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Digital media in the Asian Century

‘Journalism in the Asian Century’ brought together journalists from across Asia to discuss Australia’s place in the Asian Century, the Asian media landscape and key regional issues. It was one of the stand-out panels during the four-day Storyology conference at Chauvel Cinema in Paddington run by the Walkley Foundation.

The panel discussed how we can integrate innovative digital tools, journalism and social activism. It was an exploration of how technology can assist the media and, particularly, be used in nations that struggle with corruption and freedom of speech issues. It also served as a pointed look at Australia’s lack of audience engagement with Asian stories.

The panel was chaired by Jim Middleton and included journalists who shared  their experiences of creating new digital platforms. They were: Aniruddha Bahal from India’s Cobrapost.com, Malaysian writer and columnist Dina Zaman, Indonesian author and Jakarta Post journalist Nivell Rayda, the editor-in-chief of GQ Thailand, Voranai Vanijaka, and Maria Ressa from the website Rappler in the Philippines.

"There is a saying in Indonesia: that 21st century technology is being used to promote medieval ideas."

– Nivell Rayda, Indonesian author and Jakarta Post journalist

Maria Ressa said, “Journalism blurs the line with social activism – and new technology can allow for this.” Her site Rappler focuses on using crowd sourced data, real time reporting and real time responses. During Typhoon Yolanda, social networks played a big role in updating people on the situation of the victims and also informing them of ways to help and give back. Rappler used twitter maps in order to categorize the tweets and they launched the “Track Yolanda” program to map the victims of the typhoon. Emergency Relief Departments didn’t have the access to these networks and contacted Rappler to help play a role in navigating to those in distress.

In recent years Indonesia has experienced a big surge in businesses buying shares in the media - including Nirwan Bakrie, the head of a telecommunications company who has used profits to buy into television stations. But The Jakarta Post’s Nivell Rayda said  the use of social media has held politicians more accountable as they have to answer to this force even if they shut down major media voices. Rayda also noted social media was used effectively by various radical groups - IS being the current example - but also groups in northern Aceh pushing for a return to old Sharia law. “There is a saying in Indonesia: that 21st century technology is being used to promote medieval ideas,” he said.

In contrast, Vanijaka said the landscape for media in Thailand is limited compared to its Asian counterparts as it has never experienced a moment of “cultural re-engineering.” In comparison to Indonesia which had a post-Suharto cultural shift, Vanijaka joked that Thailand just has a coup every few years. “There has been no big historical change or tearing down on institutions to pave the way for these outlets yet,” he said.

India is often called ‘the last bastion of printed press’ and the Cobra Post’s Bahal said that unlike the rest of the world, the newspaper industry is booming in India - as literacy is increasing. But he also pointed out that radio doesn’t have a far reach as politicians are scared of the consequences of accessible news in rural areas as they cannot control this power. Cobrapost currently uses mainstream media as part of its distribution model but they are trying to bypass it as they do not agree with the dominant media narratives. In a nation with increasing access to the smartphone (currently there are 400 million users) Bahal said it will be interesting to see how that will change the way news and Cobrapost will be consumed throughout India.

The panelists were all quick to note that Australia spent more time sending foreign correspondents to Europe or America than they did engaging with Asia. 

Bahal said, “Australians should be more bothered about what is happening in Asia.  They need to start sending correspondents to the Bangkoks, New Delhis and Jakartas – as this is where the important stories will be for Australia now and in the future.”

The Point

Digital media opens up democracy and accountability, but is also used to spread dangerous ideas, according to a panel of Asian journalists


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