Asia-Pacific Television Forum on Children and YouthFocusing on Children’s Concerns

Statement by Mr. Kul C. Gautam
UNICEF Deputy Executive Director
Seoul, 5 February 2001

President Park of EBS.

Mr. Eguchi of ABU.

Colleagues and friends.

I am delighted to be with you here today and to have an opportunity to address the diverse and distinguished group of participants gathered for this Children’s Television Forum. And it is especially wonderful to meet here in Seoul under the patronage of the Korea Educational Broadcasting System, whose educational programmes for children are so innovative and effective. We saw a glimpse of these programmes earlier today.

I often wonder what have been the greatest discoveries of modern science and technology that have profoundly impacted on the well-being of the world’s children.

Vaccines come immediately to mind. We have eradicated smallpox – saving 5 million lives every year. We are about to eradicate polio. This will protect millions of children from being crippled. Other vaccines, antibiotics and modern medicines are saving and improving the quality of life of millions of children every year.

The invention of the printing press and mass availability of textbooks is another major contribution of modern science and technology which has brought about a knowledge revolution – uplifting the living standards of hundreds of millions of children and adults around the world.

And now, we have just entered the 21st century with computers and the internet opening up a whole new world of unimaginable possibilities and frightening prospects for humankind.

Comparable to these great discoveries – and with even greater potential to do good for the world’s children – is the technology and the medium that is within the command of many of us here in this room – television !

Consider the extraordinary power of television: It can turn trivial local events into worldwide headline news.

Is there anybody in this room who has not heard of Elian Gonzalez or O.J. Simpson? Television turned them into larger than life personalities.

Some of you might recall the story a few years ago of three whales trapped under the ice in Alaska. Under intense television news coverage, the navies and submarines of the United States and the Soviet Union were mobilized to rescue them – an operation costing millions of dollars.

These are examples of non-news or minor events turned into big news by television.

But on a positive note, TV has saved the lives of millions of children and adults by putting the spotlight on events that could well have gone unnoticed in pre-television days. It can foment social and political revolution, and certainly it triggers a revolution of rising expectations, particularly among young people.

The Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen often speaks about the Great Bengal Famine of earlier this century when hundreds of thousands of people died. Yet the British Raj of the time felt no obligation or pressure to act and respond, even though warehouses were full of foodgrains in Calcutta at that time.

If television had been there broadcasting scenes of dying babies and emaciated adults, it surely would have been quite a different story.

That is exactly what happened in Ethiopia and Somalia in the 1980s and 1990s when drought and famine struck the Horn of Africa.

Television brought to the living rooms of Europe, North America and other parts of the world images of starvation and misery – and the world responded.

There were Live Aid and Band Aid, singers, musicians and the media, mobilizing public opinion for action. I bet we all remember the song “We are the Children”, which touched the hearts and minds, and wallets, of so many.

Thanks to television, even as we speak, a massive rescue operation is in full swing in Gujerat, India where teams from all over the world are working round the clock to help the victims of a devastating earthquake.

We often hear about “The CNN Effect”:  of how dramatic pictures relayed by CNN or BBC, EBS or NHK, Star TV or many of your networks in Asia lead to a profound impact in debates at the United Nations or on decisions taken in Washington, London, Moscow or Tokyo concerning events happening in East Timor or Afghanistan, North Korea or Southern Sudan.

TV can, of course, reach out directly to children and younger generation, and influence them profoundly.  A good example of this is the catalouge of children’s educational programmes being produced by EBS.

Millions of children in the world are growing up with Sesame Street and Cartoon Network, Nickelodian and MTV – no matter what their mother tongue or religion. All too often television has greater influence on children than do parents or teachers.

Given such enormous power and influence of the medium we work with, we all have a special responsibility to harness the potential of television for the good of children.

How best can we do that?

We are all here to learn from each other’s ideas and experiences.

I would like to offer a couple of thoughts.

Normally the news media, including television, operate on the following premise:

– if a dog bites a man, that is not news
– but when a man bites a dog, that is news.

May I suggest that we modify that principle when reporting with a view to promoting the well-being of children.

The greatest tragedies befalling children in the world happen not because of  sudden catastrophes like earthquakes and famines or wars and accidents.

Children suffer the most from non-news events; from causes so common that we accept them as facts of life.

Eleven million children die every year from largely preventable causes – from measles and malaria, malnutrition and diarrhoea, pneumonia, and increasingly HIV/AIDS.

If any war, conflict, natural or man-made disaster ever threatened to claim the lives of 11 million children in a single year, the world would be awash in moral outrage. Television would be updating us with hourly news bulletins.

But these children die “quietly” – out of sight of the video cameras and of the reporters – in the teeming slums and the impoverished villages. They die from a variety of preventable childhood disease and related causes. They die because their families are poor and lack access to basic health care, clean water, sanitation and education. They die, quite simply, because the world has failed them.

And because these children die week after week, month after month, year after year, this tragic loss of life is largely ignored by the media.  Although the cost of saving many of these young lives would hardly put a dent in the $30 trillion global economy, these children still perish at the rate of 33,000 a day, 1,400 an hour, 23 every minute.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the case of dog biting man not being news. Because such deaths have been occurring for generations, we do not consider them news.

To put it another way, television excels in covering “issues of commission”, such as when someone commits an aggression, stirs up ethnic conflicts, or nature itself spews its fury in the form of a cyclone or volcano or earthquake that kills or maims children and damages property. No media is better than TV at bringing home such suffering or loss and evoking a torrent of cries for help.

But what of the “issues of omission” or perhaps we should better call them “crimes of omission” – of neglect and failure to act against the silent emergencies of age-old diseases, discrimination and poverty?

