“Super Media Power” was the title of one of my assignment at the Ateneo de Manila University. I found it quite useful, probably, for me to keep as a reference.
Name : Shita Laksmi
Topic : The Information Revolution and Power
Date of submitted : March, 21 2004
Number of words : 2641 words
Super Media Power
Information is crucial right now; since most of power relies on information. Joseph Nye said in his “Soft Power and in the Information Age” article that there are changing indices of power over the centuries. He said that in the 18th century, the international balance of power rested on territory, population and agriculture, because this provided the basis for infantry, a crucial power resource. If you look at the 19th century, industrial capacity provided the crucial resources that enabled first Britain and Germany to gain dominance. By the mid 20th, science and especially nuclear physics contributed the crucial power resources to US and Soviet and in the 21st century, information technology, broadly defined is likely to be the most crucial power resource.1
Information technology certainly needs information to be filled in and in that way, production of information than become more and more important. This is when Nye concept, related to the concept of ‘paradox of plenty’ and the role of media. Nye cited that a plenitude of information leads to poverty of attention. Attention becomes the scarce resource, and those who can distinguish valuable signals from white noise gain power2. I interpret that media in Nye’s concept is functioning as a place of ‘constructing reality’3 of events which happen in public. This constructing reality role leads media to have the power –among abundant information– of deciding what’s best or worst; deciding what’s right and wrong or what’s good and bad for public. If we relate that ability to the political processes, we could see that media with its power to ‘construct reality’ could significantly influence political process.
And as influential role growing stronger, media then turn out to be a super power pressure.
I also want to connect this concept with one of the seven laws that Altschull has cited that ‘in all press system, the news media are agents of those who exercise political and economic power. Newspaper, magazine and broadcasting outlets thus are not independent actors, although they have potential to exercise independent power’.4
Altschull concept shows that media is not independent power though media has the ability to exercise it. Media in many ways is agent of power and at some point, media could be interpreted as an agent of its own super power. As agent of power, media could also be used as a ‘proxy’ system for conflicting party not only for bad purposes but also for good purposes.
In this paper I will use either one or both concepts as a tool for me to analyze cases which I will present in the next section.
In this section, I will collect cases that show media could help shaping political processes which in some of the cases, are using information technology. I have to emphasis first that when I talk about information technology; it is in the broad defined term, not only about Internet but also other devices, such as: radio or television, depend on the cases. What I want to stress here is that media, in any form, with its capacity in ‘reporting, editing and packaging’ could influence the political processes.
The cases I want to bring come from Asia and Europe. Each case has its own pattern, but there are certain patterns which existed in those cases because they are similar cases.
First example is radio B92 in Beograd, Serbia. B92 is an alternative radio which tried to provide alternative source of news and also music to the people in Beograd whom at that time are living under embargo. B92 started from campus radio and tried to air alternative music –something that is very rare– at that time. B92 was also one of the channels for Milosevic opposition because during those years, government really controlled what is written and aired in the media.
Along those dark years and many incidents happened in Beograd but I found one case that shows this radio has played as a forum for people and tried to provide legitimate information and how it could maximize Internet as an advocacy tool.
It started when coalition of opposition parties formed Zajedno5 and won election in November 1996. Serbian people were very excited and felt that they soon will get freedom. Excitement of people was everywhere, people on the streets greeting each other to disseminate this great news.
But then Milosevic government boycotted election result by saying: the result was not legitimate.
People were angry and simultaneously, together went to street, to protest Milosevic. The demonstration took more than seven days. At that time, B92 radio has worked itself as a medium for people and tried to reach wider audience — not only urban libertarian people. B92 had tried to give news on what’s happening and become close with opposition. This, of course, had made government angry and they closed this radio –for the second time— on December 3, 1996.
B92 tried other way. Through Internet, B92 published online newsletter about what happened in Serbia, sent it outside the country and got published by BBC and Voice of America.
Then the closing down of B92 case has became international issue. News were keep flowing through Internet and within only 50 hours, with international pressure and people power, B92 got its license back. That was a significant drawback for Milosevic.
Milosevic received a lot of protest along with increasing number of audience for B92. Milosevic then put his grip tighter, especially in mass media issue and impact to the rising role of B92 as a place for alternative voice and also opposition news.6
What interesting in this happening was how B92 could be a channel for people in Beograd in the term of ‘giving voice to the voiceless’ and how this radio could package information on opposition parties in a very legitimate way, to influence the political process in Serbia. It is interesting that this radio is credible enough to show what good or bad for public and how it could influence public choices.
