On World Press Freedom Day 3 May 2008, I wrote a blog post titled Who is Afraid of Citizen Journalists. The answer included the usual suspects: tyrannical governments, corrupt military and business interests, and pretty much everybody else who would like to suppress the free flow of information and public debate.
By end May, I realised that some people in the mainstream media (abbreviated MSM, and less charitably called old media or dinonaur media) are also afraid of citizen journalists. That was one insight I drew from attending Asia Media Summit 2008 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (27-28 May 2008).
The two day event drew 530 broadcast CEOs, managing directors, media experts and senior representatives of development and academic institutions from more than 65 countries in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Over eight plenary sessions and twice as many pre-summit events, they examined ‘new visions and new strategies broadcasters need to pursue to address the demands of new technologies, stiff competition, media liberalization and globalization’.
As I shared in my first impressions from the Summit, this annual event is still warming up to the new media. That’s understandable considering that most participants are those who work in MSM/OM/DM. Some, like myself, have been flirting or experimenting with new media in recent years, but even my own organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, still works largely with television broadcasters going out on terrestrial, cable or satellite platforms.
While the death of MSM/OM/DM has been greatly hyped, it’s a fact that they face more competition today than ever before. And instead of competing for eyeballs (and other sensory organs) with better content and higher levels of product customisation, some sections of MSM/OM/DM are trying to impose their own, obsolete mindset on the new media.
A session on ‘Regulations and New Media Models’ brought this into sharp focus. The session raised questions such as: Should we apply some principles from traditional media (meaning MSM) to the new media? Should we adopt some minimum rules to allow for sufficient legal space for new media businesses to find their niche in the market and evolve to fit the needs of consumers? What are the policy implications of User-Generated Content (UGC) with regard to copyright infringement, information accuracy and content quality?
The panel comprised three Europeans and one American, all working in MSM or academia (it wasn’t immediately clear if any of them blogged personally). For the most part, they said predictably nice and kind things about new media. It was interesting to see how these professionals or managers – who have had their careers entirely or mostly working in or studying about MSM – were trying to relate to a new and different sector like the new media.
But the panel’s cautious attitude about the new media went overboard on the matter of regulation. This is where matters are highly contentious and hotly debated: while most of us agree that there should be some basic regulation to ensure cyber security and to keep a check on content that is widely deemed as unacceptable – for example, hate speech – there is no consensus on what content should be regulated by whom under which guiding principles.
Ruling unanimously in Reno v. ACLU, the US Supreme Court declared the Internet to be a free speech zone in 1997, saying it deserved at least as much First Amendment protection as that afforded to books, newspapers and magazines. The government, the Court said, can no more restrict a person’s access to words or images on the Internet than it could be allowed to snatch a book out of a reader’s hands in the library, or cover over a statue of a nude in a museum.
It was during question time that the discussion took a cynical – even hostile – attitude on the new media. Some members of the audience engaged Dr Venkat Iyer, a legal academic from University of Ulster in the UK, in a narrowly focused discussion on how and where bloggers may be sued for the opinions expressed on their blogs. The issue of multiple jurisdictions came up, along with other aspects of cyber libel and how those affected by criticism made online by individual bloggers (as opposed to companies or organisations producing online content) may ‘seek justice’.
These discussions were more than academic, especially in view of worrying trends in host Malaysia and neighbouring Singapore where bloggers have been arrested or are being prosecuted in recent weeks.
Asia Media Forum: Restrictions follow critics to cyber space
IHT: Malaysian blogger jailed over article
From the floor, I remarked that I was disturbed by the tone and narrow vision of this discussion, which merely repeated new media bashing by those who failed to understand its dynamics. Acknowledging the need for restraint where decency and public safety were concerned, I argued that it is a big mistake to analyse the new media from the business models or regulatory frameworks that suit the old media.
There are mischief makers and anti-social elements using the new media just as there have always been such people using the old media. Their presence, which is statistically small, does not warrant a knee-jerk reaction to over-regulate or over-legislate all activity online, as some Summit participants were advocating. To do that would be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
I continued: “This is not a healthy attitude to adopt, especially when we look at the bigger picture. In many countries where freedom of expression and media freedom are threatened or suppressed by intolerant governments and/or other vested interests, new media platforms have become the only available opportunity for citizens to organise, protest and sustain struggles for safeguarding human rights, better governance and cleaner politics. In countries where the mainstream media outlets are either state owned or under pressure from government (or military), and where newspapers, radio and TV have already been intimidated into silence, citizen journalists are the last line of defence…”
I also noted with interest that on this panel was Mogens Schmidt, UNESCO’s Deputy Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information (in charge of freedom of expression), and said that this was not the kind of rolling back of freedoms of expression that UNESCO was publicly advocating. In a brief response immediately afterwards, Schmidt said that he fully agreed with my views, and that this was UNESCO’s position as well.
Another panel member, Dr Jacob van Kokswijk, secretary of the International Telecom User Group in the Netherlands, noted that the new media required a totally new thinking and approach where its content is concerned – the rules that have worked for the old media can’t be applied in the same manner. He added that only 3 to 4 per cent of Internet content could be considered as ‘bad’ (by whatever definition he was using), and that should not blind us to seizing the potential of new media.
Another panel member, Joaquin F Blaya, a Board member of Radio Free Asia (RFA), made a categorical statement saying he was opposed to any and all forms of censorship. He knows what that means – RFA says its mission is ‘to provide accurate and timely news and information to Asian countries whose governments prohibit access to a free press’.
By the end of the session, I was relieved to see a more balanced view on the new media emerging in our discussion, with more moderate voices taking to the floor. No, we didn’t resolve any of the tough issues of new media regulation during the 90 mins of that session, but we at least agreed that the old media mindset of command-and-control was not going to work in the new media world.
From its inception in 2003, the annual Asia Media Summit has been very slow to come to terms with this reality, but this year the event moved a bit closer to that ideal – partly because they invited leading new media activist Danny Schechter to be a speaker.
We just have to wait and see if this momentum can be sustained next year when the Summit is hosted by the Macau Special Administrative Region of China.
I’m going to keep an open mind about this — but won’t bet on it…
3 May 2008: Who’s afraid of citizen journalists? Thoughts on World Press Freedom Day