The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Saarc prelude stokes summit hopes

New Delhi, Nov. 3: Pakistan has confirmed its participation for the third Saarc information ministers’ conference to be held here next week, raising hopes of a full participation for the summit meeting of South Asian countries slated to be held in Islamabad in January.

Pakistan information minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed would be in New Delhi for the third conference of Saarc information ministers from November 10 to 12, sources in the Union information and broadcasting ministry said. (Only Maldives is yet to confirm participation.)

Information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad is slated to meet his Pakistani counterpart on the sidelines of the meeting. Speaking for the Indian entertainment industry, Prasad is likely to request that Pakistan lift a ban on Indian films and performances by Indian artistes.

There was some doubt on Pakistan confirming its attendance at the meeting because of the strained relations and the unresolved issues of travel and overflights with India.

But Islamabad’s willingness reciprocates the participation by India’s Sushma Swaraj in the second Saarc information ministers’ meet in Pakistan last year.

The Saarc ministerial meetings are a prelude to the summit meeting. The meeting of information ministers in particular has in the past turned into a forum for bilateral disputes between India and Pakistan despite the other members of the platform being deeply resentful. There have been pleas that Saarc should not be held hostage to bilateral disputes between India and Pakistan.

At the second Saarc information ministers’ conference in Islamabad last year, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf used the platform to raise issues dogging India-Pakistan relations.

Speaking at the inaugural, Musharraf dramatically offered a de-escalation of tension with India — the Indian and Pakistani armies were in a state of mobilisation since the attack on the Parliament in December 2001 — and asked for an immediate response.

Musharraf said he was ready to lift the ban on overflights by Indian civilian aircraft if Delhi reciprocated. Even as he was speaking, he offered the microphone to the then information and broadcasting minister Swaraj and dared her to take him up on his offer.

Swaraj refused, stating that her brief as information minister does not allow her to speak for the Indian government on issues raised by Musharraf. The Saarc charter urges member countries not to drag bilateral subjects into the regional forum.

Ministry sources said an agenda being drawn up for the third conference would studiously focus on issues of multilateral interest involving member countries. They did not anticipate a logjam on information issues. The Saarc commerce ministers’ conference has already been held in Kathmandu and some trade issues remain unresolved.

A tentative agenda being drawn up for the information ministers’ conference proposes the creation of a Saarc Regional Media Forum, drafting of model guidelines on transnational satellite broadcasting in the region, setting up of a media development fund and freer movement of media personnel within the region.

It has also been proposed that Saarc evolves a common position that should be presented at the World Summit on Information Society to be held in Switzerland in December.

Also included in the agenda is an annual conference of editors and working journalists of Saarc countries.

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