The other thing that showed in here is that Internet with its borderless nature could be used in its maximum power to bring together all international pressures on this issue and within 50 hours, it could bring B92 license back and certainly made Milosevic ashamed.
Though China has an authoritative government, but Internet use is growing rapidly. At first, Chinese Internet outfits were largely portals that provided news and other information. Now, it moves to e-commerce, online action, net gaming and mobile-phone service.7 Along with the growing success, Business Week magazine even estimates that China will soon be No.1 in number of Web users8.
To see the growth of information revolution in China, Li Xiguang –a professor from Center for International Communications Studies, Tsinghua University, China– cited that in 2001 website in China reached 242,739 websites. These include news sites, professional information sites, corporate sites, institutional sites and personal homepages. More than 26.5 million Chinese Internet users, operating 10.2 million computers, spend at least one hour a day at web pages. Nearly 63.5% use the Internet to read news.9
Xiguang explained that government has difficulties in regulating the web because at that time, there was no regulation on Internet. This means, people have freedom of action for using chat rooms as their discussion place and information sources.
Xiguang also mentioned that ‘people’s attitudes are being shaped by information from chat rooms rather than from the official media.’
But that freedom did not live long. Government still blocked sites which they think endanger them and built several restriction regulations. One of it is a regulation called: ‘Measures of the Administration of Business Sites of Internet Access Services’10. The ‘Measure’ prohibited Internet cafes from allowing patrons to access politically opposed content; required proprietors to obtain proper licensing and prevented unaccompanied minors under age of fourteen from entering.11
Under this regulation (and other draconian regulations), does Information still play as significant power?
Let’s take an example of Severe Acute and Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) phenomena in China. The first case was found in Guangdong province, November 2002. Though after that time the virus started to attack Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore and Canada, Chinese people do not really knows about SARS and how to cure it. At the beginning of the virus attack, media told public ‘not to panic’ because the chance of getting SARS was very small. 12
At the time when SARS virus got worse, in early April 2003, Jiang Yanyong, a 72 years doctor, signed statement to Time, said that the number of SARS cases in Beijing was significantly higher than what China’s Ministry of Health, Zhang Wenkang, stated. Zhang announced that China’s capital had seen just 12 cases of SARS of whom three had died. Jiang wrote to Time that ‘at one Beijing hospital alone, 60 SARS patients have been admitted of whom seven have died’.13 The doctor told Time that he wrote the statement because he feels that ‘a failure to disclose accurate statistic about the illness will only lead to more details’.14
Time posted Jiang Letter on April 8, 2003 and over the next two weeks, Jiang’s revelations would radically alter the way the world and then the Chinese government responded to the illness. The World Health Organization raised Jiang’s allegations with Chinese leaders and issued a travel advisory warning for foreigners not to go to certain parts of China. Other doctors at Beijing’s hospitals came forward (though on condition of anonymity) to corroborate and elaborate the details of Jiang’s letter, and later to describe how SARS patients had been deliberately hidden from WHO inspectors. On April 20, Beijing dramatically raised its official count of cases from 37 to 339, and fired both Health Minister Zhang and the mayor of Beijing. The next day, it began a massive campaign to alert the nation to the dangers of the illness and launched a system of monitoring and prevention that would ultimately succeed in ending human transmission of SARS.15
It shows that carefully packaged information along with the right chosen medium –in this case, Internet– did gave a significant help for political changing in China, up to China’s decision to fire health minister and mayor of Beijing. Jiang’s letter has triggered discussions, debates and political discussion within China, and international world.
If we looked with Nye’s statement that only those who credible could become a noteworthy source of ‘soft power’ then we see that Time Asia is a credible medium and supported by correct technology. With Internet, this information suddenly turn out to be an international issue and has to be acted –politically—correct.
The next example is what happened in Indonesia in year 1998. I have mentioned this case for previous assignment but I think I need to bring it up again. My main reference for this case is an article written by Jeffrey A. Winters titled ‘Political Impact of Source and Information Technology in Indonesia’16.
It started from the media trends in the process of Soeharto fall. Beyond expert prediction, press, in particular mainstream media, became so free and brave against Soeharto government and really support student movement. Changing of character also happened in television station –even televisions which are owned by Soeharto’s family. A foreign journalist called it ‘a fascinating chapter in Indonesia’s media history’.17
What most interesting trend at that moment –after Soeharto closed down Tempo, Detik and Editor magazines in 1994– was the raising of information which came from Internet; in particular: apakabar listserv and Joyo News Service.
