Welcome

2015 Fellows at NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.


AJF logotype

The Asia Journalism Fellowship provides mid-career journalists the chance to sharpen professional skills, deepen domain knowledge, strengthen commitment to their public mission, and form lifelong friendships.

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New media, old mission

During their three months in Singapore, the 2014 Fellows got a chance to reflect, rejuvenate and retrain. A key goal was to keep up to date with changes in the industry and in the craft of journalism. They visited newsrooms such as The Straits Times, CNBC and Reuters, and attended workshops on social media and data journalism, for example. But they also stayed focus on journalism’s timeless essence, as a profession dedicated to storytelling in the public interest.

Sustainable journalism

[Participants of the Asia Journalism Forum event at Riverview Hotel. Photo: Yeo Kai Wen]

The world will collapse without journalists, said Aidan White, director of Ethical Journalism Network at the welcome dinner to open the Asia Journalism Forum seminar on Sustainable Independent Journalism. But with media organizations downsizing or closing down, the key is remaining sustainable so that journalism can survive. At the conference, participants learnt the guerilla-type survival skills of alternative media – such as Malaysiakini, Thaipublica and Ujyaalo Network from Nepal. They also heard from Google and Storyful on how to tap on digital media for greater reach.

Dealing with diversity

V. Gayathry (right) conducts a workshop on diversity. Photo: Cherian George

V. Gayathry (right) conducts a workshop on diversity. Photo: Cherian George

Journalists have to start with assumptions and stereotypes, but shouldn’t end there, said V. Gayathry, executive director, South East Asia Press Alliance. They should always test and verify, and look beyond the obvious. For example, what looks like an ethnic conflict could really be about economics. The diversity workshop has become a staple of the AJF programme.

Web analytics

Edson Tandoc, an assistant professor at the Wee Kim Wee School. Photo: Cherian George

Edson Tandoc, an assistant professor at the Wee Kim Wee School. Photo: Cherian George

Edson Tandoc spoke to the Fellows about how web analytics is influencing editorial decision making in US papers. Real-time feedback on how readers are responding to stories (and even different versions of headlines) allows editors to pick and place content according to readers’ tastes – if they wish. But Tandoc also pointed out that journalism shouldn’t just be about what readers want – it is also about what the public needs. Tandoc, a former Philippine Enquirer reporter, is now an assistant professor at the Wee Kim Wee School.

The view from the trenches

[K D Suarez shows the equipment he uses for his multimedia reporting. Photo: Cherian George]

At one of the weekly meetings, Fellows exchanged inside stories of how news organisations were adapting to media convergence. Singapore Fellow Serene Quek spoke about how her print colleagues at Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao are voluntarily experimenting with short videos and multimedia content including a popular Chinese “Character of the Year” readers’ poll. Filipino Fellows Arlene Burgos of ABS-CBN and Kris Danielle Suarez of Rappler related how social media had been used in disaster relief and other crises in the Philippines.

Tapping social media

Asha Phillips guides Fellows through a training exercise. Photo: Cherian George

Asha Phillips guides Fellows through a training exercise. Photo: Cherian George

Fellows learnt how to make proper use of social media tools. Asha Phillips of Storyful, an organisation that sources for stories, news pictures and videos online, shared tips on how to verify content before using them as part of news coverage.

From pens to lenses

[Photo workshop for reporters, conducted by Phocus Academy. Photo: Thao Nguyen]

Fazal Khaliq learning the finer points of doing pieces to the camera from trainer Kym Campbell. Photo: Zakaria Zainal

Fazal Khaliq learning the finer points of doing pieces to the camera from trainer Kym Campbell. Photo: Zakaria Zainal

These days, writers are often called on to shoot photos to accompany their stories, or produce short video reports for the web. AJF organised introductory courses in photography and video for the Fellows for Fellows who are more accustomed to working with the printed word.

Newsroom visits

Newsroom visits provided the opportunity for Fellows to find out how different news organisations are responding at time of great change.

