In India, the Supreme Court has long since established that the right to life protected by the Constitution incorporates aspects of the rights to food and health. There is also a long-established system of public distribution of food to the needy in India. But a 2001 petition to the Supreme Court revealed just how badly this system was functioning. The petition revealed that, 20 years after Sen’s Poverty and Famines, there was still widespread hunger in the country, especially in the drought-affected areas of Rajasthan and Orissa, while more than 50 million tonnes of food grain were lying idle on the premises of the Food Corporation of India. Both the identification of families living below the poverty line and the actual distribution at village level were so erratic and unreliable that less than five rupees worth of food per person per month was being distributed.

Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in China. Two decades ago the principal function of media in China was to provide the critical instrument of state control by framing and limiting news and information available to its people. Today, its principal function is the provision of advertising platforms to fuel the country’s huge consumer boom, exercised through a media environment transformed by an explosion of television and other media channels. Freedom of the press remains heavily curtailed and while a debate continues within the country about the role of a more open media in exposing corruption and providing a more stable business climate (Hilton 2006), the evidence suggests strong reluctance to accept such openness. In such a climate, media focuses mostly on entertainment, beauty, sport and of course state-controlled news.

Where community media has had the opportunity to gain a serious foothold in the broadcast environment, its political and social effects have sometimes been dramatic. Community radio in Nepal, a majority medium reaching nearly 65% of the population, played a central role in mobilising peaceful mass protest against the monarchical dictatorship in the country, and ultimately securing a transition to democracy (see Box 8.1).

A decade ago, with some exceptions (for example in large parts of Latin America, and in South Africa), television was largely the preserve of industrialised countries and the rich in developing countries. Today, satellite dishes are a prime consumer item in some of the most conflict-ridden areas of the world, particularly the Middle East, where the new channels (most famously al-Jazeera), have profoundly impacted the public sphere in the Arab world, providing spaces for people to gain insight into political and state actions, and engage in debates around them. Educational soap operas, such as South Africa’s award winning Soul City, are broadcast to townships where television ownership is common. In Asia, even among the poor, television ownership is rising exponentially; and in many regions of the world it provides the main source of information for people, particularly in industrialised countries. While there remains a gap in television ownership between rich and poor, and urban and rural, these gaps – at least in terms of access – are shrinking rapidly.

Mobile Communication Without Social Mobilisation: Japan and China

There are other cases where wireless communication was not used for social mobilisation, such as in Japan, or where initial political developments were crushed by the state, such as in China. While our discussion of these two additional cases is less detailed, due to the lack of studies of them, they do demonstrate that, in line with our earlier claim, the particular usage of wireless technologies is shaped by the social context and political structures of a given society.

Wireless communication and the ‘people who love Roh’ in South Korea

On 19 December 2002, South Korea elected its new president, Roh Moo-Hyun, a major part of whose victory has been widely attributed to Nosamo, an online supporter group known by this Korean acronym of ‘People who Love Roh’. The success of Roh and of Nosamo is now ‘a textbook example for the power of IT’ (Hachigian and Wu 2003: 68), which systematically utilised a combination of the internet and mobile phone-based communication While the internet-based campaign had lasted for years, providing the core political networks, it was the mobile phones that mobilised large number of young voters on the election day and finally reversed the voting result (Fulford 2003; see also S.-D. Kim n.d.; Rhee 2003).

The Philippines: People Power II

In January 2001 thousands of cell-phone touting Filipinos took part in massive demonstrations now dubbed ‘People Power II’ (following the original People Power movement that overthrew Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in 1986). This four-day event has become legendary as the first occasion in human history when the mobile phone played an instrumental role in removing the head of the government of a nation-state (Bagalawis 2001; see also Salterio 2001: 25).

Similarly, there are Chinese dissidents who have put the struggle for democracy and political rights at the forefront of their activism. Xu Wenli, known as the ‘godfather of dissent’ in China was involved and imprisoned for involvement in the ‘Democracy Wall’ movement in the 1970s. The wall was a notice board for dissident views. In 1998 he tried to establish the China Democratic Party, the first opposition party in China, directly undermining the regime’s soul. Subsequently jailed for 13 years and released early on medical grounds, Xu Wenli joined a growing number of Chinese dissidents in exile. However, the political struggle and its persecution in China has continued, exemplified by Hu Jia and his wife Zeng Jinyan. Their latest house arrest and ban on foreign travel is part of a crackdown on human rights activists in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing (see Box 5.1). Hu Jia began as an HIV/AIDS activist in the 1990s. However, he soon realised that social challenges in China could not be tackled without first addressing politics, and consequently turned his efforts to the struggle for the freedom of speech and the press.