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JAMCO Online International Symposium

24th JAMCO Online International Symposium

January 2016 - August 2016

The Current State and Challenges of Television Broadcasters in Asia.

Commentary: Broadcast Media as a Mirror Reflecting Conditions in a Country

Takanobu Tanaka
Senior Researcher, NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute

Asia is diverse, and it is impossible to treat its broadcast media as a single group. Conditions vary from country to country. Many broadcasters were founded and developed under dictatorships; in some countries these remain subject to strict control by the authorities while in others the media now enjoy a measure of freedom. Media reflect the conditions of a country. Conditions in the countries taking part in this symposium—Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, and Sri Lanka—as well as in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, are varied and it can be difficult for those of us living in Japan to gain a full appreciation for how things actually stand. This symposium has provided a valuable opportunity to learn the latest information about broadcasters in these countries.

The Place of Broadcasters in History and Today

We need to look at the development of broadcasters in the context of history. The report on Afghanistan notes that, “Television is the most common broadcasting platform in Afghanistan. Almost 64 percent of Afghans watch TV on a weekly basis.” The observation may sound casual, and yet I cannot but be moved by its great significance.

From the end of October through the beginning of November 2002, I paid a visit to Afghanistan’s RTA broadcaster. I was there to do interviews about the situation a year after the fall of the Taliban. When I arrived at the station I was surprised to see security personnel armed with rifles. The bullet holes riddling the walls of the building stood out vividly. The giant parabola antenna installed on the roof had been struck by a shell and part of it was blown away. The area around the station had been literally in the war zone where bullets were flying.

The Taliban captured Kabul, banned TV-watching by the public, and shut down the station. TV personnel including engineers, producers, directors, and presenters were ordered to find other employment. In 2001, after the withdrawal of the Taliban from Kabul, RTA resumed broadcasting after a five-year hiatus. (Report p. 6)

How were they able to resume broadcasting immediately after the fall of the Taliban regime? In the course of my on-site reporting I heard that RTA technical staff had regularly slipped into the station, careful not to be discovered by the Taliban, and continued to maintain the equipment so that it would be functional and ready to start broadcasting whenever the time came. There was a storage room full of broken equipment from which they would scavenge parts to repair other equipment. The studio and transmission equipment that Japan provided thirty years before looked bright and shiny and free of even so much as a speck of dust.

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Japan joined other countries in providing targeted support for fostering the media. The report says, “By early 2015 there were 77 private TV stations operating alongside the state-owned TV station with its 35 provincial channels.” The media is recognized as one of the most successful aspects of the nation-building that is underway in Afghanistan.

Broadcasting Institutions and Freedom of Expression

From the perspective of freedom of expression, however, constraints still remain in Afghanistan. The Access to Information Law was passed in December 2014 but in practice there are continued problems such as reporters being beaten or prohibited from news gathering by some police or government agencies. This seems to be because Article 15 of the Access to Information Law provides for exceptions regarding information that is sensitive to the sovereignty of the state, national security, and the national interest and also for information that could endanger an individual’s life, property, or dignity. In addition, while Article 34 of the Constitution of Afghanistan states, “Freedom of expression shall be inviolable,” Article 3 of the same document states, “No law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam in Afghanistan.” The media, then, is forced to operate in a context where the two sometimes contradict each other.

Restrictions on freedom of expression are not limited only to Afghanistan. I once also visited Sri Lanka’s SLRC broadcaster, in March 2008. At the time, Tamil militants had been forced to relinquish the eastern parts of the country and been driven to their last stronghold in the north, where fighting continued to rage. The government wanted the media to report on its efforts to develop the east now that it was free of the militants. I knew that the media were essentially being used for propaganda purposes to report how much better things were once the Tamils had been driven out.

The translator for the Sri Lanka report struggled with how to render words like “state” or “national” when found in the names of broadcasters. These could be interpreted as meaning “state-run,” but when I checked with the writer of the report, Athula Ransirilal, he replied that the original word meant “public” or “national in scope,” so the SLRC is not so much a state-run broadcaster as a public broadcaster. The important issue, though, is editorial autonomy. Given that the report states that Sri Lanka is “a nation where there is unbridled allegiance to political masters” and, “Instances are not rare where the political interference affects the standard of channels,” it seems certain that broadcast content is subject to government influence. Still, because SLRC as an institution is guaranteed editorial autonomy, it is probably best positioned as a public broadcaster.

In China, meanwhile, although broadcasters are said to have a fundamental responsibility to communicate the policies and philosophy of the government and the Communist Party to the people and to provide them with guidance, the report on television in China records vivid instances of journalists being detained by the authorities and programs being cancelled, providing a glimpse of the actual state of regulation of speech.

