The freedom and acceptability of new media

Excerpt of Malaysian Press Institute (MPI) Chief Executive Officer, Datuk Chamil Wariya’s paper presented to  World Development Information Day Forum (WDID), organized by the International Division, Ministry of Communication and Multimedia  Malaysia at Cyberview Lodge, Cyberjaya, on  24th October 2013.

First and foremost, let me congratulate the International Division of Ministry of Communication and Multimedia Malaysia for hosting this forum today in conjunction with World Development Information Day (WDID). Weeks ago when I was contacted by the event organizer, I was asked to make a commentary on a particular topic entitled ‘Freedom and Acceptability of the New Media in Malaysia.

As some of you might have realized, the topic itself is seemingly peculiar. After all, the new media is not a new phenomenon in this nation. The hoo-ha and hysterias made about the new media years ago especially during the General Election in 2008 has actually somewhat quietened down. As far as I am concerned the new media has been well adapted by private individuals and local media practitioners alike. The fact that the internet subscribers stood at 17.5 million as of 2011 testifies that there is an overwhelming acceptance of new media among Malaysians especially among the so called Y Generation

And yet here we are today, still discussing on and about the acceptability of the new media in Malaysia. Why is this so? Have we not welcomed and embraced the new media enough? Well, if we have a closer inspection on the title given, it seems that introduction of the new media in this nation has also brought with it an abstract notion named freedom.

You may ask or even shout: Freedom? What does freedom has got to do with this latest human innovation. Undoubtedly, freedom is one of the most spoken and controversial concepts in the modern human society. Historically, its meaning has been ambiguous and its application has been notoriously arbitrary. It becomes a curiosity and hence a question when a rise of a new technology is able to produce an effect called freedom.

Aha! But if the relationship of freedom is as what as it has been claimed to be; that it is a necessary complementary existence of the new media, then we are obliged to analyze the nature and the impact of this relationship to our nation. Also, the discussion on acceptability is in fact a logical connection to the aforementioned relationship. If a new technology is bringing ‘freedom’ to our shores, it is by the virtue of prudence that the individuals and groups in our society may have different degrees of reception or acceptability to it. It is after all one thing to accept a tool for its general utilities, but another if it has the capacity for social and political change. Subsequently, the only natural question is to know why has our people accepted or oppositely rejected the new media with its controversial extra quality.

First things first, what is the new media? If one referred to any authorized academic texts, one may noticed there are many technical definitions and classifications of new media. I for one prefers when its characteristics are distinguished with the traditional media. The first obvious distinction is that it has digitalized the media content. What does this mean? The digitalization process is not comparable as how one transforms communication from print to airwaves or to broadcasting. The digitalization process is not merely an adaptation of communication to just another platform. The World Wide Web has enabled communication to a global reach. The latest technology and its applications have broken the traditional understanding of long-distance communication. Before their adaptation to the new media, the traditional media practices were nowhere near in terms of geographical reach or instantaneity. Nowadays, it seems that every personal communication and news sharing are almost instantaneous! All of the audiences in this hall are well accustomed to this brand of new technology. We are all guilty from one end to the other of using this technology in our daily lives. In fact it is not an exaggeration for me to say that the ‘wow factor’ has subsided.

But our story of the new media has not ended here. It is not my point today to describe the fall or the survival of our traditional media. The first point that I wish for the audience to be conscious of today is on how the new media has completely changed our mode of communication. And the change is permanent. Furthermore I must insist to the floor that this remark on change is not about our ordinary day to day communication. Ini bukan tentang perbualan di kedai-kedai kopi atau  omong-omong kosong. Yes, there has been changed in our daily communication, but this ‘kind’ of transformation in communication that I perceived has a deeper and long lasting impact in our nation. This is especially so since there are voices making tall claims that the new media is a ‘place’ for democracy or at least freedom.

For one to uncover this mystery, one must first answer; how does the new media related to the notion of freedom? In my understanding, the relationship of the new media and freedom is rather specific. We cannot possibly understand the true relationship of the new media and freedom in its general form. Surely the question of freedom and the new media that is relevant in our discussion today will be a miss if we refer to new media in its totality or if freedom is for an example implies trade freedom and its opportunities in the World Wide Web. In my humble understanding, the question on the new media and freedom makes much more sense if we contextualize the subject matter specifically to a component of new media that is the social media. Also, the noun freedom in this context connotes a political meaning.

Again we have encountered a term that is well known to everyone in this hall: the social media. It is without a doubt the most habitual used of all the forms in the new media components. Websites such as Facebook, Wikipedia, and Twitter are among the most visited sites within the social media genre. I bet a few of you in this hall are currently messaging or waiting for notifications via these interactive websites. In fact, it is this heavy reliance on the social media is how all of us, I believe, will adopt a degree of social and political change.