[In the Reuters lobby are two giant volumes containing profiles of journalists who died in the line of duty. It was a reminder that, for all the advances in technology, the dedication of the individual journalist on the ground is still the most valuable “app”. Photo: Cherian George]

At The Straits Times, Fellows were briefed by Editor At Large Han Fook Kwang, ST Communities & Analytics editor Ernest Luis, Chief Sub-Editor Paul Cheong and Foreign Editor Ravi Velloor (above). Photo: Cherian George

At The Straits Times, Fellows were briefed by Editor At Large Han Fook Kwang, ST Communities & Analytics editor Ernest Luis, Chief Sub-Editor Paul Cheong and Foreign Editor Ravi Velloor (above). Photo: Cherian George

At CNBC, Michael Kearns, Head of News and Programming (Asia Pacific), briefed Fellows about the business channel’s operations and programmes. Photo: Fazal Khaliq

At CNBC, Michael Kearns, Head of News and Programming (Asia Pacific), briefed Fellows about the business channel’s operations and programmes. Photo: Fazal Khaliq

Narayan Wagle on fiction

Nepali Fellow Narayan Wagle was our celebrity author at a special AJF tea session at Gurkha Palace restaurant, also attended by members of the Singapore Nepali Society. Narayan, who has written two bestselling novels set in his tumultuous homeland, explained why he turned to fiction despite already being an influential editor and journalist. “I can interview everyone from a prime minister to a rickshaw puller, but I can’t enter some levels; I can’t enter one’s mind.” Journalism limited itself to facts and figures, he noted. “But can we measure one’s pleasure? Can we measure one’s pain?” However, he added that he hasn’t given up on journalism; he is inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who considered himself a journalist till the last, even after being heralded as one of the greatest novelists of his era. Narayan said he has come to realise that the gap between literature and journalism is narrow. “Both require imagination based on facts.”

Celebrating media freedom

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May 3 was World Press Freedom Day, a day that is met with mixed feelings for many Fellows who work under all sorts of constraints – from political to commercial pressures. For Pakistani Fellow Fazal Khaliq, the event was especially poignant as he remembered his colleagues back home, some of whom do not even sleep in the same place two days in a row for fear of being rounded up by government or Taliban agents. The other speakers at the event were Michael Vatikiotis, regional director of the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue; V. Gayathry, executive director, South East Asia Press Alliance; and AJF director Cherian George. The Fellows were guests of the Asia Media Information and Communication Centre, AMIC.

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2014 Fellows selected

2014 Fellows

Afghanistan

  • Jalalzai Mirwais, 26, male. Reporter and producer with Radio Afghanistan in Kabul. Also freelances for Kabulpress.org. Reports on human rights and youth issues.

Bangladesh

  • Zobaer Ahmed, 30, male. Reporter for news stories and documentaries on Maasranga Television in Dhaka, specialising in energy and environment.

Bhutan

  • Sonam Pelden, 28, female. Chief reporter of Kuensel, Bhutan’s main newspaper. Covers various national issues and guides junior reporters.

Indonesia

  • Anggi Oktarinda, 28, female. Journalist with Bisnis Indonesia, Jakarta, covering the Presidential Palace.
    Dewi Yuhana, 33, female. Editor for business, education and the youth section of Malang Post in Malang, East Java, part of the Jawa Pos group.

India

  • Sundaresha Subramanian, 34, male. Senior assistant editor with Business Standard, New Delhi. Writes on markets and investment, and weekend features.
  • Nishima K., 36, female. Senior sub-editor and writer with Malayalam-language Manorama Weekly, India’s biggest selling magazine. Involved in Manorama’s CSR projects.

Myanmar

  • Ko Ko Gyi, 27, male. Senior reporter with the English-language Mizzima Business Weekly Magazine, Yangon. Mizzima is a media company that has returned from exile.

Nepal

  • Narayan Wagle, 45, male. Writer and columnist with Setopati.com. Formerly editor-in-chief of Nagarik Daily and Kantipur Daily.

Philippines

  • Kris Danielle Panti Suarez, 27, male. Science and nature editor for Manila-based Rappler.com, a new social news network. Also produces content as a multimedia reporter.
  • Arlene B. Burgos, 39, female. Head of social media and mobile at ABS-CBN digital, the top Philippine news website. Also teaches journalism at Ateneo de Manila University.

Pakistan

  • Fazal Khaliq, 39, male. Reporter for Karachi-based, English-language Express Tribune newspaper, covering the war-torn Swat Valley.

Singapore

  • Quek Sy Mung, 46, female. Chief Sub-editor for Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao.

Sri Lanka

  • Ifham Nizam, 43, male. Journalist with the English-language Island newspaper, Colombo, covering politics, energy. Won Environmental Journalist of the Year awards.

