Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW) is changing course and goes forward in a slimmed-down version: a smaller organisation focussing on Free Speech. From the old RNW ("2.0") to the new: a tour of the desks which will be terminated or are changing their approach.
Part II: the South Asian desk
“People in the region will have to take responsibility for themselves and that’s possible thanks to the advances made by the social media, the internet and smartphones. It all offers enormous opportunities to inform and be informed.”
Dheera Sujan is the South Asia desk's editor/co-ordinator:
“South Asia is a difficult region to work. There’s no obvious radio culture, in our sense, and there’s a lot of political censorship. There’s no independent press that’s critical of the government and tackles controversial issues. In a certain sense, it’s an ‘ideal’ situation for a department like ours, which wants to look at the region’s taboos.”
From blog to department
The desk is being disbanded, though, less than three years after it, more or less spontaneously, sprang into life. Sujan:
“The South Asia desk was a result of my personal blog aimed at the region which I began in 2009. The idea was to get a dialogue going between people from the different countries in the region. At the moment, there’s contact at governmental level but little between ordinary citizens.”
It easy to explain her link to the region. Sujan lived in India till she was 18. Then, her family moved to Australia. Later, she landed up in the Netherlands where she started working for RNW’s English department. Her ties with South Asia have always remained strong. She returns to India each year and also visits other countries which provide the audience for the South Asia desk: Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
In 2010, RNW decided to give more attention to the new economic superpower, India, and set up the South Asia desk. Devi Boerema and Johan van Slooten have worked alongside Sujan, running the website and presenting the weekly South Asia Wired programme. Partner stations in the region make use of their web and radio reports and productions.
Breaking the silence around taboos
The South Asia desk set itself the challenge of improving the contact between the people who live in the region and of making possible the discussion of regional taboos. Their method was not to pontificate from Hilversum in Holland, but to inspire role models who could get the discussion underway in the region. For instance, Indian and Pakistani artists talked about issues which were of importance to local people but which were not readily discussed at national levels, let alone between citizens of different South Asian countries. Sujan again:
“There are countless issues. Hot topics, such as the disputed region of Kashmir, the conflict in Sri Lanka, human rights, development aid work, women’s rights, sexual freedom are badly neglected in the region. These issues attracted the most response. Providing interpretation and a context in all this was important, especially for all the Indians, Pakistanis and other South Asian expats who live all over the world. The South Asia desk was also meant for them.”
Now the South Asia desk is being wound up, the region is back to square one:
“People will have to find for themselves the kinds of stories which we covered. They can be found, of course, but you have to search through all sorts of web sites. We’re leaving a big gap behind.”
“The days have gone when we, the Western World, could tell people in other countries how the world worked. People have to take responsibility for themselves and that’s possible thanks to the advances made by the social media, the internet and smartphones. It all offers enormous opportunities to inform and be informed.”
There are local initiatives in the region – community broadcast stations. Eventually, they will be able to play a role, but their volunteer staff still have to learn their craft. Sujan also points out that they have to be careful when choosing their subject matter:
“Criticism of the government is not actually illegal but, in countries such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan, it can make things very difficult for you.”