This article was originally published in Vanuatu Daily Post’s Life and Style Mag.
Vanuatu is a young country. When you compare it to America, which has been independent for 240 years, Australia for 115 years, France for 227 years and England, whose history spans from the 10th century, it is fair to say that at only 36 years old, Vanuatu still has a lot of developing to do.
Vanuatu is unique in the way that it hasn’t consumed information the way industrialized countries traditionally have. History tells us that information got disseminated through newspapers, and then broadcast on the radio and TV, before the Internet suddenly transformed a once passive audience into an active one who were able to engage with the information being received. With the Internet, people could now choose when and what information they wanted, at a time that suited them, with a simple click or swipe of their finger.
In Vanuatu, if people did have access to a newspaper, radio or TV, it was shared communally and considered a luxury. In fact it is still common, particularly in the outer islands, to see a crowd of people gathered in front of a single black and white TV after dinner. On the other hand, western countries have a TV in every home and excessive TV watching is a phenomenon that has seen campaigns recommending only two hours of viewing a day.
Vanuatu has managed to skip all that. Rather than being mindlessly fed TV program after TV program, with bouts of biased news reporting in between, the introduction of the smart phone has transformed occasional mass media consumers receiving one-way information into active participants who are contributing their opinions to issues and shaping the news agenda.
The power of the Internet is perhaps most powerfully illustrated in the events surrounding the Arab Spring in 2011, which saw a series of anti-government protests, uprisings and armed rebellions spread across the Middle East. Social media played a pivotal role in the movement with organizers using online tools to gather support, disseminate information, raise money, and mobilize citizens on a massive scale. Egypt went so far as to shut down the Internet due to the democratizing impact of social media. Facebook was being used to publicize information, Twitter to organize protests and YouTube to show how the events unfolded. Finally voices that were alternative to the mainstream media were being heard.
Vanuatu is in a unique position where the country is still developing but its citizens are participating in the nation’s decision-making process. The Internet has allowed dialogue and the exchanging of ideas between politicians and citizens, enhancing the notion of democratic conduct. The popular Facebook forum, Yumi Tok Tok Stret (YTS), could even be seen as Vanuatu’s public sphere. The public sphere, in theory, is where every individual, regardless of status or race, has direct access to a global forum where they are able to express their arguments without mediation, selection or censorship for rational debate. Back in the olden days it used to be held in public spaces such as coffee houses and salons. Today it is the Internet.
We have seen council workers, directors of state-run enterprises, members of parliament, bus drivers, athletes, youth, educators, LGBT, the unemployed and countless other voices come together on social media to share their opinion. Sometimes there are uninformed opinions and YTS is used as space to slander and spread gossip but quite often it’s used to highlight issues that affect Vanuatu and generate critical discussion.
Although there does need to be more frameworks surrounding the use of social media (or rather it’s misuse according to the Public Services Commission which has banned all public servants from accessing social media until they review their manual), the Internet as a whole is bridging the divide between the government and the people, between nations, between companies and customers. Internet connectivity is now reaching the outer islands with Kacific Broadband Satellites recently announcing its first operational service in the rural Lambubu area on Malekula. It seems as if new technologies will be playing a meaningful role in the development of many sectors including education, health and emergency planning for natural disasters.
As Vanuatu enters it’s 36th year of Independence, it welcomes a generation of voices who are demanding transparency and accountability. We are yet to build high-rise buildings, but we are building a nation where our collective voices are being heard.
The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are by the editor of Sista, Yasmine Bjornum.