The inventors of the much-publicised Afghan Explorer news robot brought their dream to News World Asia in Singapore on Thursday – if not the dream machine itself.
The latest version of the robot – a remote controlled solar powered buggy carrying two cameras and several microphones – is still undergoing trials, but MIT development team Ryan McKinley and Kelly Dobson had video proof of the prototype Explorer in action, and claimed that once perfected it will allow journalists to penetrate areas which are either too dangerous for reporters to venture into, or too sensitive for governments and the military to want them there anyway.
Their emphasis is very much on freedom of movement and freedom of speech – by controlling access, they said. American governments have been manipulating the media ever since the Revolutionary Wars.
Ironically, though, their Free Speech News Robot relies heavily on military research – “It’s problematic for us,” said McKinley, “that the science of robotics was developed to serve the military.”
Now they plan to make their own research available to all, at a price even comparatively small news organisations can afford. “For $110,000 you can build the robot yourself from off-the-shelf surplus parts, said Dobson, “and we will be publishing the plans to show you how to do it.”
A get rich quick scheme for MIT and its boffins? Apparently not. The information will be offered free of charge because, said McKinley: “We’re not looking for commercial gain, but cultural gain.”
Whether the news robot would be of any help to journalists in countries where the press has traditionally been highly restricted is another question, in the Journalism Powderkegs session speakers from all over Asia had mixed views on their governments' claims to be loosening their grip on local media.
Thepchai Yong, editor of the Nation Media Group in Thailand, said many newspapers and TV new organisations had been compromised by allowing the government to bail them out of financial problems in return for their support, and Tarun Tejpal, of tehelka.com, India, observed that viewers and readers usually see through such “sponsored media.”
He added: “Sections of the media aligned to government will always try to frustrate you as a free-thinking journalist, but you must simply hold on to the fact that you’ve got a good story.”
This was easy for journalists working in the full glare of publicity in New Delhi or Mumbai, he said, because they were high profile figures with the protection of the intelligentsia around them.
“But it’s much harder for reporters working at district or local level, who have no such protection from the police, magistrates and local officials who can bring huge pressure to bear on them.”
Stephanie Scawen, executive producer of news and current affairs at Star TV in Hong Kong, admitted that such pressures encourage a habit of self-censorship. “In Hong Kong, there is a growing tendency to be less critical of the Chinese mainland government than used to be the case. And anyway, the new administration is a lot less transparent than the old colonial government ever was.”
Carmen Pedrosa, the veteran Philippines columnist, was fatalistic. “You have to accept that American influence is so strong in my country and stories involving the US are given much greater prominence than anything else – the government has been very critical of journalists who didn’t give their full support to the war against terrorism, for instance.”
And she pointed out that there are other, far more alarming pressures on Filipino journalists than the disapproval of government. “If you do a story about someone that isn’t entirely favourable, they might just come in and shoot you – we have one of the highest death rates among journalists in the world, and most of the killings happen on our own soil.”
There may be little even the safety industry can do about such random murders, but in Hostile Environments – Must Journalists Die?, Paul Rees, MD of Centurion Risk Assessment, invited a panel of top news executives to discuss whether there were indeed any stories worth dying for. On the panel were Stefan Pauli of ARD/ZDF, Victor Antonie of Reuters, Marcus McRitchie of International SOS, Gosta Liljeqvist of GRASP, Australia and Satindra Bindra, CNN’s New Delhi bureau chief.
“What’s interesting,” said Rees, “is that when we do this session again in two years from now, I suspect that once they get involved in safety training, the panel will be entirely made up of people from local media, telling us how they deal with local problems. These are the people who were born and brought up in hostile environments, and they have at least as much to teach us as we can teach them.”
But let the last word on Day Two of the highly successful News World Asia rest with one of the men who might stand accused of restricting press freedoms in his own country.
Major General Sudrajat, director of strategy for the Indonesian defence department, was the keynote speaker in a session on News and National Security.
“One of the main issues with press freedom,” he said, “is an increase in quantity can easily lead to a decrease in quality. One must remember that the interests of the people are more important than the interests of the press.”