By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)
NEW DELHI â€“ Ahead of the 14th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit, to be hosted here in April, the first ever editorsâ€™ conference was held here last week (February 9-10). Addressing its concluding session, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee dismissed apprehensions held about India seeking an â€œexclusive sphere of influenceâ€ through SAARC. Laying stress on the importance of â€œregionalismâ€ in South Asia, he said: â€œWhat we seek is not an exclusive sphere of influenceâ€“as is often misunderstoodâ€“but a shared sphere of regionalism. Our vision for the SAARC region is one of regionalism.â€ SAARC comprises India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.
â€œIndiaâ€™s strong support to the entry into SAARC as observers, among others–China and Japan –underlines our commitment to open regionalism in the subcontinent,â€ Mukherjee said. â€œIndia is conscious that no South Asian nation can succeed on its own. Globalization and the advent of modern technology have endowed us with options that never existed before. We must create a stake for every nation in the economic success of the other,â€ he said.
Elaborating on Indiaâ€™s agenda for the SAARC summit in April, Mukherjee said: â€œWe will play a positive role in the establishment of new trans-border transport networks and energy corridors so that the 14th Summit of SAARC countries gives a clear signal for improving the connectivity within the subcontinent by ensuring free flow of trade, commerce, goods, people and ideas.â€
In view of the new importance assumed by such gatherings and media, Mukherjee said: â€œGiven its immense reach, there is a need, perhaps more than ever before, for the media to be fully aware of its own power and the responsibility it bears for creating proper understanding between neighboring countries. In many ways, the media is the torch-bearer of better people-to-people contacts.â€ Holding such media-conferences regularly would contribute to realizing the â€œfull potential of the media in helping create a peaceful and closely integrated neighborhood,â€ Mukherjee said.
During his inaugural address, expressing regret that such a meeting had not been held earlier, Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said: â€œAfter all, SAARC has been in existence for 20 years. So, it is a rather sad commentary that this is the first time that we have a meeting of editors at this level in SAARC.â€
Highlighting the need for greater media interaction among South Asian countries, Menon said: â€œWhatever the result, the fact is that we today have a media in South Asia which is among the best in the world and can match anyone else in the world. Therefore, my question to you is, please tell us what could we be doing in SAARC to encourage free flow of ideas, of media persons, of media products.â€ Asserting that there was a â€œhistoric opportunityâ€ at hand for countries of the region to realize the full potential of SAARC, Menon said: â€œWe realize the extent of our inter-dependence, the extent to which we need each other, all of us. This has nothing to do with asymmetries of power, shape, size and whatever–we all need each other.â€
The resolution adopted at the end of conference urged governments of SAARC countries to enable â€œfreer movement of journalists by issuing multiple-entry long-term visas to all bona fide journalists.â€ The resolution also asked SAARC governments to â€œdismantle all border barriers to free flow and exchange of news media products in the region.â€
The conference criticized â€œcontinuing intimidationâ€ and â€œattacksâ€ on journalists in the region by â€œagencies of the State, extra-constitutional authorities, self-appointed cultural custodians, religious and political press-gangs, and criminal elements acting in collusion with law enforcement agencies.â€ Voicing concern over harassment of media persons, the conference asked the governments to intervene â€œimmediately and decisivelyâ€ in every instance to protect journalists and the media from attacks and threats from any quarter. To make media freedom in the fullest sense an explicit, inalienable, fundamental right that cannot be tampered with in any manner, the SAARC countries were asked to bring in necessary legislation or amendments to national constitutions.
Regarding existing institutions as inadequate, SAARC editors viewed setting up self-regulatory bodies of journalists as â€œhighly necessary.â€ â€œWe need to make states not interfere with journalism but become more accountable in areas like public broadcasting,â€ the editors said. Pointing to recent attacks on the media, including the recent Broadcasting Bill sought to be initiated by the present Congress-led government in India giving rights to even a district magistrate to close channels and police journalism, the editors said: â€œWe can think of forming a union to coordinate our news and the flow of information.â€
Organized jointly, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and Media Development Foundation (Chennai), the two-day conference attracted around 45 senior representatives from SAARC countries. Though held as a build up to the SAARC conference, this media-meet was not a part of the â€œofficial calendar,â€ according to Indian Ministry of External Affairsâ€™ spokesperson Navtej Sarna. The next SAARC editorsâ€™ conference will be held in Karachi in 2008.