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Social, political and cultural aspects of ICTs

Article Index
Social, political and cultural aspects of ICTs
Issues in the Asia-Pacific context
From e-government to e-governance
ICT and the potential for advancing democratic pro
Does technology change society?
“Future-proofing” digital economies in the Asia-Pa
Community and family life in the digital age
Conclusion
Notes
References

ICT and the potential for advancing democratic pro


The digital media may be “new”, but it is obvious that many of the key issues surrounding the adoption of “new media” or ICTs are issues inherited from the “old”, “traditional” media. One of the more crucial sociopolitical issues is that of representation: who do the new media represent and how are they represented? This, in turn, is related to the wider issue of relationships between and within states, the market and societies.

Such debates in terms of technology and access mirror ongoing debates about literacy and power: speaking for people who would otherwise be able to speak for themselves. Unlike conventional media (except for talkback radio and “Letters to the editor”), the Internet can allow smaller groups to have a public voice. Once again, however, issues of access and language arise. The history of the Internet in Thailand – to take one example – provides evidence that rural citizens are not motivated to use ICT until they know that they can access content relevant to them that is in their own language. At the same time, the relative inaccessibility to ICT outside Thai cities compounds the problem, since the presence of peers using and benefiting from the Internet is an effective driver of technology adoption. In Vietnam, the lack of useful websites in the Vietnamese language has also been blamed for the slow increase in Internet subscribers. By contrast, in China, there has recently been a huge proliferation of relevant Chinese-language websites and a significant growth in the number of Internet users (although 60 percent of them are male, indicating a gendered digital divide).

In terms of advancing democratic processes in Asia Pacific, it is important that civil society and independent media groups utilise ICT to provide alternative sources of information that do not uncritically adopt official discourses. Maori forums in New Zealand7 are one example of such sources. This issue is of crucial importance in the Asia-Pacific region (and regions beyond, generally) given the different kinds and degrees of regime control of communi¬cation institutions – matched equally by the creative strategies adopted by civil society to limit, counter and possibly overcome these controls.

Prior to the arrival of the Internet in Asia Pacific in the early 1990s, a consistent feature of the media structures in many, though not all, of the countries in the region was that of strict regulation by the political regime. And when state regulation was not the case, market forces determined much of the media output. In both cases, the obvious outcome was that access to the media was restricted, ownership was concentrated in the hands of a few (often those close to the political elite), and content was censored by both the government and the media themselves.8

Such centralised control was – and still is – a legacy of the ideology of “development communication”, made popular in developing countries in the 1960s. The belief was that the media, particularly radio and television, played pivotal roles in “modernising” poor societies. Given this central role of the media, it was thus crucial that control of the media should be in the hands of the government. However, with very few governments being benign – or anywhere near democratic – such centralised control resulted in the media becoming nothing more than the propaganda machinery of the state.

The arrival of the Internet promised to change all that. State control and concentration of media ownership, it was argued, would not be the norm with the new media. Such optimism went further, with arguments being made for the “levelling” nature of the new media, that they would indeed pose a real challenge to the domination of the old media of television and the press. As recently put by Gomez and Gan (2004, p. xiv):

Since, technically, individuals could communicate with each other across geographical and political boundaries without restriction and once a text is posted on the Internet the ability to control its movement is minimal, the notion of censorship that was so strongly present in traditional media was viewed to have an uncertain future on the Internet. Many were confident that any attempt by authorities to protect data or censor information would be circumvented by choosing to re-route or taking avoidance measures. In this regard, there were expectations that freedom of expression would increase and help further democratic development in the region.

But, of course, it has not been as smooth sailing as proposed. True, there continue to be anecdotal accounts and even studies of “success” stories. Accounts, for example, of how the Internet has been utilised successfully to provide alternative news in the region, such as in the case of Malaysiakini in Malaysia, Think Centre in Singapore, and Tehelka.com in India. However, these accounts often belie the fact that wider political, economic and social factors impinge on the short-term – let alone long-term – true success of these outfits.

