Filomena Barros Reis is Coordinator of the Education Unit of
FOKUPERS (the East Timorese Women's Forum) in Dili, East Timor.
Issues such as violence against women and women's position in the
transition of East Timor are being discussed on radio programmes
currently run by FOKUPERS.
Since 1995, when the Beijing Platform of Action for Women was adopted, there have been many changes. A major change is the exponential growth in information and communication technologies (ICTs). Rich or poor, undemocratic or authoritarian regimes, the regions countries have more access to information now than in the past. All, with the exception of Myanmar (formerly Burma), have access to the Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW). There are changes in the structure, ownership, control, and the content and character of most media in the region. What will these changes mean for the region's 1.7 billion women is still unclear. Will it advance or impede the birth of more just and fair gender relations?
These developments have been taking shape under constantly shifting economic and political backdrops in the region. Media have been affected by these dizzying, interrelated changes to varying degrees. The Asian crisis, for example, precipitated the ouster of governments and freed the presses of Thailand and Indonesia. In Malaysia, the "Reformasi" campaign, which emerged from protests against the arrest and imprisonment of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim catalyzed a vibrant growth in Internet Web sites and Web-based newspaper and journals. For the first time in Malaysia, this has created the possibility of a freer press.
Representation and visibility of women in media: some old, some new
In 1999, the media in Fiji wrote about the rising cost of fuel and how men were reeling from its effects. No stories carried the views of women who, like men, drove cars and, in the case of those in the rural areas, relied mostly on fuel for basic housekeeping duties.
In Japan, coverage of the Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 had male reporters, commentators and experts analyzing the situation. Women were shown either huddled in shelters, cooking or wailing. In reality, many were involved in relief and rehabilitation efforts.
In Sri Lanka, men as opinion makers, politicians and bureaucrats have become a staple of talk shows; women are invited only when debates focus on perceived "soft" topics like health and education.
In Cambodia, women are shown in news and current affairs programmes, but mainly for aesthetic reasons. A television monitoring project, the first of its kind initiated in this country by the Women's Media Centre (WMC) from January to December 1997, observed that "women were always giving flowers to dignitaries."
The silencing of women in media, according to one Bangladeshi journalist, can also be traced to "the social taboo among Asians that women are not the right people to depend on for the right news or opinion."
Filipina journalist Paulynn Sicam, editor-in-chief of the online English daily newspaper, Cyberdyaryo, says that treating women as sources and opinion makers still "doesn't come naturally" even for women journalists. Even when covering politics, most editors and reporters tend to look for the "soft side" when exploring the women angle. "Women are not seen as capable of having opinions."
In the region, two countries exceeded the global average of 20% for political stories: Korea (29%) and Nepal (41%). These two, along with Indonesia, had the lowest percentage of female news subjects in the region at 9%. Yet, women in positions of power or aspiring for power in the public or private sector have a hard time finding a place. The monitor noted that women as politicians were visible only in India and Sri Lanka, where they constituted 13% of all female subjects in the news that day. To begin with, they are a minority: for example, women constitute only 26% of the members of parliament in Vietnam; and 12% in the Philippines.
In Sri Lanka, women politicians also have a tougher time with media than male politicians, especially those who enter politics at "grassroots level. They are "scrutinized for juicy gossip," and "good reputation and stable family life" are held up as prerequisites for their election. But not if they are from upper class families such as the Nehrus, Gandhis, Bandaranaikes, etc.
Women in business and law were visible only in the Philippines, even though United Nations data on Southeast Asia indicates that women "exercise a reasonable degree of professional responsibility in business; 24% of them are in managerial positions." Yet women as entertainers figured highly in the Asia monitor 13% in Pakistan, 11% in India and Japan compared with a global average of 7%.
The negative portrayal of women, especially on the issue of sex and violence, has also hardly changed, and, in some cases, has disturbingly risen. In Fiji, some "serious infractions" have been noted with regards to the identification and printing of photographs of victims of sexual violence.
If they are not victims of crime, they are made to appear as hapless victims of calamities, especially on television where crying women are automatically used to show suffering.
In Malaysia, despite public protests about certain ads and programmes that degrade women, there's a rise in the use of women to portray sexual and sexist messages to earn huge profits. Cambodian TV does not report cases of domestic violence even though there is enough research to prove it is a problem. Indonesia is in denial about violence against women, particularly domestic violence, but NGOs have used media reports and direct accounts of women-victims as a basis to record incidents. Most of the victims identified have been women workers and migrant women workers.
