Published in AsiaViews (Indonesia) November-December 2009
ASEAN Moves To Blunt Western Media’s Power To Set Regional Agenda
By Kalinga Seneviratne in Vientiane
“Critics of developed countries have been rather slanted and sly in categorising us Information Ministers as ‘Misinforming Ministers’. What ever they say, we have to carry out our responsibilities because if we don’t inform, others will do the job for us” warned Malaysia’s Minister of Information, Communication and Culture, Dr Rais Yatim in a combative speech to the 10th Conference of ASEAN Ministers Responsible for Information (AMRI) held in the Laotian capital from 5-6th November.
This was a strong theme of the conference titled “Enhancing Media Cooperation in ASEAN Community Building” and this year’s conference also included an AMRI + 3 component, where ASEAN Information Ministers were joined by their counterparts from China, South Korea and Japan on the second day.
Even Korea joined in the call for Asian nations to pool their media resources to blunt Western media’s power to set the regional political and cultural agenda. “It is true that the global perception of Asia is not that positive considering the region’s economic influence. To the eyes of the people of the other parts of the globe, Asia is no more than a poor, peripheral region with a development gap, which suffers economic crisis, terrorism and disasters” observed Kim Kab-soo, Director of the Media Policy Bureau at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in Seoul, in an address to the first ever AMRI+3 conference.
Kim added that this “misrepresentation justifies the need for enhancing media cooperation at the ASEAN+3 level”, as it is necessary to “disseminate various uniquely East Asian viewpoints to the media in the rest of the world”.
Myanmar couldn’t agree more. “ASEAN peoples are receiving news and information on the member states based on the West’s points of views and norms” noted Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, Minister for Information of Myanmar. “Some of us are relying on Western media for content, the peoples’, especially youth, are more familiar with Western traditions and culture than with Oriental ones. It is the main obstacle in building the ASEAN as ‘One Vision, One Identity, One Community’”.
The failure of the national media systems in the Asian region to pool their resources together to create a powerful Asian voice both in the region and international media has allowed alternative media – which is often funded by western donor agencies – to permeate this Asian viewpoint.
Dr Rais believes that it also reflects a negative viewpoint of Asia and a touchy question governments have to deal with these days is that people tend to be convinced by these alternative media viewpoints. “Those material in the Web do much at times to discredit us and our work” he said, but, adding a rather positive note by calling on information ministers to learn how to utilise this new media “to the advantage of ASEAN and its people”.
In the joint media statement released at the end of AMRI the ministers agreed that the media has to play a pivotal role in creating a sense of belonging and enhancing deeper understanding among the people of the region in building the path towards a one ASEAN community by 2015. Towards this end, they agreed on the need to deepen media cooperation to support community building by closer coordination of projects, media networking and human resource development. Needlessly to say, these activities will be focused mainly through government media institutions and training arms.
Conrado Limcaoco, Secretary of the Philippines Information Agency does not see the focus on government media arms as an obstacle to greater media cooperation in the region, where private media has been expanding at a rapid pace in the past decade or more. “In all ASEAN countries government media plays a prominent role without exception” he argued in an interview with Asianviews. “Government media because of history of each country continues to play an important role, often at times the dominant role”.
“In countries like Philippines, where we have a relatively free media, we do maintain a share of the voice in that we have three television and a radio station and wire service, and a press office out of the palace regularly comes out with statements from the president and various spokespersons of the president. I think that’s the reality. In Philippines, and like in most other countries the government is responsible for most of the news in a given day about 70 percent” explained Limcaoco.
Azmi Ali, Head of Information of Malaysia argues that if the government media is not strong enough in the ASEAN countries, all what they will get is entertainment and not information about each other. “We make it compulsory for them to broadcast ASEAN information in the government media for the benefit of the people. If we don’t do that most of the media will be entertainment” he said in an interview. “We also want all the media to transmit government information, national inspiration, rather than sitting on entertainment only”.
Recognising this fact, for almost a decade, the ASEAN Secretariat via the Committee on Culture and Information (COCI), which consists of Information Ministry representatives and government media institutions, has funded a regional media exchange, the ATV and ASEAN In Action (AIA). The former is a weekly exchange of television news where each country send one or two television news features to Brunei television which package it into a 40 minute feed and sends it via Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union’s ‘Asiavision’ satellite news feed. AIA, which is coordinated by the Philippines, exchanges radio material on a weekly basis.