Take Malaysiakini as an example. Malaysiakini was set up as an Internet daily newspaper in late 1999 with a grant from the Southeast Asian Press Alliance comprising most of its initial funding. It describes itself as “an Internet media project featuring independent news coverage, investigative journalism and in-depth news analysis . . . conceived by journalists unhappy with the sorry state of our mass media”.9

By the end of 2000, Malaysiakini received rave write-ups in international newspapers and magazines such as the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal and The Australian. It also won numerous international awards, including the International Press Freedom Award, through which editor Steven Gan was recognised. Often enough, Malaysiakini has been presented as a classic case of the Internet being utilised successfully to provide independent alternative news within a country controlled by an authoritarian regime.10

Indeed, Malaysiakini’s continued survival since 1999 has reinforced the myth of its success and, by extension, the success of new media. But the reality provides some sobering lessons for those wishing to use the new media to take on an authoritarian state and an unforgiving market in order to expand the boundaries of free expression.

First, Malaysiakini has certainly not been an economic success. It has had to turn to subscriptions in order to meet operating costs. And more than a year after doing so, in 2002, Malaysiakini still did not have a big enough subscriber base to enable it to make a profit. In this regard, it is obvious that dependence on the market brings with it its own set of problems.

Second, despite governments sticking to promises of not censoring the Internet, the availability of a slew of long-established laws to curb freedom of expression is sufficient to muzzle dissent or alternative discourses. This has been the case with the harassment Malaysiakini has experienced. And the scenario is the same for other countries with similar legislation in place. Hence, the media and/or instrumentation may be new, but the wider controls already in place are sufficient, in the final analysis, to make the “new” conform to the “old” (Liberty, 1999).

Third, while Internet access in certain countries in the region is indeed wide-ranging, it is still true for many other countries that accessibility is restricted, principally due to limited incomes and often, additionally, due to the lack of familiarity with the major languages used on the Internet. Many governments are only too aware of the lack of access to the new media and hence are willing to treat it more liberally.

Fourth, it would be technologically deterministic to assert that, all these other factors notwithstanding, the availability of the technology will somehow, magically, make the citizens of a country more aware of their rights and, more importantly, begin making demands for, say, greater transparency, democratic space and accountability. In many circumstances, the citizens have been put through years of socialisation that invariably limit their ability to be critical of those in power. Hegemony has been won and maintained in these instances through the propagation of materialistic ideologies by the regimes concerned. These political perspectives privilege economic gains over individual and collective rights, including the right to openly question and criticise. As has been argued, “The relative immaturity of Asian democracies themselves constitute[s] an important impediment to greater public and political debate, participation and the promotion of civil and political liberties” (Banerjee, 2004, p. 61).

What of the future then, given the experiences of these initiatives at advancing democratic processes using the new media? At least three observations can be made in this regard. In the first place, and to look at it optimistically, the entire ongoing process of globalisation and the opening up of the world by the new media has provided – and continues to provide – those who have access to the technology with the opportunity to widen their understanding of issues and to be more questioning and critical. Thus far, the numbers are small, given limited access to the new media – especially in non-urban settings. In this situation, it could be argued that there is greater room for alternative media to manoeuvre, allowing for greater plurality, even given the occasional harassment by the authorities. In a limited sense, therefore, yes, it could be accepted that there are opportunities for creating counter-hegemonic discourses. But the important question that begs to be asked is: For how long?

Secondly, and following from the above, the two-pronged pressures of a repressive state and an unforgiving market will in all likelihood determine the long-term existence of any alternative media, either utilising new media technologies or old ones. Many of these well-meaning but, unfortunately, economically naive ventures need to understand that there is a limit to volunteerism. And, political harassment and repression notwithstanding, there is certainly a need to engage with the market, to sell what is being produced to audiences beyond the converted. Indeed, as Landry et al. (1985, p. 99) point out in their classic analysis of the failure of the radical press in Britain, receiving grants is fine, “but for many projects, there won’t be any form of life at all after the age of grant applications” (emphasis in original).

