in Asian Cyberspace

Sheila Coronel’s keynote address

SHEILA Coronel, PCIJ executive director, set the tone of the conference with her keynote speech, the full text of which follows:

The Internet and Free Expression in Asia
First of all, welcome to Manila. I am pleased that we have gathered here today journalists, webmasters, and bloggers who are at the cutting edge of free expression in Asia. We have plenty to talk about in the next three days. We have much to share with, and learn from, each other. There are many things that bind us. Those of us who write from countries with a free press have found in the Internet an arena that is relatively free from the constraints of the profit-oriented mainstream media market. For us, the Web, especially blogs, has opened up spaces where news and information need not be trivialized, where serious, long-form reporting and incisive commentary need not be drowned out by a flood of sensational coverage and bite-size infotainment.

To those who come from countries where freedom of expression is curtailed — like Vietnam, China and to a lesser degree, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia and Nepal, the Internet has provided a haven, a safe space where journalists, citizens, and opinion makers are planting the seeds of a democratic discourse that is not yet openly possible in the mainstream.

I don’t need to remind you that this was not always so. Technology has opened up possibilities we would never have imagined in the past. We have before us today vast, new, and for the most part, unexplored fields where it is still possible for us to lay a claim, to stake out an arena free from the constraints imposed by repressive states and the restrictions inflicted by profit-hungry media markets. The Web has also made it possible for us to interact, like never before possible, with the audience out there, and to build virtual communities of citizens engaged in conversations about things that truly matter to the future of their community, their nation, their planet.

We do not know how long this liberating potential will last. The big debate now is whether sooner or later, the Internet will become, like television, a medium mainly for sensation, distraction and mindless profit making. After all, even now, more people go to the Web to visit porn sites, play games, and admire such wonders as J Lo’s butt than for any other known purpose.

More…Today many are asking if the Net can live up to its potential to be a truly public sphere where citizens can engage each other as equals, discussing and debating issues about the public good. Will it, in the long run, contribute to popular empowerment? Or will it end up like other technologies had in the past?

The history of mass media shows that when political or technological changes cause media structures to be reorganized, a period of experimentation, democratization and innovation ensues But this phase is almost always followed by a longer period of consolidation dominated by big players. The democratic potential soon gives way to market efficiency, with audiences once again being lulled into passivity and disengagement.

I would like to think that we are today on cusp of something wonderful, on the edge of a world of possibilities where people like ourselves, without the money and resources of big media, can set the news and policy agenda. I would like to think of the Internet as a great equalizer. But we all know that is naïve – power, money, class, race, gender, religion are great divides and the Internet cannot possibly surmount them all. It can only provide us with a potent weapon with which to try.

In our day and age, cyberspace remains the most promising outlet for the exercise of the most elemental of all our rights: the right to free expression. At little cost and with much more freedom than is possible in the real world, the Net provides a space for one of the most profound expressions of our humanity: the need to speak out.

Those of us who have lived through repressive regimes in Asia know what it is like to be forced into silence. My own story is similar to that of many of yours.

I was in second year high school when Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, padlocked Congress, closed down all the newspapers and television stations, and imprisoned politicians, journalists and dissenters of all stripe. The TV channels of my teenage years were filled with the images of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. The newspapers carried little else but news about the “New Society” and the good things that the Marcos regime was supposedly doing for our country. There was nothing that hinted of large-scale human rights abuses, the slaughter of Moros in Mindanao, or the plunder of the people’s money.

Those of you who are young today will find this hard to imagine. In a world of 24/7 news carried by cable television, the Internet, and freewheeling newspapers and magazines, the sterile cocoon in which I grew up must seem terribly arcane. Imagine what it would be like if the newspapers, the radio stations and the TV networks carried only one voice, only one version of the world, only the good that the government was supposedly doing.

Thirty years ago, the only way to get the truth out was to do so clandestinely, by passing newsletters from hand to hand. These newsletters were typed out on stencil – using a typewriter (which meant that the mistakes had to be painstakingly inked over). The stencil was then put on a silkscreen frame. Ink was brushed over the stencil and sheets of paper were pressed onto the frame. This is the same process that is still sometimes used for printing on T-shirts. Each sheet was literally silkscreened by hand. It was dangerous to Xerox or mimeograph unauthorized political material at that time. Those who used copying equipment risked being found out and reported. The safest way to get the word out was handmade newspapers. Looking back, I see this now as a terribly naïve and adolescent undertaking. How could 500 copies of silkscreened newsletters possibly bring down a dictatorship? But such was the faith of dissenters in the power of the word.

Let me tell you another story. This one is a favorite and some of you here may have already heard it before. It is the story of General Emilio Aguinaldo, a provincial caudillo or strongman, who wrested leadership of the Philippine revolution against Spain in 1898. Aguinaldo and his troops successfully booted out Spain from our islands. But their victory was hijacked by the Americans, who invaded the Philippines soon after the Spaniards had lost.

