Press freedom in the digital age: Seeing beyond our noses and tummies

See later post on 3 May 2008: Who is afraid of Citizen Journalists?

On 3 May 2007, we mark another World Press Freedom Day.

This day is meant to ‘raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and to remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression enshrined under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’

Read more about the Day on the Wikipedia and World Association of Newspapers. (Ah yes, that cartel of governments called UNESCO also puts up a show every year to mark this day, but it’s no better than the mafia bosses coming together to pontificate about the rule of law and justice for all. So let’s completely ignore the irrelevant UN behemoth and its meaningless hot air.)

The essay I wrote two weeks ago about saving our (electro-magnetic) spectrum to safeguard media freedom and media pluralism has been widely reproduced on the web.

That’s precisely the kind of insidious, hidden dangers to media freedom that don’t receive sufficient attention at many events to mark World Press Freedom Day.

I found this out the hard way when the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka invited me to address their observance of the 2001 World Press Freedom Day in Colombo. In the audience were over 250 Sri Lankan journalists and editors, and my topic was global trends and challenges to press freedom.

I decided to talk about ICTs – information and communication technologies – and how they were impacting the profession and industry of journalism. I recalled how technologies like mobile phones and satellite television had completely revolutionised the nature of news gathering and dissemination during the 1990s. The Internet was once again turning the whole media world upside down, I said: sooner rather than later, the impact of these developments would be felt in little Sri Lanka.

I argued that by being well informed and prepared, we could adapt better to the new challenges posed by the Internet, and we will be able to seize the many opportunities the new medium offers to consolidate press freedom. I mentioned some examples from the Asia Pacific and elsewhere how social activists, indigenous people and political groups – including separatist organisations – are using the power of the Internet to disseminate information and opinions at a low cost to a worldwide audience, and how states and their censors were increasingly unable to control such flows across political borders.

Unfortunately, a section of the audience felt very strongly that I was talking ‘pie in the sky’ when journalists in Sri Lanka were grappling with much more urgent issues of survival – such as low salaries, poor working conditions, and threats of physical harm or even death in the line of duty.

I was told — firmly — not to talk about computers and Internet when some media organisations did not even provide sufficient seating or (book) library facilities for their journalists. “Internet is good for pampered western journalists. We have survival issues,” one ardent critic said.

Now, it’s far more interesting to talk to a room full of disagreeing people. I took these comments in that spirit.

In the ensuing discussion, I readily agreed that all immediate factors mentioned by my detractors were indeed major concerns. My point, simply, was that we could not afford to ignore the bigger trends and processes that shape our industry and redefine how we reach our audiences.

Cartoon courtesy WAN

Just as terrestrial television broadcasters had to adjust and reorient themselves when faced with challenges from satellite television in the 1990s, the entire media sector – print and broadcast – has to come to terms with the Internet and World Wide Web.

I added: It doesn’t do any good to bury our head in the sand and wish it to go away. The much better option, as Sir Arthur Clarke has suggested, is ‘cautious engagement of the new media, so that we can exploit the inevitable’

Exploiting the inevitable is precisely the pragmatic approach we need. The globalisation of economics, media and information is taking place regardless of our individual opinions and reactions. By positioning ourselves for cautious engagement and to take advantage of tools and opportunities ushered in by the digital age, we can promote both media freedom and media pluralism.

Three years later, I expanded these ideas into a semi-academic paper (that is, as academic as I can ever get!) presented to the Annual Conference of the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC) held in Bangkok, Thailand, in July 2004. I titled it: Media Pluralism in the Digital Age: Seize the Moment

It was later published in AMIC’s quarterly journal, Media Asia. Here’s how I ended my paper:

Newer ICTs can strengthen the outreach, quality and inclusiveness of the mass media. The true potential of this change can only be tapped when all stake-holders of the media play their part. A particular challenge to the ICT4D community is advocating the policy and legislative reform agenda that will enable this process.

There is an interesting post script to my experience with the Sri Lankan media on World Press Freedom Day 2001 quoted at the beginning.

During the past three years, more journalists, producers and their gatekeepers have begun using the Internet as a tool, information resource or alternative medium for expression. The initial apprehensions that some professionals harboured about this new medium have been replaced with growing enthusiasm and a recognition of its utility.

The vindication of my initially disputed seminar remarks came sooner than I expected. My most vehement critic that day was a fire-breathing young reporter then working for a Sinhala newspaper. Less than a year later, this avowed sceptic of the Internet launched his own website to disseminate news and commentary on social, political and economic issues that he felt he could not freely cover in the mainstream print outlets. The fact that his initiative did not last more than a few issues is another matter; clearly, he has been converted.

He would be happy to hear that I have been among regular visitors to his website.

Related: Media Freedom Internet Cookbook

Media Helping Media website

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

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