At the last U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) session in New York in 2019, the leaders of Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia agreed to launch a joint television channel to counter the growing trend of anti-Islam propaganda in the West arising from sustained news focused on terrorism and unending armed conflicts in Muslim-majority countries. What was often lacking in sensational news headlines and politically loaded op-ed columns was the rich cultural heritage of Islam and the values of keeping faith, tolerance, rule of law, peace, justice and human rights as essential features of Muslims' national identity.
Every year, dozens of high-level meetings held on the margins of the UNGA draw international media headlines, but there is no subsequent follow-up or results. However, last year’s meeting of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahatir Muhammad was neither a media sound bite nor a photo opportunity for their domestic public.
The Turkish drama
A few months after the meeting, Turkish broadcaster TRT’s globally popular series "Diriliş Ertuğrul" ("Resurrection: Ertuğrul") recorded 58 million views on YouTube after its release on Pakistan state broadcaster PTV last Ramadan. Although Turkish TV dramas are popular in many Islamic countries, this was the first time a foreign state broadcaster was asked by its head of government to dub the popular Turkish series in Urdu to give Pakistani viewers an opportunity to learn about the ancient history of modern Turkey in their own language. The series has resulted in two statues of Ertuğrul Gazi erected in Lahore and a robust discussion in the country about Muslim history in Central and South Asia.
The airing of "Diriliş Ertuğrul" on Pakistan TV on an official level represents the first step toward implementing the decision of the three leaders. It shows the way forward for bringing together the comparative advantages of the state broadcasters of the three countries to dub the existing audio-visual material and produce new feature films, dramas and historical documentaries in several languages, capturing the rich heritage of Islamic civilization worldwide.
To reach a global audience, a new international TV channel will need to be started on the internet and expanded on the transponders of various global satellites, with expenses shared by the three countries in proportion to their product contribution and income generated by the content.
The language of this new channel will need to be English, with any non-English programs to be recorded, dubbed or subtitled in the English language. English is widely understood in the parts of the world where the problem of Islamophobia is most prominent.
The three countries possess different comparative advantages besides their high-quality programming. Pakistan’s use of English as an official language can help in the professional translation and dubbing of existing television dramas and new series; Turkey’s rich heritage in Islamic history and its large satellite footprint in Europe are also a distinct advantage.
Malaysia is centrally placed in Southeast Asia to reach out to not only its own population but also to the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region where English programming is quite limited in content.
Turkey’s TRT TV has many digital TV channels that focus on news, traditional music, dramas and documentaries. Some of these are also aired in other languages on satellites in Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East.
Its international news channel, TRT World, is watched all over the world on TV and mobile devices. But all of these channels focus on Turkey reaching out to its expatriates and friends abroad and reporting on matters important from its national perspective.
An international television channel that promotes the interests of multiple state players and is focused on the common objective of promoting positive Islamic values is still needed in the current broadcasting scenario.
In starting a new television channel, the main requirement is content. In a 24-hour, seven-day a week broadcasting range, television content must remain fresh and continuous to capture and retain the interest of viewers. Repeated programs often lose audiences.
News coverage can provide some fresh content on a daily basis, but a news channel was not what the leader visualized last year. Besides, there is no point adding one more Muslim news channel to the list of successful channels already operating globally such as Al-Jazeera, TRT World and Arab News TV.
The aim of the new channel should be not only to reach out to the wider Western public, which has little knowledge of Islamic history and social values, but also millions of TV viewers in East and Central Europe, the Far East and Central Asia who have been out of the loop on Islamic history due to their peculiar national and political circumstances and selective coverage of satellite and internet-based TV broadcasting.
From the content point of view, if the resources of the three countries are pooled together, there will be no deficit of broadcast material. What will be required is converting most of the existing comedy, cultural dramas and documentaries into English for a global audience.
In order to be effective, one of the three state broadcasters from Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia should be given the role of a coordinator to frame the terms of reference for ensuring balance and standardization of content.
TRT TV is well placed both in terms of resources and content to take a leading role, working in collaboration with the experienced PTV in Pakistan and the relatively new RTM TV in Malaysia.
Collaboration is vital
Parallel with this work, the telecommunication authorities in the three countries should also agree to allocate at least two transponders on their national satellites to enable their nationals to watch the current on-air broadcasts of the partner countries in their home countries.
For example, Turkey can lease out one transponder each to PTV World and RTM TV1 on its Turksat 40E satellite to enable Turkish and foreign viewers in Turkey to watch the current programs of these partner media houses. In return, Pakistan should allocate two transponders on PakSat to TRT World and RTM TV1 for Pakistani viewers to be able to watch Turkish and Malaysian state television broadcasts.
Similarly, Malaysia can enable PTV World and TRT World to reach its domestic viewers through the use of the Malaysian state satellite. This will, of course, require a trilateral agreement between the telecommunication authorities to mutually extend these facilities to each other on a reciprocal basis.
This arrangement will also require compliance with the international principle of not using another country’s territory and resources, in this case, the host national satellite, to launch a sustained media attack against a third country with which the host country enjoys good relations.
Mutual hosting will also encourage the state broadcaster in each country to improve the quality of its content, as well as production because if its programs do not appeal to a broader international audience, the viewership of the new channel will decline and may even threaten the viability of the project.
A majority of television viewers in urban areas are comprised of cable subscribers. This is not only a smart way of avoiding ugly dish installations on rooftops but also an effective way to ensure regular servicing and upgrades.
However, for cable services, the choice of creating channel packages rests with the cable provider and not with the viewer. The regulators of cable operators in the three countries should make it mandatory for their service providers not to leave out the television channels of the partner countries from their basic packages or charge their subscribers more for these channels.
With the development of IPTV, the digital TV packages offered by PTCL in Pakistan, Turkcell in Turkey and the state IPTV provider in Malaysia should ensure that their IPTV Apps include the designated TV channels from partner countries as part of their free local TV viewing packages.
The vision that came out from the New York meeting of the three leaders last year is not something that can be translated in six months to a year. It requires some serious groundwork to draw up the terms of reference for the project while defining the individual responsibilities the three countries should mutually share to dub existing programs and produce new ones and investing in the commitment of the private sector to finance the project successfully.
The project should be launched in two stages. In stage one, when international flights resume after COVID-19, the officials of the three countries should meet to finalize an agreement to enable each of the three state broadcasters to access the national satellites of its partner broadcasters on a trilateral basis.
In the second stage, the new cultural television should start its test broadcast on selected platforms, with TRT playing a central role and coordinating with PTV and RTM to provide their content.
The partner countries should also host the new channel on their national and regional telecommunication satellites and their national IPTV service portals. Over time, as progress is made, more countries can be added to this "cultural coalition of the willing" such as Iran, Azerbaijan, Indonesia and Uzbekistan, as the channel gets more viewership across the Islamic world.
The old Chinese saying the journey of a thousand miles starts with a first step is a time-tested truth. Turkey has taken the first step in producing a world-class television series, which is showing no sign of slowing down.
Pakistan has taken the second step by officially airing it for 220 million Pakistanis and becoming a catalyst for a healthy academic debate about Islamic values and history. The next step is to continue this trend and build enough television content to become the basis of the new TV channel the three leaders envisioned in New York.
*Former Pakistan diplomat and a former CEO of Muslim Aid U.K.