Thailand

  • Watchiranont Thongtep, 33, male. Business journalist with The Nation, Bangkok. Covers media and broadcasting industries.

Vietnam

  • Nguyen Phuong Thao, 29, female. Journalist and producer with VTC16, Vietnam Agriculture & Rural TV Channel in Hanoi. Has done documentaries in Indonesia, Thailand.

 

Note: A journalist from China was originally on this list but was forced to withdraw due to a change in his organisation’s policies.

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Welcome to Newsplex Asia

newsplex

The 2013 Fellows were the first AJF participants to make use of the brand new Newsplex Asia facility. The centre is designed for innovative training for newsrooms of the future. It is a tie-up between Nanyang Technological University and the global industry group WAN-Ifra. This is one of four WAN-Ifra Newsplex facilities and the only one in Asia. AJF will conduct workshops at Newsplex, as part of the varied Fellowship programme. We speak to Lau Joon-Nie, the faculty member spearheading the Newsplex project, about its role in journalism training. Lau, formerly a news editor, broadcast journalist and interactive producer with Singapore’s Channel NewsAsia station, is now a lecturer at the School.

Q: What is Newsplex all about?

LJN: The Newsplex brings the various media platforms together in one convenient, collaborative space. Through carefully-considered planning and physical layout, it enables and empowers journalists, editors, designers and developers to create and communicate in the most efficient ways possible in order to deliver content speedily and seamlessly.

Q: What would you say to sceptics who argue that journalism is ultimately about traditional skills, not about technology?

LJN: The story sits at the heart of the Newsplex philosophy. To get that story, you need traditional skills – those never grow old – but to get that story out to and noticed by the consumer, you need technology. Audiences now want their news and information in the fastest, most convenient way possible and that is easy to read and understand. These days, this often means in a digital format. If we ignore the technology, we risk ignoring our audience’s needs and losing them altogether. They have many alternatives. What the Newsplex seeks to do is find ways to best tell the story and get it out using the variety of media platforms and formats now available to us.

Q: What kind of skills could newspaper journalists pick up through Newsplex training?

LJN: The training at the Newsplex focuses on areas where skills are in short supply newsrooms. These could range from creating exciting infographics that combine interactivity and movement/video, designing content for mobile and tablet interfaces, to using social media to engage audiences, who do not just want to consume news but also contribute and participate in the process. Newspapers are becoming multimedia houses. They want to take their own traditional expertise in layout and photography to the next level and they now want to go into video in a big way and give broadcasters a run for their money.

Q: What about journalists working in television or radio news? How could Newsplex training help?

LJN: Traditional media like radio and television are uni-directional, but the Internet now offers that much sought-after back channel for audiences to participate in real-time. There is still much for broadcasters to learn in improving the overall user experience and their engagement with their audiences using interactive platforms. They can capitalise on their inherent qualities of being very personal and intimate forms of media and build audience loyalty in an age of fickle and divided attention spans. In a multi-screen environment where audiences are often watching more than one screen concurrently, broadcasters face the challenge of keeping the viewer tuned in and deciding what content to extend to which screens – TV, online, mobile or tablet. In a Newsplex environment, participants often hail from a variety of media organisations, share their own experiences and learn from successful case studies.

Q: The news industry’s operating environment is transforming rapidly – technologies and markets seem to be changing constantly. How will you ensure that a facility like Newsplex remains relevant and adaptable?

LJN: Beyond being an exciting and creative physical space, the Newsplex is also about managing change and evolving mindsets. Technologies will come and go and can be replaced. Mindsets and attitudes need to adapt to the fast-moving marketplace. The open layout of the Newsplex encourages greater collaboration and interaction between news professionals, who increasingly find themselves working in multi-disciplinary teams while being responsive to what audiences want. The Newsplex will always be at the forefront of this change – offering methods to manage this transformation and ways to devise or optimise workflows and ecosystems. At the same time, it serves as a media lab to develop new forms and techniques of storytelling, bringing together conventional and sometimes unconventional partners to the table.

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Fellows reconnect at first reunion event

AJF Connect reunites Fellows

2012 Fellows My Hang from Vietnam and Erna from Indonesia reconnect at AJF Connect. All photographs: Vamos Photography.

2012 Fellows My Hang from Vietnam and Erna from Indonesia reconnect at AJF Connect. All photographs: Vamos Photography.

AJF’s first reunion event was a heady mix of intellectual discussions, intense networking and informal partying. AJF Connect, from 24-28 April, brought together 30 past Fellows (31 if you include one via Skype) as well as the 17 current Fellows.

