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Journalism and democracy (and development)

12 June 2011

The phrases “development journalism” and “Asian values” come up often when we study the practices and institutions of journalism in Southeast Asia. I found two chapters in the book Journalism and Democracy in Asia to be very helpful. The edited volume (Angela Romano and Michael Bromley, Eds.) was published by Routledge in 2005.

“Between dictatorship and democracy: State affiliated news media in Indonesia,” by Angela Romano and Blythe Seinor (pages 108-122), provides an original and well-researched examination of Antara, the Indonesian news agency. Unlike national news agencies in other countries, it is neither wholly controlled by the government nor fully free from government control. The agency was certainly the government’s mouthpiece under Suharto, but after 1998 things changed somewhat. President Habibie appointed his friend Parni Hadi to run the agency; Hadi “established a union-style body for Antara staff” (p. 116). This gave the news workers of Antara “greater rights to affiliate and organize than almost any other news organization in Indonesia” (p. 121).

The article states that most of Antara’s revenues come from the distribution of foreign news. The products of foreign news organizations may be disseminated only “through the intermediary of” Antara (p. 118). This amounts to a monopoly on the distribution of reports from foreign news agencies to all other news outlets in Indonesia.

The other chapter in this book that I found very useful is “Asian journalism: News, development and the tides of liberalization and technology,” by Angela Romano (pages 1-14). This is an excellent — and I do mean excellent — summary of the literature about development journalism in all its variants, with a specific focus on Asia.

Romano summarizes the major currents of development journalism, under which journalists have been cast in the roles of:

  • Nation builders
  • Government partners (or chained lapdogs, I would say)
  • Agents of empowerment
  • Watchdogs
  • Guardians of transparency

She notes that the ideology of “Asian values,” which grew in force from the late 1980s through the 1990s, lost much of its power during and after the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998. Romano quotes Thai newspaper editor Suthichi Yoon saying that Asian values were used “as the new excuse for government to tell journalists not to publish a story because it could threaten our values” (p. 8). In the past, it was the so-called communist threat that governments used to justify their censorship of the press. In various Asian countries even today, the rationale for censorship is racial harmony — raising the specter of racial violence as the necessary consequence of honesty and openness in reporting about particular issues.

This chapter by Romano is ideal reading for anyone who is studying journalism in Southeast Asia.

Other chapters in this book look at journalism in Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan.

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