February 19, 2020
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'In Islamabad, I Have A Sense Of History'

Address by the External Affairs Minister of India at the concluding session of the SAARC Journalists Summit Organized by the South Asian Free Media Association

'In Islamabad, I Have A Sense Of History'

In the three years since its inception, SAFMA has gathered the reputation of being a forum that can think ahead of political developments. It has created an intellectual space that reflects media solidarity as well as a strong commitment to universalism and peaceful cooperation. I am therefore extremely happy to have this opportunity to share my views with members of SAFMA. I extend my special compliments to SAFMA and to all distinguished participants for holding these deliberations on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit. This reflects not only a great sense of occasion but also a correct judgement of the mood generated by the upswing in people to people contacts within our region.

It is a matter of no small significance that this forum has chosen for its deliberations the theme of access to and free flow of information. These are concepts that are as pertinent today as they are complex. They are also issues that need to be squarely addressed by each of our societies and then, by the region as a whole because they extend to the core of regional cooperation in its widest sense.

Information, and this by definition, means correct information, is the psychological glue that bonds people together. Information removes suspicion and misperception. At the same time, information can build confidence, trust and understanding.

It is said that when Woodrow Wilson went to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles, he ordered his Post-Master General to take control of all the trans-Atlantic cables so that the news from Europe could be censored. In contrast today, Governments fall over each other trying to be the first to put their message or ‘spin’ across to the media. And, thanks to evolution of technology, all it takes to get the word out is the cell phone. While at one time the instinct was to control, now the impulse is to communicate. Modern media platforms, backed by the latest in communications technology have made deep inroads into traditional forms of governance and in the process, revolutionized the practice of international relations. Wars can now be seen in our drawing rooms in real time. International newspapers can be read in roadside cyber-cafes. The entire world is just a mouse click away.

Diverse technologies, in particular, television and the Internet, are creating a more rounded, qualitatively different and more pervasive consciousness than was created by the printed page alone. In such a world, the practitioners of information industry are less bothered about national borders than they are about time zones. In this world, the relationship between the media and governments, whether it is in the field of domestic or international relations, is based on partnership and ceases to be adversarial.

Given the history, politics and diversity of this region, careful thought has to be given to not only how we communicate with each other but also to what we communicate. In this situation, the medium itself often becomes the message. It will help no one in this region or for that matter anywhere else, if we communicate narrow-mindedness, dogmatism, paranoia and hostility. That would be an abuse of the call for access to and free flow of information.

This is where forums like SAFMA assume critical importance. They provide an opportunity for close interaction between media persons of different countries, diverse cultures and asymmetric societies. Meetings such as this can be an occasion for soul-searching by all of us. Responsibility is the flip side of freedom. Responsible projection of issues, a projection that avoids dramatization, shuns stereotypes and understands sensitivities is an essential requirement of free flow of information. This responsibility can not be dictated by Governments. It is for the disseminators of information themselves to work out these limits and to decipher the thin line where a right ends and duty begins.

Our region is a great contributor to the communications revolution, the process that doubles global computing power every eighteen months. Our people are in the vanguard of this revolution, helping the world solve its problems. Surely some of this energy can be channeled to solve the problems that we face in South Asia and to remove the 'information deficit' that is so evident.

Let us not forget that the traditional role of the media is not only to inform and educate but also to entertain. Indian films, I am proud to say, have found welcome reception all over the world. These films reflect present day realities and social trends. They show how our society is grappling with emerging issues. They deal with human situations that transcend the confines of national borders. The universal language of film can go a long way in removing mutual suspicions and changing mindsets. To give an example, one Indian – Raj Kapoor - has crossed borders, surmounted language barriers and found his way into countless hearts. He has probably done more for people to people contacts than dozens of treaties.

These are clearly long term issues that require thought and sustained work. Yet, we must all find reassurance in the fact that there are several positive factors working in favour of the objectives of SAFMA. The imperatives of technology, the self evident logic of regional cooperation and the overwhelming and spontaneous desire of the people of our region to live in friendship and peace are a few among these.

Friends, I am aware of the difficulties involved in making access to and free flow of information a reality. There are differences in the polities of our countries and in our cultural sensibilities. There are legal issues to be addressed and harmonized. There is also the historical baggage of distrust to be shed.

