people’s ventures from the many committees and initiatives of the official SAARC, which are endlessly meeting yet constantly failing to forge regional trust, cooperation and cohesion.

The official, officious and unproductive SAARC will be on parade once again at the next Summit due in late July 2008. My SAARCasm is shared by many journalists, intellectuals and activists across South Asia who have tracked the origins and evolution of this grouping since its founding in Dhaka in 1985. To put it charitably, at 23 years of age, SAARC has the mental development of a 3-year-old (if that). We only need to take a look at the People’s SAARC Declaration, adopted in Kathmandu in March 2007, to realise how much the official SAARC has failed to accomplish.

That’s in spite of its frequent and highly expensive meetings. Alas, this time they have chosen to meet in my city of Colombo, which means – after footing a massive Summit bill of LKR 2.8 billion (over USD 27 million) – we ordinary citizens will very likely be kept under virtual house arrest for its duration. All in the name of security, of course.

I hope I can catch a bit more of TV Southasia when the visiting SAARC-babus drive us off our own streets.

Photos and images all courtesy TV Southasia

Below – photos from TV Southasia launch