Kathmandu was abuzz as journalists from Asia began arriving in Nepal’s capital for a conference on ‘Old Challenges, New Media’ organised by Panos South Asia on the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day on May 3. The political situation in Nepal was changing by the hour and fellow Nepali journalists dived in and out of the conference, tracking the developments on Maoists and the government and contributing to the conference proceedings at the same time. In fact, the situation of Nepali journalists exemplified many of the issues thrown up for debate.
Journalists in Nepal have been active and in the forefront of protecting democratic values of this country and have paid a price for it, being beaten, arrested, harassed and also killed for doing their jobs. The conference began with a tribute to Uma Singh, the brave Nepali journalist hacked to death with a machete. The tribute came from veteran journalist Kanak Mani Dixit, who himself has borne the brunt at the hands of the authorities for his brand of outspoken journalism. Dixit pointed out that there were more journalists dying in South Asia than anywhere else. Not content with pointing fingers, however, he asked journalists to look at themselves and question whether they were indeed doing all they could. A culture of self censorship had crept in even when there was no pressure, he said, criticising the “growing culture of silence”.
Dixit also paid tribute to Lasantha Wickrematunge, the courageous Sri Lankan editor gunned down in January this year for his refusal to be silenced, even while prophesying his own death at the hands of his own government. In fact, the Kathmandu conference saw the presence of several Sri Lankan journalists who have been in self-imposed exile. The growing dangers of working in Sri Lanka were eloquently portrayed by Wickrematunge’s colleague, Dilrukshi Handunneti who emphasised that Sri Lanka was going through a war without witnesses. Handunneti herself continues to report from Sri Lanka.
The difficulties of journalists within the mainstream media sharply brought into focus the possibilities as well as challenges of new media and its emergence as a platform for alternative journalism. Nepal has provided an example of how new media could emerge as an alternative space. Blogs, SMS and Twitter had shown a quantum leap when the more traditional media like newspapers, TV channels and radio stations faced censorship. Waqar Mustafa from Pakistan explained how non-traditional communication means were used in Pakistan not just for political mobilisation but also political participation as those who could not participate actively used virtual means to extend their support to the political movement against military rule.
Asia Media Forum coordinator Milind Kokje demonstrated how the use of new media was eroding geographical barriers as well as limitations imposed by censorship. It was more difficult for authoritarian regimes to track and shut down blogspots, for example, which could be set up easily and were more difficult to locate than physical sites were traditional media were based.
K. Kabilan from Malaysia provided a case study of Malaysiakini, a news website which he and his friends set up out of disgust with the censorship of traditional media. Not only did Malaysiakini expand the space for alternative journalism, it has also turned commercially viable, though not without years of struggle.
A remarkable aspect of the Kathmandu conference was the interaction of many journalists and media practitioners who are engaged in trying to expand the boundaries of journalism using new media – with varying degrees of success. Participants exchanged notes with each other. “How did you get people to subscribe? How do you transmit your radio material? What do you have to pay to your reporters? What is the licensing procedure in your country?’ Questions flowed quick and fast in a lively discussion as best practices were shared and exchanged. It was not all celebratory, however, but was balanced with a good dose of realism, raising as many questions as it answered.
New media could expand frontiers but face its own limitations in many countries with limited Internet access and power supply. There were questions on how the increasing use of citizens as journalists needed to be tested against the principles of fairness and accuracy. There were questions on the financial sustainability of the models of new media. Was new media really democratic? What protection was available to journalists working single-handedly or in small groups without the backing of organisations? What about the misuse of cyberspace for hate propaganda? How could one retain the interest of the consumer in an age of information overload? The regional deputy director of Panos and country representative Kishor Pradhan summed up the complexities of the issues very well. New media and new forms of expression offered some hope for the future, but its efficacy depended on its utilisation. New media was not a panacea for all problems afflicting traditional media, he said, but an effective tool that could be used. (By Aunohita Mojumdar)