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Diversity, Frank Talk Mark Mekong Media Forum

Posted on 12 December 2009 by admin

By Lynette Lee Corporal

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Dec 12 (TerraViva) – The diversity of views at the Mekong Media Forum in Chiang Mai, Thailand and the frankness which with some touchy topics were discussed, from China’s behaviour in the Mekong region to the situation in Burma and how journalists make their way through sometimes tricky media terrain were among the hallmarks of the just-ended forum, participants say.

More than 220 participants, nearly 100 of them journalists from the six Mekong countries, attended the Dec.9-12  forum.

“I really didn’t expect that the Mekong dams issue is so controversial in this conference,” said Zhu Yan, senior editor at the national broadcaster China Central Television, referring to the heated discussions that occurred in one of the sessions about water resources and dam constructions in the upper reaches of the Mekong river.

As a Beijing-based journalist, Zhu Yan said the particular issue about China’s role in the issue “wasn’t major news” in the Beijing-based press. “I think the reporters based in the south of China, such as Guangzhou and Hong Kong, have a better understanding of these things,” he added.

China’s hydropower projects along the upper stretch of the Mekong River have been blamed by downstream countries for a host of environmental impacts, ranging from unstable levels of water, floods and salination in the Mekong Delta. China however has said that the two dams it has now would help ensure water supply to these countries during the dry season.

While the debate about the topic will continue, Moeun Nhean, publisher of ‘The Cambodian Scene’ magazine, says the point is that journalists and other participants were able to discuss openly their questions about China’s role in the region and how media reports on the matter.

He is happy about the presence and active participation of Chinese journalists in the Forum. “Before, Chinese journalists come in and just listen and keep quiet. It used to be when they wouldn’t even react and answer questions about China’s policies about dams,” he said.

Zhu Yan agrees that the Forum brings journalists together so certain issues could be discussed in an open manner. “I think we should expand our knowledge some more about this controversial issue,” he added.

The discussion also opened the eyes of Vietnamese journalist Nguyen Kim Ngan about China and the controversies attached to its policies. “Before coming here, I was very angry with China in general because of the water resources issue, for instance, but I wasn’t sure where or what brought on that anger. Now, after listening to the views of our Chinese counterparts here, I realised that it’s not fair to generalise and blame the whole country,” said Kim Ngan.

A few participants from non-Mekong countries expressed surprised at the passionate debates about China’s growing influence in the Mekong region.

“I found it very interesting to have quite a lot of people from China here and the sometimes tense situation in the course of the discussions between the people from China and the rest of the Mekong,” said Lars Krauss from Germany.

Susanne Ornager, UNESCO adviser for Communication and Information in Asia, agrees but points out that “there are other things and issues to discuss apart from the dams. “Of course, we’re here to talk about the Mekong region, but China broadened the subject, I think, in the way they said that there are other things, other issues about China,” she said.

Tan Keng Sooi, a journalist who works with the Lao news agency KPL, was pleased that water governance issues were discussed, saying that the Forum “sounded the warning bells of the future” of the Mekong. “The Forum is on the right track by having the water theme here,” he said.

Forum participants also thought discussions about Burma quite interesting.

Ornager said they were “very good” because she said it gave her a more complete picture of what’s going on in the country. “Until now, at least on my side, Burma has been one country but what I learned here is that consists of many different tribes,” she said.

Two Burmese participants said that the Forum was great opportunity for them to meet their counterparts in the region and learn from each other. “This is a good way to further deeper relations among the participants and know more about our colleagues and their countries,” said one of them who had flown in from Rangoon, asking that she not be identified by name. “It’s very ‘free’ here to discuss things, even controversial issues,” she said.

Freelance Burmese journalist Soe Win Than found the interaction among the participants from the six Mekong countries particularly useful in his work. “I didn’t use to be interested in the gender issue but after listening to the lively exchange here among gender experts, I now find it more interesting,” he said, referring to the Dec. 11 sessions on media and gender. He also liked the discussion on children and borders.

Still, some expressed some disappointment that some topics they expected to be covered were missing.

Moeun Nhean said that because Chinese journalists do not represent the government and are not expected to speak for them, he would like to see more ‘voices’ from Chinese government representatives to answer questions about the Mekong dams.

“Although it’s great to know from the Chinese journalists’ side who are able to tell us what their government is doing about these issues, I also wanted to hear more about how the government is going to take the responsibility for the environmental effects of the dams,” he said.

Vongsone Oudomsouk, project manager of the United Nations Development Programme’s Khoun Radio Support Project, wanted to hear more about resolutions to the problems of the Mekong dam projects. “I think there wasn’t enough discussion about how we can all work together — practical steps — to resolve the problem,” he said.

Sutthida Malikaew, freelance writer and consultant on HIV/AIDS and trafficking issues in Thailand, thought the Forum could have featured more sessions on people and culture in the Mekong. “The relationships among the countries in the region, their similarities, can promote better understanding among participants. We should look at the Mekong not as a river but a region as a whole,” said Sutthida.

U.S. journalist Patrick Kelly wanted to see more discussion about the inner workings of the media in the Mekong in relation to the issues. “I found many of the panel discussions here were focused on the issues themselves rather than the work of the media and collaborative efforts,” he said.

But ‘China Daily’ senior journalist Mu Qian thought that many of the topics featured in the Forum were quite new, especially since “in China, we don’t talk about many of the topics discussed here”.

Although he thought the sessions were a good “brainstorming experience”, he said that the topics might be “a little bit too much from western angles”, specifically on the gender and health issues. He said that, at least from a Chinese perspective, he would consider the gaps between those belonging to different socio-economic levels in China more an issue. “Equality between men and women in China is much better than those, say, between farmers and urban residents, or those belong to different socio-economic groups,” he said. “I think it’s very difficult to talk about the gender issue as a whole because different countries have different experiences about this.”

Also, Mu Qian proposed that future conferences can discuss more the cultural linkages among the Mekong countries and how these linkages could be used to unite the region.

Japanese illustrator Akira Mizuno, whose illustrations about Vietnam were exhibited at the Forum, said: “It’s a bit sad that Japan is not represented here because they also need very much to be involved in this kind of conversation. Being a big donor in infrastructure projects, the Japanese government don’t realise the deeper nuances of what’s going on in the Mekong,” said Mizuno, who noted the  Mekong countries’ sensitivity  to China’s growing power.

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