“With five batches of Fellows, we now have a really unique and precious network spanning 15 different Asian countries,” noted AJF director Cherian George. “The Fellowship makes the links, Facebook can enliven the connections, but there is nothing like face-to-face interaction to seal the human bonds we’ve formed.”

Participants agreed. “It was the best experience we could have. Meeting my batch mates was nostalgic, meeting Fellows from other batches was fun,” said one AJF alum. Another added: “I feel I’ve made 10 new lasting friends.”

Other than forging friendships, it was also a time of learning with the various seminars on Asia, Singapore and journalism. “AJF Connect broadens our vision, updates our understanding of Asia, melts prejudices and breaks barriers,” said a participant.

2011 Fellows say hello to Imelda Abano, beaming in via Skype from the United States.

2011 Fellows say hello to Imelda Abano, beaming in via Skype from the United States.

Eshwar Sundaresan (India, Class of 2009) pays tribute to the late Murtaza Razvi (Pakistan, 2009), who died last year.

Eshwar Sundaresan (India, Class of 2009) pays tribute to the late Murtaza Razvi (Pakistan, 2009), who died last year.

Celebrating five years of AJF: P. N. Balji, Joanne Ng and Cherian George.

Celebrating five years of AJF: P. N. Balji, Joanne Ng and Cherian George.

Temasek Foundation chief executive Benedict Cheong welcomes the alumni.

Temasek Foundation chief executive Benedict Cheong welcomes the alumni.

Vergel Santos, publisher of the Philippines’ Business World, speaking about his experiences as fellow speaker, Tempo publisher Bambang Harymurti from Indonesia, shows the lifelong reporter in him.

Vergel Santos, publisher of the Philippines’ Business World, speaking about his experiences as fellow speaker, Tempo publisher Bambang Harymurti from Indonesia, shows the lifelong reporter in him.

Md Khamidul Islam (Class of 2010) sharing his views on journalism with AJF Connect participants.

Md Khamidul Islam (Class of 2010) sharing his views on journalism with AJF Connect participants.

A river cruise to take in the downtown sights, many of which had not been built when AJF started in 2009.

A river cruise to take in the downtown sights, many of which had not been built when AJF started in 2009.

AJF Connect participants atop the Marina Barrage.

AJF Connect participants atop the Marina Barrage.

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Lessons on economics and education

[AJF Fellow Julius Mariveles presents a print of one of his photographs of Singapore life to Education Minister Heng Swee Keat.]

If ever there was doubt about how globalisation has changed the world, look no further than the sky-rocketing salary of sports stars.

Singapore’s Education Minister Heng Swee Keat cited famous footballer Pele who, in his heyday, was paid just a fraction of what top players earn today, even though the game has not changed much in the last four decades.

What has changed, however, is the price tag on talent, which has been inflated due to the widespread use of technology. “Today, with global broadcast, online and all that, the consumer demand is multiplied many fold. If you are the number one footballer, you have many people willing to pay to watch you play,” he said.

His cited this example to illustrate how a globalised world is bound to see widening income gaps, as those with sought-after skills get richer and those without skills stay poor. Singapore is in danger of suffering the same fate. Hence, the island state’s efforts to strive for inclusive growth, Heng said.

The minister was speaking to AJF’s 2012 Fellows in a wide-ranging two-hour dialogue at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information in April 2012.

The soft-spoken former central bank chief entered politics in 2011, when he was swiftly roped into the People’s Action Party’s fourth generation leadership. He explained to the visiting journalists the PAP’s pragmatic approach of doing what works.

[Education Minister Heng Swee Keat spent two hours with the Fellows.]

On the growing wage gap, he said that the answer was not to hold back the talented but to redistribute economic gains to ensure that all citizens would benefit when the country prospers. He noted that education had traditionally be seen as a social leveller, but acknowledged that it could become less effective. “It will continue to be so, but it will not be as easy as (during) the earlier phase of our economy,” he said.

There was more social mobility before, when Singapore was an immigrant nation where almost everyone came from a poor background with low educational levels, he noted. He pointed to recent international studies showing that those who come from richer families tend to get better grades, which also means better jobs and bigger pay packages.

