Sunday, March 25, 2007

Opening of the 5th World Summit on Media for Children

Sunday in Johannesburg, and the opening session is underway. The theme of this year’s Summit is “Media as a Tool for Global Peace and Democracy.” As always, the conference is built around the idea that children are entitled to high quality media that is made specifically for them, that provides room for their opinions, and that promotes and protects children’s rights.

It was hard not to feel a little cynical, given the lofty goals, to find that our hosts were all aflutter at the magnitude of the keynote speaker – Roy Disney. How ironic that this conference would revere the Disney company, which has hardly been a champion of diversity and authentic, local experience. Rather, Disney’s “It’s a Small World” approach to global culture epitomizes the touristic, isn’t that quaint?! American view of developing countries as markets to be acquired and exploited. It is hard to imagine why that is relevant here, and it felt very sad that it was seen as a huge coup to have him. (Early on in his presentation, he actually said I believe it can be legitimately said that Mickey Mouse has been a force for Global Peace and Democracy. Adolf Hitler denounced Mickey Mouse as an enemy of the state.).

Yet, the irony of his position was not lost on Roy Disney, and he ultimately rose to the challenge. His framed his address as an appeal for improving the quality of media designated for children. I would add an adjective to your theme – “quality.” That is, quality media as a tool for global peace and democracy. Without that qualifier, media can be a repressive force or even a tool for propoganda. When held to high standards, media can be a powerful force for good.

And in closing, Disney said:
There’s tremendous opportunity for progress today. For the first time ever, we have instant, worldwide communication….Many adults are simply incapable of conquering their fears and prejudices, but the children can. If they are exposed to responsible, quality media, this can at last become the Century of Peace. This is just not another Disney fairy tale. It is up to us, one by one, to make this a reality.

Grudgingly, I must say that he was more relevant than I ever could have imagined under the circumstances.

There are 300 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 16 present here. They were addressed directly and powerfully by Dr. Mbulelo Mzamane, the South African author of "The Children of Soweto" and "The Children of the Diaspora and Other Stories of Exile" (and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Fort Hare). Dr. Mzamane appointed himself the “Children’s Ombudsman” for the duration of the Summit.

You hear that children? From now on, I am your spirit medium. If anything is not going right, come to me. It’s a revolution! Make use of this opportunity.

My children, you are as helpless as you allow yourself to be. You have to remember, it is all inside you. There is a legacy in this country of child activism. In fact, in rewriting our history, as we are doing now, it is quite clear that it was at the point that children and women got involved in our revolution that decisive and qualitative changes came about. There is no such thing as “I am too young.”

The central issue for you is going to be how do you make your participation in this conference meaningful? How do you make sure that grownups have not just brought you here simply to make themselves feel good?

Are you going to let someone like Roy Disney be a ventriloquist for you? How do you participate as children in the creative process? Why don’t they ask you what you want?

We know what the problems are, children. What we want are solutions.

And finally, do not try and cleave to one another because you are from the same village, or from the same country. Mix as much as possible with other children from other countries. It is only through interaction that you grow.

Inspiring words from Dr. Mzamane.

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