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New media, democracy and development

Was this the first discussion of these big issues?  I'm still talking about an event almost exactly 15 years ago in Denmark, that shaped a lot of our subsequent activities. At the time I was running the EU's media development network in the Middle East and North Africa (Jemstone).

Although many participants argued that the priorities for the poor were food or health-care or micro-finance, I'm happy to have suggested, in spring 1998, that:   "investment in information technology may be the best way to bring about development".

It would be good to have thoughts from anyone else who was present; and others. 

DEEPEST DENMARK IN THE MIDDLE OF MAY 1998 -- this is an edited version of my informal report at the time:

Running what the European Commission calls 'Europe's biggest media venture in the Middle East', I found this meeting in Denmark invaluable in putting me in touch with activities in many other parts of the world -- and in an atmosphere that enabled us all to discuss and compare our experiences and build up useful contacts.

My impression that Denmark is a world leader in some aspects of development was strengthened by the presentations on the first day, including the visit to the Human Rights Centre, Politiken, the IPC and the Parliament. The various public meetings demonstrated a widespread, mature public interest in these topics, as did the commitment and involvement of many Danes in the conference itself. 

Besides the opportunities for networking and publicising our own activities, the three days provided many new ideas, for example:

*            the concept of pre-broadcast community radio (using loudspeakers and bamboo poles) may offer a way forward in a region like ours where state control of all broadcast media is the usual pattern;

*            the notion that big NGOs can have more impact than small governments in battles for international attention suggests some alternative ways of lobbying;

*            the use by the Danish Board of Technology of consensus conferencing techniques was interesting, even if their director seemed uninterested in opportunities for developing them further in the media field;

*            the reality that international media watchers are probably better informed about events in many countries than local people just a few miles away encourages consideration of innovative solutions to issues of information dissemination;

*            the example of a paper like Politiken that has developed and retained its independence in the face of political and commercial pressures is a valuable lesson for this part of the world where so much of the media has yet to make that journey.   

More generally these meetings helped to crystallise some ideas for Jemstone that we have been grappling with for many months, relating to the four important concepts contained in the conference title.:

1            information technology

2            freedom of expression

3            democracy

4            development

It is true that better information technology should lead to greater freedom of expression; this in turn ought to support democracy; and this is likely to lead to more and faster development (which may well increase the availability of information technology, which should lead to even greater freedom expression etc etc). But this process is not inevitable.

We are very interested in exploring whether this framework is useful and why it doesn't always work.

Towards the end of the conference there was a lot of talk about priorities -- with many people questioning how much effort we should be putting into information technology in countries where the level of development meanthere are not enough schools, hospitals, or basic amenities for the population.

Clearly if there is a pretty strong link from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 above then we can argue that investment in information technology may be the best way to bring about development.

Equally, if our main concern is with freedom of speech then it makes a lot of sense to support internet etc as the link from 1 to 2 is likely to be pretty strong.

However, how do we justify spending scarce resources on information technology when agricultural investment would bring more obvious and immediate benefits, or buying computers and modems when supporting rural radio would have more impact on more people?

Finally, I would like to thank everyone involved in organising and funding the conference. It was, I think, the first event that has tackled these important issues head-on and will be remembered for that.

The event was called:

'Freedom of Expression and Development - New Technologies in the Service of Democracy',   Copenhagen/Louisiana 15-17 May 1998; it was organised by Susanne Possing, and Anders Jerichow of Politiken.


Last Updated on Wednesday, 10 April 2013 10:38  

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