Sunday, March 26, 2006

Media Reform Worldwide: the Maldives, Thailand, and Australia

I have a Google Alert out for "media reform" and all my hits are coming from the Maldives, Thailand, and Australia. We're not reading or hearing about any of these hotspots in U.S. media, so here's a rundown:

In the Maldives, activists are struggling to loosen government control of the media.

In Thailand, the family of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra owns the telecom giant Shin Corp., which fired 21 journalists (for apparently political reasons) from its iTV television station shortly after Thaksin became prime minister in 2001. During the past year opposition to Thaksin's authoritarian rule has mounted and rallied around the issue of media freedom. Last week, a Thai criminal court acquitted media critic Supinya Klangnarong, from the advocacy group Campaign for Popular Media Reform, of suggesting that Shin Corp had profited from its connections with the government - which in fact it has.

In Australia, the Howard government is trying to push through a media reform "blueprint" that sounds as though it is modeled on the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which unleashed a wave of media consolidation in the States and vastly increased the power of the corporate media over distribution and content. There's no question, however, that Australia needs some kind of media reform - when traveling there in 2004, I was immediately struck by the centralized character and dullish content of many Australian media outlets.

For a solid overview of the issues, see the this page from the PC Users Group of Australia. The government's blueprint calls for lifting restrictions on foreign investment in Australia's media sectors, compelling the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to seek advertising revenue, and easing limits on cross-media ownership that prevent investors owning television stations and newspaper operations in the same city. Writing in the Australian newspaper The Age, Stephen Conroy attacked the government's plan:

Australia needs media reform. There is no dispute about that. The emergence of digital technology opens up great opportunities for media companies and for consumers. We need a regulatory regime that allows the potential to be realised.

Regrettably, however, the media options paper released by Senator Coonan contains a poison pill at its heart. Reforms to stimulate the take-up of digital services are tied to an acceptance of the Government's plan to abolish the cross-media ownership rules.

There is simply no need for these matters to be linked. Across the developed world, countries are rapidly moving to digital broadcasting. Yet only the Australian Government is making this process contingent on changing media ownership rules.


MP John Murphy is even more direct.

Yep, sounds like the American model - Australians would do well to review the legacy of the Telecommunications Act, which, BTW, will be up for renewal in 2007. Get ready to mobilize!

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