We all agree on the need to free the movement of media and media products within the region. But we hesitate when it actually comes to implementing supportive measures. The biggest non-tariff barrier we encounter in this process is the suspicion in our minds. Trust me; we are not protecting our respective economic interests by these unfounded apprehensions. We are not threatening our respective cultures. We are only limiting opportunities for better understanding amongst ourselves, for our growth.

In the 21st century, information cannot be confined within national boundaries. This is a reality we must accept. Today, insatiable public demand propelled by the process of globalization and rapidly advancing technology are rendering ineffective all barriers to the free flow of information. Moreover, the imposition of such restrictions on the free flow of media products is, in effect, a means of dis-empowering the already marginalized poor. The poor cannot access the Internet while the rich can. So, all we achieve is to deprive the already deprived. Such restrictions are also tantamount to encouragement for violations of intellectual property rights because all they achieve is growth in piracy of various media products.

India is a country which is completely open to the flow of media products from outside, except for some unavoidable reciprocal restrictions. Sadly, we are also a society about which ignorance abounds even within our immediate neighbourhood. We are also target of disinformation, propaganda and false type casting. People are often surprised to learn that India has the second largest Muslim population in the world. They are unaware that around 150 million people who profess the great faith of Islam live and thrive in India. I wonder, is it that a persistent barrage of propaganda turns even the biggest untruths into popular belief?

Let me use this occasion to issue a fervent appeal to Pakistan and Bangladesh, the only two Governments of SAARC, who continue to restrict the free flow of media products into their countries. Please consider, and I am appealing to my friend Mr. Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri who is here, for a change in your policies. Indian newspapers, magazines, music, films and television are not going to undermine any society in this region. Let us break-down these artificial walls. The time has come to end this self-defeating approach. South Asia must rise above such shortsightedness. In the past, the melody of Rafi and Noorjehan and the poetry of Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam wafted across our frontiers to a common heartbeat. Let us not, so much later in the day, still hinder one from enjoying another’s creativity, or joining with the other to find fresh and inspiring expression. Let us have the courage to recognize the extremely important role that the media can play in leading the people of our region onto the path of peace and prosperity.

In fact, I would strongly recommend that we decide and start working, in a short term framework, towards the goal of a South Asian Common Information Space. Let our thoughts, ideas, creations freely interact, building further on our commonalities. Let our understanding, at the popular levels, be further deepened, to create fresh synergies for cooperation and addressing differences.

Friends, I am also aware of the specific demand of SAFMA for the free movement of media persons. This is an issue close to the heart of India. It is an absolute shame that the doyens of our media find it impossible to visit each other freely and travel across the length and breadth of our countries. Some arrangement, as has been made for the leaders of our business and industry, can certainly be explored. The Information Ministers of SAARC countries are currently engaged with these issues.

Let me deviate here from my prepared text and add a few comments. India will wholeheartedly and enthusiastically support any arrangement made for media persons in SAARC countries to travel to each other, either with a visa or without a visa. I suggest that a liberal visa regime can be adopted as soon as we go back. When we meet in July for the Council of Ministers meeting in Islamabad, an arrangement for movement of media persons within SAARC can be formalized.

Winds of change are blowing in our region. In Islamabad, I have a sense of history. After January 6, we will be beginning a new phase in our relationships. And, I am not talking here merely of India and Pakistan. There is a new spirit in all seven countries of SAARC.

 There were problems on Saturday morning due to which the meeting of the Council of Ministers was delayed for a while. Officials were still grappling with some issues in the drafts. However, Council Chairman Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri convened the Foreign Ministers informally and solved the problem. Agreements have been reached on issues that were considered impossible in our regional context. The Foreign Ministers ironed out all differences over the Additional Protocol on Terrorism and SAFTA. The Heads of the SAARC States and Governments are going to sign the Social Charter which will set the pace and the agenda for fighting poverty in the region. A decision was also made to initiate studies on advancing the goal of a South Asian Economic Union from 2020 to 2015 and on establishing a single currency in the region.

If we can do it at our level, there is no reason why SAFMA cannot also do it. I appeal to you to aid and abet us in this process. Please become our co-conspirators. Help us in reaching this goal. Let us leave the mistrust, suspicions and the baggage of history behind. Let us make a brave new beginning.

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