Media Debates at WSIS
  World Electronic Media Forum celebrates and reflects - media activists expose "Infowar"
  Geneva, 10 December 2003. Contrary to the wide-spread neglect of media issues in the WSIS negotiations, the media have played a central role in the WSIS side-events in Geneva. One day before the summit started, the World Electronic Media Forum (WEMF) opened its doors yesterday, and media issues continue to be critically reflected in civil society events, both in Palexpo and outside. While the WEMF discussed the challenges of new media, media activists at "WSIS? We Seize!" exposed the threats of "Infowar".

New media and WEMF
The WEMF has been one of the biggest side-events to be held around the summit. Triggered by the widespread disregard of media issues in the official WSIS debates, several major braodcasters had invited key media representatives for an alternative summit to be almost as extensive and high-profile as the summit itself.

"Setting the World Agenda" was the ambitious objective of the main WEMF plenary today. However in contrast to the self-celebratory character of some of the other WEMF panels, this event offered space for reflection and self-criticism, focusing on the challenges by new technologies and by participatory approaches to media. Nick Gowing, News Presenter of BBC World, illustrated how new grassroots and community journalism not only "is filling an information space not filled by the traditional media" but also is challenging mainstream media content. With new low-cost technology, anyone can now be a journalist and provide near-live reporting. Not unsurprisingly to mainstream media critics, he looked at these developments mostly with a positive view.

Gowing's focus on technology-determined change in the media sector was somewhat qualified by Javed Jabbar from the South Asian Media Association. He focused on the empowerment effects of citizen's media and on the need for all media to be accountable to civil society. However it remained an open question whether new media would actually lead to new content and political emancipation or whether it would simply allow to "do old things faster".

Media Freedoms and threats
A more fundamental criticism of the media was on the agenda of the discussion "Media Liberties in the Information Society", organised by the Swiss journalist union Comedia. Ignacio Ramonet from Le Monde Diplomatique and Rita Freire from the Brazilian Ciranda, amongst others, discussed threats to media liberties by state repression, but also focused on the effects of privatisation, commercialisation and media concentration on media content.

While the WEMF was discussing "about" new media approaches, without actually inviting community, alternative or citizen's media onto the panel, some of the latter held their very own session on media issues at the WSIS? We Seize! conference in downtown Geneva. Danny Schechter's ( intervention at the WEMF, noting that "the media has become part of the global problems" was the underlying motto of the debate on "Infowar".

Community journalists from the Venezuelan website re-called how the commercial media propaganda had played a significant part in last year's coup attempt against President Hugo Chavez. Talking about the experiences of the recent protests against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) in Miami, Sasha Costanza-Schock from Indymedia illustrated how the state authorities had unleashed "an application of full-on infowar". Money originally set aside for the war in Iraq had been used for repressing the Miami protests, "embedded reporters" had been included in riot police squads, wearing riot police gear, unable to find out about thne protesters' views. Journalists unwilling to "embed" with the police, including both alternative and corporate journalists, were facing physical attacks by police, including shots with rubber bullets, leading to serious injuries. According to Costanza-Schock this repressive media strategy, called "The Miami Model", will serve as a blueprint for further protests.

Creating and supporting alternative grassroots media was seen as the primary way out of the problem. Indymedia participants saw the new Independent Media Centre in Miami as one of the most positive outcomes of the FTAA events. Similarly the Aporrea journalists regarded alternative community-based media as the main way forward, giving a voice to those ignored by the mainstream media.

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