Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines

ASIA: English-Language Media a Double-Edged Sword?

HONG KONG, Apr 26 2010 (IPS) - The English language, as a medium for reporting in the region, is both a boon and a bane for many countries in the Asia-Pacific region in terms of getting ‘heard’ or generally being ignored by the global community.

“If you want to talk to each other in this region, you talk in English. Increasingly, the English-language press plays a key role regionally and internationally in keeping the information flow open and expanding the regional voice,” said ‘The Jakarta Globe’ chief editor Lin Neumann at a discussion during the East-West Center’s second international media conference here.

The East-West Center is a Honolulu-based international education and research institution promoting better understanding among the United States, Asia and the Pacific.

Jointly organised by the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, the event with the theme ‘Reporting New Realities in Asia and the Pacific’ brings together some 200 journalists and other media professionals from the United States and the Asia-Pacific region. It ends on Apr. 28.

The presence of an aggressive English-language local press, added Neumann, is a response to an information gap brought about by a shrinking news budget meant to send a western foreign correspondent to cover stories in the region.

“The decrease in foreign correspondents in the region has led to less coverage [of regional issues]. The irony of it all is that Asia is more important than ever before to the world and yet it is covered less aggressively and less thoroughly by the western media (than) it was in the past,” added Neumann, who has worked in the region for the last two decades.

Apparently, this lack of interest by the western media in Asian issues is also the case among Asian countries when it comes to western-oriented issues.

“The irony is, the more globalisation we have, the more localised the media are in Hong Kong,” Yau Lap-Poon, Hong Kong’s ‘Yazhou Zhoukan’ (Asia Weekly) magazine editor in chief, said.

The concern now in the Hong Kong press, he explained, is very local and seldom does one see international news splashed on the front pages.

Although there seems to be a lack of international ‘dialogue’ between western and Asian countries brought about by economic constraints, Neumann noted — and was quite surprised by — the “cross-cultural dialogue” taking place on the ‘Jakarta Globe’s’ Facebook account.

“We post in English and we will be getting lots of comments in Bahasa Indonesia. It is a phenomenon, a fierce aspiration to speak English and we’re seeing an expression of this on Facebook,” he said. The paper’s Facebook account currently has more than 110,000 fans; some 13,000 people, meanwhile, follow them on the popular micro-blogging site Twitter.

Yau said there is a trend in bilingual communication in newspapers, at least in Hong Kong. Figures get translated into English and some columns are translated as well.

While there was a general agreement that the English language will assume an increasingly important role in the region, researcher Tridivesh Singh Maini cautioned against creating a “faulty perspective” if regional-language media are ignored.

“Think tanks and other experts, especially from western countries, should study local-language papers and get a feeling of what is being said, as they might not be getting the correct picture of what’s going on,” said the research associate of the Singapore-based Institute of South Asian Studies.

Citing as an example India’s Hindi-language media, which “has three times more than the reach of English-language newspapers,” Maini explained that it is very important for decision makers to be able to get the pulse of the people.

“The way to do this is to study local-language media instead of just focusing on what the restricted English-language papers have to offer,” he said.

Neumann lamented that the nuances of regional issues tend to get lost on western audiences in the English-language media.

It does not help either that there is “not a tremendous appetite” for news from Asian countries such as Lao PDR and Cambodia, he added.

University of Hawaii Professor Thomas Brislin said that one of the problems involving countries where there is a lack of English-language media such as Vietnam and Lao PDR is the propagation of stereotypes and misperceptions.

According to Brislin, it is not uncommon for a western editor, when assigning a reporter to cover Vietnam, to ask for references on what the western media often refer to as ‘Vietnam War’.

“There is not a great interest and understanding about the Mekong region and stories don’t get told. The fact that there hasn’t been a conflict in these countries also contributes to the limited audience,” Neumann said.

Neither does it help that the western media make no efforts to fully immerse their journalists into the local culture and language, said Brislin.

“It used to be that you went to get language studies. It is not the case anymore. Instead, there’s a reliance on whatever English-language media is available,” said Brislin.

The result, as Maini pointed out, is that the end product loses the nuances of a local issue. Thus, the cycle of misinformation and biases continues.

*The Asia Media Forum ( is a space for journalists to share insights on issues related to the media and their profession, as well as stories and opinions on democracy, development and human rights in Asia. It is coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific.

Republish | | Print |