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ASIA: Excitement, Fear Greet Changes in Media Landscape

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Dec 9 2009 (IPS) - The changing ‘face’ of the media landscape in the Mekong region is eliciting both excitement and fear from observers and professionals alike.

The growing power of new media and citizen journalism, the increased involvement of civil society organisations in the dissemination of information, and the often conflicting issues between perceived image and the actual ‘media product’ are just some of the issues tackled in the Mekong Media Forum, being held here from Dec. 9 to 12.

In a session titled ‘Shifts in the Media Landscape’, both journalists and academics underscored the need for more cooperation and vigilance if all Mekong countries — comprising Burma, Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam — are to see more confluence rather than divergence and if they are to be viewed by the international media sans western lenses.

Chinese journalist Li Gun cited China’s efforts toward this end.

After the international controversy brought about by the much-maligned Beijing 2008 Olympic torch relay that trained the global spotlight on the Chinese government’s human rights policies, the state began to pursue a ‘media makeover’.

“China is employing a top-down approach in its aim to expand its international media influence,” said Lin Gu, a freelance journalist from Beijing and a former fellow of the ‘Imaging Our Mekong’ training programme for journalists that IPS Asia-Pacific and Probe Media Foundation have been implementing since 2002.

Lin Gu was referring to the Chinese government’s efforts to ‘soften’ the country’s image in light of international criticism about its stance on political issues involving Tibet and Burma.

“After the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government thought hard as it realised its need to expand its media influence,” added the two-time awardee of the Asia Development Bank Institute’s Developing Asia Journalism Award. “This attempts to “offer a Chinese perspective of Chinese affairs.”

Other developments that indicate China’s push for a space to air its view of the world include the launch in April 2009 the English-language newspaper ‘Global Times’.

Another is the setting up of a 24-hour English-language news channel by the government, which Lin described as its version of the TV news channel Al- Jazeera International.

Thai researcher and academic Palphol Rodloytuk added that language barriers within the region need to be lowered to ensure a more effective media among Mekong countries. “Language ought not to be a barrier. [It’s unfortunate to see] a person who can’t stand in the podium even though he has something brilliant to say just because he can’t speak English,” said Palphol, Thailand’s country representative to the Asian Media Information and Communication in Singapore.

Acharawadee Buaklee, Thai Public Broadcasting Service (TPBS) reporter and coordinator, agreed. “[This is why] I like what the Imaging Our Mekong programme did in eradicating language barriers. At the same time, we open the forum for people to exchange ideas; we’re also a very strong network,” said Acharawadee, a former Mekong media fellow herself.

For Kevin Yuk-Shing Li, project coordinator of the Hong Kong-based non- governmental Globalisation Monitor who runs several Mekong-focused discussion lists, this is a good time for the Chinese public to see and understand how other countries perceive it.

“A lot of investments from Chinese companies are creating some kind of controversy in the region and the world,” said Li, who follows issues surrounding the Mekong River, such as upstream dams and overseas Chinese investments.

Li said there are still considerable knowledge gaps between China and other Mekong countries like Vietnam and Thailand. In the past few years, however, apart from the Chinese-language versions, there have been numerous media reports tackling development issues in the region in these countries’ English-language newspapers.

But while there are extensive debates between state institutions and NGO workers about Mekong issues, not much is being heard from the grassroots.

Stressing the importance of civil society’s involvement in media institutions, Palphol cited the TPBS’s evolving model that gives due recognition to its role. TPBS represents Thailand’s first foray into public broadcasting in 2008.

TPBS’s core values of independence, ethics and teamwork can be “adapted and adopted” by other Mekong countries and made to fit their local needs, he explained. Palphol said ‘closer cooperation’ among Asian nations could be partly achieved through the creation of a network of ASEAN (Association of South- east Asian Nations) television stations, and the recent establishment of the Federation of ASEAN Community Radio.

The communities’ active involvement in bringing out issues and information, too, easily translates into the ever-growing reach of citizen journalists, who are taking advantage of the ‘freedom’ being afforded to them by the ‘new media’.

In China, Lin said that many traditional journalists “who can’t express themselves” in the mainstream media are turning to the Internet. Calling this trend “footnote journalism,” he said this venue is filled with “grassroots voices” ranging from the youth to environment activists and farmers, to name some. Thus, he added, “we see a happy emergence of citizen journalism in China”.

“As mainstream journalists, we need to understand this new paradigm and think about how we can communicate more effectively to the public and with the citizen journalists,” said Acharawadee.

She added that one of the new things that has emerged from this partnership between citizens and mainstream media in Thailand is a training programme introduced by TPBS.

“When citizen journalists present the news, the station will edit, check and verify information before it is distributed to the public,” said Acharawadee. Dubbed the Public Communication Unit, the programme also teaches citizen journalists basic journalism skills “so they know how to present their stories,” she added.

While citizen journalism will replace mainstream media, or at least not yet, she says it gives people “a space” for their views.

As far the mainstream media giving ordinary people a voice, Lin said this is happening now. “Many journalists now want to give space to local people. The argument is that we already give so much space and time for the government. Now it’s time for the grassroots to be heard,” he said.

At the same time, Lin said that the government, in disseminating its view of the world through media initiatives, should also be prepared for criticism as this is “a price one has to pay” for being a major world player.

“The government should stop being overly emotional and oversensitive to outside criticism,” he said. “The Chinese government is obsessed in getting a good image abroad but the kind of ‘product’ that you can deliver is another story.”


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