Monthly Archives: October 2011

Difficult places for visitors to get into

Budget Travel published a list of the 8 Most Complicated Countries to Visit

For anyone who pays attention to international travel, the list is no big surprise:

  • India
  • Russia
  • China
  • Brazil
  • Bhutan
  • Iran
  • Kazakhstan
  • Saudi Arabia

From my view, some cause problems just because the governments are bureaucratic nightmares (India and Brazil). Others are problems because the governments want to limit the influences of outside thinking (Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, and Bhutan).

It should be no surprise that six of the eight countries on this list are either partly free or not free according to the 2011 Freedom House Survey of Freedom. Only Brazil and India are free.

From a free press perspective the countries listed are either partly free or not free.

From a perspective of the “not-free” countries such as Iran and China, making it difficult to get in is understandable. They don’t want their people getting any “strange” ideas from foreign visitors. And tourism is a far better way to export “dangerous” ideas about freedom and free speech than any other form of activity.

Tourists from democracies just can’t help acting differently from tourists from less free places. A tourist ministry person in Brazil once told me he could tell the difference between the Chinese-American tourists in Brazil from the Chinese tourists just by looking at them. He said the walk and demeanor of the Americans was more confident while the Chinese tourists were more hesitant and cautious.

And we see the same with journalists. Those who are used to working in an atmosphere of freedom tend to be a bit more confident and willing to challenge assumptions and beliefs so as to better understand the situation.

And to be fair, let’s look at the U.S. visa situation.

Here is the official US government line: (Emphasis mine)

International visitors add greatly to our nation’s cultural, education and economic life. We continue the proud tradition of welcoming visitors to the United States, with secure borders and open doors.

Visa Processing Time Inforation

Recent changes in U.S. laws governing visa policy and procedures have increased the amount of time it can take to obtain a visa. Apply early! Even with the visa processing improvements that have been made and will continue to be made, it is inevitable that delays will sometimes occur. Processing times will vary.

The State Department’s goal is visa delivery no more than 30 days from the time of application in most cases, although cases that require administrative processing could take longer. Most administrative processing is resolved within 60 days of application. When administrative processing is required, the timing will vary based on individual circumstances of each case. Therefore, before making inquiries about status of administrative processing, applicants or their representatives will need to wait at least 90 days from the date of interview or submission of supplemental documents, whichever is later.

If you want to visit the U.S. and require a visa, plan to schedule your visa interview well in advance of your departure date. Learn more by reviewing this website information and contact the U.S. embassy or consulate where you will apply for detailed “how-to” instructions.

At least there is the visa waiver program that allows citizens of about 30 countries to get in without a visa:

Most Canadian citizens and many citizens from Visa Waiver Program countries can come to the United States (U.S.) without a visa if they meet certain requirements. All Visa Waiver Program travelers must present a machine-readable passport at the U.S. port of entry to enter the U.S. without a visa; otherwise a U.S. visa is required. See important information about additional digital photograph and e-passport requirements for VWP travelers. Other foreign citizens will need a nonimmigrant visa.

To hear it from people not in waiver countries, the US is just as restrictive as any of the difficult eight listed in Budget Travel. And the process may seem unfair to many who are rejected. But by and large, the US process is transparent and consistent. (Yes, there are the odd times when a visa adjudicating officer has a bad day, but those are becoming less common than in the past.) The biggest problem for many is this whole “plan ahead” idea. (But we see that issue with a lot of Americans trying to go to Brazil and China as well.)

Lastly, the US government — along with state and local governments — have finally woken up to the major economic benefit  foreign tourists bring. (This is replacing the old idea that all visitors want to stay illegally in the States.) A while back a study showed that for every 82 visas issued in Brazil, one job in Florida (mostly in the tourism trade) was created. And the US issues hundreds (if not thousands) of visas a week.

 

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Don’t ya just hate it when the watchers become watched?

Yoani Sanchez — Generation Y blogger from Cuba — scores again.

ETECSA: From Surveillance to Indiscretion

Seems someone released data from ETECSA, the only phone company in the country, that showed who in the country had their phones tapped and the relationship of those people to the government.

