Last week, I tried being in two places at once: executive producing an ambitious new TV debate series in my city of anchor Colombo (Sri Lanka) and participating in Asia Media Summit 2008 (AMS 2008) taking place in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, May 27-28.
The two cities are 2.5 hours and a few thousand kilometres apart, and I just about managed being productive on both fronts. But I don’t recommend the experience: I ended up with a massive sleep deficit that I’m still trying to shake off.
According to the summit organisers, some 530 CEOs, managing directors, media experts and senior representatives of development and academic institutions from 65 countries joined the two-day event and 16 pre- Summit workshops.
The Summit had its moments — a few ‘Aha!’ ones and quite a few others where I found myself nodding (bored out of my mind, and not in agreement with what was going on). Unlike last year, when I chaired part of a pre-Summit seminar and also served as a plenary speaker, I was merely participating this year — which gave me the chance to network, take things easy and ask more questions from the audience.
Of the five Summits held since 2004, I’ve attended four (I missed the first one). The scope, content and quality of this annual event have certainly improved in this time. But I find the Summit still very much a gathering of the movers and shakers in the mainstream media, primarily radio and TV (which dominate the Asian media landscape). Very few new media practitioners – individual bloggers like myself, as well as online audio/video publishers and operators of web portals – turn up at this event.
And the Summit discussions in the past have sometimes been decidedly cynical or dismissive of new media. When this happened in the opening plenary itself at Asia Media Summit 2007, I was so disappointed that I asked if I was actually attending the Asia ‘Mediasaurus’ Summit.
Things could only get better this year – and they did. For one thing, they had invited new media practitioners to speak of their chaotic new world (unlike last time, when we heard fossilised old media worthies pontificate fuzzily on the new media). Perhaps this was the organisers heeding our critique of last year. Or it had something to do with the rise and rise of bloggers in the host country Malaysia: the March 2008 general election there saw five active bloggers being elected to national Parliament from the opposition in the biggest political upheaval Malaysia had seen in half a century.
For this reason, we were looking forward to the Summit’s opening by Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, but for the second year running, he decided to skip the event. Instead, he sent his deputy Mohd Najib Tun Abdul Razak in his place to read his speech.
As Malaysia’s pro-government New Straits Times newspaper reported the next day, he urged journalists not to be too taken in by the “bells and whistles of technology”, but to hold to established virtues of accuracy, intelligence, fairness and grit as these formed the competitive advantage of the traditional press in the “anarchic environment of the new age”.
He added: “The right to freedom of speech and expression cannot be used as a pretext or excuse to violate and abuse the reputation and dignity of a people, to slander and libel or to defame religions or religious symbols. If this were the case, there would be no laws of defamation or libel and laws against those who incite racial or ethnic violence.”
During question time, the well known American blogger and media analyst Danny Schechter had an interesting exchange with the chief guest. Danny referred to the case of Malaysian blogger Raja Petra bin Raja Kamarudin who was recently charged of sedition for having written a political blog post.
DPM Najib and Schechter had very different views on the limits of freedom of speech and how far the new media can and should be allowed to comment on current affairs, especially politics. On the wider issue of human rights, Najib took the populist line and made references to America’s detention camps in Guantanamo Bay and the CIA outsourcing torture. Danny shot back saying that only 20% of the American people now support their president and his policies (and Danny certainly wasn’t one of them). He argued that human rights should be universal. Read Danny’s take on it here, and the more official version in the New Straits Times.
With that slightly bumpy start, AMS 2008 went on to display the mainstream media’s still uneasy relationship with the new media. For sure, the Summit had sessions on user-generated content and new media business models. But for the most part, these sessions brought out the narrow perspective of mainstream media’s managers or its long-standing researchers. With notable exceptions like Danny Schechter, other speakers talked about a fast-changing, rapidly-evolving reality that they’d barely skimmed or experienced themselves.
I would belatedly write more blog posts on some of the discussions that took place in later sessions, which prompted me to intervene several times from the audience.