But, he drew hope from the results of an international study comparing students’ test scores with their socio- economic status (SES). In Singapore, one in two who come from poorer families fall in the category of the “resilient student”, defined as students who score above a certain grade despite coming from a lower SES. This is far higher than the global average of one in four, and one in three for OECD countries.

Singapore’s relative success in this department is partly due to its public school system, with virtually all local primary and secondary schools having teachers and curricula managed by the government. “Because we don’t have private schools, it makes for a more egalitarian outcome,” he noted.

Not for export

For all its strengths, the Singapore model probably can’t be replicated elsewhere, Heng said, in response to a question about whether the education system can be exported to developing Asian economies.

A national education framework had to be relevant to a country’s stage of growth, he said. “You have to decide how much resources the country can put aside for education at that time. Then you have to design a system that is relevant to the context of the time, and link it in some way to the development process.”

He pointed out that, in the past 50 years, Singapore’s education system had gone through several revamps. It started with what he described as “cookie cutter schools” where everyone learnt the same subjects at the same pace.

“After the mass education phase, we found that it was done at such a hurry that there were a lot of drop outs,” he said. To ensure students were taught according to abilities, the controversial streaming policy was introduced in the 1980s. It segmented students into different streams, from “gifted” to the not so smart such as “monolingual” or “normal”.

“The results were very dramatic, but at the same time, it created a lot of anxiety and negative feeling, because it created a sense of labeling, and it was not necessary in the interest of the students,” he said.

While streaming is still a prominent feature, the system was tweaked to be more inclusive by offering a greater diversity of pathways for success. One pathway is vocational education, such as the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), which the AJF Fellows later visited. It caters to students who are not academically inclined, offering them practical technical skills such as digital animation, retail merchandising and cooking.

“One of the things we pay attention to, particularly in post-education, is to make sure that the education they receive will allow them to find good employment. If they can’t even find that, there will be very little chance to realize their aspirations,” the minister said.

But whether people can find happiness is another matter. Asked by one Fellow why Singapore is so fixated on economic success to the extent of apparently neglecting spiritual growth, he said: “Finding happiness should be an individual pursuit, and not something that the government should step in to ensure.”

Article by Sue-Ann Chia

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The pulse of policy-making

From army general to politician to university lecturer? Tan Chuan-Jin gives a public policy lesson to AJF Fellows.

From army general to politician to university lecturer? Tan Chuan-Jin gives a public policy lesson to AJF Fellows.

The former army brigadier-general went from macho to mushy in a heartbeat.

In he middle of a white board scribbled with hot-button words such as immigration and economic restructuring, he scrawled a heart shape. He quartered it and filled the quadrants with the words Singapore, Singaporean, today and tomorrow.

This work of doodle art belonged to then Minister of State Tan Chuan-Jin, who treated the 2012 AJF Fellows to a uniquely graphic exposition of the policy issues facing Singapore.

The heart, he said, represented what all the policy work ultimately mean to him. “At the heart of everything, really, has to be Singaporeans and Singapore,” he said, referring to how the concerns of citizens remain at the centre of policy- making for the short as well as long term.

Tan has championed issues such as heritage conservation. “It is important for a young country, the whole aspect of your value system, character, ethos, culture and heritage,” he said. “It cannot be just about surviving, earning a living, a better quality of life; it has to be anchored on something.”

Tan, who has since been promoted to Acting Minister for Manpower, is one of several office holders who made their political debuts in the 2011 General Election. Asked what the defining characteristic was of the new leaders, he replied, “I find labels not very useful, they tend to pigeonhole you.”

Everyone has a distinct personality, with personal leanings to the left and right of the political spectrum, he said.

Asked about the palpable unhappiness among many Singaporeans over the large population of foreigners in the country, Tan acknowledged that a “tipping point” had been crossed in recent years. The surge in foreign worker numbers had caused a strain on infrastructure such as housing and transport, and prompted a backlash from citizens.

It also led to depressed wages, especially for the lower-income workers who had to compete with cheap foreign labour, he noted. The average monthly wage of cleaners, for instance, had dipped over a decade, from slightly over $1,000 in 2001 to around $900 in 2010. Even some white collar workers were feeling the heat, he pointed out.

As a result, the government has had to soothe what he described as “indigestion” caused by the massive intake of foreigners in recent years. Singapore’s demography was not helping, with a shrinking and silvering workforce owing to fewer babies and a rapidly ageing society.