And Sanchez’s reaction to the released data:

For once, the detailed inventory they’ve made on every citizen has served for us to know about “them,” to know that those who are listening on the other end of line have names, not just pseudonyms. Now, anyone can call them, send them a message, something as short and direct as a text saying “Enough already!”

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Internet humor under a humorless government

Thanks to China Digital Times for pointing out this excellent New York Times piece:

Where an Internet Joke Is Not Just a Joke

 

No government in the world pours more resources into patrolling the Web than China’s, tracking down unwanted content and supposed miscreants among the online population of 500 million with an army of more than 50,000 censors and vast networks of advanced filtering software. Yet despite these restrictions — or precisely because of them — the Internet is flourishing as the wittiest space in China. “Censorship warps us in many ways, but it is also the mother of creativity,” says Hu Yong, an Internet expert and associate professor at Peking University. “It forces people to invent indirect ways to get their meaning across, and humor works as a natural form of encryption.”

To slip past censors, Chinese bloggers have become masters of comic subterfuge, cloaking their messages in protective layers of irony and satire. This is not a new concept, but it has erupted so powerfully that it now defines the ethos of the Internet in China. Coded language has become part of mainstream culture, with the most contagious memes tapping into widely shared feelings about issues that cannot be openly discussed, from corruption and economic inequality to censorship itself. “Beyond its comic value, this humor shows where netizens are pushing against the boundaries of the state,” says Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, whose Web site, China Digital Times, maintains an entertaining lexicon of coded Internet terms. “Nothing else gives us a clearer view of the pressure points in Chinese society.”

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Conspiracies and the danger of releasing names (redux)

It never ceases to amaze me how people can whip up something sinister.

A blog out of Brazil sees all sorts of evilness in O Globo and with reporters talking to the US government.

Jornalista Willian Waack e as Relações Promíscuas da Globo com o Governo Americano (Journalist William Waack and promiscuous relations with the U.S. Government(Use Google Translate if your Portuguese is not up to snuff.) 

Once you get past all the “evil” of the size of O Globo

[D]ata for 2000 show that the TV station covers 100% of the country has 65% of the audience of the country, with the remainder divided among the other stations. Globo station is considered the third in size of audience in the world alongside the big three American NBC, ABC and CBS

Then you find the real complaint: Brazilian journalists talked to the US government about society and politics.

The write-up makes it sound as if TV journalist William Waak served as some sort of agent for the US government, gathering information and then reporting back to his “masters.” And this conclusion comes from US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks.

From what I have seen in this report and from what I know about how the State Department works, there is nothing sinister in the meetings cited.

It is normal for US diplomats to seek out the opinions of journalists about social and political issues. Just as it is normal for these diplomats to talk to government leaders about the same things. I would think that the rest of the world would be happy that diplomats look for alternative views about what is going on in the countries to which they are assigned.

(I still recall the reaction after the State Department was caught flat-footed by the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s. One US diplomat said: “What? You expect us to talk to workers?”)

In the past 25-30 years the State Department not only demands that its employees talk to workers but also to shop owners, church  leaders and (yes!) journalists. There is nothing sinister about journalists (or other sectors of society) — one on one or in groups — having off the record talks with diplomats. The exchange of ideas and information benefits both sides.

The reaction to Waak’s meetings with the US diplomats in Brazil is exactly why I am upset with how Wikileaks handled the cables. Would it really have been so bad, so difficult, to redact the names of the sources in the cables?

Overall, I like that the cables were released. These are hardly the Pentagon Papers — there were no secret plots to deceive the American people revealed in the cables as there was in the Pentagon Papers.

The cables released by Wikileaks show that most US diplomats reach out to many different parts of society in the countries where they are assigned. The cables show that serious thought and analysis goes into understanding what is going on and what it means for US relations with those countries.

What is inexcusable is releasing the names of the sources the US diplomats rely on for their information.

Even though a lot of the people named in the cables told AP they have no problem with their names being made public (AP review finds no threatened WikiLeaks sources), think of  the danger dissidents in countries like China and Zimbabwe. Or the problems releasing names has in legitimate counter-terrorism activities.