However, there have been gains. In Cambodia, a two-year radio-monitoring project indicates that it is slowly coming to terms with gender issues. A 3% increase in reports about women in news programmes was noted, up from 5% in 1998 to 8% in 1999. Women listened to 56% of all news monitored. In Fiji and Cambodia, there has been an increase in coverage on violence against women, largely due to the lobbying efforts of the women's movement in these countries.
Women working in the media: tough choices
While each country has its own unique set of experiences, women journalists share common grievances that revolve around the lack of equal opportunity in promotion and training, childcare and family obligations, sexual harassment in and outside the workplace and invisibility in the media boardrooms and newsroom.
In country reports submitted to the International Media Women's Federation (IMWF) in 1998, 60% of women journalists from the Pacific Islands of Fiji, Samoa and Vanuatu said they felt that men with similar experience and expertise to them, "receive more opportunities in terms of pay, promotions and training." The long hours and conflict between career and family has been enough to discourage women from entering the profession or staying for the long haul. Women comprise only 31% of the total media workforce as of 2000, according to the latest GMMP report.
In South Korea, the percentage of women, according to a country report, dropped between 1990 to 1995, because of low pay. Economic publications were hiring more women, but the pay was less than that in major dailies, which favoured men. In Malaysia, about 80% of reporters are women, according to one journalist, because men shy away from the job due to low pay. The Asian crisis in the late 90s took its toll on women journalists in some countries the first to be let go in the staff cutbacks were single women, followed by married women.
There have been a few women rising to managerial positions in India, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, but the small numbers do not necessarily reflect reality across the board.
In Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, and Central Asia, women journalists writing under enormous constraints have formed professional groups to discuss media issues and pursue programmes to improve their coverage, especially of women's issues. These include groups such as the All China Women Journalists' Association and the South Korea Women Journalists' Club.
Freedom of expression, media ownership and the information revolution
The information revolution has exacerbated the problems, but also offered many opportunities for advancement. The overall trend is toward more commercials to compete with satellite media.
Trends in media in Southeast Asia today suggest direct state control (Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and outside Southeast Asia, China), licensing control of private media (Singapore, Malaysia, and until recently, Indonesia; TV and radio, largely state controlled), and free-for-all press (Thailand and the Philippines).
In China the (Communist) party's control over the press has weakened. In increasingly competitive and commercialized China, media outfits run by the party now have to fight for survival. For them, it's reform or perish.
Technology has, in many ways, helped free up the media in countries where authorities have kept a tight lid on dissent. In Indonesia, journalists and dissidents used the Internet to bring uncensored news to students and a middle class increasingly fed up with corruption and abuse of power. In Malaysia, where the mass media are in the hands of the state and where restrictive laws limit press freedom and make self-censorship second nature to journalists, stifled voices have found an outlet in the Web.
Womens use of ICTs
Women's movements in the region have discovered the liberating power of the Internet. "The women's movement in the region has increasingly used the electronic medium to put forward their advocacy and build solidarity," according to a review of women's use of the information communication technologies (ICTs) conducted by Isis International-Manila in 2000.
In China, the percentage of women users increased from 12.3% to 30.4% in three years (from 1997-2001); women have likewise established their own portals and Web sites, according to the China Internet Network Information Centre.
Internet services and use have increased significantly since the technology was introduced in the region in the 1990s, with Japan, South Korea, Philippines, and Indonesia leading the Internet field in Asia-Pacific.
South Korean women are making their presence felt in the traditionally male-dominated world of business, particularly in the area of ICT. This shift had been a major force in encouraging South Korean homemakers to seek employment outside the home. In the past, conservative people labeled working women as ill fated, but these days, most people see it as natural for women to pursue a career.
While there is no statistical data immediately available to show the exact percentage of women's organizations accessing ICTs, some gains have been reported. Many women's NGOs who went online said they "benefited by gaining more visibility through Web sites, having access to donor assistance, and information especially of international and regional activities, relating to the women's movement," according to a recent regional survey of the use of ICTs by regional women's groups.
ICTs have also enabled diverse women's groups with diverse interests and agendas, both within countries and across borders, to come together. Indian and Nepalese women's groups have urged governments to take action against the trafficking of women and girls. Migrant workers groups in South and Southeast Asia have developed networks and coalitions to safeguard the rights of contract migrant women workers who are vulnerable and subject to exploitation in the labour-importing countries.
