PETALING JAYA: Harvard Law School’s research arm Berkman Centre for Internet and Society is organizing a conference next month on the many issue-based campaigns, emerging business models and new technologies that are affecting politics throughout the world.
The conference (http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/is2k4/schedule), titled Votes, Bits and Bytes, will also look at the blogging phenomenon and how it has affected the political and media landscape.
The organisers have invited Malaysia’s most famous blogger, e-business consultant Jeff Ooi, to be a panellist.
Joining Ooi in his panel discussion on Dec 9 – which will look at South Korea’s OhMyNews.com portal as a case study – will be Rebecca MacKinnon, former CNN bureau chief for Beijing and Tokyo; Stephen Ward of the University of Salford and Oxford Internet Institute; and OhMyNews founder Oh Yeon-ho.
The session will be chaired by John Palfrey of the Berkman Centre.
OhMyNews (http://english.ohmynews.com/index.asp), a collaborative online newspaper with a readership of two million and more than 26,000 registered “citizen journalists,” has been credited with playing a key role in sweeping President Roh Moo-hyun to power.
The site rode on the back of the dissatisfaction of South Korea’s “2030 Generation” – the cybersavvy 20-30 age group which makes up an estimated 45% of voters – over the role of traditional media in shaping and reflecting public opinion.
On Dec 10, Ooi will partner Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, a.k.a. Hoder, to lead a session on promoting the global “blogosphere.” This session will form the input for Global Voice Online, a cybermovement which the conference is aiming to form.
“We will be looking at how to leverage blogs as a new medium for expression and to mutually benefit each member of the ‘cyber-community,’ whether they are from Iran, Iraq, Malaysia, Kenya or anywhere else,” Ooi told In.Tech by e-mail last week.
“We will almost certainly discuss pitfalls such as governments – and the military in certain nations – who feel disconnected from the blogging phenomenon and who misunderstand its role.
“We will also look at challenges like technical hurdles, government censorship, and language problems experienced by bloggers from different environments, and our input will then be channelled to Harvard Law School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for their research programmes,” he added.
Ooi himself began his Screenshots (www.jeffooi.com) web journal or weblog (blog) in January last year, first focusing on ICT (information and communications technology) industry issues as well as governance in the public sector, but later expanded it into a “media watch” blog of sorts because he felt that Malaysia’s mainstream media was not examining issues in a critical enough manner.
For Ooi, OhMyNews’ increasing relevance in the South Korean sociopolitical landscape, and the Berkman Centre conference itself, are compelling indicators that online media has taken on the mantle of the “Fifth Estate.”
In terms of social governance in the wake of the French Revolution, the First Estate was used to denote the clergy, the Second Estate the nobility and the Third Estate the commons, or the rest of the population.
In the 18th century, Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke first described the press, as shapers of public opinion, as the Fourth Estate, a description that has held since.
Throughout the years, many parties have proclaimed themselves the Fifth Estate – when the British labour movement was at its strongest, unions were often described as such. At one time, an international public relations and advertising agency argued that its industry sector was the Fifth Estate.
However in the last 10 years, electronic media has made very strong case for adopting the mantle. “Bloggers are the Fifth Estate,” Ooi said.
In a blog entry on Screenshots (www.jeffooi.com/archives/2004/11/i_hope_practiti.php), he presents a compelling case, citing an article in the highly-respected journal Foreign Policy, entitled Web of Influence (www.foreignpolicy.com/story/files/story2707.php).
The fact that bloggers have affected politics and traditional media cannot be now denied. In 2002, Trent Lott had to resign as the US Senate majority speaker after bloggers revealed his inflammatory remarks on racial segregation.
More recently, in the run-up to the US presidential elections, it was bloggers who showed that the documents used by CBS News’ Dan Rather in his supposed exposé on how President George W. Bush shirked his National Guard duty, were in fact forgeries.
Not sitting pretty
For all his belief in the impact blogs are making, Ooi is not blind to the fact that Malaysia still has a long way to go before online media becomes a part of the ordinary Malaysian’s lifestyle.
Blogs may be affecting changes in the United States and South Korea, but that has been helped by the high Internet penetration rates in both countries.
“I do not think Malaysia will ever reach the kind of critical mass the United States has in terms of influencing public perception – at least, not in the next five years,” said Ooi.
The figures for Malaysia are not particularly encouraging, he added:
* PC ownership is only 16.7% of a population of 25 million, much lower than the 40% penetration rate in developed countries;
* THE Internet penetration rate is at 11.4%, and the broadband penetration rate is less than 1%.
“So, the online community in Malaysia is meagre, feeble and minuscule,” Ooi said.
“Bloggers can only target the niche audience of Internet-dependent people – I call them knowledge workers – hoping that their sphere of influence can expand and ultimately lead to a participative community in cyberspace,” he added.
It’s a goal that Ooi has been working towards for several years.
Even before he began his Screenshots blog, he had already formed a grassroots movement by cofounding the USJ.com (www.usj.com.my) community portal in 1999, which would go on to win a series of awards, including the prestigious @My Malaysia Internet Award 2000 for Best Community Development Website.
And despite having only a “niche” audience, he has certainly garnered attention from the greater public and powers-that-be.
In October, some daily newspapers ran a series of articles attacking Ooi for “publishing” seditious views. In reality, the views were posted on Screenshots’ forum by a visitor who was in fact later banned by Ooi for breaching the forum’s terms of conduct.
That didn’t stop a public brouhaha that even led to one politician calling for Ooi’s detention under the Internal Security Act.
The issue garnered international publicity, and perhaps even a bit of fame for the online activist disingenuously described as an “unknown blogger” by a mainstream journalist critical of Ooi.
Ooi has taken all this in stride. “Some say I am not qualified to be a self-appointed media watchdog.
“I don’t lose any sleep over such innuendo as long as my target audience understands that I am inviting them to start thinking aloud about issues and events that will raise a few eyebrows,” he said.