Due to the different languages used for national broadcasting in member countries, the ASEAN programme exchanges have had limited success. Some also blame it on the apathy of government broadcasters who may see it as extra tasks to translate / dub foreign (mainly English) language material into their own language broadcasts
Him Suong, Deputy Director of TVK Cambodia agrees that language is a major obstacle to greater ASEAN media exchanges, especially in the broadcast media. “In the MOU (with ASEAN) we have a framework to translate and dubbing in local language. If we use foreign language nobody understands at the other side (but) dubbing costs have to be borne by recipient country. Cambodia is economically not in a position and we need funding to cover dubbing” he told Asianviews.
Another question raised by many analysts is the different levels of media freedom across the 10 member ASEAN grouping with countries like Philippines and Indonesia enjoying a high degree of freedom and others like Brunei, Myanmar, Singapore, Laos being tightly controlled by the government.
“It is the policy of ASEAN leaders that we work together in order to build an ASEAN community by 2015, with the understanding that in ASEAN we are diverse both in political system and economic development. Under this understanding all sector of society must make a contribution to it rather than diversity making it difficult to built. I’m very optimistic that we can work together” said Sayakane Sisouvong, Deputy Secretary General of ASEAN, when this question was posed to him by Asianviews
“The exchange of information is very important and how much degree we can exchange depends on the capacity of each individual member state. For example the new members of ASEAN are in a lesser position to be able to exchange and share more information because of their lack of manpower as well as capacity. They also lack facilities of means. But it doesn’t mean that these countries are not ready to share information” added Sisouvong, who is from Laos. He believes that for ASEAN information exchanges to be really effective that the more advanced ASEAN member states must help the lesser developed ones to build capacity.
Ali says that Malaysia has been doing exactly that. “In ASEAN project there are lot of training for journalists, media managers so forth. We have developed training for example media editors and television producers. We have no problem in giving training to member countries as listed in the projects” he said.
Singapore has also offered a unique scheme called ASEAN Newsmakers, where youth are trained using a ‘newsmaker’ software to produce their own contents and upload to the ASEAN Media Portal coordinated by Singapore. The wealthy island nation is offering two days of training to member countries in using this software.
Thailand meanwhile has started a satellite television project called ASEAN TV and is offering air time to any ASEAN country to use their network to broadcast their material to the region free of charge. The channel, which broadcast in English, was launched at the recent ASEAN Summit in Thailand on October 23rd. It is run by the state media company MCOT and they have established a studio in Bangkok and plan to set up news bureaus in most ASEAN capitals soon.
“We realised that ASEAN need a centralised place where member countries could come in and exchange material. Since we have infrastructure and we feel it is in line with the goal of the organisation, we proposed this to the (Thai) prime minister and he agreed” Tanawat Wansom, President of MCOT told Asiaviews.
“MCOT invested on infrastructure including transmission (satellite and internet). We got some commitment from Thai government and we provide this platform for ASEAN countries free of charge. We would like to get companies that are providing goods and services in the ASEAN community to use the channel to reach out to the markets” he explained, adding, “long term it should be self funded. Initially we want to get endorsement of all the ASEAN members countries”.
Most ASEAN countries see the Internet as the most effective and cheapest way to exchange information, and English being the lingua franca of ASEAN, most of this information will be transmitted in English. Malaysia has offered an ‘ASEAN Gateway’ project to exchange information, while the ASEAN Media Portal is already creating audio-visual linkages, but, it is the interface between the Internet and the traditional media such as radio and television, which will make an impact on creating an ASEAN community which is well aware of each other’s culture, social norms, as well as politics. For these, translation and dubbing would also play a major role, as well as the integration of the private sector media to ASEAN media exchanges.
“ASEAN member states are very realistic and practical” argues Sisouvong. “With the existing mechanism we have now with +3 we add on information for the first time here. I think they will think of transferring technology to us, they will help us. With the pull of these states ASEAN will have more resources to implement what we already have agreed under the ASEAN blueprint (for ASEAN Community by 2015)”.
“We have to live with the disparities. Keep pushing and pushing. Success can breed on success. If the Internet projects work, if the ASEAN Media Portal works, then things could speed up” noted Limcaoco optimistically
* Dr Kalinga Seneviratne is the Head of Research at the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre in Singapore.