Istambay sa Mindanao

Personal blog of MindaNews' Walter I. Balane. Visit www.mindanews.com for more news, views and information on Mindanao.

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Location: Malaybalay City, Bukidnon, Mindanao, Philippines

I'm Walter Balane. I am a journalist based in Malaybalay City, Bukidnon, Philippines. I initiated the group called Atong Press (www.atongpress.ning.com) for press freedom and responsibility and media education in Bukidnon.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

COMMENTARY: Virtually yours
By Walter I. Balane / MindaNews / 8 October 2004

DAVAO CITY -- I thought United States Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone would want to make “virtual” a scheduled press conference here Thursday.

A day after he led the launching of the US’s “virtual consulate” here in Mindanao’s largest city, press people found themselves waiting for a late comer: the American envoy himself.

The press conference began shortly after 12:00 noon, around an hour and a half after it was scheduled. This is amid a media advisory asking press people to be “in place by 10:30 a.m.” A scheduled 30-minute briefing was called off.

Ricciardone, in town since Wednesday, said among the reasons for his visit is the Wow Mindanao Exposition and to “gather success stories of American-assisted peace and development works in Mindanao.”

But protest actions highlight to the public the ambassador’s visit with militant groups calling the virtual consulate a “spy center.”

As the press knew of his busy schedule while in Davao, no explanation was made about the delay. It is noteworthy that the highest ranking American official in the country has taken some “Filipino time” for whatever reason.

In August 2002, MindaNews reported that Ricciardone also arrived late for a speech in Surigao City at the 11th Mindanao Business Conference. There, he was reported to have snubbed the media.
That he arrived late at the press conference is something. The press represents the “peoples” of Mindanao.

This is especially when he said Davao and Mindanao are important for the United States.
But how important? Or should the question be, why important?

The fact that Asia’s first virtual consulate is in Davao now sends a message: that the United States has interests here more than elsewhere.

Jay T. Snyder, commissioner of the US Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy, connects virtual consulate to “virtual diplomacy.”

Snyder’s speech at an American diplomacy conference, as posted at the US State Department website in July 2003, explains virtual consulates.

“The New Diplomacy utilizes innovative thinking and new forms of media to expand the reach of our foreign policy. It has the potential to increase our ability to put forth America’s message to the global society,” he said.

“To inform and influence foreign audiences, the Department of State must continue to go beyond traditional government-to-government communication. Today, we have the ability to speak directly to local populations. These populations have a great deal of influence over their respective governments’ foreign policy.”

Snyder said that in Russia, where the first virtual consulate was launched, “our staff is able to stream relevant and newsworthy information in a time sensitive manner to our focus population. Previously, we have had no presence in a region of almost 3 million people.”

“The Virtual Consulate is probably the most flexible and agile instrument in the ‘New Diplomacy’ arsenal. With the inevitable increase of Internet usage in most regions of the world, it is important for us to invest heavily in the Virtual Concept for the future.

“We are capable of doing all of the work of a Virtual Consulate remotely. But to optimize its effectiveness, we should also augment the program with regular visits from the Ambassador or other senior American officials.
This will increase the legitimacy and interest among the focus population.

“These visits add to the visibility through increased press coverage, which further enables host populations to view the Virtual Consulate as a critical extension of a physical American presence.

“As Internet accessibility increases, host country citizens will begin to see the Virtual Consulates as one-stop-shopping for all news, information and services brought to them by the United States government.

“With $10,000 in start up costs, this robust model can handle many tasks performed by a physical consulate. Only the issuing of visas requires a fixed location.”

Snyder concluded that, coordinated with American presence post and American corners, the virtual consulates “has the power to change public diplomacy in an efficient and cost effective manner for the better.”

Snyder’s explanation may not really embody the US “virtual diplomacy.” It is clear however that the virtual consulate is viewed as an extension of “a physical American presence.”

At the press conference, the ambassador clarified his government’s thrust in Mindanao: to work for development to underlie a peaceful environment.”

At one time, however, he said they would support those who contribute to peace and development efforts in Mindanao, like the vendors and business groups they are assisting.

“But if you support bomb makers and kidnappers, we will go after you,” he warned.

Then he quickly clarified that “it is the Philippine government who will go after bomb makers and kidnappers” and the Americans will just support the Philippine government.

Clarifications like that should be made about American interests in Mindanao, especially with its “virtual” consulate now in Davao.

While it is safe to assume, it is also important to make the US clarify its Mindanao interests, especially when matters like “American presence post” and “American corners” are “coordinated” with virtual means.

By the way, an American dictionary defines “virtual” as “almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition.”

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Walter I. Balane, now based in Davao City, is a correspondent of MindaNews in Malaybalay City and former editor of Central Mindanao Newswatch.)

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