SEOUL (June 22, 2012) — Three journalists from three different countries, some who double as activists, explained how digital media has triumphed over censorship and the obstacles to free speech they encounter in their respective countries. Although the three nations — Malaysia, China and South Korea — vary in their political systems and restrictions, the people in each are finding ways to move beyond those barriers in today’s digital environment.
Speaking to their peers at the East-West Center’s International Media Conference in Seoul, the men focused their remarks on the transforming role of politics and protests.
Steven Gan, founder of Malaysiakini, an online Web site that began in 1999, said that the government had a stranglehold on all media until the Internet arrived. “The Internet has indeed brought change to Malaysia,” he said.
Gan explained that despite the oppressive nature of the current regime, the Web is not censored in Malaysia because the government wanted to take advantage of the Multimedia Super Corridor, a Silicon Valley-type project aimed at attracting foreign companies. Gan said he exploited this loophole in Malaysia’s uncensored online environment and started the website, which was immune to the numerous regulations and laws that inhibit traditional media in the country.
Four journalists provided content during its inception. Today, Malaysiakini is published in four languages and features the work of more than 200 citizen journalists. Gan’s outlet survives on readers to pay for the content — and he said they do.
Isaac Xianghui Mao, director of the Social Brain Foundation in China, said that China’s 500 million online users are using social media to express themselves. Mao started blogging 10 years ago, and during that time, he was censored by the government via China’s local social media outlets, such as Weibo, that are subject to regulation by the government. Mao said microblog entries and accounts are deleted every day. He added that China is worse than Malaysia because street-demonstrations are often quelled.
Still, people are finding ways around China’s great firewall to join the international discussion online. “We need more Chinese social media users to connect to the world,” he said.
Mao communicated the sobering fact that, at any time, the Chinese government can completely shut down all social media outlets and the country’s Internet connection.
Myung Seung-eun, chair of the Korea Business Blog Association in Seoul, said that the online environment in South Korea faces restrictions, especially for those who produce satire and for those who criticize the current government. While such commentary is typically void in traditional media, the online outlets, particularly podcasts, blogs and social media, have taken the lead in producing such content. The government can and has censored posts, commonly those that express a pro-North Korean message.
Union journalists working for FBS, MBC and YBC have been on a 440-day strike to protest the suspected political leanings of the companies’ CEOs. Supporters have organized and expressed their views via social media.
Myung also noted that the presidential election will be an indicator of which type of media — either social media or traditional media — will have the most power.
These activists conveyed that, despite censorship in their countries, there are ways around impediments to a free press and to the truth.
— Reporting by David Cawthon, Missouri School of Journalism