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A refreshing way to engage bloggers


The 10-day Blog Tour has come to an end in Berlin. On Friday evening, the group of 15 bloggers from different parts of the world gathered for one last meal at the Gugenhorf restaurant. And as I looked around the table, it was evident that everyone had thoroughly enjoyed the tour.

For me the one thing which impressed me the most is the German government’s openness in engaging the 15 bloggers. During the course of the tour, we had the opportunity to interact with officials from the establishment – such as Mr Michael Zenner, Commissioner for Communication of the Federal Foreign Office (FFO), and  Mr Eberhard Pohl, Deputy Political Director of the FFO.

I particularly enjoyed the frank exchanges we had with Mr Markus Loning, Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid at the FFO. It was an opportunity for me to hear his views on the death penalty (a subject which is close to my heart). My personal meeting with Mr Peter Schoof, Head of Division on European Union, European Policy, was also an amazing opportunity for me to understand the EU’s policy on Burma, for example, and on the wider issue of global geopolitics and the role of ASEAN. And then there was Ms Malti Taneja and Mr Bernd Knopf of the Coordination Unit for the Federal Commissioner for Migration, Refugees and Integration.

Our visits to the press conference of the German government at the Bundespresskonference hall and also to the Bundestag and Reichstag impressed us all as well.

Now, imagine if governments all over the world, instead of adopting confrontational stances towards bloggers (or netizens) or finding means and ways to discredit them (or worse, to jail and abuse them in various ways), were as open as the German government. Of course this is very much a pipe dream at the moment – especially when I hear how some of the group of 15 bloggers had and continue to be harassed by the authorities in their countries.

Ms Claudia Cadelo from Cuba

An example is Claudia Cadelo from Cuba who was supposed to be part of our group in Berlin. However, her application to travel out of her country was rejected by the Cuban authorities after many “interviews” with officials. In her blog she writes, "On Tuesday, I spent eight hours of my beautiful life being interrogated about my trip, my family, my husband, my studies and – even – how I connect to the Internet."

In Singapore, things aren’t any better, really, although we claim to be embracing New Media. Since blogs became popular here, I have yet to hear any blogger praised or credited for the good work which some of them have done. On the contrary, government ministers and the mainstream media have taken pains to discredit and chastise bloggers at every opportunity – the last time this happened was last month when the Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, criticized bloggers, calling them “irresponsible” and for “spreading falsehoods” on the issue of the homeless and homelessness.

The diatribes against bloggers will continue, of course. But one would not pay it too much attention if they were just words from those in authority. The problem is when the authorities start finding ways – through the institution of new legislation – to curb free speech on the Internet. An example is this “cooling-off” day during elections. Another is the new rule which states that it is illegal to film an illegal event.

When I compare what the German government is doing with what is happening in Singapore, I can’t help but feel my country is such a backward country, at least when it comes to the engagement of netizens, particularly bloggers.

The Singapore government’s position is simple: any feedback or engagement of netizens is done through its own portal, REACH. The minister for Communication, Information and the Arts has said as much.

The mainstream media, particularly the Straits Times, promotes its website, STOMP, as the only bona fide “citizen journalism” portal in Singapore, although there are bloggers who do much better work as true citizen journalists – such as Alex Au, Martyn See, and even we here at The Online Citizen, if I may say so.

Perhaps the Singapore authorities should recognize a few things, so that it will help inform them of the future of information dissemination. The old and current ways of doing so will not suffice going forward.

One, the government must realize and accept that the Internet – and bloggers – are here to stay.

Two, information no longer is the sole domain of the mainstream media to disseminate.

Three, adopting a confrontational position towards netizens is the sure-fire way of making enemies which, I would think, is a rather stupid thing for politicians to do deliberately.

Four, the influence of the Internet (and true citizen journalism) will only expand as younger and more tech-savvy citizens adopt new technology to communicate.

The days of using a sledgehammer to kill a fly, as it were, and which has been Singapore’s method of dealing with dissenters or those with dissenting views, no longer works. In fact, such a primitive mentality can only make things worse for those wielding such a blunt tool.

Engagement of netizens must take a different form. It no longer is enough to just answer questions, or to seek feedback. Engagement means being more open, more transparent, more willingness to allow ordinary citizens a closer (and even more intimate) look into the windows of government.

In a nutshell, governments must stop treating its citizens as ignorant fools who can be hoodwinked into believing whatever it says.

A good way to start is to adopt what the German government did these last 10 days with the 15 bloggers from 15 different countries.

Using threats – given power through legislation – may frighten some and may indeed give authorities some form of legitimacy and control. However, going this route only means two things: you make enemies of those who otherwise could have been persuaded to your point of view; two, the international collaboration of bloggers or netizens will increasingly make a local issue a global one.

In a sense, the German government, from the feedback of the 15 bloggers who each are among the top bloggers in their own countries with large readerships, has won itself some new fans through this bloggers tour.

Other governments should learn from this.

I congratulate the German government for adopting a truly refreshing attitude towards the blogging community. My hope is that more governments will do the same.

After all the diatribes, accusations, derision and put-downs by the Singapore government, perhaps it is not ironic that I find myself thanking the government of another country for reviving my faith in blogging.

And oh, Berlin is beautiful indeed.

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By Andrew Loh, Chief Editor, who represented TOC at the conference

Headline picture courtesy of the German Foreign Office's website

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For more information, here are the websites of the 16 bloggers (including Claudia Cadelo from Cuba) who participated in the Bloggers Tour:

Aliyuh U Tilde (Nigeria): [Blog currently unavailable]

Andrew Loh (Singapore): http://theonlinecitizen.com

Arpad Tota (Hungary): http://w.blog.hu/?token=d758b508e9874cc5b67a4b09679a58e4

Ato Kwamena Dadzie (Ghana): http://atokd.com/

Claudia Cadelo (Cuba): http://www.octavocerco.blogspot.com/

[Claudia's blog translated into English: http://octavocercoen.blogspot.com/2009_03_01_archive.html]

Cristian Cambronero (Costa Rica): http://www.fusildechispas.com/

Elia Kabanov (Russia): http://metkere.com/en/

Eman Al Nafjan (Saudi Arabia): http://saudiwoman.wordpress.com/

Mahmood Al-Yousif (Bahrain): http://mahmood.tv/

Mahmoud Salem (Egypt): http://www.sandmonkey.org/

Mark Bilsiger (Switzerland); http://www.wahlkampfblog.ch/

Michael Anti (China): http://blog.sina.com.cn/anti

Milos Cermak (Czech Republic): http://cermak.blog.respekt.cz/

Nigar Fatali (Azerbaijan): http://fatalin.wordpress.com/

Nino Raspudic (Croatia): http://blog.vecernji.hr/nino-raspudic/

Tolkun Umaraliev (Kyrgyzstan): http://tolkun.info/

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