Channel Southasia

Isn’t it time for a regional television network that ‘thinks Southasian’ and broadcasts via satellite and cable throughout the region? While Latin America’s incipient Telesur and West Asia’s energetic Al Jazeera might provide models, it is clear that we will have to go our own way.

On 24 July this year, in an ostensible bid to "promote Latin American integration", a new pan-South American television channel began broadcasting from the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. Telesur – short for 'Television of the South' – has the patronage of the left-leaning governments of Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay and Cuba. It hopes to be the 'ideological rival' to the perceived pro-American CNN Latin, which has been the only international television news network available in the region. Beginning with USD 10 million in start-up capital provided by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's government, Telesur's bosses also hope to rope Brazil into the project – although that country is currently looking into launching its own international network.

In Telesur's favour is the fact that the 'mainstream' audiences in all of the major Latin American countries have similar cultural and linguistic sensibilities – Spanish and Catholicism. Whether or not these commonalties are enough to make the channel a viable alternative to the Western media in general and CNN Latin in particular remains to be seen. Moreover, the fact that the venture is overtly backed by governments with distinct anti-US predilections puts a political colour on the project and a question mark on the editorial independence and credibility of the new channel. Despite these potential pitfalls, however, this model is significant in that it could, with suitable variations, be replicated in other developing regions of the world, including Southasia.

Telesur has only recently begun broadcasting, and it might be premature to propose a regional television channel for Southasia on the basis of its untested concept. However, it is interesting that another region of 'the South' has felt the need for an audio-visual voice for itself, at a time when the idea of a channel for the Subcontinent as a whole has begun to take hold in the minds of many. Regionalism in Southasia, which got a boost with the official sanction of the establishment of SAARC two decades ago, has been an increasingly important theme for civil society in each of the region's countries. Over time, such groups have felt the need for print and electronic media that cover the region as a whole; the overwhelming presence of western satellite news has made analysts call for native channels. The spread of Indian channels, in particular the satellite footprints of Hindi and English broadcasts emanating from India, has again led people in other countries to call for a satellite channel that is uniquely Southasian, without allegiance to any national sensibility.

Some believe that now is the perfect time for a Southasian channel; they tend to be the idealists who hanker for 'soft borders', Southasian camaraderie, peace and the prosperity that comes from peace. There are others who believe that the time is not right for such a channel; they tend to be the realists who point out, first, that the audiences are currently not present for a channel that tries to be all things to all audiences across seven nation states. They also point to the enormous costs of running a satellite channel in Southasia. Such an investment would be unlikely to be backed by bankers and investors – at least, not until the movement for Southasian regionalism evolves into a revolution.

The look-inward policy

While Southasia as a whole has always had a vibrant media in comparison to many other regions of the southern hemisphere, each of the region's media has traditionally looked homeward. The space that remains on the pages beyond national news – or the time, in terms of television or radio programming – is filled by news on Western societies. "Most of the countries in our region are striving to become developed; hence the focus is only on 'ourselves'", admits CNBC's Karma Paljor in New Delhi. Intraregional news seldom filters through the airwaves, except in the case of particularly dramatic developments. An average Indian or Pakistani today is perfectly clued-in to the American 'war on terror', but knows next to nothing about the Maoist insurgency in Nepal or the status of the ceasefire between the LTTE and the government in Colombo.

Coverage of the Southasian neighbourhood is hampered by the fact that no television channels, beyond the few big Indian channels, keep correspondents (or even stringers) in the neighbouring countries. As a result, the news that is used is filtered through the medium of Western wire services and television channels. A region the size of the Subcontinent generates an enormous volume of news, but you would not know that 'there is a region out there' if you watched television in any of the countries of Southasia. The Indian channels that are able do so send camera units parachuting into nearby countries – if there is a bombing spree in Dhaka, for instance, a state of emergency in Kathmandu, or a tsunami disaster in Colombo. But they themselves have neither the wherewithal nor the interest to stay with a story to do follow-up.

