New media and networked communications environments

I received advance notice of what looks like an interesting meeting organised by International Media Support in Denmark that will be held on 15 and 16 September 2008 on the opportunities and threats presented by new media and networked communications environments for press freedom and democratization.

As the IMS PR notes,

This event will bring together civil society groups and new media industry innovators, with panelists including Linus Thorvaldsen creator of Linux,  Jussi Impiö from Nokia Research and others.

The first day will be an ‘expo’ of new media and technological developments with relevance for press freedom and media development advocates, particularly those working in countries affected by conflict and press freedom repression – organized by the Kaospilots (www.kaospilots.dk).

This will include hands-on presentations on areas such as secure web-based and mobile communications‘guerilla’ broadcastinghidden audio-visual recordingsafeguarding and defending websites, and more.

The second day will be debate-style discussions based around three themes, these being:

  • Changing the way media operate
  • Building the capacity of press freedom and civil society groups
  • Deepening democracy

I’ve been associated with IMS since its establishment in 2001. In fact, one of their first projects was in Sri Lanka – a mapping exercise and comprehensive report of the media landscape in the North and East of Sri Lanka in 2003 and we’ve also done a Conflict Sensitive Journalism handbook, conducted a post-CFA media assessment and most recently, conducted citizen journalism work in Sri Lanka with their support.

The background document accompanying the conference announcement was clearly aimed at stimulating some discussion. There’s a yes / no format to key questions posed in the document that while serving well as an instigator of discussions, doesn’t mirror the realities of new media and traditional media landscapes. Traditional media isn’t going to die anytime soon. New media and citizen journalism have their own problems. What we consider media and the distinction(s) between the traditional and the new today will blur into insignificance tomorrow.

For example, the IMS conference background note avers that “the sheer amount of information available prompts many to look only at sites that support their own opinions, resulting tin the polarisation of public opinion and the fragmentation of the public sphere”. If you ask me, the public sphere is pretty fragmented in a country like Sri Lanka and new media and its long tail actually serves as a bridge between those who hitherto only had access to, or by choice only consumed, one side of the story.

The background note also mentions that “Communications technologies themselves do not have the capacity to make political systems more democratic or to change historically embedded formal and informal political institutions”. Of course they don’t per se. But the USE of communications technologies by citizens does. While it’s true that governments such as the UK are increasingly invasive and anal retentive in their approach to and understanding of new media use, it’s also the case that in many countries around the worldeven with repressive regimes – new media / citizen jouranlism and mobiles are changing the dynamics of polity and society.

These are vital discussions I hope the conference will encourage. There are no broad generalisations possible, but I hope the conference underscores that the potential of these new technologies to support and strengthen democracy and peace very much comes from the encouragement of their use by civil society committed to both.

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