Opening Address by Dr Urs Stemmler, Ambassador of Switzerland in Malaysia

Distinguished Professor Chandra Muzaffar, consultants Mr Chu Pui Hing from Hong Kong and Mr Savyasaachi Jain from India, Dr Javad Mottaghi, participants and organizers, dear friends,

Let me first and foremost express my appreciation to the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcast Development for organizing this seminar. Let me also express my appreciation to all of you for devoting your time and your effort for this noble cause. A glance at the list of participants indicates that most of you have come from very far away countries and it clearly indicates also a very rich cultural diversity that you constitute and I think that it is a very good starting point for this seminar.

I also think that this seminar is very timely for a number of reasons. First of all because good governance is of course a prerequisite for economic development and well being of the people. Secondly the mass media plays an important role to monitor and check that the authorities actually pursue policies of good governance such as transparency, participation, accountability and the rule of law.

You may think that it is ironical that I stand or rather sit here to preach these principles. Not that I have any doubt that they are true and important; but because in a way we have to face the fact that the relationship between the media and the government has not always been very smooth. And I am almost tempted to say perhaps it should never have been entirely smooth. Perhaps the roles are so different that they should never go altogether smoothly. A researcher, Stephen A. Banning from Bradley University, has made a summary of how some experts -- academic experts that is -- see this issue. I am reading this very short quote to you, just as a start. “The role of the American press has been called an extra constitutional form of checks and balances --a democratic watchdog that must protect the public from its government. There is often friction between the executives and press agenda. Although both claim to be the spokesman of the people, each is dependent on the other in a competition to gain the most from their sometimes co-operative but often contentious interactions.”

Now, that is a summary of what the academics of the Western Hemisphere see. There is also one quote that has impressed me a lot. It was formulated by an esteemed colleague of mine; somebody that’s not on your side but on my side, if I may say that he is on the government’s side. He was Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet Ambassador to Washington for 24 years, and the longest ever serving Ambassador in Washington. And after 24 years, he made an assessment. He knew of course intimately the realities of the United States. And he said, “The Americans, they are so proud of their political system with all their checks and balances, being the Judiciary, the Executive, the Legislative, etc, etc.” But he underlined, “there is one power, one actor, one power broker that goes totally unchecked and you guessed it, it’s the media.” Now of course the argument would be that it would be another three days to debate whatever that is true or not, whether Dobrynin was right or not? But I think he raised an interesting issue that may be of relevance here today -- what in the end should the rules of the game be for the press and of course for the government?

And I think that this seminar for that reason is all the more timely because of the advent of the new media. And when I say new media, I am not just thinking of the internet with the bloggers, Facebook and Twitter. I am also thinking of the new media in the sense of new technological possibilities.

Having a cell phone in which you can take a still picture or in which you can take a short video clip that would eventually appear on the internet has made, or should I say, has produced, a new situation.

First, the advent of the new media has meant that governments will have much less control of the press. Secondly, I think new media has enriched the media landscape but I am also tempted to say that it has made it more chaotic and perhaps more prone to abuse. Not only because in the good old times, if I may say so, 15 or 20 years ago, you had a clear cut situation: here was the government and here was the media. The government tried to influence the media and the media tried to influence the government, if not officially then unofficially. But at least you had a clear cut situation. With the new media, you have a third very diffuse actor. It is actually the consumer of information, who becomes a participant. The bloggers consume information and at the same time they participate. So, I think the whole issue is very blurred and that is why I think that your seminar is very important. There are many in the general public who may not be especially interested in media issues, but they want reliable and fair information. And in a way, that is your job. And of course all of you are media professionals and you know best, or better than I do anyway, how to convey information to your respective audiences. And this workshop will hopefully contribute to not only raising awareness of good governance but also interpreting good governance principles in your primary task of informing your public.

In conclusion, I wish all of you, the participants and the organizers, all the success that this seminar deserves. Thank you very much.