By Ankur Dang:
Milos Forman’s famous words, ‘….The cornerstone of democracy is a free press’, recently rang in unison at the FSI hall of Akbar Bhawan, once known as Akbar Hotel and at present, the temporary home of South Asian University, an institution established by SAARC nations.
In an International conference held on the 5th and 6th of November, some of the most prominent and active members of the South Asian region’s media came together to discuss the role media plays in the region. Mr. Jawahar Sircar, CEO of Prasar Bharti inaugurated the conference and delivered the keynote address. In his speech, he talked about the need to dismantle national stereotypes across borders. He said that since the South Asian countries must swim together or sink together, they have no choice but to build bridges that would allow for true regional integration of the SAARC countries.
In the five panel discussions, spread over two days, a number of themes were discussed. Challenges to the media, in the light of peace and security, popular culture and arts in the media, regional consciousness and media coverage were among the major issues discussed. Considering the fact that this was a conference delivered by and for people from all over the region, a fair number of questions following the panel discussions were directed towards how the media plays both, destructive and constructive roles in conflict resolution and peace building in South Asia. Most notably, as has also been seen in other SAARC forums, the bilateral problems between India and Pakistan seemed high on the priority list of students from countries other than these two as well. The reason behind this is that most regional talks often get hijacked by the tensions between India and Pakistan. This particular line of discussion also brought up the related but crucial point that the six other SAARC countries have not gained much from SAARC, thereby vindicating the claim that the story of SAARC is not one of success and that the organization is still lagging behind greatly as compared to other regional associations like ASEAN, EU and the African Union.
Veteran Pakistani journalist, Najam Sethi, in his address, joked about how he as a liberal voice has been called a KGB agent, a RAW agent and a CIA agent because he, through his work, dared to raise his voice against the system. He said that while there are tensions between the two giants of South Asia, along with their internal problems, it is imperative that the two countries’ fourth estates work with each other rather than against. He went on to say that the English language press in Pakistan is largely liberal and pro-human rights, which is why it needs the support of its Indian counterpart in order to stay strong in the face of pressure and fear of fundamentalist forces. He also said that while he has many friends in the Indian media, he is deeply saddened by the fact that the Indian media is more interested in bashing Pakistan and the Pakistani media, instead of realizing that unnecessary muscle flexing is part of the problem and not the solution.
Other senior journalists like Lakshman Gunasekara from Sri Lanka and Mr. Ashok Bajpai from India delivered frank, honest and piercing speeches, which forced the audience to think and reflect upon what they ingested as consumers of the so-called ‘free press’. Furthermore, other well-known voices from the media, like Suhasini Haidar from India, Prashant Jha from Nepal and Mehmal Sarfraz from Pakistan raised pertinent questions regarding the peace processes between countries and how the media must choose when to work with the government and when to work against it, in the favor of the people. They also spoke about the need for more space for regional news in the International sections of various media platforms. Mehmal Sarfraz, pointed out that if shows on Star TV and Zindagi Channel could play referee for the people, why couldn’t serious news organizations do it. She reminisced about the ‘Aman ki Asha’ initiative that had been started by the Jang Group of Newspapers of Pakistan and the Times Group of India a few years ago.
On a light hearted note, with some somber undercurrents to his words, EP Unny, the celebrated Indian cartoonist reminded the audience and the panelists about what ‘free’ really means, especially since popular culture and visual art are intimately and inextricably linked to the job that the media must do in service to the people.
The two days of the conference led to a series of conversations at the South Asian University, where students are now looking at academic activism as a way to further the case of the Global South in the International system of states. A series of lectures and seminars at SAU, featuring humanists like Dr. Karan Singh, and academicians like Dr. Henrik Aspengren, Dr. Salima Hashmi and Prof. Vasudha Dalmia, leave the impression that the coming together of South Asia in more ways than just geographical, is an inevitability, mainly due to the fact that our collective imperial experiences, cultural ties and shared destinies bind us the way nothing else can. In the light of this truth, it is vital that the media of the region play its part in being the champion of virtue that it claims to be.
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