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Internet a Place for Debating, Creating Democracy
A model for democracy, a role for citizen journalism
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2006-06-28 06:38 (KST)   
"To broaden the understanding of democracy and to increase civic participation, there must be critical discussions and debates on democracy," writes Choi Jang-jip in his book, "Democracy after Democratization: the Korean Experience."[1]

Choi is a professor at Korea University. His book was published in 2002 in Korean, but it has recently been translated into English.

Understanding some of the history and political climate of South Korea is helpful in understanding the context in which OhmyNews has developed the idea and practice of citizen journalism. Choi's book outlines the struggle against powerful interests, which continues in Korea even after the 1987 revolution.

That struggle continues to dominate Korean politics and economics. In his book, he strives to understand the structures which support the continuing hegemony of powerful forces over Korean political and economic life.

Among the strata he is most concerned about are the chaebols, the conservative newspapers and the conservative intellectuals. The conservative intellectuals, Choi explains, are those who "do not criticize the media and chaebol. Nor do they show any interest in the groups and social classes being victimized in the process of the entrenchment of the class structure."

Choi argues that there are those forces which held power before the 1987 democratic revolution, which resist change, and which have become more organized with time. He is particularly critical of the powerful role that the conservative press plays in Korean society. More than politicians, or any other institutions in the policy arena, the conservative press, in South Korea determines policy issues and priorities, according to Choi's analysis.

The problem with the role of the conservative press, Choi explains, is that the views expressed in a few large powerful newspapers become public opinion. This narrows the range of political and ideological viewpoints that are reflected as the public opinion of Korean society.

While Choi sees the role of the conservative press as a problem, he recognizes that a vibrant and inclusive press is critical for democracy. Referring to a similar observation made by Tocqueville in his study of democracy in America (Alexis de Tocqueville ca. 1820-1840), Choi writes, "Tocqueville had observed as early as the mid-nineteenth century that the press in America was the secret of democracy in America."

Though in his book, Choi doesn't discuss the potential of the Internet to help to provide the kind of press that he sees as needed for democracy in Korea, he does describe some of this potential in a journal article he wrote in 2000.[2]

In this article, he considers how the Internet can provide an alternative arena to counter hegemonic power. He writes: "Political society is preoccupied with political parties, political elites and mass media, which produces and transmits dominant discourse....Cyberspace has no barriers to entry and is an absolutely free space over which no hegemonic discourse can exercise a dominant influence."

He proposes that citizen movements will be able to develop in quality and content because of the Internet.

It is in the context of the power of the conservative press that the idea and practice of citizen journalism has developed in Korea. The power of a conservative press is also a problem in the United States. Similarly, there is a need in the United States to discuss and debate the nature of democracy and to determine how to participate in a democratic process as part of the effort to develop a more democratic society.

While this process is ongoing in South Korea in varying ways, it also has had a tradition in the United States. In the U.S., the organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), formed and active in the 1960s, proposed that there was the need for a theory and practice of democracy which it subsequently called "participatory democracy."

Much of the early theory about "participatory democracy" that was adopted by SDS was based on the work of Arnold Kauman, then a professor at the University of Michigan, and the work of C. Wright Mills, a professor at Columbia University until his death in 1962.

Kauman's essay, "Participatory Democracy and the Human Initiative" helped to set the foundation for SDS's model of democracy. Along with a critique of the lack of influence citizens had on politics in American society developed by Mills, Kauman described a form of democracy that would rely on the active participation of citizens, rather than on their passivity, and their delegation of power and decisions to a few, which has been the case.

"Participation," explained Kauman, "means both personal initiative -- that men feel obliged to help resolve social problems -- and social opportunity -- that society feels obliged to maximize the possibility for personal initiative to find creative outlets."[3]

SDS worked to involve people in the discussion and debate over the issues affecting their lives. It found, however, that there was a need for a communication platform in order to create a community of active citizens who would participate in the kind of broad public discussion which is needed for democratic processes to function.

While such a communication platform didn't exist in the 1960s, the Internet does provide this in our times. Choi in Korea, and those forming SDS in the United States in the 1960s, recognized the need for broad involvement of the public in discussion and debate about democracy and its implications in order to form a more democratic society. Similarly they recognize the need to have a communication platform which will encourage such discussion and debate and make it possible for citizens to participate in an active way in this process.

Fortunately, the Internet has been developed, and perhaps only could have been developed through a grassroots, interactive and participatory process.[4] It can provide the kind of communication platform needed for the development of new processes of democracy.

Forms like citizen journalism which were first developed as part of an online newspaper, make it possible for citizens to contribute their news and views to an evolving new form of journalism.[5]

The implication of both Choi's book and journal article in Korea, and of the SDS experience in the United States, is that an important aspect of the struggle to create a more democratic society is to encourage the discussion of what is needed to develop democracy and define the obstacles.

This is a challenge for those who are interested in citizen journalism. Not only is it important to welcome articles about the practices of citizen journalism, but the democratic vision that inspires its development also needs to be articulated and explored.

I want to propose that critical to the development of citizen journalism is a commitment to critique the political passivity that is inculcated by the political party structures of our time and the limited range of policy options that the conservative press provides for our society. Similarly, there is a need for discussion of alternative models of democracy.

In a future article, I plan to explore the model of participatory democracy which SDS introduced and worked to developed, but which the net and netizens now make possible. Within this model, there is an important role for citizen journalism.

(1) Choi Jang-jip, "Democracy After Democratization: the Korean Experience," Humanitas, Seoul, 2005.

(2) Choi Jang-jip, "Democratization, Civil Society and the Civil Social Movement in Korea: the Significance of the Citizens' Alliance for the 2000 General Election," Korea Journal, Autumn 2000.

(3) James Miller, "Democracy in the Streets," Simon and Schuster. New York.
1987, p. 95, quoted in Michael Hauben, "Participatory Democracy from the 1960s and SDS into the Future Online", 1995.

(4) Michael Hauben and Ronda Hauben, "Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet," IEEE Computer Society, 1997.

(5) Ronda Hauben, "OhmyNews and 21st Century Journalism," OMNI, Sept. 9, 2005.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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