Those of us in journalism protect our confidential sources. We all have people as sources who do not want their names released. And we honor those confidences. Is it really too much to think that confidential sources in diplomatic cables should also be protected?

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Filed under Freedom of Information, International News Coverage

Good news from Brazil: FOI passes senate

From Freedom House: Freedom House Applauds Brazilian Senate’s Passage of Freedom of Information Law

Freedom House applauds the Brazilian Senate’s passage of the Freedom of Information Law on October 25, a landmark step towards improving press freedom in Brazil. The bill would secure citizens the right to information on public agencies, including budgets, salaries, staffing, and internal reports, as well as protections to whistleblowers. Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva introduced the bill in 2009, and it was the subject of extensive debate. It was passed by the Chamber of Deputies in April 2010, and then was awaiting full approval from the Brazilian Senate.

This has been a long time coming. Now the law moves on to the next political battle for final enactment.

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No one said freedom of information laws were easy to enforce

El Heraldo in Honduras wanted to see a  report on the Honduran foreign service the foreign affairs ministry compiled.

The paper submitted a request under the country’s transparency act.

And guess what? Yep! There are “delays” in getting the report to the newspaper.

English version (Google Translate): Foreign Ministry refuses to give consular report

Original text: Cancillería rechaza dar informe sobre consulados

No one should be surprised. For me it is not because the foreign ministry is inefficient or wicked. (Although some political elements in Honduras would see the situation that way. And maybe the ministry is just a tad inefficient.) It’s just that is the way governments are. They don’t like giving out information that the people think we have a right to see.

When Pres. Lyndon Johnson signed the US Freedom of Information law into effect in 1966, he told his then press secretary, Bill Moyers, that he had just signed into law the most dangerous piece of legislation ever.

Throughout its history the government agencies have fought to limit the scope of the law while civic groups and journalists have sought to expand it. It is all a part of the standard ongoing battles in a democracy.

El Heraldo needs to be praised for keeping the feet of government agencies and leaders to the fire on these issues.

For more info about the global battles for freedom of information, go to Freedominfo.org.

The describe themselves as “a one-stop portal that describes best practices, consolidates lessons learned, explains campaign strategies and tactics, and links the efforts of freedom of information advocates around the world.”

I have to agree with that assessment. This is a site well worth visiting.

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Global business rankings and why it matters locally

The World Bank came out with its annual Doing Business report.

Basically the report identifies key issues vital to doing business in a country.

Doing Business measures and tracks changes in the regulations applying to domestic companies in 11 areas in their life cycle. A fundamental premise of Doing Business is that economic activity requires good rules that are transparent and accessible to all. Such regulations should be efficient, striking a balance between safeguarding some important aspects of the business environment and avoiding distortions that impose unreasonable costs on businesses. Where business regulation is burdensome and competition limited, success depends more on whom you know than on what you can do. But where regulations are relatively easy to comply with and accessible to all who need to use them, anyone with talent and a good idea should be able to start and grow a business in the formal sector.

The top five economies that are the BEST  for doing business are:

  1. Singapore
  2. Hong Kong
  3. New Zealand
  4. United States
  5. Denmark

One quick thing about this: The rhetoric from some political circles that the US is no longer a good place to do business is blown away by this report. Note that the United States is right up near the top.

It would be nice to see this report work its way into the current political debate. (Well, one can always hope.)

What drew my attention to this report was an entry in the Beyond BRICs blog from the Financial Times.

The World Bank report shows just how difficult it is to set up and run a company in the BRICs. (Brazil, Russia, India and China)

  • Brazil dropped 6 points in the rankings from 120 to 126 out of 183 economies.
  • China slid from 87 to 91.
  • India and Russia did better. India moved to #132 from #139 and Russia from #124 to 120.

And Brazil fell because of its laws on trade and tax collection among others.

The bottom line is that despite all the hype of the BRICs being the wave of the future, they are all WAY behind not only the United States but most of Europe and large portions of Latin America and Asia.

For all the doomsayers and complainers of U.S. tax and business policy, this report shows clearly that the United States remains one of the best places to set up and run a business.

This report is another example of how an international issue can be linked to local issues. It just takes a few minutes for a journalist to follow up on the report and match up its findings with the political rhetoric.

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