The fact that the existing nation-based channels do not do justice to neighbouring societies is perhaps to be expected. As yet, television is a new medium, still in the process of finding its feet within each country. In India, for example, the pan-Indian channels are now giving way to regional language channels. Some may say that this will actually make the channels more localised and parochial. But by the same token, such channels could look more closely at issues of a crossborder nature (Bengal-Bengal, Punjab-Punjab, and so on) than would a national channel based in New Delhi. Be that as it may, over time audience interest in regional matters has been on the rise all over the Subcontinent. Concedes CNBC's Paljor, "Editorial rooms need the regional picture, otherwise the story sinks."

As audiences in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan or Sri Lanka get fed more news about neighbouring countries, their appetites are bound to be whetted. Over time, this will pave the way for a Southasian television channel.

A pan-regional network?

In an increasingly globalised information system, every region must hear of and be heard by the world at large. By this rationale, doesn't Southasia owe itself and the world its own regional television network? Sri Lankan writer and media commentator Nalaka Gunawardene approves of the idea. Bobby Ramakant, an Indian freelance journalist, similarly believes that such a media initiative would contribute greatly to stabilising the region: "The Indian and Pakistani media have contributed significantly toward the polarisation of their citizens against each other," he says. "Now is just the right time for Southasia to have its own regional TV broadcast. Such a network will make media more accountable, not provide misleading or provocative imagery of others countries, and instead talk about common issues and problems."

Philip Fiske de Gouveia, of the Foreign Policy Centre in London, echoes Ramakant's sentiments: "An independent Southasian broadcaster would help forge regional consciousness and cultural links." However, New Delhi-based television personality and educator Paranjoy Guha Thakurta reckons that these are "early days yet" for a regional television channel: "Within Southasia, there are highly heterogeneous nation states. These countries are diverse and differ from one another in more ways than one. There are many 'Asias' within Southasia." Indeed, for all the unity and commonality that this region may lay claim to, political, linguistic and religious differences have played heavy parts in dividing its peoples – which may make a central channel unviable, he says.

Before even addressing the feasibility of a Southasian channel, however, the crucial question is: Why is it important for Southasians 'to see ourselves through our own eyes?' In answer, consider the earthquake that took nearly 80,000 lives in Pakistan on 8 October and after. In order to keep updated, Southasians all over – including in India, Pakistan and Kashmir on both sides of the LoC – needed to turn on the BBC or CNN. A good Southasian news channel would be one that would be watched by Southasians everywhere with a feeling of ownership, covering earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as triumphs of the human spirit.

The foremost hurdle that such a project would face would be finding a viable common platform. Creating intraregional, multilateral institutions, at least at the governmental level, has previously proved a frustrating challenge in Southasia. The non-starter that is the SAARC Secretariat, headquartered in Kathmandu, only proves the point. Its only attempt at bringing together television programming – called SAARC Audio-Visual Exchange (SAVE) – is a dismal affair, doomed because it is nothing more than a collaboration between governmental channels.

Aside from the fact that official involvement would immediately rob a Southasian channel of all dynamism (like SAARC and SAVE), regional governments are so far apart that they are unlikely to spend time and money on any such project. State intervention would also jeopardise the channel's editorial independence. Time's Alex Perry, who covers Southasia for his magazine, cautions: "If you want this channel to be independent, governments should stay out." The "effectiveness" of a Southasian channel would depend entirely on how daring its directors want it to be, says Perry. "By being based in a country other than the one being reported on, it could probably be a lot more effective than national channels."

Broadcast tongue

Language remains one of the definitive, dividing factors in Southasia and would be a stumbling block for any pan-Southasian media venture as well. Paljor believes that such a channel "will succeed only if it is in English." Indeed, English is clearly the Southasian lingua franca – as the only language that can be understood by the capital elites in each country, it allows them to communicate at business conclaves and SAARC meetings alike. Still, English has its drawbacks. Only a small minority in each Southasian country can understand English. It is an elitist tongue that should be utilised as a regional channel's broadcast medium only if it is used as the first step towards a pan-Southasian channel. The decision on English, however, should be taken with the full understanding that it will have only a niche audience. Guha Thakurta predicts that a pan-Southasian TV channel will be a reality a decade from now, mostly having to do with the audience's facility with English: "By that time, hopefully more people in Southasia would be able to converse –_ and be able to watch – a TV channel in English … I don't foresee a Southasian channel using any other language."