I ask you today to join UNICEF and all of its partners in helping to create a sense of outrage when crimes of omission are committed against the world’s children. Wherever children suffer, wherever children are abused and exploited, or wherever they are simply forgotten by the governments and institutions that have been entrusted with their care and protection, I ask television to help us shine the light of public attention and outrage.

Consider another non-news story that ought to be in the news.

The 600 million children who call the East Asia and Pacific Region home, have the inherent right to survival, health, nutrition, education,  protection and full development.  These rights are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other human rights instruments.

All the countries of this region – and all but two in the world – have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and are therefore legally bound to ensure that these rights are respected for all children. But many people have never heard of this convention. It is our duty to let the world know there is such a Convention and that governments are obliged to invest the maximum level of available resources to protect  children’s rights.

Many countries in this region have made admirable progress in guaranteeing many of these rights for their children.  Indeed, this region’s rate of progress in ensuring that children survive the early years, receive a basic education, have access to health care and clean water is among the best in the world.

A shining example is our host country for this Forum, the Republic of Korea, which in the aftermath of a horrific war made truly remarkable progress in guaranteeing the rights of its children to develop to their full potential.

But sadly, in some parts of this region children are deprived of these basic and inalienable rights.  The well being of millions of this region’s children are threatened daily by a variety of factors, a few of which I would like to bring to your attention today.

Let me begin with poverty, which when one thinks of this region is not something that usually comes to mind. This  region is known around the world for its rapid economic development in recent decades, for its “Tiger” economies and, despite the setbacks of the recent Asian financial crisis, for its promising ecomomic future.

But the reality is that even though this region is home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies, there are countries like Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and five Pacific Island nations that rank among the world’s least-developed countries.

Even in those countries that have enjoyed great economic success, the benfits of rapid  growth were not always distributed equitably, and disparities in wealth and income have actually increased in recent decades.

Today, some 900 million people – nearly half of the region’s total  population – still live on less than two US dollars per day.  And many millions of others scrape out an existence just above the poverty line.

Poverty manifests itself in the malnourished infant, the sexually exploited girl and the child soldier. They are enslaved by poverty and exclusion, deprived not just of basic health and education but also of their ability to become responsible citizens.

Malnutrition is another problem we do not usually associate with East Asia and the Pacific.  So I am sure you will be surprised – and perhaps shocked – to learn that this region has almost as many malnourished children as sub-Saharan Africa.

In this region some 30 million children – about one of every 5 children under the age of 5 – are severely or moderately malnourished, compared to some 32 million children in sub-Saharan Africa.

This is a true tragedy, because children have only one chance to grow in life, and how they are nurtured in their early years is key to their future development.  Children who are malnourished, who do not receive adequate food, care and stimulation in the all-important early years are literally being robbed of their right to full development.

Another major threat to ensuring the rights of children is the rapidly expanding HIV/AIDS epidemic, which threatens to be just as catastrophic in Asia as the one now devastating the lives of millions of children in sub-Saharan Africa.

HIV/AIDS prevalence rates are still low in most Asian countries. But these low prevalance rates have served to give governments a false sense of security. The actual rate of growth in the number of new HIV cases in the Asia-Pacific Region is exploding.

Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Papua New Guinea are the current epicentres of the epidemic in the region. But China, Viet Nam and Laos – their neighbors in the region – are also experienccing rapid epidemics.

The impact of HIV/AIDS on children is devastating and includes discrimination, loss of physical and emotional care, loss of acces to education and increased poverty.

The number of children who have lost one or more parent is increasing dramatically.  In Thailand, the number of  children who will lose their mothers – and probably their fathers and their homes because of AIDS – is expected to increase from a current 30,000 to an estimated 430,000 over the next four years – more than the total in all of Western Europe and North America combined.

The problem of trafficking in children and women in the region, especially for commercial sexual exploitation, is a flourishing multi-billion dollar industry concentrated mainly in the countries of the Mekong sub-region.

Trafficking is a profound abuse of human rights. The children and women who are bought and sold are subjected to slavery-like conditions and often suffer illegal confinement, rape and other unimaginable abuse.

To address these and other problems and ensure the better realisation of children’s rights in this region and around the world, the United Nations General Assembly will be convening a Special Session on Children in September this year.  This Special Session on Children will consider the progress made for children since the World Summit for Children in 1990 and will help formulate future development agenda for children. This Special Session will be attended by the President Kim Dae Jung of the Republic of Korea.

In promoting this new agenda, UNICEF, together with its many partners, is supporting a Global Movement for Children to mobilise all segments of society.  In addition to governments and civil society, we are seeking the support of the private sector, especially television, in helping to promote and ensure children’s rights.

This is an opportunity for television, which daily brings the joy and agony of humanity into our living rooms, to become an important ally for children.

Television can help promote and protect the rights of children by taking a more pro-active role in helping to educate them and their families.  This will mean finding a better balance between the large amount of commercial programming broadcast and the relatively small amount of quality entertainment and educational programming available for children and families.

It will mean developing more creative programming that will help teach children and youth basic health, nutrition, hygiene and sanitation as well as the life skills needed to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases.

In closing, let me say that if all of us at this Children’s Television Forum rededicate ourselves to exposing the violations of children’s rights by acts of commission as well as by inaction and omission, we will have been worthy partners in the global movement for children.

If we can then popularise positive examples of good deeds for children and help take such action to large scale, then we will have truly contributed to ensuring that television fulfils its promise as the most powerful educational force for promoting child rights in the 21st century.

UNICEF wishes you well with this work, for nothing is nobler or more important than ensuring a better future for every child and youth in our region and the world.

Thank You.