Asians find Internet a good tool to market social cause

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sunday, 18 April 2010
By Dennis D. Estopace / Reporter
Business Mirror (Philippines)

The first Internet service provider (ISP) was from Australia, and currently there are 10 ISPs, but most are foreign-owned. Access is very expensive at $500 a month, Tieng said, adding that only less than 100,000 of the country’s 15 million people have access. “And that access is slow and can be cut off. It takes more than a half-hour to download, and only for e-mail,” Tieng said.

Aside from those in government, Cambodians with access to the Internet are those in universities as teachers or college students, or staff of nongovernment organizations.
JAKARTA—The Asian masses have found a new voice in the Internet, but activists are discovering marketing social and political causes to them isn’t as simple as the technology.

“We don’t know if by escaping the tyranny of the state, we face the tyranny of the market,” Southeast Asian Center for e-Media’s Chandran Premesh said at a forum here on Thursday.

Premesh, an activist-turned-entrepreneur, was referring to his group’s website Malaysiakini.com which, aside from offering “alternative news and views of Malaysians,” promotes “citizen journalism” or the practice of encouraging common folk to provide media content.

He noted that while the web site has been generating revenue from subscription for its English-language content, “the revenue still doesn’t approximate that generated by the print media in Malaysia.”

“We’re hardly earning compared with the payment received by the print and broadcast media,” he said.

Mir Abdul Wahed Hashimi of the group Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan (NAI) describes the current situation as a “media explosion” sweeping not only his country but most countries in Asia and the Pacific.

While Afghanistan only has 5-percent Internet penetration among its 30 million people, NAI’s executive director said that since the technology arrived during a tenuous peace, the country has been enjoying the availability of technology.

“In the past six or eight years, we’ve not been using the technology. Now, we’re using the latest,” Hashimi said.

That latest technology has been embraced by denizens in this part of the world, some of whom lived for decades under tight state control.

China, for example, immediately embraced a celebrity like Aoi Sola, with 14,000 followers on Twitter, according to Ying Chan of the Journalism and Media Studies Center in Hong Kong.

According to Chan, who also teaches journalism at Shantou University in China, the embrace of technology in China is mainly to communicate within and to acquire information from other countries. She cited the case of Twitter user “wenyunchao,” who receives thousands of e-mails requesting for steps on how to climb the firewall Chinese authorities built on the Internet.

“[By doing so], by knowing what others are doing, they feel good about themselves.”

And the Chinese people also have wielded technology to advance what they judge as being right or wrong.

Chan cited as examples a waitress jailed for killing her attackers, a businesswoman who set herself on fire to protest government sequestration of her home, and sending messages by mobile phone to organize a rally. “This is when the virtual gets married in the real world,” Chan said.

Chan’s latest number cites China has 384 million Internet users, nearly 100 percent of whom use broadband (346 million). Some 233 million have mobile phones.

With a population nearing 2 billion, there is still a huge potential in this space, according to Chan.

So, too, in Malaysia, with 35 percent of its 27.7 million people online, according to Seacem’s Premesh, who added that with Internet access from the home at $20 a month or 70 US cents an hour at Internet caf├ęs, activists still have elbowroom to advance their cause.

He said that while Malaysiakini’s revenues are low compared with traditional media, it’s still strong at $1 million.

Premesh said the online news agency’s annual grant of $100,000 is now less than 10 percent of that revenue. Subscription has become its No. 1 earner, he added.

“Advertising is catching. This year, we expect that to replace subscription as revenue source,” he said.

Afghanistan, too, offers potential since fiber-optic technology outlay “may lead to inexpensive access,” says Hashimi.

The challenge, however, is to maximize these potentials in terms of advancing the common cause of these groups, which is the creation and strengthening of free, independent, sustainable and pluralistic media.

However, John Wallace of Australia-based Asia-Pacific Journalism Center said, at the same two-day conference here that began on Thursday, that the same technology tapped by the public also “puts stress on journalists.”

“Some are making mistakes. The problem is doing good journalism [in this environment].”

That environment, for some, is marked with political conflicts. For those who are just coming out of these conflicts, like in Cambodia, the adoption of technology even by nonjournalists has not been as fast as their advancing of their cause.

According to Vichea S. Tieng of the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodians were introduced to the Internet only in 1993 after 18 years of war.

The first Internet service provider (ISP) was from Australia, and currently there are 10 ISPs, but most are foreign-owned. Access is very expensive at $500 a month, Tieng said, adding that only less than 100,000 of the country’s 15 million people have access. “And that access is slow and can be cut off. It takes more than a half-hour to download, and only for e-mail,” Tieng said.

Aside from those in government, Cambodians with access to the Internet are those in universities as teachers or college students, or staff of nongovernment organizations.

Tieng said that because the technology is still based on the English language, it has become difficult for them to leverage even the rudimentary knowledge they have to further their cause.

Tieng and other delegates of the conference here, hence, urged that the Global Forum for Media Development join campaigns to bridge the digital divide in the region.

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