Reading Media in the Mekong Regionby kenneth ( )
BANGKOK -- Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia. What images might these words conjure up in the minds of international consumers of news? Perhaps war, maybe the Khmer Rouge. Or they might say, ‘Oh, it’s that those countries that had that war some time ago. . . they’re near one another, and they’re all the same’.
But ‘all the same’ is exactly what they are not. These perceptions highlight all too well the challenge when it comes to news and information in this part of South-east Asia, whose reportage – and ‘imaging’ -- in international or regional media has often been done through western-defined news menus. The news staples have to do with the standard topics – articles relating to U.S. soldiers Missing in Action, Agent Orange, or the latest Communist Party plenum in Laos or Vietnam. Often, they make it seem like nothing else happens in these countries of the Mekong region.
But putting on a different lens shows that this is the same region where the following news are going on: – Excluding China’s mammoth economy, post-conflict Cambodia is posting the highest GDP growth rates in the region. According to statistics on the ASEAN website, the country’s GDP growth rate was 10.8 percent in 2006, 12 years after the United Nations-sponsored poll that marked the end of decades of violence there. At the same time, China’s dams on the Lancang are upsetting countries in the Mekong region – even if you might not openly see coverage of that in the local press of downstream countries. But the dam habit is not just China’s, because plans for many of them are afoot or underway in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
All these are happening against the backdrop of social and economic change that has been underway in the region for only more than a decade, a period that has seen once-hostile neighbours not only to talk to each other, but open borders. Vietnam and China, for instance, restored diplomatic ties only in 1991 and opened the now-busy Lao Cai crossing the next year, as part of the opening of 21 border passes. Laos opened up to tourists only in 1991.
Border trade is very much up and its economic contribution – whatever the political weather is at the centre – is much more than official figures might show. One cool dawn in May, we were surprised not only by the fact that our bus made it to the Vietnam-Laos border at Cau Treo after a 20-hour journey from Hanoi – but that bursting bundles and bundles of merchandise were already waiting to be brought past the crossing.
In many ways, this part of South-east Asia is a laboratory where countries of different political and economic stripes juggle several processes at the same time, processes that other countries in the west or perhaps even others in Asia, probably went through much more slowly. Over a span of 15 years or so, but a blink in historical time, many of the Mekong countries have moved from hostility to dialogue, as it has often been said by officials of the Asian Development Bank that launched its ‘Greater Mekong Subregion’ programme in 1992. Several countries have been moving from being centrally planned economies to more free-market ones, grappling with the benefits and downside of globalisation and more open borders.
The Mekong Region is also, in a sense, going back to the past, through new transboundary projects that connect places already linked in the past. Thus, it is both a ‘young’ region – we did not always even refer to the ‘Mekong region’ before – but also an old one. (Reading John Keay’s book ‘Mad About the Mekong’, where he retraces the route of a French expedition (1866-88) that went up from up from delta Vietnam in search of access to China, was a reminder of the region’s coloured past.)
What does this all have to do with media?
If media are a reflection of what society is concerned about, then there are, from the above, a whole array of rich stories that is being played out. But not all of these are being explored due to a mix of factors, among which are the lack of opportunities to specialise on reporting in the region, the western media’s large footprint in shaping international reportage of this region, the lack of skills of a growing media in some cases, varying media cultures, the difficulty in separating media from state interests (which can lead to Lao media being wary of carrying reports that could ‘offend’ China or Vietnam – the bigger powers it has historically been caught between -- or a Cambodian TV station deciding against the airing of a documentary that it believes neighbouring Vietnam would see as critical of it), as well as the limitations on media in several countries.
Few publications in the Mekong countries have staff that consistently follow issues of concern to the region, which would be an investment in building knowledge and expertise in regional issues, and going beyond stories traditionally defined only by the lenses of national interest and attention. Many do not have budgets to send their own reporters to, say, conferences among Mekong country officials – or even the ASEAN meetings, for instance, where the need for coverage of the stakes of the second-tier countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are crystal clear. One editor of a Saigon-based publication said: “Mekong? We only cover the Mekong when it’s flood season, you know, when the river’s water rises.”
How the media story plays out against the backdrop of a rapidly integrating and opening Mekong region is among its biggest unfolding stories. How will the process of economic and social openness, underway over the last decade and a half, shape the Mekong media environment?
There is a tendency by many to write off the media in socialist countries – some quarters go as far as saying the capacity of their journalists are not ‘worth’ developing -- because of the state’s high-profile role in the media environment. But if we look close enough, change is underway.
In countries like Laos and China, the impetus of economic survival, at a time when state funds going to me media outfits have been downsized, has given advertisements, market revenues and readers’ feedback a much more influential voice in determining how newspapers and magazines shape content.
In Laos today, private media companies can produce TV programmes and own television channels, allowing at least for more varied and interesting offers.
In other words, the same old boring stuff are no longer enough to keep publications going, especially when state subsidies are not as liberal as before.
Journalists in Laos and China point out that the biggest questions for media today involve the irony in how market forces, usually in the form of advertisement revenues, have pried open more space and diversity for reporting, but have also allowed news relating to entertainment, consumerism and frivolity to become dominant.
Against this backdrop, journalists welcome more creative room, but worry about the decline of serious reporting and the lack of standards in sensitivity and ethnics, for instance around non-disclosure of identities and faces of people living with HIV/AIDS or child victims. There may be more space, but not so much for criticism or political analyses as for pictures of sexy women peddling products. “More market forces mean new magazines, but they’re just about tourism, commercial things - that’s where the space went,” rued one Lao reporter.
The Internet and its possibilities are the other arena of change. Sometimes, the examples of these are of the type seen in the citizen reporting after the military crackdown in the monk-led protests of September 2007 in Burma. In places like China, the change Internet has ushered in over the decades has been no less than transformational, although this may be less obvious to non-Chinese speakers.
One count has it that from 42 newspapers (virtually all Communist Party papers) in 1968, there are now more than 2,200 newspapers and 9,000 magazines in China. The circulation of the once all-present ‘People’s Daily’ has fallen drastically in the decades after economic reforms, and is now subscribed to mainly by government offices. Given the biggest benefit of this change – the diversity of media choices -- consumers will make their choices.
Looking back over the last decade, one Chinese journalist recalled how many new television channels and citizen newspapers have gotten rid of government funds and rely instead on advertisement revenues. Said another: “Because of China's bad media environment, the public found a new way to express their ideas and feelings -- speaking on the Internet. Websites now put heavy pressure on the gov’t opinion and impose heavy pressure on the (Communist Party) and the gov’t.”
At a regional media conference in Bangkok in January, organised by the East-West Centre, ‘China Youth Daily’ editor Li Datong shared with his audience the results of a small survey done by southern Chinese newspaper that showed that media organisations wanted a media law and to be able to be publicly listed – indeed, a sign of the changing times.
“There’s control everywhere in the world, but the point is you manage to get you voice heard in China nowadays,” opined a writer.
So, column inches continue to be – and should continue to be – given to news reports of countries like China and Vietnam clamping down on journalists. But the nuanced shifts underway in the Mekong region are equally important and no less real parts of the whole media picture there, even if these may not fit the ‘usual’ formula of the ‘usual’ news read in international media. The media in the Mekong region are by no means ‘all the same’.