Eighth SAFMA Conference: Disappointed in the implementation of some SAARC declarations, more than 200 media professionals and journalists from the region called for the removal of impediments in implementing declarations that were endorsed and committed to by all eight SAARC leaders.
Specifically, the journalists were disappointed with the implementation of the 14th SAARC summit on connectivity, the 17th SAARC summit on South Asian free trade agreement (SAFTA) and the Thimphu SAARC declaration on environment.
A South Asian free media association (SAFMA) Amritsar-Lahore declaration was endorsed during its eighth conference on ‘A Vision for South Asia and Union – Opening Minds, Opening Borders’, at Amritsar in Punjab on January 6, and Lahore in Pakistan on January 8-10.
The 14th SAARC summit in April 2007 in New Delhi had agreed to build “intra-regional connectivity, particularly physical, economic and people-to-people connectivity” facilitate “smooth flow of goods, services, peoples, technologies, knowledge, capital, culture and ideas in the region.”
Opening borders means opening routes and allowing access without barriers and restrictions, SAFMA’s founder and secretary general, Imtiaz Alam, said. “Therefore, a choice has to be made by opening minds, whether we’ll continue to be held back behind the barbed wire of anti-route ideologies, approaches and structures, or follow the consensus reached at the 14th SAARC summit for far greater connectivity and the opening of routes and borders,” he said.
During the 16th SAARC Summit in Thimphu in 2010, eight leaders, deeply concerned by the extent of environmental degradation in the region, reiterated the importance of sustainably managing environment and development, through adoption of eco-friendly approaches and technologies, and that South Asia should become a world leader in low-carbon technology and renewable energies. They signed the SAARC convention on cooperation on environment, and called for its early ratification and implementation.
SAFMA also demanded member countries of SAARC to follow the timeframe set for the implementation of SAFTA, and extending it to services, harmonisation of macro-fiscal policies, setting of standards, harmonisation of custom rules, building both physical hardware, such as ports, highways, communication lines and software.
An agreement reached, during the 2004 SAARC summit, was to create “free trade area” across the borders in the sub-continent to reduce custom duties of all trade goods to zero by 2016.
The conference also expressed dismay at the continued failure of states to address violations of basic rights and strengthening democratic institutions and processes. SAFMA also called all political, social, religious forces and institutions to take all possible measures to eradicate the scourge of extremism without indulging in blame games.
SAFMA, which was established in 2000 for free flow of and access to information, and free movement of journalists in the region, expressed that the governments of all SAARC countries grant journalists, writers, artists and academics two-year multiple entry visa, while extending the scope of SAARC visa sticker.
As of today, 150 SAARC stickers for journalists in each country are granted in a year. Seven journalists, who attended the SAFMA Amritsar-Lahore conference this week, availed the SAARC sticker.
Pakistan’s prime minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, who hosted a dinner for SAFMA delegates, assured his support to grant the two-year multiple entry-visa for journalists.
Indian minister for external affairs, Salman Khurshid, said a liberal visa regime could be taken forward, and assured that he would take this issue personally, and convince his colleagues to expand the visa regime, so that journalists can travel easily within the member states.
Journalists also welcomed visa liberalisation between India and Pakistan, although it is still prohibitive and does not match with the good examples of open borders practised by Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka.
The inaugural session of the eighth SAFMA conference to address the issue of open minds and open borders was held in Amritsar, Punjab, then across the still restricted Attai-Wagah border, proceeding to Lahore in Pakistan for the closing.
During the four-day conference, journalists also discussed issues on media’s role in peace and cooperation, terrorism, extremism, and inter/intrastate conflict, a South Asian vision for an economic union, the future of SAARC, human rights, minorities, and women in South Asia.
By Rinzin Wangchuk, Lahore