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Growing Number of Asian Blogs Offers Alternatives to Mainstream Media

Asia's blogging community is growing rapidly, as more people get access to the Internet. In countries with a controlled media environment, blogs promote free speech and offer alternative sources of news and information. But some governments in the region try to limit access to the new media. Claudia Blume reports from VOA's Asia News Center in Hong Kong.

Millions of people in Asia have taken to blogging in recent years, creating personal Web sites that often take the form of an online diary. The word blog derives from Web log. China alone is estimated to have up to 30 million bloggers.

As elsewhere in the world, the region's collection of blogs on the Internet is diverse and amorphous. But in Asia, a survey by the U.S. software company Microsoft estimates that nearly half of those who are online have a blog, compared to just eight percent of U.S. Internet users.

Most people create blogs to share their lives and interests with friends, family and a few strangers. Many use text and photos, but also sound and video. Others blog to exchange information, create networks or express opinions about a wide range of issues.

In this music video, posted on the popular video-sharing Web site YouTube, two young Malaysians say an ironic 'thank you' to Indonesia for being responsible for last year's haze, the pollution that spread from Indonesian forest fires. The bloggers' criticism is an opinion that their governments would not express.

For some people, blogging has become a powerful tool for freedom of expression. Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on online media at the University of Hong Kong, says a small percentage of people in the region create blogs to tell a wider audience what the mainstream media are not reporting.

"Some of these people who are creating media such as Jeff Ooi in Malaysia, a number of bloggers in China, basically there are people one could cite in any given country around the region, who are developing rather large audiences because they are saying something fresh or more direct than [what] people are getting from their traditional media sources," said MacKinnon.

News of the famous nail house in the Chinese city of Chongqing, where a couple tried to block the destruction of their home earlier this year, was first spread on blogs. When mainstream media were told to remain silent on the case, a Chinese blogger who calls himself Zola traveled to Chongqing and continued to report about it.

Isaac Mao, a well-known Shanghai-based blogger and software architect, says Zola's action was a milestone for Chinese bloggers.

"So it means once the traditional mainstream media, if they fail to work, grassroots media can take over the niche or they can take another role - to report some social events from different angles," said Mao.

In countries with a highly restricted and regulated media environment, such as China, Vietnam, Burma and Singapore, blogs can provide different, independent information and viewpoints. While the quality and trustworthiness of blogs varies greatly, they are becoming popular sources of information in places where the mainstream media lacks credibility.

"People may now welcome this diversity of news but that's precisely because I think one thing to remember is a lot of people are already very skeptical of mainstream media in their own countries, precisely because they are aware that most mainstream media in their countries are [one] either owned by the state or they are highly restricted and therefore are not really free to provide independent and diverse news," said Roby Alampay, the executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.

Alampay says some blogs are created by professional journalists who post online what they are not allowed to publish in their day-jobs. Last year, for example, a Singaporean journalist whose column in a government-controlled newspaper was suspended after he criticized high living costs in the city-state was able to post the controversial story on his blog.

A number of Asian governments view bloggers as a threat. The Malaysian government has announced plans to set up a unit to monitor and counter what it calls lies and slander being spread on the Internet. Roby Alampay says governments across the region try to block, filter and monitor cyberspace.

"Censorship is becoming an issue all over Southeast Asia and I think it's safe to assume that most countries exercise some form of blocking and censorship or harassment of websites," Alampay added.

In Thailand, the military government recently blocked access to YouTube when an offending video clip of the Thai king appeared on the video-sharing Web site. It also suspended a popular political online chat room in April. In Malaysia, the government-linked New Straits Times newspaper recently filed defamation suits against two well-known bloggers.

Vietnam and China are particularly notorious for censoring the Internet. MacKinnon says that's why it would be impossible for anyone to create an opposition press through blogs there.

"You are not going to see a pro-democracy, anti-communist party-press emerging through the Chinese blogosphere. The Chinese government is able to prevent that from happening," said MacKinnon.

She said it would be over-simplistic to assume that the existence of blogs will suddenly bring about a democratic revolution in countries such as China.

Isaac Mao, for example, describes the cat-and-mouse game involved when bloggers want to outwit technical blocks imposed by government censors.

But MacKinnon says blogs offer the potential to open up the media in ways not possible before the spread of Internet access.