Aguinaldo and his men were no match for American firepower. So they fled to the hills with what remained of their ragtag army. Everywhere Aguinaldo went, he carried with him a small press, from which was printed the newsletter of the revolution. At one point, he wrote a directive to his troops, instructing them to transport copies of the revolutionary papers on horseback and to make sure the bundles of newspapers were wrapped in banana leaves so they would not get wet. Aguinaldo had faith that as long as Filipinos read the newspapers, they would continue to fight the colonizers and support the revolution.

From where does this faith derive? From where does this belief come from – that a few hundred newspapers wrapped in banana leaves can defeat a colonial army?

And yet, all throughout Asia, we see evidence of this faith. In Burma, clandestine pamphlets against a brutal and repressive junta are passed on from hand to hand despite the threat of torture and prison. In China, those posting on blogs and websites critical of the all-powerful Communist Party risk jail and interrogation just to get the word out to the world. In Singapore and Malaysia, bloggers and webmasters plod on despite the imminent possibility of being charged with criminal defamation and violation of the onerous Internal Security Act. In Nepal, journalists have been arrested for reporting that an absolute monarchy is plunging their country into absolute anarchy. In many other countries across Asia, even in countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand where there are constitutional guarantees of free speech, journalists and citizens use old and new media to speak truth to power no matter the consequences.

If tyranny and oppression are part of the human condition, then so is speaking out. And thanks to technology, this is so much easier now. No need for banana leaves. No need even to stain our fingers with printer’s ink. With proxy servers and anonymizing software, it is now possible to reach a global audience without being traced.

The new technology, however, brings with it new challenges. The first is how to get noticed. There is a sea of sites and blogs out there, and it is easy to get lost amid the din of the voices on the Internet. So far, small media, independent journalists and individual commentators have made a dent because they offer something that is not in the mainstream: novel insight, previously unknown information, or news and commentary that big media find too risky. The Net is also the home of vigorous commentary on the big faults of big media. It provides room for rigorous and thorough reporting that takes up time and space that big media cannot spare.

The Web is where fresh voices can be heard and where alternative interpretations of the world can be found. The mainstream—because it is broad, homogenizing, catering to a wide audience—cannot provide spaces for particular issues and specific interests.
Thus, all over the Internet, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of communities have sprung up, communities bound by language, taste, interest, age, religion, geography and countless other commonalities. Communities that would probably not exist at all if they did not have a place in cyberspace.

This, after all, is what the media are about – creating community. In another day and age, a TV or radio network or a nationally circulated newspaper could justifiably say, as the BBC did, that it was the nation talking to itself. Today with the Internet and the multiplicity of media, this is no longer the case. Instead we have the nation – or what passes for it, because in this age of migration a nation is not just a geographical space – the nation talking to its many selves. In cyberspace it is possible to have many conversations going on at the same time. That is its beauty. But that is also its peril – with so much going on in the virtual world, how do we keep track of what is truly significant? How do we separate the relevant from what is merely distracting? How do we build a nation in cyberspace, without risking fraying the already tattered bonds that keep us together?

In an earlier era – in the struggle against colonialism, for example, and later the struggle against homegrown dictatorship – newspapers throughout Asia played a key role in forging the idea of nation and of democracy. More than that, they built consensus on the need for independence from colonial rule, and later, of liberation from the tyranny of authoritarianism.

Can the Internet in the era of globalization play a similar role? Or will its impact be liberating, but also fragmentizing? Will it be fertile ground for sowing the seeds not only of dissent but also of disunity? Can we build consensus if we are taking part in different conversations all at the same time? And what do we do about the many who cannot be in the conversation because they do not have access to the Internet?

Cyberspace is a world full of contradictions. By substituting virtual for face-to-face communication, it is an alienating medium. But at the same time, it allows people to be in touch in ways never before imagined. It engenders new forms of intimacy, new kinds of relationships. People have made confessions online that they probably never would in the real world. In cyberspace, one can express grief, extend sympathy, donate to causes. One can even join a virtual rally or sign an online petition. It is now difficult to find the line that separates real from cyber dissidence.

For journalists, cyberspace provides instantaneous feedback and a level of interactivity not possible in the old media. My own organization, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, was founded on the premises of old media. We were largely print journalists but have found in cyberspace a hospitable home, where it is possible to post large amounts of material—including links, documents and interviews—that would otherwise be orphaned if we relied only on old media. The Internet has opened up for us a whole world of research and reporting that we are still exploring.

A year ago, we started a blog. Our timing could not have been better. Six weeks later, we found ourselves in the thick of the biggest scandal to hit the presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The blog allowed us to update not just everyday, but several times a day. It also enabled us to post important material – notably a three-hour recording of the wiretapped conversations of an election official. Those conversations included 11 phone calls made by the president, during which she discussed election fraud with the official.

