e-mail us
Asia Catholics linked by TV, news service

NCR Staff
Taipei, Taiwan

The day after Christmas, an E-mail from a professional broadcast colleague in Thailand to Jesuit Fr. Jerry Martinson said, simply, "We have a problem."

The problem quickly turned to opportunity when the Catholic church in Thailand decided to accept an offer from Thai Sky Television Co. for a free satellite TV channel. The problem that made church officials hesitate at first, said Martinson, was "they didn't know how they would feed the monster. How do you fill 24 hours a day for 20 years -- which is what the offer was -- with programming?"

They think they've found an answer, and the TV channel late in the summer joined other technology -- computer communications, radio programs and news services -- that helps the far-flung Asian-Pacific Catholic church stay in touch.

Martinson directs Kuangchi Program Service in Taipei, which for 22 years had created and produced television programs -- many of them for Taiwan public television. Kuangchi's president, Jesuit Fr. David J.C. Yen, said that Kuangchi's archives and Martinson's two decades of experience will be invaluable to the Asiawide service.

Martinson said his idea was to run the Thai-Sky channel like Radio Veritas, an Asiawide Catholic radio service for which each country produces an hour or so of programming a day. This gives Radio Veritas an hour or two of Chinese programming, an hour or two of Japanese, Korean, Indonesian.

"In that way," said Martinson, "we could maybe make eight hours of television programming and repeat it three times a day for 24 hours." The Asian Bishops Conference accepted the plan, Martinson became the regional coordinator and broadcasting began Aug. 15.

The pope sent his apostolic blessing, there was a videotape message from the Vatican social communications director, and all of Thailand's bishops were on hand for the opening Mass broadcast live from the Bangkok cathedral.

"For a Buddhist country, it's kind of remarkable," said Martinson. Meanwhile, the Buddhists had started their channel three days earlier. The Muslims have not yet made a decision.

As coordinator, Martinson has to ensure Catholic participation from all the Asian countries. The Thai church owns the channel and supervises its operations.

Thailand is broadcasting one hour of Thai programming a day, catechetical instruction, religious instruction, religious news, all in Thai to the 300,000-member Thai church. And there's an additional "one hour international," said Martinson, "whatever they can get, plus one hour of religious music videos. And that will go on for a test period of six months. Currently there are five countries within the satellite 'footprint,' Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam and Thailand."

By next year, he said, operations will move to a wider band and a "footprint" big enough to cover most of China, Taiwan, Philippines and extend to Indonesia.

On the ground, Catholic institutions can receive the program themselves or local cable operators might be persuaded to carry it.

The worst possible scenario, Martinson speculated, is "that nobody wants to watch it. Nobody buys the decoders or the dishes. Even then, it's worth it. The church would have learned something about satellite broadcasting. Now we know nothing and the best way to learn is to just dive in and do it. We have a free channel, so why not?

"A great advantage of this satellite is we can have multilanguage sound tracks," he said.

The best possible scenario, he said, "would be if we could get say, five or six key production centers in the major languages of Asia producing programming that would be, first of all, relevant to their own country and interesting, attractive to the youth in their country especially. ... The second would be if we could really make it a voice for the oppressed, the migrant workers, the minority groups, the indigenous peoples. If we could have programs that really made people aware of the unjust structures in different countries of Asia, that would help activate the church in those areas."

Stay tuned.

By contrast, the Union of Catholic Asian News -- UCAN -- already helps keep the Asian church informed with an Asia-Pacific news service from a Bangkok editorial base that goes out by E-mail, mail, fax and phone.

The 17-year-old UCAN, run by the Maryknoll Fathers, has a news network many commercial news agencies might envy: 200 correspondents in six East Asian settings (China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Macau, Mongolia and Taiwan), 11 Southeast Asian countries (Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) and six in South Asia (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka).

Why so many reporters? Because there are so many languages and dialects. But it is a financial struggle. Executive director Fr. Robert Astorino, UCAN fund-raiser and deputy executive director Fr. Ronald Saucci and two other Maryknoll priests just joining the service take no salaries.

"The Asian church, though maturing, is still a poor church and U.S. Catholics are a tremendous help," Saucci said.

"They see us as part of the mission work of the church," he said. Through the collection for the Society for the Propagation of the Faith and New York Auxiliary Bishop William J. McCormack, a member of the bishops' conference missions committee, Americans give $100,000 annually, he said, "an appreciable portion of our $1.2 million budget." One fifth of the budget comes from subscriber services.

And the budget climbs annually, he said, yet "people who give understand that if we have 48 staffers, we can't keep them at the same salary every year."

UCAN has developed a reputation as a training ground for Asian journalists and helps fund their attendance at the Hong Kong center's training sessions. "In some cases," said Saucci, "it's the only formal journalism they'll receive." Hong Kong-based Saucci expects no particular difficulties for UCAN once Hong Kong reverts to Beijing sovereignty next year.

"The Chinese are aware of us," he said, "and the New China News Agency, the official arm of the Chinese government in Hong Kong, subscribes to us and reads our material." Nonetheless, UCAN, while keeping its administrative and training center in Hong Kong, did move its editorial offices to Thailand several years ago. In anticipation of 1997 and Beijing?

"No," said Saucci, "Bangkok is the most logical location, the middle of our coverage area, rather than Hong Kong, way east. Plus Hong Kong's very expensive -- rents, salaries. Bangkok will be ideal when they fix the roads."

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 1996