Apakabar listserv was first introduced by Dr. John A. MacDougall. It is a website, which produces regular news and distributed trough routine e-mail. In year 1998, Douglass delegated Apakabar to his Indonesian friend. Apakabar then became one of the main resources for journalists, activists, academicians and international public to update their info.
Joyo News Service got its momentum during the dark time of Soeharto. Joyo, which uses English language, turned into main reference for journalists and got accessed by hundreds of Non Government Organizations, students, most of international journalists, even International monetary body; such as IMF.
At first, Joyo News Service was meant to be accessed by restricted people. But as the changing of political situation, some members of Joyo News forward their email to their friends and as the snowball effect, people outside Joyo News interested to join. Since Joyo News used an English language, then it became the main reference for international journalists.
Information from Apakabar and Joyo News, at that time, was really a supporting system for students, politician and expert.
For me, what attention-grabbing in this event is, even up to when all mainstream media have become free of interference (or at least feeling free); –news from Internet– is still legitimate to look, to up dated information. Plus, with strategic target audience, the Internet certainly bring an impact to political process in Indonesia.
An added value to this phenomenon is that, the medium allows people to interact, discuss and debate on many issues, something they will not get from traditional medium.
What happened in Serbia and Indonesia have the similar pattern. As countries which still fight for its dependence against authoritarian regime, the main source for public come from alternative media or we could say, media which do not get blessed from government. In Indonesia case, this alternative news also influenced mainstream media18.
In Indonesia, Soeharto regime was taken for granted of the Internet power. They think with his ownership over television and his draconian law on printed media, could prevent media to act against him. This time, he was wrong.
One observable pattern in Indonesia, Serbia and China cases, it started with one significant moment; or an accumulative failure from authoritative regime. In Indonesia, it started with economic crisis and to rise up with the death of students which caused riots and chaos in May 1998. Alternative media combined with mainstream media was like a powerful supporting system for students and opponent party to fight Soeharto regime.
In Serbia, it started with the way authoritative Milosevic regime worked and rose up with his decision, violated election result. In China, it dealt with the most deadly virus which endangers human being.
Media, as a place for constructing reality, in those cases, really enlarge the exist events and eventually, shaping political process. Media also play as an agent of power as a place for political exercise. In B92 case, it showed clearly that opposition parties really use B92 as their place to show what’s good to public. With the access that they have, they construct their own truth and airing it through the radio. Thankfully, it was aim to protest authoritative regime.
One thing that we should be cautious in this information revolution is the trend of convergence among media or merger in media, especially in nations that known as democratic nation.
As we know, putting a lot of responsibilities to specific and concentrated shoulder is not the way democracy works. What happen now –in the idea of free market is the best solution for each problem– has caused a media hegemony. Look to what happen in US (look Robert W. Chesney book). He showed clearly that the free market has lead to concentrated ownership and monopoly. And this phenomenon endangered democracy value.19
So, if this information is being used by un-responsible parties; then we are in a great danger, though, some people might say that at the end, people will choose credible sources as their main reference. But, if the information revolution and its impact to media use for good purpose, then it is ok.
In three cases I have presented, fortunately, this power is used for better purposes.
Joseph Nye, Soft Power in the Information Age, http://www.freemedia.at
3 Gaye Tuchman said that media is not a mirror of what happen to public –like what media experts used to say– one of it is Dennis McQuail. Constructing reality means that media has the ability to construct what happens in public into its own reality. Constructing reality starts from how media build an outline story of its news. This includes: chosen sources; angle of the story and where to put the news.
4 Lecture 1/ Week 2-3, Agents of Power? The President and the Press
5 Zajedno meaning together
6 All the story of B92, I excerpted from: Matthew Collin, Serbia Calling, Kantor Berita 68H, 2003, page 133 – 149
7 Bruce Einhorn, China.Net, Business Week, March 2004 edition
16 Dedy N. Hidayat, et al, Press in May Revolution, PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama, 2000, page 259 – 274
17 Ibid, page 9
18 Apakabar and Joyo News were alternative news that influenced –or at least used as main reference– for mainstream media.
19 Robert W. Chesney, Rich Media Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Time, The New Press, New York 2000