The New Blogocracy


Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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The recent news that a group of five online diarists, or "bloggers", participated in a 24-hour "blogathon" to raise money for charity highlighted the important role these online journals now play in disseminating information to the Malaysian public.

A global phenomenon that even competes with traditional media, a web log, or blog, is a public web site where users post informal entries that follow a variety of topics, from the mundane to the bizarre. With the ability to be updated frequently, the sites often act as forums for discourse, which are moderated by the blogger.

Malaysia's philanthropic fivesome registered their participation in the event on a web site where blog entries were posted for 24 hours continuously. Each of the team blogged for four hours with updates every 30 minutes, eventually raising RM5080 ($1350) for a local charity.

It is estimated that around 10,000 Malaysians share the hobby, prompting it to become the topic of academic study recently with the publishing of a paper by Tang Hang Wu, assistant professor in the Faculty of Law at the National University of Singapore.

Entitled "Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom: A Malaysian Case Study on Blogging Towards a Democratic Culture", the paper seeks to explore whether, and if so how, the creation of this online melee of opinion and discussion feeds the emergence of a democratic culture, whilst bypassing restrictions on freedom of expression and speech.

Indeed, posits Wu, it is one of the more salient features of the technology used in blogging that it allows individuals to bypass the traditional barriers to freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

Using Malaysia as an example, Wu highlights the Sedition Act, which makes it an offence to say or publish words of a seditious nature. The term "seditious" is defined widely and includes bringing hatred or contempt to the government or ruler and questioning the right and status of "sensitive issues".

Wu also draws attention to the laws covering the licensing of newspapers, which require all papers to obtain a licence from a minister and pay a deposit. He also addresses the defamation laws, which were used in the mid-1990s to bring suits demanding enormous sums of money - crippling publications. Then there are the freedom of assembly laws, which restrict more than three people from gathering in public places unless a permit has been granted them by the police.

Blogs, however, circumnavigate these restrictions to a certain extent. Unlike a newspaper, they need no licence and virtual congregation needs no permit, leaving the possibility of creating large, open access discussions.

Hence blogs have become an important part of information dissemination to the public in Malaysia and even compete with traditional media. This was particularly true during the SARS crisis in East Asia, an event which gave a particular boost to Malaysian bloggers.

One blog, called Screenshots, run by Malaysian businessman Jeff Ooi, came to particular prominence during the crisis, as many Malaysians lacked confidence in the Ministry of Health's information, particularly after reports that the Home Ministry had directed major English language papers to adjust reporting on SARS and not mention any fatalities.

Ooi took the challenge of scouring the web for information on SARS and reporting on the crisis in his blog entries. Interest in his writing soared internationally and he was even referred to in reports by MSNBC, whilst hits to his web site were coming from inside major multinationals and universities around the world. His site had become a news source for those seeking to monitor the situation.

Ooi's web site has since continued to gain in popularity as a news source, as he is able to gain information that is not normally widely available through leaks and what he calls "little birds", whom it is presumed are readers, privy to sensitive information and wanting to centralise its collation.

The sedition law still hangs over bloggers though and it is a problem that Ooi faced himself through 2004 as his blog was dragged into the mainstream media after a reader left controversial statements about Islam on the site in response to an article by Ooi. Yet although the ordeal highlighted the difficulties that bloggers still face, ultimately it served to promote Screenshots.

In his paper, Wu also highlights the role of increasing access to blogs played by Project Petaling Street. This site is a blog aggregator which essentially allows the most recent entries of participating bloggers to be accessed via a central site named after the famous market street in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown.

Soon after its launch in 2003, the site had 127 members. A cursory look at the entries that pour through its pages everyday reveals a wide spectrum of topics and viewpoints. Although not always political, topical news stories such as particular scandals stimulate a lot of discourse and tend to attract a lot of hits.

For Wu the question comes down to replication - whether what is apparently a successful forum for debate and information dissemination which bypasses various limitations placed on citizens by the state can be reproduced elsewhere.

The question maybe one of carts and horses though. Has the emergence of blogging suddenly stimulated a sharing of information amongst the population, or has the technology merely allowed a wider and faster dissemination along lines that were largely in place?

Wu's answer is the latter and the idea of replicating the experience in other countries is yet to be answered, although it would likely fail in countries that take a harsher line on bloggers, such as China and Iran, which have both blocked sites and detained bloggers.

Wu's answer is also backed up by a comparison with neighbouring Singapore. A recent study of the two countries by Cherian George noted that whilst internet access is much more widely available in Singapore, it does not enjoy nearly the same levels of "cyber-activism" as Malaysia.

Whatever the case, Malaysians look likely to keep logging on in increasing numbers, equipping themselves with more information - a resource that could also influence their decisions when they exercise their voting power at the polls.

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