Repression, Co-option and Triumph - Asia Media Report Review

A controversial cover of The Economist last year asked, with not much self-reflexive irony, “Who killed the newspaper?” The suggestion of death seems, in hindsight, grossly exaggerated. Asia Media Report: A crisis within explores a more specific and far-reaching concern: the death of news as we know it.

By Anagha Neelakantan
Published in the February 2007 issue of Himal South Asian magazine

Asia Media Report: A crisis within
Edited by Johanna Son, Satya Sivaraman, Suman Pradhan
IPS Asia-Pacific Centre Foundation, 2006

A controversial cover of The Economist last year asked, with not much self-reflexive irony, “Who killed the newspaper?” The suggestion of death seems, in hindsight, grossly exaggerated. Asia Media Report: A crisis within explores a more specific and far-reaching concern: the death of news as we know it.

This is familiar ground. The large-scale takeover of news outlets by big-money corporations and the concomitant rise of infotainment to cater (advertisers insist) to the needs of a mythical dumbed-down ‘market’ have been widely lamented, as have the problems of cross-ownership and consolidation, and the challenges of reporting and publishing news under repressive regimes or in otherwise hostile environments.

But this multi-part, multi-author report, commissioned and published by Inter Press Service Asia-Pacific, is not just a hand-wringing ode to a lost cause. It presents articulate essays on specific trends in countries across the region, including how news for people living in Burma is produced in exile, and how entertainment in Pakistan comes increasingly in the form of spiritual teachings that are both arch-conservative and designed to attract urban youth. Also included are assessments of the ‘media environment’ in different countries, such as under dictatorship in Nepal, and amid the lure and power of money in India and Thailand. And in each analysis, the report makes strong empirical arguments for its premise: that free, responsible media is indispensable to the success of any democracy.

Political repression is the straightforward part of the story. Under next-to-impossible conditions, Burmese journalists in exile produce news for their fellow citizens back home. During King Gyanendra’s dictatorial rule, Nepali journalists fought back with metaphorical or absurd editorials, printed gibberish when a defiant blank space was not allowed, sang the news on FM radio, and more.

Where politics is violent and enmeshed with economic interests from the most local to the highest national level, it becomes less easy to identify a single ‘enemy of the fourth estate’. And yet, though the suppressor and its affinities may change from region to region, the results remain the same for journalists who challenge the local status quo: physical attacks and murder.

A less deadly – but more depressing – response to corruption in politics and the state’s dismissal of its citizens’ concerns is discussed in an essay on the Philippines. Here, it is argued, entertainment does not just rule the roost, but even the news takes on the forms, methods and outcomes of entertainment – from the indiscretions and media-whorishness of TV stars, to the peccadilloes of politicians. Politics itself has become a spectator sport, says author Antonio P Contreras, and the knee-jerk clinging to entertainment is how Filipinos maintain their sanity in a country plagued by crises. It is, he says, a “postmodern” state of spectacle. This defence of “bad [proletarian] taste” makes a modicum of sense, but it is still a way of encouraging people to revel in their powerlessness while letting the media off the hook with regard to its role in keeping the state accountable.

More insidious than political repression, or the wholesale abandonment of the idea that media – and its lower-end consumers – have a role to play in keeping civic concerns in the limelight, are financial influences and considerations. A Crisis Within examines two ways that big money leaches away the media’s sphere of influence. In Thailand, under former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the power of money indirectly dictated what could and could not be covered in the press. Thaksin’s vast empire included advertisers whose non-participation could bankrupt publications.

In India and Indonesia the situation looks even worse, and here business has, for the most part, not gotten into bed with politics. The report explores the manner in which once-respected Indian publications have undergone a “Murdochisation”, whereby editorial space and time are treated as products to generate revenue, and news is limited to items that are sensational, feel-good, lifestyle-oriented and jingoistically nationalist, but which rarely present the realities of the majority of the population. In India the greater the strides the economy appears to make, the more conservative the media becomes by compulsion or by choice.

In Indonesia, despite a boom in local television and radio, ownership – and cross-ownership – of media remains with a handful of people with close connections to the upper political and economic strata of society. The report sees cross-ownership of media as undermining the content presented to the Nepali public as well.

A thousand ways around
But not all is gloom and doom. A Crisis Within also examines creative responses to restrictions on media. The case study of China’s respected Caijing weekly shows how a non-negotiable editorial emphasis on detailed, irrefutable research findings, a strict separation of editorial and marketing roles, and a wealthy but hands-off ownership together allow a publication the roles of watchdog, whistleblower and respected analyst.

Often, the report shows, the path to editorial freedom lies in adopting a new business model. The example is given of the attempt of the Malaysian to turn into an economically viable long-term product a website that began as a mere space for dissenting opinion following the arrest of then-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998. Seven years later, Malaysiakini still relies on occasion on donor money, and its online subscription drives have not always been successful; nonetheless, it continues to exist.

A Crisis Within is valuable also because it contains cautionary tales about what happens when radical or underground media outlets are institutionalised. An analysis of the case of Hankyoreh, the ‘citizen-owned’ Korean daily, shows how an editorial stance, when it sticks to a particular line of dissent and does not respond to changes, can become ossified – even to the extent that a publication which has its origins in a popular civil movement comes to be associated with the state, or is left behind by competitors that now cover the same social issues but more comprehensively. Palestinian media, which before the Oslo accords were signed played an important role in political consciousness-raising, should in the freer environment of recent years have been discussing how to build the Palestinian state. Instead, they continue to focus largely on the dynamic of ‘evil Israel vs poor, victimised Palestine’.

One introductory overview of the report rightly points to the irony that although – or perhaps because – radio is a cheap medium with enormous reach, it is tightly controlled across Asia. Here, Nepal’s proliferation of community radio stations provides a notable exception, though India and Sri Lanka are mentioned as being likely to follow suit. In Thailand, the report notes the “mushrooming” of community radio, despite the fact that community access to frequencies (which by policy are under public ownership) is heavily restricted.

The next edition of IPS’s report, if there is one, would do well to include comparative analyses that for now are left to the reader. There are also a few noteworthy omissions in the case studies: the Korean Ohmynews ‘citizen journalist’ model, and the challenge posed by Al Jazeera TV to Western-directed coverage of the Arab-speaking world. However, these are minor gripes. The case studies, general country essays and media indicators in A Crisis Within are well-written and informative, and some of the illustrations are witty and could have replaced a few pages of pontificating.

In every instance here, erosion of the independence of media is accompanied by a lowering of the volume of discussion about citizens and their rights. The many illustrious writers present a uniformly liberal front and do a good job of showing, rather than telling, why media and its freedoms need to be “defended by maximum application”, even when not under overt threat.

Published: 16 Feb 2007


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Himal South Asian magazine February 2007