The key question, suggests Paljor is, "Who is it that will want to watch the larger Southasian picture? Will such a channel be for people living within the region? For non-resident Southasians? Or for the world at large?" Clearly the answer has to be that a Southasian channel would be targeted at people residing in Southasia. Initially, at least, it could be restricted to the English language. A pan-regional channel in Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani, however, with a decidedly Southasian rather than 'Indian' or 'Pakistani' focus, would be sure to rope in a large number of viewers from the entire Indus-Ganga-Brahmaputra basin.

Al Jazeera

The governments of Southasia clearly cannot be expected to back a Southasian television channel — neither by themselves, nor due to their lack of trust in each other. Such a channel would be an expensive project, from the hardware and satellite hook-ups, to region-wide networks of correspondence and marketing reach. But if not the government, then who would have the required cash to promote it? While a sense of regionalism may be developing, it is still incipient as far as the marketplace is concerned; investors are hardly going to come up at this time with the multimillion dollars that the project would need.

Businessmen or consortia of entrepreneurs interested in such a venture would require nerves of steel to be able to withstand – and buffer the fledgling channel from – multiple pressures coming from state, sectarian, fundamentalist, commercial and multinational sources. "And if that's not too much to wish for," quips Gunawardene, "can we also hope that such a channel will discern well between news and entertainment, and keep the two separate?"

If it is not to be a government combine or an entrepreneur's consortium, who will back a Southasian channel? As one journalist interviewed said, "What we really need at this moment is a maverick, courageous financier with deep enough pockets to launch Southasia's own Telesur."

In a way, that would bring the proposed 'Channel Southasia' awfully close to the Al Jazeera model – which is not necessarily a bad thing, considering that channel's success in breaking the Western media monopoly in West Asia. Indeed, the Al Jazeera model remains an alternative to the Telesur template for new media initiatives in Southasia, Africa and elsewhere. The Foreign Policy Centre's Philip Fiske de Gouveia is convinced that such a venture would bring about greater transparency and accountability: "Al Jazeera is unique in the way it is financed – by the Emir of Qatar, who is head of a small principality and is seen to have no conspicuous political agenda himself."

De Gouveia has been championing an article called "An African Al Jazeera?", in which he writes: "…if freedom is indeed on the move in the Middle East, Al Jazeera can claim a good deal of the credit. The station's broadcasts, which are available across the region, pressure governments to open up. In just nine years of existence, Al Jazeera has received hundreds of complaints from regimes not accustomed to scrutiny. Now, Arab governments realise they must justify their actions to millions of television viewers."

Everything about a possible African regional channel may not apply to Southasia. But who can deny that an additional, independent channel, with a decidedly regional focus, would provide just the kind of programming that would be interesting in itself, while also challenging other networks. Furthermore, a liberal, thoughtful and daring channel going all over Southasia via satellite and cable would do more than a hundred newspapers to change mindsets for the better, and to pour oil over troubled geopolitical waters.


If governments should not be allowed to fund Channel Southasia; if private financing is unlikely; and if a maverick magic-wand investor cannot be wished from the ether, where do we go with the idea of a regional television station that speaks to the sensibility of Southasia? The answer may lie in two directions. First, the existing successful stations, such as Geo of Karachi or NDTV of New Delhi, may see an advantage for themselves to evolve into a 'Southasian' station (for article on Geo, see Himal Sep-Oct 2005). This would depend on how much the current India-Pakistan thaw will or is allowed to continue. A less ambitious but more realistic plan for the moment may be one of linking existing private channels of Southasia, so that they form a loose network that can initially share programming. Such an approach would then be able to evolve and establish itself, even as it helps to create a unified group of what could be called the 'Southasian viewers'.

Each of the larger countries of Southasia already has a number of private media initiatives. If some of these could join forces to form a professionally managed network – with governments kept strictly out – and if the emerging network programming were allowed editorial autonomy, there is every likelihood that television, at long last, could begin to serve the region's people with regional programming. This would do more than any number of crossborder cricket tests and peace marches to help re-cement the relationships of the people of Southasia, across the frontiers created in 1947. If these channels can sell – or even hope to sell – content in their respective capacities, couldn't they do it from under a collective banner? Before long, the time would be ripe for Channel Southasia; then, the sceptics could keep their own counsel.

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