However, there are concerns related of control, ownership and access to ICTs. There are fears that those on the other side of the digital divide, without access to ICTs, will become more marginalized than ever.
The Isis ICT survey shows that among women's organizations, "the more educated, articulate (in the English language) urban groups have greater visibility and often take the initiative to mobilize grassroots women through their organizations." It underscored the need to improve the use of ICTs by women NGOs who already have access to it. And, for those who do not, to consider repackaging information from the Internet, so that a convergence of different channels of communication such as radio and print, become imperative.
Technophobia and language barriers are reasons for low use of the Internet. "I will not use the Internet because I cannot speak English," is a common sentiment among women in Indonesia. In the Pacific Islands, the Internet and its technology intimidate many women, finding it more of an area best left to the men. Many girls and young women are not encouraged to take science in school, or feel that it would be an area in which they would not excel.
The State of Women and Media in Asia in a September 1999 overview prepared for the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific pointed out that women in the region are generally underrepresented in the technical aspects of the ICT sector. Science and technology education continues to be biased against girls and women, and women are mostly concentrated in assembly and clerical work, with only a few in computer systems administration and technical development.
Rural women have more problems accessing communication channels and media and having the knowledge and skills to use them. "If the benefits of new technologies are to reach (them), it is not only essential to increase the quantity and accessibility of infrastructure, but also to provide intermediary organizations with the training to use them," said Silvia Balit, a freelance communications consultant.
Access to training: competition and competence
Media needs to be competent in order to compete, and the information revolution has not been accompanied by professional growth. There has been a lack of freedom and the ability to have the sophisticated media coverage needed in a more complex age. Many journalists do not have the training to deal with complex issues and processes, even if they have the liberty to do so. Most journalists agree that training and continuing education of media have to be accompanied by mentoring. Previous IWMF surveys and reports have found that in many Asian countries, mentoring is not commonly practised.
Regional media groups like the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) have emerged, prioritizing professional growth alongside issues of press freedom and access to information. Members tap the expertise from within the region to address problems and gaps in media. Inter Press Service (IPS), the third-world news agency, says that, in mainstreaming gender, it has stressed that training is the key to change. It enhances the skills of both reporters and editors and provides opportunities for journalists within the agency to re-evaluate the values that guide the editorial work of IPS.
Media codes of conduct: upgrading media
Participants in a regional discussion on media codes of conduct in 2001 agreed that media codes are needed, but also that it may be impossible to have a common regional standard of conduct and ethics. They pointed to the diversity of the region's socio-economic-political cultures, media ownership patterns, and media role and responsibility, among others. It was agreed that self-monitoring is a desirable system of regulation. Fears were expressed that involving the state in regulation could lead to the curtailment of freedoms. These fears are, of course, not unfounded, looking at some restrictive laws in the countries of the region.
For example, Malaysia has the dreaded Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows the warrantless arrest and imprisonment of anyone perceived to be an enemy of the State. Kazakhstan recently passed a law, "On the Establishment of Billing Telecom Tariff Center," which enables the trafficking of all e-mails and Internet material for censorship of "unwelcome" information.
In Myanmar, a Computer Law prohibits inhabitants from owning computers, modems, fax machines, or photocopiers without government approval. To date, no country in the Asia-Pacific region has a code of conduct and ethics that specifically addresses gender-fair reporting.
In the absence of this, media members coming from different countries can be convinced of a common understanding of principles and terms, which have gained greater currency in a global conversation. Codes and press councils are needed, not because other people want them, but because the journalistic community can always stand improvement and standard setting is part of the process.
Media professionals tend to be more receptive to critical comments based on professional criteria than to arguments about discrimination or women's rights. Reference to concepts that are commonly used to evaluate professional performance in the media for example, balance, objectivity, diversity, creativity, quality will strike a chord, and indeed will have real meaning to journalists and programme makers, most of whom very much want to do a good job.
Philippine journalist Sheila Coronel says the public needs to see that often todays information explosion gives them "the illusion that knowledge is passed on simply because of the multiplicity and sophistication of the media available to them." Yet, she said, "even as we are inundated by this talk of gigabytes of information swirling around the world in nanoseconds, we are also distracted from the quality of this crisscrossing information: Is it relevant? Is it necessary? Does it make the world a better place?"