092: What are you reading ONLINE from Asia?

ASIA SERIES: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7.


Traveling in Asia this month, the vibrancy of new media is nearly overwhelming. I traveled with a small group of senior U.S. journalists from Taiwan to Thailand to Singapore, inlcuding a 4-day Asian-Pacific media conference in Bangkok where we served as speakers as well as careful listeners, sharing with more than 150 participants from 23 countries. The most striking discovery was all of the exciting new ways that professionals here are using newspapers, magazines, books and emerging Web projects to explore a whole host of issues — including fascinating new approaches to spirituality and religious diversity.

Asian media professionals are well aware that a tidal wave of cultural and technological change is transforming traditional media around the world — and they are eagerly developing strategies to speak with eloquent voices in the new chorus of media that is forming in the 21st-Century. Not every strategy that’s emerging from Asia will work — but the electric crackling of this creative energy is in sharp contrast to the somber voices among the titans of American media, decrying the shrinkage in everything from traditional newspapers to TV networks.

What’s most fascinating for ReadTheSpirit is that many of these new voices deliberately call themselves “bridge builders.” They’re trying very hard (and even making a few mistakes of eager enthusiasm along the way) in their desire to jump into this complex sphere of spiritual-cultural diversity. Until now, American news media’s coverage of Asia has tended to focus on businesses, political upheavals, natural disasters and cultural conflicts. It can be quite a shock to meet many of the mid-career media professionals in Asia who talk about establishing strong, peaceful cross-cultural and interfaith linkages as absolutely indispensable bridges into this new century.

Starting Monday, February 3, on ReadTheSpirit, we will run a 5-day series on this amazing, emerging mix of issues we explored in Asia. But, let’s start today and Friday with some tantalizing tastes of these emerging spiritual voices.

One example is LAW, a Thai-based magazine and Web site that may — or may not — succeed in creating a global network of readers to explore timeless values concerning legal issues. The beautifully designed first issue of the full-color magazine is sprinkled with evocative spiritual images like the Buddha-and-rainbow picture above. In fact, on the cover of the debut issue (at left) is a photographic detail of the face of Bangkok’s famous gold-leaf-covered Reclining Buddha. LAW’s first collection of articles is published both in Thai and English, deliberately designed to make an international impact, if possible.

The magazine’s main focus is exploring timeless, global principles that can undergird legal systems in Asia. So, the bulk of contributors are legal scholars. But the first issue is sprinkled with brightly colored pages headlined: “Famous Words.” What’s amazing about this in an Asian context is the interfaith array of voices quoted. Martin Niemöller, a German pastor who opposed the Nazis, is quoted here along with the Prophet Muhammad and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (shown in the photo at right).

BUT, here is the pitfall in such an approach: Religious diversity is extremely difficult to cover. The LAW editors committed one unfortunate mistake in trying to publish photos or sketches of all of the dozens of spiritual sages they quote in this issue. Every other quotation among these “Famous Words” is accompanied by some image, so the magazine’s graphic artist included a sketch of a wise-looking, bearded man to represent the Prophet Muhammad — an offensive mistake. Even though the image of the Prophet is noble — even handsome — Islam forbids any images of the Prophet. However, I met the Editor in Chief of LAW, Panjarat “Pamela” Hongsakul, at the Bangkok conference and I could tell instantly that this was an error made in the midst of well-meaning enthusiasm mingled with cultural ignorance on the part of the production staff.

Despite that one embarrassing mistake, these are good-hearted people who, among other things, are trying to speak in a sophisticated way to political leaders, providing them with spiritual tools — like notes on the universal values that can undergird legal systems — to help readers reduce ethnic, cultural and religious conflict.

For example, one of the major pieces in the debut issue is by the famous Thai Buddhist human-rights activisit Sulak Sivaraksa. Given his brave record since the 1960s, I would argue that Sulak ranks as a living Interfaith Hero — and LAW gives him a good deal of space in the debut issue to write about the “Buddhist Concept of Law.”

Will LAW succeed? Will we pick up future issues in Borders’ magazine racks in the U.S.? Probably not. Publication of a second issue already is overdue and, while the unfortunately placed image of the Prophet might be graciously overlooked in the first issue, such mistakes cannot continue if LAW hopes to become a global voice.

BUT — given the tensions in Thailand between the wealthier, heavily Buddhist north of the country and the poorer, heavily Muslim south — the ambitious motivation behind LAW appears to be refreshing and healthy. What’s more, despite the initial flaws, there’s a noble eagerness here to export this overall message of interfaith cooperation to a global audience. These media professionals truly want to be part of the global chorus in the years ahead. Their approach is 180 degrees from the images of Asian cultural-religious groups in conflict that are most commonly glimpsed in the United States.

Maybe the professionals behind LAW won’t succeed with this magazine about legal issues. Maybe their LAW Web site will fail. But, if they do fail, these professionals seems equally eager to regroup and try the next media strategy — and, if necessary, the next strategy after that. And, overall, that’s a sign of health and hope.

Originally published in readthespirit.com

NOTE: This series was published in early 2008 and continues to draw readers, years later. ReadTheSpirit online magazine has moved through several redesigns and expansions, in those years. Some of the typography and page design of this series may appear slightly askew, due to changes in online templates. However, the entire text of the series remains as published. Please email us at [email protected] with questions or comments.

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