Thirdly, there is clearly a need for a government that wishes to utilise the new media to benefit its development strategies and, by extension, its citizens to understand the constituents of the knowledge economy that ICT is supposed to help realise. As argued by one of the main proponents of the knowledge economy, the renowned economist Joseph Stiglitz (1999, p. 20):

[I]nstitutions are best structured with openness and competition to be robust under the assumption that knowledge and virtue are rather less than perfect. That robustness strategy . . . leads to the institutions of an open society such as a free press, transparent government, pluralism, checks and balances, toleration, freedom of thought, and open public debate . . . This political openness is essential for the success of the transformation towards a knowledge economy. (Emphasis added)

Free press, transparent government, pluralism, checks and balances, toleration, freedom of thought, open public debate – they are all very nice notions. If the potential of ICT for advancing democratic processes is to be realised, however, everyone – especially governments – concerned about democratic governance, genuine participation and a knowledge economy would need to come to terms with what these notions mean and begin wholeheartedly applying them.

Activism and the transnational collection of individual voices

Sometimes individuals find that they hold views at odds with those around them. This can happen in both pro-social and anti-social contexts. These people can use ICT to communicate with others who share their views or beliefs. The Internet can provide a gathering place for people who seek to combine their energies to create a force for peace, environmental protection or social responsibility. On the other side of the coin, people who hold extremely prejudiced views about other nationalities or other religions can share their views through racist or hate sites. Similarly, the Internet has made visible a number of underground paedophile rings whose members carry on their illegal activities beyond the view of their families, friends and neighbours.

Given that it is more difficult for the state to regulate and control the Internet than to regulate the mass media, the Internet can be an effective forum for radical and liberationist debate, sometimes leading to actions supporting particular perspectives. Such actions started to emerge in the late 1990s – one of which was the disruption of the WTO summit in Seattle in November–December 1999 – founded on the slogan “May our resistance be as international as capital”. Protesters seeking a fairer distribution of the world’s wealth, and greater prominence in international debates on issues of poverty and global exploitation, effectively brought the WTO summit to a standstill. This sort of movement has earlier been discussed in terms of its providing evidence that there has been a failure to engage the global public in an open, transparent and consensus-driven decision-making process.

Where a public sphere is regulated, as with the mass media, it reflects what that nation’s political elite see as culturally unacceptable. Internet communication, on the other hand, may be construed as essentially a niche medium, potentially connecting like minds across international boundaries. People use the Internet to access material that is important to them, and nation-states have limited powers to prevent cross-border information flows. (However, they can and do punish what they perceive to be inappropriate or illegal access to banned material or the circulation of subversive views and information. The definition of “subversive” is highly subjective, though.)

The concept of free speech within the national context varies over time and reflects the concerns of the day. The McCarthy era in the USA, for example, coincided with the commencement of the cold war with the Soviet Union and saw the oppression of left-wing views and left-wing people.

More recently, it seems to have been “un-American” to speak out against the US-led war on terror or to criticise the US infringement of human rights and civil liberties as revealed in the detention of many citizens of other countries (and a few from the USA) in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq. Nation-states also have marked differences in their conceptions of free speech and of the relationship of free speech to their public spheres. Singapore, for example, celebrates being an information society but conceives the public sphere in a way that differs generally from the West’s. In many respects, Singapore sees free speech as less important than community harmony and the avoidance of express dissent, and hence it does not permit the media to broadcast stories that are deemed likely to lead to civil unrest. Arguably, the public sphere promoted and embraced by a nation partly creates that nation’s “imagined community” (Anderson, 1983) and expresses elements of its national identity.

What happens, however, when citizens and their governments differ in terms of their understandings of appropriate ways in which to use the Internet? Can the freedoms of the individual be balanced against the responsibilities of the government to manage society in a harmonious and collaborative way? The answer to this question tends to reflect the relative importance placed by each government upon the balance between the rights of the individual to freely express non-violent dissident views opposing government decisions and the rights of the government to operate within a framework of broad consensus, even at the expense of denying citizens access to communication avenues through which to express their opposition to government actions and policies.

