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This executive summary is part of a media landscape audit that we did on behalf of UNDP Cambodia’s project on media alternatives. We presented our findings on August 7, 2019 at The Factory Phnom Penh.
This report was challenging. Cambodia’s journalism industry has been severely curtailed in the past two years, with journalists in prisons. We covered this in the full report, and we note the critical work in that’s being done by CCIM and RSF in documenting the tragic state of Cambodian journalism.
None of this is missing in our hopes for a more optimistic future led by smaller, niche media startups.
— Alan Soon & Rishad Patel
The media space in Southeast Asia has never been an easy one given major restrictions in the way of journalism, putting organizations and their staff at risk. Governments have sought to limit the work of media through taxes, lawsuits, anti-fake news measures, or the outright jailing of journalists. The net result is a narrowing of civic space that was once dominated by legacy newspapers and broadcasters and their journalists.
On the tech front, we’ve also seen major shifts in how social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter work — both in their algorithms, as well as their policy efforts to safeguard users on these private platforms — often at the threat of government action in suppressing specific voices. In the case of Myanmar, the government has restricted the use of the internet in specific states.
But perhaps the biggest challenge — and opportunity — has come in the new ways in which audiences discover, create, and consume media. The intent hasn’t changed — people still want to be informed, entertained, and inspired. But the means have changed dramatically in the past 5 years.
UNDP’s initiative to promote media alternatives and to find ways to cultivate media startups is timely. At Splice, we believe that any conversation about media today needs to begin with an open mind and a broader definition of media.
And we’ve found this surprisingly controversial.
The shift to digital puts news content in direct competition with everything else. There are two truths to digital consumption: Everything is fungible, and everything will be commoditized over time. News, social media, video subscriptions, games, chats, e-commerce all vie for attention and money and these are fundamentally interchangeable. The average person, through their smartphone, has the ability to swap out each of these with the other. Sometimes these overlap.
As media professionals, the challenge for us is to embrace a wider definition — something that allows us to better understand the threats that these trends represent, but also the opportunity that they create. Media must be reconceived as both product and service.
We define media as anything that uses content to attract the attention of an audience, whether that’s used to inform, entertain, inspire, or meet a need. Attention is the currency of digital media; utility is influence.
Efforts to widen Cambodia’s civic space need a similar framing — and a redefinition. Programs and policies that look only at the number of “independent” media in the country fail to appreciate the way this shift to digital has changed the way information is created, amplified, or enriched by technology.
Fundamentally, it denies a simple fact of this landscape: digital fosters niche, informed, and engaged communities.
Media’s civic space hasn’t shrunk — it’s been fragmented. It isn’t a vast public square — it’s small groups led by trusted voices. And Cambodia has no shortage of these.
Our goal for this project isn’t a rehash of the state of independent media in Cambodia, for which there’s already ample reporting and research by Cambodian Center for Independent Media and Reporters Without Borders.
The challenge for us is to embrace a wider definition — something that allows us to better understand the threats that these trends represent, but also the opportunity that they create.
Like many fast, emerging nations, Cambodia is at the confluence of two major trends: A fast growing young population and increased accessibility to the internet.
The common narrative around a shrinking civic space is myopic; interest-based communities and media organizations have moved online — primarily to Facebook — where they’re reaching new audiences.
If anything, the civic space, like most communities, has fragmented into many smaller, more interest-specific, more private spaces.
We believe in the importance of taking an ecosystem-based approach: Is there quality talent and training? Is there funding and investment? Is there the inculcation of a user-centric product mindset? Are there diversified business models that go beyond advertising? Tech infrastructure? A support network of NGOs? Access to accelerators, or affordable co-work spaces? And finally, how favorable is the government to journalism and supporting small- and medium-enterprises or startups?
Ultimately, we want to see an ecosystem that embraces this shift to digital, one that nurtures quality talent, champions a sustainable media startup scene, and build communities of influence.
And yes, that includes journalism.
We presented this in Phnom Penh on August 7, 2019.
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