The self-congratulatory rhetoric of the inter-governmental merry-go-round will once again be heard at the 15th SAARC Summit in Colombo. In reality, SAARC at (almost) 23 has the mental development of a three-year-old. The proof in the SAARC pudding will not be found in over-hyped summits or crusty declarations, but in the free flow of people, ideas, creativity and culture across political boundaries that, currently, remain jealously guarded by governments and their militaries. Most official SAARC initiatives fail this test miserably. Typical of this arrested development is the SAARC Audio-Visual Exchange, or SAVE.
Announced in 1986 and established a year later, SAVE was to be “a South Asian broadcasting programme covering both radio and television.” Its mandate was to “increase the awareness of each other among the peoples of the region through disseminating information on the socio-cultural, economic and technical aspects.” SAVE connected Southasia’s state-owned, government-controlled radio and TV stations, in order to share selected content for broadcasting in each country. Some joint productions were also to be undertaken. Over the years, some content-swapping has indeed taken place, and the SAVE Committee members have met more than two dozen times. All of this hard work apparently pleased their masters. According to the website of the SAARC Secretariat, “The successive SAARC Summits had lauded the smooth functioning of SAVE programme [sic] as being a useful medium for promoting a South Asian consciousness among the people in the region.”
So what was produced by these Himalayan labours, and where has it all gone? SAVE’s founders chose relatively ‘safe’ topics for coverage – the environment, disability, youth, literacy, clean water, mountains. Even without a close analysis of SAVE-distributed content over the years, we can safely bet that nothing remotely critical of governments or militaries ever came out of the process. These state mouthpieces diligently avoid critical issues such as the rise of religious fundamentalism and ultra-nationalism, the saffronisation of politics, the militarisation of whole societies and the uncritical cheerleading of market economics. Indeed, Southasia as covered by state TV and radio is so detached from reality that it could just as well exist in a parallel universe. For example, the democracy struggles in Karachi, Kathmandu or Male are reported as little more than civic disturbances or anti-government mayhem. Everyone who does not completely agree with the ruling oligarchies is branded a traitor or a potential ‘terrorist’.
Who would consume such perversions on the air? As it turns out, fewer people with each passing year. During the mid-1980s when SAVE began, most viewers had access to an average of 2.4 TV channels, all state-owned. Since then, the numbers have changed dramatically – first with the advent of satellite television in 1991, and then through gradual (albeit partial) broadcast liberalisation. Southasian audiences, at last freed from the unimaginative, propaganda-laden state channels, quickly migrated to privately owned options. Soon, ‘Babu TVs’ everywhere found themselves with ever-shrinking audiences and declining revenue. For the past decade, most have survived only because governments have continued to infuse them with taxpayer money.
The spread of the Internet and mobile telephones has further diversified Southasians’ sources of information and entertainment. While broadband Internet penetration in the region stood at a mere three percent in 2007, this is set to expand dramatically in the coming decade. India alone targets 100 million broadband users by 2015.
Despite being pushed into complete irrelevance by this nuanced, complex media reality, SAVE has plodded on for 21 years. But the need for a truly pan-Southasian TV channel is greater than ever. This could balance not only the stereotypical coverage of Southasian affairs by global TV networks (for many of which this dynamic region is seen as India and Pakistan plus debris), but also counter the excessive nationalism of some private channels pandering essentially to their home audiences.
Against this backdrop came the welcome news, in April 2008, of the launch of TV Southasia (note the one word). The new channel is a collaborative venture of five commercial broadcasters producing and sharing content across borders (see accompanying review, “Regional television on demand”). Mercifully, no governments or Babu TV dinosaurs are involved. And if they get it right, TV Southasia’s founders – Rtv of Bangladesh, Tara Newz of India, Image Channel of Nepal, Aaj TV of Pakistan and MTV/News 1st of Sri Lanka – could tap into an enviably large combined audience: 1.5 billion people, with large and growing access to TV.
On its website, TV Southasia spells out its agenda as the promotion of liberalism, scientific temperament, education, heritage and cultural diversity. Significantly, it also declares what it opposes, including superstition, fundamentalism, corruption, violence, cultural hegemony and communalism – the assorted evils of Southasia. Of course, we will all just have to wait and see whether TV Southasia will be able to live up to its humanist ideals, but one thing is already clear: neither SAVE nor its parental Babu TVs could ever aspire to such heights and ideals. So here is something constructive for the SAARC babus to look into in Colombo: pull the plug on SAVE, and give it an unceremonious burial.
~ Nalaka Gunawardene is a Colombo-based writer and journalist.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
Old Faces, New Precedents
On 11 May 2013, Pakistan went to the polls in a general election that will transfer power democratically for the first time in the nation's history. Nawaz Sharif has claimed victory for the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
From our archive:
Mehreen Zahra-Malik discusses novel means of holding corrupt officials to account in 'A coup by other means?' (July 2012)
Shamshad Ahmad on praetorian irony, Machiavelli's prince, and Pakistan's fight for constitutional primacy. (January 2008)
Zia Mian and A H Nayyar write about Pakistan's coup culture and Nawaz Sharif's 'absolutist sense of power.' (November 1999)