Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Going Global, Media-Wise

Last week I wrapped up a course I taught on international media systems. It opened up a real world of learning for me and my students here are Georgia Southern University.

Yes, noticeably, "global thinking" is back in the American scene, particularly after 9/11. Americans are increasingly thrust into international affairs—not only to explore others but also, in that process, to know more about themselves. As the Harvard professor of Public Policy Robert Putnam put it, Americans are more public-spirited than in recent memory.

The timing of the media course could not have been more perfect. Just as we discussed in early August the theory of globalization, its boons and sins, washingtonpost.com, for instance, published "e-Qaeda," a special report on how Islamic terrorists turn to the Web as a base of operations. The real world became an open classroom, and we got to watch and critique live developments in the field, including why the world's news media covered the Katrina Crisis in New Orleans the way they did.

Two pivotal world events in international communication served as the vortices for our course. Students followed the Global Forum for Media Development, held in October, 2005 in Amman of Jordan as well as the World Summit for Information Society, held a month later in Tunis of Tunisia. They watched live proceedings via webcasts, and they discussed the validity and relevance of Western media hegemony and cultural imperialism, and correspondingly, digital divide, and third world dependency—in short, the world's inequalities in wealth and power.

The two summits, attended by government leaders, professionals and non-governmental organizations, endeavored to refocus world attention on media interdependence and communication justice. The GMDF called an end to governmental repression of independent media initiatives in many Third World countries, as well as raised the issue of media access. Despite the hype of "information" and "cyber" age, less than 15.2 percent of the world's population today has access to the Internet. And more than half of the Internet users are from Europe and America.

In fact, in what became a centerpiece of that event in Tunis, a much-anticipated $100 laptop for the world's poor was launched. Who would finance the mass production of that computer is altogether a different question.

While theories, including the recent ones such as globalization and information society, served as scaffolds, students drew mainly on lived realities. They added on the Tunis summit, which raised one of the outstanding questions of our generation: Who should control the Internet? Or should any one at all? Most students held a democratic attitude, as did the majority of the delegates: the average user. Internationalizing Internet legislation, although ideal, would not work due to politicking and bureaucratic hassles, they reasoned.

Temporarily, for pragmatic reasons, the United States, the inventor of the technology, should continue the oversight of the Internet, some argued.

There were at least two more projects that transported my students to the global sphere. On a weblog created specially for the course, they blogged live on "anything media" and they also adopted a country for an in-depth case study.

In deed, the world became a "global village," the Internet, an explorer's trail, and students traversed flexibly between territories, media formats and paradigms. Some treaded "hostile" territories of, say, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's Iran, Fidel Castro's Cuba, Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, etc. They also made stopovers in "friendlier" terrains, such as Silvio Berlusconi's Italy, Vladimir Putin's Russia, King Abdullah's Saudi Arabia, Hosni Mubarak's Egypt and Vincente Fox's Mexico.

Others surveyed the burgeoning empire of the Australian-borne media baron Rupert Murdoch, dissected his US-based conservative news channel FOX vis-à-vis CNN, and flirted with Japanese Pokemons and Digimons. Yet others gasped at the Internet censorship in China, reviled Nepal's King Gyanendra's repressive media ordinance, debated news coverage by the Pan-Arab TV channel Al Jazeera, and its pan-Latin American counterpart Telesur, a brainchild of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who also runs his own weekly four-hour show on that channel.

Students discovered that increasingly, media institutions and processes have become transnational, both in degree and substance. What shocked many, though, to my surprise, was the fact that American TNCs, including AOL Time Warner, the Walt Disney Company, Bertelsmann AG , Viacom, etc, monopolized world markets and in some cases, they were more powerful than their host countries' governments.

"I always thought we displayed military power over other countries. It's appalling to know that we also do exercise cultural power over others via our media," wrote one student. "Are we promoting free markets or dependency?"

But students soon learnt that globalization was no longer unidirectional. The large TNCs increasingly faced regional competitors. For instance, experts predict that China's alibaba.com may throw Google out of Asia in no time.

"There is a whole new world out there," wrote another student. "We must appreciate other cultures. We must promote and support ethnic media systems, such as TV Azteca in South America." In other words, democratize globalization for a level playing field.

The students displayed a level of innocence as well as maturity that is lacking in the politically polarized media debates. The United States must lead the world in a dialogue toward a more just, global media system, another student argued: "We can use the United Nations constructively." To protest media control in the Third World, the United States had pulled out of UNESCO's world communication commission in 1984.

By far, the most recurrent theme was media freedom. Students were appalled by government repression of media in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Even as the Tunisian President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali hosted the WSIS, he was harassing and intimidating journalists.

But my students were also not blind to contradictions within democratic governments like their own. One student thanked Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, "for talking our 'leader' out of such destructive plan to bomb Al-Jazeera." He was referring to a recent report in the British media to that effect.

There were skeptics, too, who thought a common ground, though desirable, was never possible because of partisan ideologies and narrow national interests. And it also meant that other countries did not have to copy the U.S. media model, based on individual freedoms and the free markets.

Others sounded very optimistic. One student observed: "Never before have countries been more involved with each other than now. With time comes changes, and eventually the world will evolve into a large melting pot of culture and race." He added: "Ultimately, media will evolve just as the human civilization has in the last 50,000 years."

"I try to see my own culture from the point of view of others and now I am more curious about other countries and their media systems,” another concluded.

And I would add: Yes, the choice is ours. We can be either media-wise, or media- dumb.

Reflections on Teaching International Media Systems at Georgia Southern.