In the last year, there have been one million downloads of that recording and the mobile-phone ring tones that nameless composers fashioned from snippets of the phone conversations. Half a million downloaded the transcript of the conversation in the past year. When our blog crashed, because of the sheer number of downloads, the blogging community came to our rescue, putting up mirror sites where the recording could be accessed.

Throughout the crisis, we posted on our blog breaking news reports, analyses and unedited documents and audio material that allowed our readers to sift through the original information themselves. In other words, they didn’t have to take our word for it. They can examine the evidence on their own and start a discussion with us on their own interpretations of the information we had provided. The mainstream media, subject to limitations of time and space, cannot do this. This is where the Internet has a real edge.

The Net has also gifted us with immediacy. We could report on events real time at almost no cost. No need for satellite dishes and expensive newsgathering facilities. Several times, including the release of the wiretapped conversations, we beat mainstream journalists to the draw.

Thanks to the political crisis, the PCIJ blog exceeded our wildest expectations. In a span of a year, we amassed 2.5 million regular visitors, 12 million pageviews, 38 million hits and two terabytes of data transfer. We are now the top media and political blog in the Philippines.

But we were also the first blog in the country to be sued for libel and to be issued a temporary restraining order by a trial court judge. The justice secretary has also warned that some of our posts, including the wiretapped recording, could be liable for the esoteric crime of “inciting to sedition.” We now have seven suits and for this reason, we are arguably the best dressed blog in the country.

For the moment, we are just playing it by ear, our online work guided by the same standards of journalism that we have set for ourselves at the beginning of our existence nearly 17 years ago.

To be sure, the blogosphere is an exciting and challenging field. We are journalists who blog, but we are not the only ones out there. In fact, we are a minority. The truth is that the blogosphere is subverting our notions of what journalism is and who is a journalist. One estimate is that by the next decade, 50 percent of the content in cyberspace will be created by the people who use that content.

For journalists, this engenders real fears. Foremost among these is the fear of losing control over the conversation we started. If technology empowers the audience and allows them to screen content, what then becomes of the journalist’s gatekeeping role? What becomes of editors in an age of content aggregators? Will those crusty middle-aged men lording it over the newsrooms now be replaced by the machines at Google or Yahoo? If anyone can be a blogger what happens to journalists? And if bloggers and web managers become so influential, will they not also before long, be corrupted by the same PR and spin machines that manipulate the mainstream media?

I guess we will not know until it happens. For now, the Internet is a decentralized and open space. It allows for a higher level of engagement with our audience. It has given us a freedom we have never known before. Despite firewalls, it is a world without licenses, franchises, and for the most part, without censors.

In the end, whether Asian cyberspace will also be a place where good journalism will thrive – journalism that has credibility and integrity, grand reporting of the kind that inspires and empowers – depends on us. Meanwhile, we should keep the conversation going. We must also exert every effort to ensure that cyberspace is enriched, not impoverished, by our presence.

Thank you and good morning to all of you.


April 19, 2006 - Posted by | General


  1. […] Visit the website here: Free Expression in Asian Cyberspace. The keynote address is especially worth reading. It sums up nicely why a uncontrolled internet is better for all parties. […]

    Pingback by Pakistan 451 » Blog Archive » Free Expression in Asian Cyberspace | April 19, 2006 | Reply

  2. Sheila’s was the only one of the sessions I missed yesterday…that famous Manila traffic you know (best excuse for being late ever invented). But I appreciate reading it here.

    To Pakistan 451, Am looking forward to meeting you today, because I agree with this sentiment, though it needs fleshing out.

    Comment by rizalist | April 20, 2006 | Reply

  3. rizalist, I’m not at the conference, just read the speech on the site.

    Comment by pakistan451 | April 20, 2006 | Reply

  4. sheila, i do not know if you still remember me along time ago we met at the restaurant when papa were still alive living with tita emily, i am your half sister. before i came here in california that was 1993 i stayed with papa in katipunan and they plan to come here to visit but then he was not able to make it. Anyway talk to you more if i can get your response.

    Comment by marivic hermosura | August 29, 2006 | Reply

  5. […] From noted journalist Sheila Coronel: I don’t need to remind you that this was not always so. Technology has opened up possibilities we would never have imagined in the past. We have before us today vast, new, and for the most part, unexplored fields where it is still possible for us to lay a claim, to stake out an arena free from the constraints imposed by repressive states and the restrictions inflicted by profit-hungry media markets. The Web has also made it possible for us to interact, like never before possible, with the audience out there, and to build virtual communities of citizens engaged in conversations about things that truly matter to the future of their community, their nation, their planet. […]

    Pingback by Food for thought « Coffee With Amee | March 20, 2008 | Reply

  6. […] also represented in this forum. Visit the website here: Free Expression in Asian Cyberspace. The keynote address sums up nicely why a uncontrolled internet is better for all […]

    Pingback by Free Expression in Asian Cyberspace | KO | May 7, 2010 | Reply

  7. I couldnt agree with you more

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