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Can the Internet win the battle for news readership, overtaking traditional media, and what will happen to the media following integration across the former Soviet territory? Two hundred heads of major Georgian, Baltic and CIS media sources recently discussed the matter at the 7th annual Forum of European and Asian Media (FEAM-2012), which was held in Minsk
By Vladimir Khromov

Mediaexpress of integration still picking up steam
The FEAM-2012 forum could hardly provide concrete answers to such questions, since no one can foresee the future. However, the issues raised in Minsk were undoubtedly worth debating, as evinced by the greetings sent by President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko and President of Russia Vladimir Putin.

“It is symbolic that your event, devoted to integration processes within the post-Soviet space, is held in Belarus, which has recommended itself as the most active initiator of convergence and full co-operation between our citizens,” noted Mr. Lukashenko in his greeting. He stressed that the effectiveness of integration depends directly on the political will of heads of states and the constructive position of the public. Mr. Putin stated, “The idea of ​ close multidimensional integration is finding ever more supporters; accordingly, the media should play a united and leading role.”

Reality more important than dreams
The first day of the forum revealed the presence of major contradictions. It was debated how best to combine states’ integration aspirations with their desire for national sovereignty. The question of the media’s role was discussed, with the Union State Secretary, Grigory Rapota, noting, “Expert help is essential since it’s already obvious that our countries have now established sovereignty while those within the Union State have achieved much on the path to integration.” The future of the print media was also discussed, with the Russian Deputy Minister for Communications, Alexey Volin, emphasising that traditional media sources need to fight for their readership. He admitted, “People’s trust in the media has obviously fallen, with many no longer viewing traditional sources as reliable. The media is facing increased competition from ‘unstructured’ sources: the Internet, social networks and bloggers. It’s a question of survival.”

Challenges require adequate response
The Director of the Belarusian High-Tech Park, Valery Tsepkalo, noted that, from January 1st, 2013, even world famous Newsweek will be issued online only. Mr. Tsepkalo notes the new challenges and threats brought by online information sources, which lack regulation. Internet blogs are particularly questionable, yet attract a certain part of the audience of the traditional media.

The question of allowing freedom of speech while ensuring information security online remains one for debate. Mr. Tsepkalo noted the example of Julian Assange, whose controversial WikiLeaks site gave access to secret information. “How would you feel if your medical records or a list of your friends’ phone numbers appeared online in the same way?” he asked. He also questioned the wisdom of forums allowing anonymous comments, since slanders can go unpunished. “Social networks are a public reaction to this, since users can block insults from anonymous users.”

Clearly, some regulation is required. Some proposals for ‘saving newspapers’ were presented at the forum. One ‘wall to wall’ discussion on The Internet: Infinite Information or Limiting Freedom saw Mr. Volin comment, “Some believe that governments can subsidise the media but such intervention is brief and rather ineffective. You can walk and stand by using crutches, but you can’t run.”
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