Creating broadcast institutions and securing freedom of expression are long-term tasks, and sometimes require fighting with government. In this regard, I read the report about KTRK in Kyrgyzstan with great interest. Kyrgyzstan, like all other former Soviet republics, began forming qualitatively new media beginning with the acquisition of sovereignty in 1991. At the time there was only the state-run broadcaster, but freedom of the press was soon gained. Nevertheless, the report notes, KTRK was placed under government control during elections and when there was political strife it was used in the battle with antiestablishment factions. Ultimately, the adoption of the Public Television and Radio Broadcast Corporation Law in November 2011 established the legal status of public broadcasting. These achievements took two decades after the country became independent, and we can feel the weight of the statement in the report that there is no turning back the process of democratization.

The Waves of Digitization and Internationalization

Although media conditions vary widely by country, there are also common trends. One of these is the technological revolution brought about by digitization and the spread of the Internet. The switch to digital terrestrial broadcasting has been completed in Korea, Japan, and most of Europe, and much of Asia is now in the midst of digitization.

With respect to the integration of broadcasting and telecommunication, all television channels in Sri Lanka, for example, are said to use the Internet and social media to provide information. The composition of the market is said to be changing in Mongolia, with the number of broadcasters tripling over the last decade and the addition of IPTV and broadcasting services for mobile devices. Broadcasters can no longer afford to ignore the Internet and social media.

Another factor exerting an influence on broadcasters generally is internationalization. Sri Lanka has seen an increase in television dramas from overseas such as Korea, Japan, and China, which are now said to account for 15–20 percent of programming. In Mongolia, too, while 8 percent of television dramas are produced locally, 29 percent come from Korea, 22 percent from Russia, and 20 percent from the United States. Its report notes an active effort in “producing Mongolian television drama series that attract audiences and are capable of competing with Korean content, which is in large supply in the TV market.”

In Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, Russian programming is very popular; the people of the country tend to see what is happening in the world from a “Moscow perspective.” Interestingly, its report notes that while foreign programming is limited to under 30 percent, this includes content not only from Russia but also from many other countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Iran, China, and Korea.

Even in China, where there has been a pronounced tightening of control over the media, we can see the trend toward internationalization and Internet broadcasting. In all these cases, the concern is evident that domestically produced content needs to be protected from the massive influx of programming from overseas.

Japan’s Involvement and Issues for the Future

Japan engages in international cooperation primarily by providing technology and by providing content. Both RTA in Afghanistan and SLRC in Sri Lanka launched with Japan providing support for the construction of their first buildings and studios. There are also many examples, such as KTRK in Kyrgyzstan, where the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has provided equipment and peripherals and sent in experts to provide technical assistance. I think we can be proud of the great contributions that Japan has made to the development of broadcasters in Asia in the technical field.

At the same time, it is impossible not to feel that we are off to a late start when it comes to content development. I was very surprised to read in the Sri Lanka report that Oshin was extremely popular when it was broadcast in 2012. It is incredible that Oshin is still going strong in Asia after all these years. Although this is good news as far as it goes, one cannot help but feel a sense of despair that we have yet to produce a second, or a third, hit of the caliber of Oshin.

The keynote address for this symposium states “Television is the product of its times.” Having read the reports from each country, I feel that broadcasters truly are “mirrors that reflect the times in their countries.” In every country, the media, subject to government pressure and the waves of digitization and internationalization, is developing through iterations of “one step forward, one step back.”

The reports given by symposium participants Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, and Sri Lanka suggest a sense of hope vis-à-vis international cooperation from Japan. In Japan, improving our ability to deliver content internationally has been identified as an issue, but surely it is important that we avoid taking a one-way approach toward selling content overseas and instead carefully consider the other party and find ways to contribute that will be beneficial both to them and to Japan. For this reason, too, efforts to deepen international exchange though television programming and thereby contribute to mutual understanding and the advancement of developing countries are very meaningful.

NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute (Eds.). NHK deta bukku Sekai no hoso 2016 [NHK Data Book: World Broadcasting 2016]. (NHK Publishing, 2016).

Takanobu Tanaka

Senior Researcher, NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute

B.A., Sophia University, Department of Foreign Language
M.A., University of Leeds, Studies of International Society and Culture
Ph.D., Nagoya University, International Development

Working at NHK as a broadcast journalist since 1988, moved to NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute in 2011. Main research themes include disaster broadcasts, international cooperation and global trends on public media.

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