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A New Media Model for the Developing World?

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

Since the last post about Wikileaks on this blog, the site has drawn the world's attention with its release of nearly 100,000 classified military documents from the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Commentators have lined up on multiple sides, alternatively praising the site for its commitment to open information, condemning its disregard for troop security, or bemoaning the lack of explanatory discourse surrounding the data. Andrew Exum, who served in Afghanistan, criticizes the site's fusion of activism and journalism, while my friend Jeremy Wagstaff thinks that it both shows up the traditional media and points the way toward a fundamental re-imagining of journalism itself.

Let's leave for a moment the debate about Wikileaks' actions and consider its role in a broader, governance and development-related context: how applicable is the Wikileaks "model" to developing countries where the media sector is only marginally functional? In other words, can this type of unadulterated-information-dissemination model allow those countries to bypass the long and often arduous institution-building process of developing a free and open media (enabling legislation, mature advertising markets, professional journalists and editors, etc)? The idea is alluring, particularly given the fact that the traditional media model is failing in many countries, while barriers to entry in the new information space have never been lower.

My own guess is that while this may to some extent already be happening, a commitment to good governance still requires some form of media institution-building. For one thing, enabling legislation ensures that such outlets both operate within the law and are shielded from retribution and/or pressure by the government and other powerful interests. For another, raw data still requires interpretation and analysis by trusted information intermediaries, whether this be traditional journalists and media outlets, reputable bloggers, or others. In the absence of trusted and objective analysis, data is ripe for manipulation; this, in turn, may engender either extreme polarization or a wary, information-overloaded public that simply tunes out politics and opts out of the processes that govern their lives.

This is by no means meant to be a show of support for the "we're not ready for full freedom of information; it takes time to get people used to/ready for such things" argument so frequently deployed by authoritarian governments bent on retaining control of information. For me, it just means that the Wikileaks phenomenon deserves careful consideration, particularly in the context of the public sphere and quality of governance in developing countries.


Photo Credit: Fräulein Schiller (On Flickr)


Good, thoughtful piece Shanthi. I think there's a misperception abroad that Wikileaks is a sort of clearing house of data. They actually add considerable value to the data that they do put out. There's a clear filtering and value-adding process involved, whether or not one agrees with what they eventually come up with, or the preconceptions that they start from. Hence my criticism of conventional media (and others) who underestimate both Wikileaks and the sophistication of crowdsourcing techniques. Journalists still believe they're at the intersection of informational value, and that they somehow own that space. It's no longer true, unfortunately. But it feeds into the other misperception: that what we're seeing is something that needs to be institutionally enshrined, in the way that journalism relied on laws of freedom of information and speech in order to function. Wikileaks operates outside these traditions. It really is outside the state. So it makes no difference whether there are laws either to protect or constrain. It's not that Wikileaks might not be shut down, or its most visible figures challenged in court. It's that a need, a market, has arisen for individuals who feel the need to unburden their organisations and themselves of information that they feel, rightly or wrongly, should be in the public domain. That Wikileaks is able to convince people that they can do this relatively safely is in itself a feat. That they're then able to assemble a team to turn that data into something useful and valuable to traditional media (and by extension the public) is an extra layer of achievement we'll look back on as the dawning of a new age. And not one, sadly, that reflects particularly well on our (former or present) profession. Jeremy

Submitted by Mauricio on
Dear SHANTHI KALATHIL, Wikileaks and any organization that really wants to stop wars using transparency and facts should be supported. So, the main point is: "It just means that the Wikileaks phenomenon deserves careful consideration, particularly in the context of the public sphere and quality of governance in all countries. Take care and keep yourself honest. Mauricio Avendaño

Submitted by Sanjukta Roy on
Considering that propagation via the new media happens faster than the speed of light and the methods are developing faster than ever, it indeed is very important to see how responsibly the information is interpreted and dealt with. As you rightly said, it on one hand brings the public and private authorities to task but also unleashes extreme reactions on a global scale that can have implications for domestic and international policies. I think that this however is a good thing. This should also be an inspiration for donor agencies to streamline funds to ensure good governance and proper media development in developing countries, even more. In fact considering (again) that the new media grows really fast, the development of the media sector should actually become a priority item. I have seen in my country itself (India) to what extent the media has turned into a "watchdog" of the government and the development has shown up merely in the past few years. the Indian media still overdoes it and needs refinement, but at least it is learning and yeilding results. Along with itself it is making the populace more aware too. And i do not think information should be censored. However they should not be sensationalized, and there in comes the refinement and responsibility of the sector and the sectoral experts. Looking forward to more blogs and expert comments on the topic Sanjukta

Submitted by mg on
There are far better platforms than Wikileaks. But Wikileaks is an expirement. They want not only provide information and have own goals.

