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Technology Challenge for Western Media
Content from conference now available online
William Pollard (will789)     Email Article  Print Article 
  Published 2006-05-11 16:06 (KST)   
Discussion at the We Media Forum, a gathering of media experts in London, included reports on recent developments in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

An online article by Rami Khouri from the Lebanon Daily Star repeats some of the points he made.

"Media is both the new terrain and weapon of global domination and indigenous resistance between the American-led West and other parts of the world," he writes.

Khouri reports that the Arab world is, "witnessing an explosion of new satellite television media, with around 300 stations in operation. This is a reaction to the grim legacy of state-run modern Arab mass media that had little credibility with their people. The global telecommunication revolution allowed independent Arab satellite news and entertainment stations to proliferate, responding to Arab citizens' thirst for such services."

The televison media "accurately reflect street sentiment and public opinion throughout the region, which is usually critical of the Anglo-American tradition, Israel, and Arab ruling elites and regimes," according to Khouri.

This view can be disputed and there was criticism of the objectivity of satellite television, but the context of the discussion is available online. There was a contribution from Lisa Goldman, an Israeli blogger who raised issues about the language used on satellite television, particularly by Al Jazeera.

Khouri considers it no surprise that world powers are entering the arena of satellite television. "The U.S. is already a player with its Arabic-language Al-Hurra television and Radio Sawa." However, the discussion at We Media agreed that this has a small audience and lacks the open debate expected from U.S. television.

The panel included Salah Negm from the new BBC channel to be launched next year. It was explained that some Al Jazeera staff came from an earlier project to launch a BBC channel that closed in 1996. Khouri and others repeated that the existing Arab satellite stations are reflecting local opinion, so it was not obvious from the discussion how the BBC will find a different audience.

One speaker said that the television audience was concerned to find reports from several sources so that sites such as CairoLive become popular with "busy readers who want a media savvy look at local, regional and global events."

In his online article, Khouri is even more confident about the strength of these new media than he was during the forum: "The global media is the new arena of the old dynamic of colonial domination and anti-colonial resistance. It is the only arena where Arabs have been able to fight the Anglo-Americans to a draw, or even to triumph in some cases... choose your weapons on your remote controls. We are in for an exciting duel."

The other sessions on Asia and Africa also showed rapid changes in the use of technology, in particular the use of mobile phones. The first major income streams in China came from entertainment for mobile phones. 3G is seen as having the potential to reach 92 percent of people not online at the moment. Communications may become mobile centric. Outside the large cities there would be significant costs in trying to set up landlines.

Speakers included Rudy Chan from China.com and Marcus Xiang from PDX.CN.

There was discussion about censorship and the blocking of sites such as Technorati and Wikipedia, but a contribution from the online chatroom claimed that censorship is a Western obsession, that there are ways around it, and that a lot was happening that was not widely reported.

EastSouthWestNorth was suggested as a site that links to many interesting sources. Through China.com, I found a report that offers a lot of information on the Web in China.

During a discussion on citizen journalism, it was suggested that OhmyNews was supported in special conditions that would not be repeated in other countries. It was thought that in Japan people were less likely to speak out with individual voices. There was no mention of the launch of a Japanese site for OhmyNews. There will be more information about this later in the year. My guess is that mobile devices will be part of the operations at some stage.

In Africa, there are ways to extend the Internet as part of other methods of communication. This can be through SMS on mobiles or conventional radio for local relays. There is flourishing blogging scene such as Kenyan Pundit by Ory Okolloh. The Mail and Guardian hosted a blog for all politicians in recent local elections. This resulted in many comments and helped to encourage debate.

There is also the start of a citizen journalism site at Reporter.co.za. The session started with a protest at the Reuters selection of images about Africa that reinforced assumptions about poverty. There is a lot of variety in many different countries. Technology is also used in many forms, but again the prospects for mobile phones are frequently mentioned.

In South Asia, television is still established as the dominant medium and there is no sign of this being replaced by the Web. There are about 110 million TV sets plus 71 million on cable. There are many connections with SMS messaging on phones. Indian Idol, a music talent show, reached a level of 5 million votes by the end of the first series. The show "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" is a large part of the reason that companies are making billions from SMS messages. The official statistics show about 4.5 million new subscriptions for mobile phones each month, though the real figure may be higher.

There was agreement that in China the mobile phone will probably leapfrog the computer as a means to access the Web. In a visual culture, the use of a keyboard will probably take different forms but there still seems to be some uncertainty about the range of functions in future devices.

There is an active computer science-based industry with strong international connections. Kamla Bhatt reported on Barcamp, a recent conference in Bangalore, linked to ideas around Web 2.0.

The Wiki shows this will continue during May in Amsterdam and Brussels and then spread.

Although there were no major government restrictions on freedom of speech, technology is only available for 20-30 percent of the population. So, there is a limitation.

In each of the sessions, the theme of mobile phones was repeated and it seems likely that "mobile-centric" communications will have a substantial base in Asia and other places with no previous investment in landlines. This may develop fairly soon.

As on the first day, the approach could be criticized for concentrating too much on large organizations and ignoring the bloggers and others who have shown that new methods are possible. This is hard to avoid and the We Media Forum at least showed where connections could be made.There are still new postings that appear either with material from the event or comments on it.

This report has been based on streams from the live event and sound files. My conclusion is that people should check out the sources directly. For a critique of day one, check this blog from someone who was there. There is a link to video that is well worthwhile if you have the bandwidth. For another view on day two, click here.

These sessions are now available for download as sound files.

- South Asia session at We Media 2006 

©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter William Pollard

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