Time to change the channel
Watching the news this past week, I recalled a comment made to me by eminent Indian journalist Sayeed Naqvi when I met him in Dhaka earlier this year. Mr. Naqvi commented at the time how ridiculous it was that we in South Asia needed to get our information about Afghanistan from the likes of BBC and CNN.
I wonder what he would think right now. Ever since Gen. Musharraf declared a state of emergency in Pakistan on November 3, the situation in Pakistan has headlined the world news. Here in Bangladesh, interest and anxiety as to the Pakistan story is second to nowhere, and all eyes and ears are glued to newspapers, the internet, and radio and television, to ensure that we do not miss any of the story as it unfolds.
But where can we go for live coverage of breaking news? CNN. BBC. Sky News. Al Jazeera.
Sure, there is PTV, which in any event I don't receive in my cable package, but I don't think that that would be much use right now. Nor do I suspect that any of Pakistan's private cable television stations would be able to broadcast much of interest.
Similarly, but for different reasons, I rather doubt whether any of the private Indian television news stations would be particularly enlightening, aiming as they do for a solely domestic Indian audience.
This is a pretty poor stuff. When my interlocutors for news on South Asia are the likes of Peter Bergen and Christiane Amanpour, it is a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of affairs.
For years, the west had the monopoly on world news with BBC and CNN, and to a lesser extent, Sky. None of them much good, in my opinion. In truth, I can scarcely bring myself to watch any of them, but for breaking news and instant analysis I have little choice.
Al Jazeera's entry into the fray has provided much needed balance in Middle East coverage, and indeed, has shaken up the entire broadcasting world for the better. But looking to a Qatar-based network to bring me news of what is happening in my neighbourhood isn't much of an improvement from looking towards London and Atlanta.
The time is perfect for a pan-South Asian television news network. The business plan more or less writes itself.
In the first place, the market inside South Asia for such a product is huge. There is a sizeable constituency of people among the region's 1.5 billion who would be interested in regional news from a non-national point of view.
And outside the region, there is a massive network of non-resident South Asians, literally millions from the US to the UK to the UAE to East Africa, and everywhere else in between, who would happily tune in nightly for good coverage of events in the sub-continent.
Next, South Asia is well on its way to becoming the world's next hot-spot. Just as the Middle East has been for the past 40 years, so will the sub-continent be for the next 40.
Afghanistan remains a huge story. Pakistan is imploding: just last month Newsweek ran a over story on the country calling it "the world's most dangerous nation." Sri Lanka remains mired in civil war. Nepal continues it bold march from monarchy towards democracy. India, encompassing both eye-popping development and gut-churning under-development, is a fixture on the global radar screen.
South Asia is going to be the story in coming years. And, of course, this feeds on itself. If we create a news network to feed this perception, then we can control the story and force ourselves on the consciousness of the world, which in turn creates more interest, more attention, more money, hastening the day when we take our place at the centre of the world stage.
But, once again, when it comes to regional cooperation, we continue to shoot ourselves in the foot.
I have been to countless conferences on regional media cooperation. They all come to nothing. It remains difficult for journalists to get visas. The petty, tit-for-tat mind-set continues to prevail. Forget about cross-border collaboration on stories of mutual interest.
But a regional broadcast news network would be key. It would help bring the region together. It could help advance the case for greater regional cooperation and economic integration and be a useful common platform for those who would like to see this.
Some laudable work to this end has already been done. Himal Southasian, a magazine published out of Kathmandu, aims to serve the entire region, and is a high quality publication. The television show, Southasian, is a collaborative media initiative that is broadcast on private television stations in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. These are all steps in the right direction. But it is not enough.
The region needs a regional broadcast news network with bureaus in Delhi, Bombay, Karachi, Islamabad, Dhaka, Colombo, Kabul, and Kathmandu, to start.
A friend of mine, Kenyan photo-journalist and entrepreneur Salim Amin, is setting up a pan-African news network, and hopes to be on air by the end of next year. If Africa, with its dozens of different countries, much greater regional disparities, unending conflicts, terrible infrastructure, low consumer base, and little money, can contemplate such a thing, there is no reason that South Asia, eight countries and hundreds of millions of potential viewers, cannot.
Ultimately, a pan-South Asia news network would have to be a private initiative, but if you talk to private broadcasters as to why this hasn't happened, they will point to government as an obstacle. And there is some truth to this. If our respective governments do not get on board (and I mean really get on board, not the rubbish that is spouted at annual regional summits), the idea will continue to go nowhere.
Once again, as in a million other ways, South Asia continues to lag behind. Once again, mutual distrust, inward-looking xenophobia, pettiness, and smallness of vision keep us from acting in our own best interests. Most importantly, we need to understand that it is not the government's job to stand in the way of progress and delay things unnecessarily. Given the prevailing mind-set in the sub-continent, it is no wonder that things remain as bad as they are.
One of these days, I am sure we will wake to realise how short-sighted we have been all these years. I only hope that by then it is not too late to correct course. In the meantime, if I want to know the latest from Pakistan, I guess I'll just turn to the BBC.
Zafar Sobhan is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.