New communication technologies have traditionally challenged governments that see individual rights as less important than the right to govern without open opposition. Even before the Internet really took off, Australian journalist and educator Julianne Schultz commented (1994, p. 111):

The former communist regimes of eastern Europe found blocking media from the west increasingly difficult, and the application of even limited electronic technologies made the production of Samizdat publications of the Opposition much easier. In Panama, as President Noriega struggled to maintain power, he shut down the country’s independent media. A Panamanian exile managed to produce an alternative newsletter and sent it to facsimile receivers in banks, law offices and travel agencies throughout the country. Within hours up to 30,000 photocopies of the paper were on Panama’s streets.

In one Asia-Pacific nation, citizens need a licence to own a fax machine; in other countries, there is routine surveillance of private email. In Australia, the independent media11 complain that the government-funded media (ABC) and commercial media create a distorted coverage that supports capitalism and big business and does not offer a range of alternative, critical and independent viewpoints. They also complain that Australian citizens are kept ignorant of the true facts of their government’s oppression of human rights, particularly in the treatment of boat people and asylum seekers. John Howard’s government has been rebuked by many international organisations for its policy of compulsory detention of asylum seekers and, particularly, for the incarceration of children. The Howard government’s so-called Pacific solution – whereby refugee claims that should be processed in Australia are “outsourced” for processing by international bodies in sovereign nations such as Nauru has also attracted worldwide derision. Nonetheless, an Australian, Mike Smith, has recently assumed the role of UN Commissioner for Human Rights, creating some strident comments from around the globe.

Elsewhere in Asia Pacific, Vietnam and China have been singled out by Amnesty International (http://www. amnesty.org.au) for their treatment of non-violent dissidents who have used the Internet to express views in opposition to their governments. Amnesty International also criticises the US detentions at Guantanamo Bay and Australia’s treatment of Aboriginal people and of refugees. Human rights defenders have hoped for a long time that better communication will mean that respect for human rights across the world will increase. For example, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is recorded as saying (Shawcross, 1992, p. 242):

The very existence of new information channels, operating in real time and across all frontiers, will be a powerful influence for civilised behaviour. If you are arranging a massacre it will be useless to shoot the cameraman who has so inconveniently appeared on the scene. His picture will already be safe in the studio five thousand miles away and his final image may hang you.

However valid this perception may be, the death toll continues to rise for prisoners of conscience, human rights activists and journalists who report human rights violations. The International Federation of Journalists produces an annual report of journalists and media staff killed in the line of duty.13 The report makes uncomfortable reading.

Indigenous peoples collaborate for global justice

Many indigenous peoples share problems arising from their experiences of colonisation and dispossession. These problems tend to include high mortality rates, poor health profiles and a range of serious social issues such as substance abuse and other addictions. Since the 1990s or so, indigenous peoples have begun to share their stories with each other. Unfortunately, it is hard to imagine ways in which the loss of their lands and self-determination can best be addressed in a world where justice and redress tend to be accepted only when they are divorced from compensation and reparations. Nonetheless, an indigenous peoples’ ICT forum, such as the Maori forums cited earlier, might share strategies for dealing with the genocidal side effects of the experience of dispossession. Such an exchange may help to promote the development of strong communities and empower the people, assisting them to return to cultural confidence and vibrancy.

Where success stories are circulated, governments may be persuaded into adopting strategies demonstrated to be of benefit to indigenous peoples from other countries. Where interventions have brought harm to the people they should have helped, national governments may be shamed into changing the policies to be more community-supporting. ICT would be an important component of any international collaboration and exchange between indigenous peoples, and the costs of supporting these programmes should be seen as a tiny investment in the future by governments whose welfare bills ache under the burden of the socioemotional health impacts of the despair experienced by many of these communities. These and other issues suggest that, in order to investigate fully the social, political and cultural aspects of ICT, we also need to critically examine its moral, ethical and theoretical implications.



 

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