Press freedom is infringed in a variety of ways in Asian countries, despite the economic boom all over the continent. On the other hand, Asians do expect a lot, from the booming electronic media in particular, in terms of democratization, human rights, or fighting corruption. Thomas Bärthlein followed the discussions of the Asia panel at Deutsche Welle's Global Media Forum which is currently being held in Bonn.
DW media forum panelist Sucharita Eashwar from Bangalore, India
It would be an oversimplification to talk about "the Asian media" in general; after all, Asia is where more than half of humankind live. But certain common trends can be found all over the booming continent - one of them being that a media boom is taking place simultaneously. Indrajit Banerjee who teaches in Singapur has some figures:
„Last month, China surpassed the USA as the no. 1 internet nation with 220 million internet users. India has an average 9 million new mobile phone subscribers every month. The Indian film industry with over than 3 billion admissions per year is the largest in the world in terms of number of films produced a year." The Indian film industry is also well-established abroad, Banerjee notes: "In 2007 for example, of the top twenty foreign films in the UK, 14 were Indian."
More freedom, more conflicts?
New media are growing rapidly in Asia - which also means that certain traditional means of control are no longer working. Drew McDaniel, an American scholar who specializes in Southeast Asian media, draws attention to the cases of Indonesia and Malaysia. There, state-controlled media were explicitly given the task to promote ethnic harmony, for example after the Malaysian riots in the late 1960s, he says: „The main role for unifying the country was assigned to the media."
But in the age of satellite TV and internet, it is becoming more and more difficult to centralize all the media in such a way. Private players are mushrooming in many countries. Some experts such as McDaniel wonder whether "freer" media might actually trigger more social and ethnic conflict in the rapidly changing societies of Asia.
Sucharita Eashwar from India believes that media freedom must prevail all the same. Her line of thought is that conflicts are emerging in these societies anyway, so don't try and hide them!
„I do not think that discussion and reporting of these issues necessarily creates conflict. It’s only when an issue is raised, discussed and highlighted then the authorities are able to take note of it and address it in an appropriate way."
Can the media give a voice to everyone?
A key issue could be if the new media manage to provide a platform for everyone to be heard. In Afghanistan, it has been found that militant resistance to the Kabul government is strongest in the areas where media are particularly weak. On the other hand, modern technology allows media in many parts of Asia to involve their audience in content production, as Cheche Lazaro from the Philippines reports:
„56% of our population of 91 million are now using mobile phones. And because of this, we have been able to encourage citizen journalism at the last election. Young people were using their cell phones to take video of election fraud and sending them in to television stations."
Media help to expose corruption and bad governance all over Asia these days, including Communist-run Vietnam or China. But sceptics point out that the success stories of citizen journalism and community media are outweighed by the implications of an unprecedented commercialization everywhere. The Asian media boom is a complex story, which might still have some surprises in store for us.