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DEVELOPMENT: Alternative Media a Need, And In Need

Marina Penderis

HELSINKI, Sep 7 2005 (IPS) - The world needs alternative media, and alternative media needs credibility, experts said at a meeting on communication at the start of the Helsinki Conference here Wednesday.

Alternative media is increasingly being recognised by many as a growing force.

It might just have begun to reach out to a larger number of people in many parts of the world, Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute in the United States said at a panel discussion organised by IPS. Alternative media suggests mostly bloggers (individuals or small groups who post their views on the net) and the camcorder adventurer.

The discussion on communication, media and citizenship brought together both bloggers and solo filmmakers from what is called the alternative media, and journalists from what is considered mainstream media like the BBC.

Alternative media is usually considered no match for the likes of the BBC, but it has shown its power on occasions such as gathering evidence of police brutality on personal camcorders at the Genoa G8 conference, and through protests coordinated over websites and through mobile phones at the Republican Party convention in the United States, Mittal said.

“There is an African saying that until lions can tell their own stories, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter,” she said. But she conceded that there is still “a real need for good journalism” in this brave new media world.

Nick Fraser from the BBC said alternative media is no solution. “In the 1970s there was a belief that one can create a counterweight to the northern dominance of the media,” he said. “I think life’s too short for that. Instead we should focus on finding programmes that can be shown across the world.”

Fraser is at present commissioning ten films on democracy from several countries. He has already commissioned the first films from China and Latin America.

The Internet might offer a large volume of free information, but much of that information lacks credibility, Fraser said. “In our information age, a lot of media fails at the basic level. We need truthful media.”

There was little agreement that truthful media is necessarily the same as news groups like the BBC, and that the world should look to the BBC to provide a credible voice to the voiceless.

Qatar-based news agency Al-Jazeera began as the alternative, Arab view to international news, but today it is among the most influential news providers. “No story in the Middle East can be done without referring to Al-Jazeera,” Alejandro Kirk from IPS said. “They have scoops. When you have a scoop, you have visibility and credibility.”

Members from the alternative media recognised that the hard bit was getting audiences for their work. Film-maker Naeem Mohaiemen whose documentary ‘Disappeared in America’ looks at the detention of Muslim immigrants after 9/11 said he was not satisfied with the audiences he had managed to find through screening at a film festival or through broadcast on some local television stations.

He then set up an exhibition at the Queens Museum of Art in New York, featuring photographs on the theme of the film. “Some people were disgusted, but many stopped, and that was what we wanted,” he said. But audience numbers remained tiny.

Independent filmmaker Andre Vltchek said he had similar difficulties finding an audience for his documentary on Indonesia, which takes a critical look at U.S. policy in that country.

“The film opened at the New York Independent Film Festival in 2004,” he said. “The critical response was extremely positive, but we haven’t been able to convince the television networks to distribute the film. It is difficult if a film is critical of United States foreign policy.”

Fraser said that might not necessarily be a problem.. “I think today it will be more difficult to produce a movie called ‘I Love George Bush’.

The communication issue was raised at the start of the Helsinki Conference organised by the Finnish government in cooperation with Tanzania.

More than 600 participants from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in 70 countries are gathering for the three-day Helsinki Conference 2005, entitled ‘Mobilising Political Will’. The conference is looking for ways of achieving a more inclusive and equitable globalisation.

Officials from several countries will also be on hand for follow-up of NGO recommendations.

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