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Analysis: Web in Asia can aid media

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(IDG) -- It was every government's nightmare: numerous officials caught on camera accepting bribes from supposed arms traders. A classic case of corruption, except this time, the scandal, which rocked India in early March, didn't break on network television -- it came via Webcam, courtesy of Tehelka.com, an upstart news site. The scandal ultimately forced India's defense minister to resign.

From India to Malaysia, news operations are going online, breaking stories -- and embarrassing governments. In China, after a tragic explosion at a rural elementary school, the official government story blamed a deranged assailant. But news sites and participants in online chat rooms spread the word that the blast occurred because pupils had been forced to make fireworks. The online reports forced Prime Minister Zhu Rongji to apologize two weeks ago for the government's "unshirkable responsibility" for the accident.

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Because the Internet is crucial for the region to match the West economically, China and other Asian regions allowed the Internet to flourish inside their borders. But they knew it was a Faustian bargain: The Net is also helping to galvanize popular support against the official party line.

In Malaysia, for example, the government of Mahathir Mohamad places strict controls on mainstream media but stays clear of the Internet for fear of scaring away foreign high-tech investment. There, Steve Gan runs the independent Internet newspaper Malaysiakini.com. The site was borne out of the 1998 arrest and later imprisonment of the country's respected deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, whom Mahathir perceived as a threat. Today, Malaysiakini is one of the most respected alternative sources for news in Malaysia. It claims to have 200,000 readers each day.

The Internet isn't the only technology being put to use. In China, followers of the outlawed spiritual group Falun Gong have dodged a harsh crackdown by being creative with technology to slip beneath the government's radar. Instead of e-mail and cell phones, which can be tracked, followers use pagers to contact each other and then talk from designated pay phones. And when thousands of Filipinos protested the scandal-ridden Estrada regime in Manila in January, the organizers coordinated actions and reacted to events by sending text messages on their mobile phones.

Asia's new tech-driven independent media has already felt the backlash. In India, Tehelka claims the government has used mainstream media to plant stories linking it to organized crime networks. Malaysiakini.com recently came under attack in the Malaysian press after the Far Eastern Economic Review reported that the site received financing from George Soros -- whom many Malaysians blame for the currency speculation that torpedoed their economy in the late 1990s. Malaysiakini.com has denied any association with Soros. Some Malaysiakini reporters have also been refused press access to cover government events, their applications for credentials mired in bureaucracy, according to Gan.

The credentials issue is one of the challenges facing not only Asia's news sites, but their U.S. and European counterparts as well: proving that they can run a professional, credible -- and profitable -- news operation in an industry controlled by slick mainstream media.

"The challenge is monetary," admits Tarun Tejpal, editor of Tehelka.com. For the moment, his 9-month-old operation is comfortable, having just closed a second round of funding. Tejpal is also warmed by e-mail from readers inspired by Tehelka.com's recent sting. One man offered to donate 50,000 rupees (about $1,000) from his pension fund to keep the muckraking going. Crime might not pay, but covering it could.



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