Singaporeans showed their displeasure in the 2011 election, which saw the opposition winning more seats in Parliament. The government, Tan said, was aware that it had to improve its public engagement style – both online and offline. “We have to change the way we talk, engage and do business.”

He was also quick to caution that there should be a cut-off point to the consultation process. Policies can never please everyone. “A policy isn’t right because it makes sense for the majority or the minority. At the end of it, we need to make a judgment about what is the right thing to do,” he said. But the criticism was welcome, he added.

“It forces the government to think harder, to make sure that you justify policies better, to explain better, because more people are challenging you both in and outside Parliament. That can only be good for the country.”

Article by Sue-Ann Chia

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The perfect host

[Singaporean journalism students Sharifah Fadhilah Alshahab, Claire Chin Jing Yi and Tang Hui Huan with Murtaza in Karachi, April 2012.]

When we finally felt the summer heat, our landlord said it rains twice a year in Karachi. Yet, the day Murtaza Razvi died, it rained twice.

And while the sky wept over his passing, my mind played scenes from the times we spent with him. There was always laughter in those memories. He would crack a string jokes as casually and naturally as a person would breathe.

The first stop I made after I landed was his house. The first bed I slept in for 10 hours after a long and tiring time passing through clouds was the one in his house. Words fail to describe the generosity and hospitality he and his family so readily extended to us.

While he remained frank and candid about the dangers of being in Pakistan and added his legendary humor in his words of caution, he exuded fearlessness and composure that always assured us.

I didn’t know Murtaza as well as I would have loved to. I just assumed we would have time for intellectual conversations over cups of chai later. I just assumed we would have the time to agree to disagree after we’ve exhausted our points later. But later never came.

Sharifah Fadhilah Alshahab is a journalism student at the Wee Kim Wee School, NTU, interning at the Dawn newspaper group.

Remembering Murtaza 1964-2012

Murtaza Razvi, AJF Class of 2009, was killed in Karachi on 19 April 2012. He was a senior editor and columnist with the Dawn group. He leaves behind his wife, Shahrezad, and daughters Maya, Priya and Dina, to whom we offer our deepest condolences. This special issue of the AJF newsletter is devoted to his memory.

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The Arab Spring, one year later

One year after the Arab Spring, the reverberations are still being felt around the world, say our Fellows.

Amitava Gupta, from the Class of 2011, notes how last year started with the upheavals in the Middle East and closed with various Occupy movements across the globe. However, the reasons behind the protests were different in each country. “Egypt had a very different set of problems than Libya or China,” points out Gupta, who is chief sub-editor for Calcutta’s Anandabazar Patrika . “That’s the essence of globalization. The sprit was global, but the elements were very local.”

Guna Raj Luitel (Class of 2010) observes the new media has empowered people around the world like never before. The executive editor of Nepal’s Annapurna Post believes these upheavals were interlinked and that they have inspired one another. “The test of freedom in one place surely attracts other places too,” he says. “In other words, it is contagious.”

In India, the impact was felt through the Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement, notes Gupta. “The youth were desperate to have their own Tahrir Square,” he says. Meanwhile, across the border in Pakistan, Rizwana Naqvi from Dawn Newspaper says that people were attracted to these momentous events and started talking about a possible revolution inspired by the Arab Spring.

Like some of the Arab states, Pakistan is politically unstable and has had a history of dictatorial rule, she adds. “These movements show that people living under suppressive regimes are becoming aware of their rights and want a change,” the 2011 Fellow says.

The Arab Spring has provided a spark that inspires people to take their future into their own hands, says Chee Yoke Heong from Malaysia, where the Bersih protests for cleaner elections made headlines in 2011. Chee (Class of 2010) says it is interesting that many of the protesters were young people.

“It is a reflection of the merger between consciousness, awareness and the will to take action,” says the researcher from Third World Network. However, she notes that governments may respond negatively to the new mood. The Occupy movement protests may provoke governments to enact new rules on public assembly.

Looking forward, one of the big questions for 2012 is whether Myanmar will take big strides towards democratisation. Nwet Kay Khine (Class of 2010) says that the authorities there censored news about the Arab Spring, concerned that the message of revolution would spread to the Southeast Asian country.

