December 15, 2008

Bloggers at the Forefront of the First Amendment and Democracy?

As much as some in the public and in traditional TV, print, and radio media are wary of bloggers, a San Francisco Chronicle report shows how bloggers are playing a vital role in disseminating information and upholding the democratic ideals of free speech in such developing, authoritarian-ruled nations like Vietnam.

The Chronicle report calls bloggers in Vietnam the “new rebels” :

With fast, free wireless Internet now available at cybercafes and universities across Vietnam, bloggers are increasingly challenging censorship and the ruling Communist Party. These bloggers are known for their “strong anti-government views, and they post events that don't appear in the sanitized state media”

The Chronicle further reports that “Until 2007, political dissent was almost nonexistent in Vietnam, aside from the 2003 government-authorized protest against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But bloggers and unregistered news Web sites have angered state officials by discussing AIDS, drugs and sex - and, most importantly, for criticizing the government.”

Some of the bloggers are losing their press credentials or even facing jail time.

Why am I bothering to discuss the challenges faced by bloggers in a far-away place like Vietnam. What do their challenges and achievements have to do with democracy and free speech in America and with local Bay Area metrobloggers like me?

1) C.W. Nevius, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, recently upset East Bay metrobloggers, including the honorable Mayor of Claycord, for remarks that seemed to dismiss the role that bloggers play in covering their local communities, as opposed to the more "professional" coverage provided by traditional print media, such as the Chronicle, the Contra Costa Times, and local TV and radio news broadcasts. He was speaking on a CBS5 report that was initiated by a discussion I started, asking whether struggling newspapers, like the Contra Costa Times, were going to cut costs by outsourcing much of their work, including reporting, writing, and editing, to journalists overseas.

2) This report on Vietnam intrigued me because I witnessed, first hand, the exhilarating and liberating role that emerging technology can play in promulgating free speech, thought, and action in another Asian nation, Thailand.

I lived in Thailand for three years in the late '80s and early '90s. Probably just a few of you have paid attention to the political turmoil that has been gripping Thailand over the past year. This crisis merits a lot more attention that you would think. To me, the fact that Thailand has unraveled to the extent that is has reminds me of the proverbial "canary in the coal mine," the sign that things in the world are really spinning out of control.

You see, although Thailand has experienced its share of corruption and thuggish military control for decades, it has also managed to be a generally peaceful, thriving Asian “tiger.” In the past, it would deal with the inconveniences of corruption and thuggish military in a pragmatic, polite, easy-going Thai way. But over the past six months, it descended into chaos, with mass protests and opponents of an ousted and allegedly corrupt prime minister occupying the offices of Parliament and Bangkok’s two airports, bringing the country’s government and economy to a standstill. (The crisis may have ended today, with the election of a new prime minister--the third in four months.)

Thailand also erupted into violent turmoil 16 years ago, when I was living in Bangkok and writing and editing for The Nation, one of two Bangkok-based English-language daily newspapers. That crisis was not as sustained as what had been going on in Thailand up until recently. Without boring you with too many details, what happened was that in May 1992 the military opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators who were protesting decades of military domination in Thai politics. Scores of people were killed. During that crisis, I saw a dramatic illustration of democracy and free speech in action. In an old-fashioned, misguided move, the Thai military seized control of the government-owned TV stations, and broadcast either silly entertainment or their highly sanitized version of what was going on in the streets of Bangkok. The military also shut down the offices of local Thai-language newspapers and the other English-language daily.

But much to the military’s dismay, they didn’t manage to stop the truth from leaking out to ordinary Thais and to the rest of the world.

This truth was reported by the English language daily, The Nation, at which I worked. It happens that the military didn’t manage to seize control of the Nation’s offices, mostly likely because the newspaper had recently relocated to an office building outside of central Bangkok. Also, the military couldn’t stop reporters, photographers, and videographers from the New York Times, the Associated Press, CNN, BBC, and other international media outlets from broadcasting news and images of the crackdown across the globe. Thailand’s emerging middle and educated classes also had satellite hook-ups at their homes and access to these broadcasts, which they recorded on videotapes and shared with others. Also, pro-democracy protestors used fax machines, the cool new technology in this pre-cell-phone era, to send messages to the public and to supporters, telling them what was going on and when, where, and how they would stage their demonstrations.

I do see some parallels between these pro-democracy demonstrators in Thailand in 1992, the bloggers in a repressive society like Vietnam, and bloggers in a supposedly free-speech society like America's. In the United States, we don’t have government control of our media, but our media is controlled by media conglomerates, corporations, and bottom-line entrepreneurs, who understandably need to attract advertising dollars to stay in business, but also, sometimes, to vastly enrich the guys at the very top of their organizations. Having been employed by “traditional media,” I have also worked for editors who have sometimes have a narrow or conservative (as in, not risky) definition of what news is, and I question whether they want to address the things their readers really care about. In fact, some editors shy away from issues that that will cause too much controversy. They are busy, overworked people, and they don’t need the additional headaches.

So, as local print organizations retreat into their zones of safe, “objective,” and not terribly risky, passionate reporting, especially in these very challenging economic times, local bloggers are using the new and popular technology of the Internet and blogging to fill in the gaps, for better and for worse. They live in their communities, they care about them, and they are talking to their friends and neighbors about what issues keep them up at night. These local bloggers are also doing it as a labor of love. As far as I know, most aren’t getting paid anything for all the hours they put in.

But they do it anyway. And even though they don’t face political persecution or jail time for expressing their views, like the bloggers in Vietnam, many are, in their own way, getting feisty and putting in the time and energy to uphold what the Fourth Estate should be about in a free and democratic society.

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