Off the Web, on to the Netly news

When I was very young I loved to read newspapers from other places. Growing up in rural Nebraska, I wasn't in a position to haunt newsstands; rather, most of my newsprint from out of state came wrapped around things in boxes, downgraded from news to packing material. I'd smooth out the paper and puzzle my way through, proving the old saw about kids enjoying the packaging more than the toys.

I was fascinated by how that news paper came from a street corner in New York or Japan or Mexico, was part of daily life in a faraway land, and then got crumpled into a box to send, as an afterthought, to me. It was a message in a bottle—only the sender didn't need rescuing from the hinterlands, I did.

I'm older now and so is the news business; papers I will never see in print bop onto my screen thanks to technologies that have nothing to do with paper. The exotic has become the mundane, and I wonder sometimes what children these days do with themselves now that they need not spend time wondering about what-might-be, that-which-is being so readily available (thanks not only to the Net but to the likes of CNN). And I worry when I click through the Vladivostok News or the Jamaica Gleaner that I'm missing something—not the news, but the story.

For instance, you probably saw headlines recently about the independence vote in East Timor. I say "saw" because the prominence of those headlines has diminished since the voting took place at the end of August, despite increasing violence from anti-independence Indonesian militia. The outcome of the vote is all but assured, but you won't hear much more about it in the mainstream media until an American UN observer gets killed or something. The system isn't very good at follow-through.

It's also not very good at run-up. Take Burma. The only Burma coverage you've seen lately was that picture of an elephant getting his foot fixed by a Thai veterinarian. The elephant stepped on a land mine laid by Burmese troops near the Thai-Burmese border.

It's a pity about the elephant, but it's an outrage about the people—the Burmese military prefers to use humans, mainly tribespeople from local villages, as minesweepers. In the past two weeks over 500 people have fled across the Burma-Thailand border; since the current dictatorship took control of the country in 1988 (in much the way the Indonesian militia is threatening to do in East Timor), tens of thousands have fled.

Something's brewing right this minute. The last nationwide pro-democracy uprising within Burma took place on 8 August 1988, or 8/8/88; since then, the ruling junta has become one of the harshest and most repressive (not to mention economically incompetent) regimes in the world. Resistance forces, including the elected-but-never-allowed-to-take-office National League for Democracy (led by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi), are calling for worldwide nonviolent protests on 9/9/99. Nonviolent? Probably only on the part of protesters; expect the military to shoot, arrest, and torture voluminously.

If the 9/9/99 movement is widespread (and especially if it's violent), you'll likely see coverage for a day or two—a gory and/or heartbreaking picture, some statistics, a bit of dire prose or grave-toned on-camera commentary. And then it'll be out of the news—first here, then everywhere but in neighboring countries' papers, like the Bangkok Post and the South China Morning Post, then not even there.

It's up to you to reel in the facts from the Net. Thing is, most people equate Net news with the Web. I'm here to tell you that's a mistake. You may be getting tons of information as you visit multiple news-oriented Web sites, but odds are you're not getting the story—events as they unfold and as things happen and conclude, or begin and come to naught.

In the case of Burma, the best source of information is the email listserv known as burmanet-news (, subscribe burmanews-l), which digests human rights reports, eyewitness reports, official propaganda from the junta, and the all-too-occasional published article, and delivers it up to your mailbox daily. Rumor has it that it's required reading for the junta in Burma (though unavailable to the citizenry, since they're forbidden to own modems or fax machines).

What it's not is commercial. Funded by George Soros' Open Society Initiative, this is plain old ASCII text—no photos, no video, no plugins required. What it is is free to circulate—it can propagate via the Net, but it can also be printed out and distributed hand to hand if necessary (and it's often necessary). It's even free to reach the likes of you, if you're willing to put aside the shiny gifts of the Web and delve into the infinitely more interesting packaging.

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