Media 210383576_a9e5fa0a7d_z

Published on December 4th, 2014 | by EJC


Old Problems Persist Even in Digital Media Era

This article was written by Drusilla Menaker and originally published at IREX on 14 October, 2014. Republished with permission.

There was alarming déjà vu at the Agenda for Change: Developing Independent Media in the Digital Age in Eurasia conference just concluded in Kyiv. The platforms were up to date – the internet, digital broadcasting, trans-national media – but the fears were same old: censorship, propaganda, politicized use of economic and legal pressures. With some exceptions – Georgia, for example – there was no mistaking the sense of closing space for free expression.

Dominance of the Russian-language broadcast media reaching Ukraine, Moldova, the Central Asian nations and other parts of the region was one worry. Participants talked about how many people tune in for the well-produced entertainment shows, and get a dose of Russian government propaganda in the mix. There was concern about the influence of the received Russia-controlled narrative on Eurasian audiences still most comfortable in Russian (and indeed much of the conversation at the conference itself was in Russian).“All of the Russian-speaking world is under the influence, no matter where they are located,’’ said one participant.

There was uncertainty, however, about what could be done through international media development efforts. Even if donors were willing to support a countering media voice in Russian, would it be able to attract audiences with the right mix of entertainment and information programming and could it be sustainable? There were reservations about such an initiative undermining the national and local-level independent media efforts that need the limited donor funds and skilled human resources available. Would the best journalists go to work for this (initially) better-funded platform? Would local media be weakened, only to have the international project run out of funding in a few years? Is there an alternative approach that could draw on the best independent content already being produced, but in Russian? Overall, the conclusion was that a deep consultative design process would be required, with the obvious cost in time and resources

Also on the Agenda was the digital transition. As IREX’s 2014 Media Sustainability Index for Europe and Eurasia has found, there is considerable concern about the approaching 2015 deadline for the switch to digital broadcasting. The transition is not on track in most countries, with authorities moving slowly and with confusion about what needs to be done. Independent media are concerned about the potential for being shut out of the new spectrum due to costs or politicized relicensing. While a lot of the questions have to do with the regulatory and technical aspects, there is a general lack of awareness about the potential impact on information access rights for less empowered communities, including the poor. For example, will there be subsidies for converting TVs?

The ongoing threat to internet freedom was an Agenda topic as well. There was a sense that the impact hasn’t been brought home to individual citizens, who do not yet realize what they have to loose due to censorship, lack of attention to digital security, and limits on access. Tactics were discussed, but one main conclusion was the need to broaden the engagement around this issue. Practically that could mean adjusting the messaging – businesses might not be so concerned about the human rights cost, but do know they need open digital space to prosper – and raising internet literacy.

The Agenda for Change conference was organized by the Independent Association of Broadcasters of Ukraine, Free Press Unlimited, and the Global Forum for Media Development with the support of The Open Society Foundations and theEuropean Endowment for Democracy.

About the Author:

Drusilla Menaker is a founder and associate director of IREX Europe, IREX’s partner organization based in Lyon, France. She joined IREX in 2001 in Moscow as Chief of Party for an independent print media program in Russia funded by USAID. Before coming to IREX, Dru was a foreign correspondent working across Europe, the Middle East and Africa and a reporter, editor and bureau chief for The Associated Press in the United States. She received a MS from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania. 

Photo: Chris Frewin

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