“With much underlying discontent, many outsiders thought this motivation will infect the Burmese easily,” said Nwet, who is currently studying at the Erasmus Mundus journalism programme. However, she believes that people of Myanmar are adopting a wait-and-see approach. They hope that the current government will relax its controls, including on the media.

Another country where the authorities were concerned about contagion from the Arab Spring was, of course, China. Fan Ming, who is chief editor of “Insight” at CCTV, says the authorities will have to adapt to new media. “The Internet will play a more important role in Chinese society, so we should follow this trend,” says the 2010 Fellow.

What is undeniable is that ordinary people will matter more in shaping the future. As Gupta notes, “It is good to know that it is not only the people in power who make news, but it is the mass that matters.”

Article by Zakaria Zainal

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Singapore elections see flowering of social media

[A spectator uses his tablet computer to capture Tony Tan’s victory speech after August’s Presidential Election.]

Social media has featured as a prominent actor in Singapore this year as the city-state’s staid political landscape was jolted to life by hotly contested parliamentary and presidential elections held within a span of four months.

The liberalisation of online campaigning laws and the extensive penetration of the Internet meant that voters, candidates, citizen journalists, experts and mainstream media alike used platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to air their views and share the latest news.

In a country where the mainstream media is widely seen as favouring stability and the status quo, media observers noted that social media helped to create a more equitable political playing field for alternative parties and candidates.

In May’s parliamentary election, the opposition claimed a record six out of 87 seats and brought the ruling People’s Action Party’s share of the popular vote down to 60.1 percent. In the August presidential election, the government’s preferred candidate, Tony Tan, won but with just 35.2 percent of the valid votes in a four-horse race.

Although these were not the first elections where the internet was used, Facebook and Twitter made their inaugural appearances. According to AFP, there are some three million Facebook users in the country, which has a population of over five million people. Close to a million are also said to be users of popular micro-blogging site Twitter. Mobile internet devices such as smartphones were also prevalent.

Singaporeans’ use of social media as a tool for active citizenry is by no means unique.

The ongoing political upheaval in the Maghreb was partly sparked off by a Google executive who used Twitter to organise the protests that eventually brought down the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt in February.

Social media also played a key role in attracting more than 50,000 Malaysians to participate in a street protest in July, calling for widespread electoral reform in the country.

The role of social media in political change around the world however should not be overstated, according to American media guru Dan Gillmor.

Gillmor, who was in Singapore as a guest of the Asian Journalism Fellowship in March, spoke to the local media fraternity on social media use in journalism.

While recent events may suggest that the impact of social media is substantive, political change comes from people who utilise it as a tool, rather than from it being a change agent itself, said Gillmor, who was a technology reporter and columnist during the Silicon-Valley dotcom boom. Gillmor also urged journalists to use social media as a platform to collaborate and interact with their audiences.

Online journalism guru Dan Gillmor gave a workshop on social media as part of the AJF 2011 programme.

Online journalism guru Dan Gillmor gave a workshop on social media as part of the AJF 2011 programme.

Lamenting that journalists have tended to act as if they were “oracles who were experts in every field”, he emphasised that the future of journalism lay in collaborative efforts with audiences who can contribute to content producing through interactive web interfaces.

Social media platforms also provide a new paradigm for transparency in journalism, said Gillmor. Acknowledging the fact that the social media allows for falsehoods to be spread online very quickly, he also noted that news organisations and bloggers could use it to ensure that “the truth catches up with the lies much faster”.

Both bloggers and traditional news organisations should also utilise social media to show audiences the work that goes into news gathering, he said. “Audiences will have more trust and respect if we tell them the back story behind quality journalism,” he said.

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Newspapers still valued

While social media helped to raise interest in the elections, there were also concerns about the quality of the information that was being circulated. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called for online spaces where Singaporeans and the government can engage in more balanced, open and rational debate on issues. In his National Day Rally speech in August, he noted the prevalence of “cowboy towns” in cyberspace, circulating “ridiculous untruths”.

He said there was a shortage of spaces that were “reliable, where you can have a open debate, where different views are expressed, but it’s balanced, and if you go there you know that, well, to start off with you can assume that it will make some sense”.

The questionable quality of online media could explain why newspapers continued to be heavily relied on during the elections. According to an Institute of Policy Studies survey of a representative sample of 2,000 Singaporean adults, more than 40 percent spent at least 20 minutes a day reading newspapers for election news during the general election.

Article by Bhavan Jaipragas

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