Our adaptation to this technology is not merely a transition on the mode of communication from analog to digital. I am not certain whether it is the human ability to efficiently adapt to its continual changing environment or that the technology itself has been too well designed for us that we have not stop to reflect on the full impact it has on the social norm of our nation. I am convinced that this technology has a special quality for despite its obvious benefit to our social life it hides an unexpected character for the oblivious masses. It is a tool that carries itself an unintended intention.  In a war situation, the terminology is collateral damage.

Let me illustrate by way of an example. Recently, there has been a development of a new technology called the 3D printer. The creator’s initial intention for this invention was tame. Theoretically, one can designed any designs of arts and crafts in which the 3D printer shall print the parts into solid forms. Interestingly, this invention has been used to print parts of a functioning rifle. This is an example of an unintended intention. Similarly, the intention of the developers of these social media websites is initially for ordinary social or commercial purposes. Today, social media is acknowledged globally and especially in Malaysia as one of the efficient platforms for political tool.

Some of you might insist, is it not obvious that such a powerful communication tool having tremendous effect on our society? And arguably such a neutral tool is subject to benevolent manipulation or abuse? I will say that such remark is simply a form of cognitive bias. In fact we were only able to make such a claim after we have actually felt its effect. But truly, did we predict, say the rise of alternative media in this nation twenty years ago? The government of this country did not fully comprehend its consequences and in this regard the media laws as well.

The innovation was unassuming yet it contained within it surprising political opportunities. This is what I perceived on how the new media and its powerful offspring, the social media, brought the notion of freedom to our shores. As such there are consequently two important questions for us to answer; what is the nature of freedom that causes new political development in this nation? And secondly, how have the private and public groups in this nation reacted to this political development. Naturally, the examination of these two questions, I hope, will provide us with the latest local illustration of the new media and its acceptability.

What can the new media or the social media offer us particularly in terms of freedom? Communication among the members of a society is a form of civil rights. Our daily communications among family and friends is part of this right. Generally, it means that we have the right to receive and share information. On a more serious level, this may refers to our shared political opinions. This concept is better expressed as the right of expression. The digitalized media has provided us with a freedom or accessibility to a new dimension of communication. Theoretically, we have been given with a new territory to express and in our context the right to express political opinions (however controversial that maybe).

Furthermore, we were not only given a new territory to express ordinarily censure opinions, which may escape real life socio-ethics consequences or the jurisdiction of our outdated domestic law. The social and the new media as a whole provide the private individuals with a low cost platform to express easily edited/modified opinions. The latest technology of web 2.0 and beyond has also provided the opinionated with the capacity to express with global reach, immediately and in high frequency.

With specific reflection to our local politics and its circumstances, this brand of new freedom has been welcomed with mixed receptions. Unsurprisingly, the group that embraces this new brand of freedom are the civil rights activists and in particular the media practitioner. Bounded by the legal barriers in the traditional media, many found this digital freedom as the means to express political opinions especially the kind that directs strong criticism to the government and its politicians. Consequently, the Malaysian journalism is seeing a rise in the establishment of alternative news portal. Although, the rise of the alternative political opinions and journalisms has been so far exist as a polarization to the traditional media in this nation, it remains to be seen whether there will a third (objective?) alternative group to this schism.

The famous Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy once said: all is fair in love and in war, and to the provocative spirited that has been the case to those who have misuse and abuse the freedom given. The actual form of the political dynamic is chaos or to some it is anarchy. As such, the other side of the society shall instinctively seek balance and control. Hence, reacting oppositely to this digital freedom, at least initially, is our government. It is a point to ponder whether their claim to act in the defensive has a justifiable basis or simply a fear to lose power, but it is unfair for us to deem these conservative actions as having no basis at all. There are justified reasons such as to protect the nation’s public order and the national security in terms of precautionary and preventative measures. After all there should not be any respect for freedom which does not prioritized the collective need for order and the rule of law.

However, any discussion on freedom and politics cannot avoid its necessary baggage. It is a concept that is not devoid of diverse political meanings. Its use in realpolitik has been met with deep suspicion, mixed motivations and injurious prejudice. If we cannot determine the status of freedom due to its political and legal murkiness, then the other contentious point to the acceptability of this digital freedom is to do with moral accountability. I sincerely believed that the acceptability of the digital freedom should increase if the opinionated have a sense   of obligation to promote objectivity, honesty and prudence. Unlike the traditional media and its restraints, it is only fitting for those who have embraced the new media and its freedom shall have the necessary strength to establish opinions that is morally accountable. Furthermore, it is simply undesirable in our quest to freedom of expression attracts excessive resistance from the custodian of law and order. The quest for freedom is also a quest for wisdom.

The question of freedom and acceptability of the digital media is essentially complex and a political one. But my main emphasis and criticism on the topic is our lack of aptitude to contemplate the unintended effects of the new media in its current effect. It is one thing for us to accept our limit to predict the future but another for us to react excessively or abusively to a newfound power that has caught us by surprise. All in all, I personally foresee that the degree of acceptability shall only escalate with our preparation to anticipate further upcoming ‘unexpected’ element of the new media. It is by then I believe that our nation shall embrace the notion of freedom in its true variety and ideals.

Thank you.