Submitted by Numa on
Hi MG, which platforms are you talking about? I'd be glad to learn more about them... thanks

Submitted by Anonymous on
For every action there is a RE action and my bet is that those in control of the many will do one of several things including Coming down hard on sources of leaks citing national security - we will see traitors emerging.. Misinformation - the site will be "leaked" to through the security services, Disinformation - articles and info on the site will be found to be false / inaccurate and therefore discredit the site resulting in it lising any credibility We live in strange times with much to complain about sadly (in my view) we are not governed by public servants by an elite who dictate and have done for so many years we have grown comfortably numb and continue to do so. Wikileaks at some point are likely to be targetted IF they are determined to undermine the ruling class through a lengthy and expensive court action - it could get very messy. We should ALL be standing up for TRUTH and INTEGRITY from our leaders - if they don't deliver we should be able to get rid of them and have leaders who inspire and lead us towards a peaceful world - we only get short time on this planet we must have leadership that allows us to live peacefully and co-exist in harmony.

Submitted by Julian Melling on
Perhaps we now have the 'Fifth Estate'. A step on from the traditional media. Though there has always been an element that has gone beyond the usual freedoms, it has never had the capability of reaching so many people that want to read it. Look forward to reading more on this topic, I enjoyed this. Thanks, Julian

Submitted by Cyrano on
I rather invert this reflection for a moment: could USA be taken as an example of mature free press? There's a great network discussing and acting on this already: it is called Independent Media Center, a fast-growing horizontal network built on voluntary local collectives all over the world. It began on USA. It spread first in developed countries. Than I think this reflection about Wikileaks applied to "developing countries" might be missing some point. Before asking what Wikileaks would be like in those countries, we must define which of the developed ones should be taken as a model to compare on. If USA, supposely, might be not an example of mature free press, which developed country could be turned into a model, then? I am thinking about that because, maybe, we have this free press challenge not only in "developing countries", but in a wider range and in more subtile categories than a pair of opposites as "developed/developing countries". This division might not clear up the real picture of the situation of the press and the access to information all over the world, as it supposes that there's a generally better situation in developed countries, and a worse situation in developing ones. This conception demands a deeper investigation.

Submitted by Cyrano on
I posted a comment here propposing a different point-of-view, but it vanished somehow. Let's cast my patience on writing it all over again. We're assuming here that category developed/developing countries is a pair of opposites precise enough to think about media situation all over the world. In developed countries, media sector is functional. In developing ones it is not functional, or just partially functional. Is this precise enough? Is this pair of opposites subtile enough to clear us a usefull picture of media's situation over several countries? Or is it too simple, too narrow, to help us in this discussion? Could USA be taken as model of functional media to compare with? If not, which other developed country could work as this model? Why the Independent Media Center was born in US? Why did this voluntary, horizontal network of free media collectives expand, first and faster, through developed countries? Because their media sectors are more functional, maybe? Or could there be another reason for that? Another case: website The Real Battle in Seattle proposal of publishing voices of those who participated in this historical fact, estimulating ordinary people to tell their version of the history. We can find initiatives like those in Brazil, where I am. Local Indie Media collectives have the same approach. What I'm proposing is that, maybe, demands on a functional media sector are alike in some countries, differing in aspects and ways that might not be clear to us if we work this reflection about Wikileaks in meanings of "developed/developing countries".

Submitted by Anonymous on
yet another entry about how Wikileaks could be the next model for journalism/how less "media freedom" in developing countries leads to a worse media. IMHO, media critics tend to stress too much on government intervention on the media in developing countries, they view the corporate, oligopoly model of the media popular in developed countries as less harmful. Even though I truly hope things like Wikileaks will help raise unheard voices like the author wants to say, I agree with Cyrano that this process does not necessarily have to be confined to developing countries. Unfortunately, the view that developed countries have a better media permeates the landscape of journalism training assistance. Media context really needs to be taken at a much deeper level than it is now. The argument that "it takes time to ..." isn't 100% wrong, it's just realistic.

Submitted by Anonymous on
The real issue is that the MSM is completely controlled and people have caught on. The level of deception on the "boobtubes" is at all time high's. The old motto was to "inform the public" not "Form public opinion" as we see on virtually all alphabet news channels today, some to a point of absolute disgust. Thanks to wikileaks and a few other sites on the web I can get truth and that's what I'm interested in to begin with. Spin is just another term for BS'ing.

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