I got a bit of a reality check at a GIMD journalism conference I attended recently, in several ways.
The conference’s scope included ethics, minorities and reporting in conflict zones. I spoke, briefly, about how the internet is profoundly changing the delivery of news, how people find and keep up to date with news, who gathers news and how.
Among other things, I touched on how much information is available online, how we can download Google Earth for free, check out Wikipedia (and contribute to it), ask questions of Yahoo Answers and Google, get news alerts from Twitter, blogs, Facebook, RSS feeds and email, how free blogs and cheap mobile phones seriously lower the entry barrier to publishing. And how news companies, faced with declining audiences, have little option but to jump into this new reality.
I acknowledged how poor infrastructure and censored internet access limit this explosion of new communication pathways in many countries. But I was grateful to have a few more home truths illuminated for me.
For a start, an Eastern European journalist made a point of taking me aside and saying, in essence: ‘You know, all those RSS feeds are fine, but they’re not much use if you only speak, say, Slovenian. In my country I can count on two hands the number of RSS feeds in my language that are worth subscribing to.’
I can’t help but think that an explosion of output from individuals in such countries will only be a matter of time – as the price of entry falls (cheap desktop computers and mobile phones) and connectivity increases with the spread of broadband infrastructure. But it’s a fair point.
It was sobering to hear people talk about having their lives threatened, of having sources imprisoned for talking to them, and learning that 172 journalists and media staff died in the course of their work last year, according to the International Federation of Journalists (report has moved).
On the upside I heard about a family under house arrest who used a smuggled mobile phone and Twitter to keep in touch with the outside world. And I met someone who works with a group that excels at hiding internet connections from snooping oppressors.
I learned that in parts of rural China the availability of cheap mobile phones with cheap data plans is combining with growing use of wi-max to bring connectivity to communities who might otherwise have waited their lifetime for hard-wired infrastructure to reach them.
While I was there I read about an environmental protest in Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, that had been organised through blogs, websites and text messages. The protesters ‘walked peacefully’ through the city to ‘criticise the building of an ethylene plant and oil refinery in Pengzhou, a few minutes’ drive outside the city.’
The earthquake now dominating news headlines struck Sichuan a few days later.
Later I read about an initiative started on Facebook in Egypt (where only 8pc of the population have internet access), which its young organisers had hoped would launch a passive protest but which waned as group members lost interest, confidence or heart. Later, some told of seizures and beatings received because of their involvement.
It’s an uneven world.