The new vs old media debate: missing the point?

The debate about old vs new media misses the point: its not whether new media such as cell phones are replacing traditional media such as radio. The more interesting debate is about possibilities the increasing penetration of phones (and other new media like twitter and social networking) brings. This is especially true in for countries suffering violent conflict – often countries where new media growth is the greatest. Here interesting new oportunities to use communications tools can be found to help build peace and counter extremism.

Its well known that radio can incite violence (eg Rwanda, Balkans) but less is known about radio’s capacity to build peace. Efforts to silence Mullah Radio in the Swat Valley failed because its not, as the Economist notes, about silencing hate speech but strengthening local voices – such as radio Okapi in DRC. Recent research conducted in Afghanistan in 2008 and Pakistan in 2009 argued the same thing. Holbrooke has  also noted that broadcasting is critical in the fight against the Taleban.

But radio’s importance is argued by many to be overtaken by new technologies, in particular mobile phones. Communication technology expert Sanjana Hattutowa notes new research in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh that finds higher mobile penetration than radio – with 40% of Pakistani households having a mobile phone, compared to only 25% possessing a radio – and outlines how SMS can be used to increase radio audiences.

Its the link between old and new media that is interesting. Recent research in Pakistan of over three thousand  urban residents found 80% were regular radio listeners, and of those 80%, 72% listened to radio on their mobile phone. This presents an opportunity for public debate through phone programmes – allowing anonymous, safe communication of the kind of secret values (for example girls education) that people hold in private to be shared even when those values are not publicly accepted (eg Taleban banning girls education) and to challenge the control exercised by ideologues and extremists.

The growth of new media can make old media stronger and efforts to build peace better.

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