Monthly Archives: November 2011

Global FOI/Transparency Audit

The Civil Association for Equality and Justice issued a major study of transparency and freedom of information laws in Latin America.

Supreme Audit Institutions in Latin America

A worthwhile read to see how FOI/Transparency laws have evolved in Latin America. (And how much more is still to go.)

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Honduran president admits gov’t can’t provide security

Violence in Honduras is at epidemic proportions. Literally caught in the crossfire are journalists.

About 18 journalists have been killed in the past 18 months. How many were killed because of their work or because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time is up in the air. But that does not take away from the dangers journalists face.

Besides the killings, numerous cases of intimidation and threats against journalists are becoming common place. The threats are reportedly coming from corrupt officials, drug cartels and thugs hired by some business interests.

Honduran journalists have been very brave to keep pushing their investigative reports on national and local corruption.

Earlier this week Pres. Lobo called for a meeting with media leaders. The reports said he wanted to talk about freedom of expression and the national interest.

That phrasing set up red flags all over the place. The biggest fear was that Lobo — who has regularly stood up for press freedom — would ask reporters to pull back on their reporting. (We’ve seen it done in other places.)

The meeting took place Friday, Nov. 25 and basically Lobo said his government was unable to protect journalists but that he would do what he can. Bottom line, he said, journalists and news organizations have to look to their own security.

Lobo a periodistas: “Tomen medidas” de seguridad

Lobo said he would issue an executive order  prohibiting threats or intimidation by police against reporters. He added that any hint of a threat or intimidation should be reported right away.

“Keep me informed, you all have my phone number. I will ask we have the numbers of all of you, so you help us to report abuses,” he said.

The Lobo government has been under pressure to address the growing violence in Honduras that has earned the country the dubious title of murder capital of the world. At the same time he is dealing with growing corruption among the police and security forces by gangs and narcos. (Yes, these problems are linked.)

The downside of the meeting: Lobo admitted his government could do little to protect journalists and was having a hard time finding and prosecuting the killers of journalists.

The upside: Lobo reiterated his support for free media and underscored the importance free media play in society.

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Filed under Central America, Honduras

Honduran press under attack, but pushes back

We have known for some time that the life of a journalist in Honduras is dangerous.(Hell, living in Honduras is dangerous.)

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), 18 journalists have been killed since January 1, 2010. The Committee To Protect Journalists puts the number at 17 since 1992 but only five killings could be directly related to the journalists’ work. (CPJ and RSF have different methods. Face it, Honduras is a dangerous place and some killings could have been “wrong place, wrong time” type of incidents with nothing to do with the journalists’ work. But that does not negate the dangers.)

The situation is not getting any better. But that is not stopping the Honduran media from doubling down on its efforts.

El Heraldo has been running a series of hard-hitting and penetrating investigative pieces on corruption within the police department and other government agencies. Other papers have also been pursuing reports of corruption and wanton violence in the country.

And the corrupt forces — from the narcos and gangs to the police — are pushing back.

Yesterday (11/23), the Honduran National Commissioner of Human Rights told international organizations and the media that freedom of the press in Honduras was under attack.

The director of the commission, Ramón Custodio, condemned acts of intimidation against journalists and editors of newspapers and broadcasters in recent days. He said reporters and editors were subjected to threats to physical integrity, life and freedom of expression.

Custodio added that threats to journalists have increased since the news organizations have stepped up their coverage of corruption, organized crime networks and drug traffickers operating within the National Police.

This comes on the heels of Pres. Lobo calling for a meeting with media leaders to discuss reporting and national security. Given the state of affairs in the country, not a few people are concerned that the meeting might be some sort of method to intimidate the media.

One ex-pat who has lived in Honduras for a number of years summarized the problem:

If Lobo was going to congratulate the media on their excellent and thorough coverage of the criminal police scandals and the important role they have played in impelling exposure which will hopefully result in the purification of the rottenly corrupt and deadly police department, he likely would have done that in a press conference.

More likely he is going to suggest a gag order among the media, possibly telling them that they are threatening national security or trying to destabilize the government (favorite claims of authoritarian administrations). Maybe he’ll just ask them to “give him some time” and he’ll take care of everything personally thereby buying time until the media goes on to the next scandal and the exhausted public forgets about this one. Maybe there will be implied threats of possible charges of interfering with investigations or defamation, which is a criminal offense in Honduras for which “the truth” is not a legal defense, and for which other corrupt government officials have sued reporters and newspapers for millions of dollars in the past. Maybe there will be carrots dangled in the form of government advertising contracts.

No one denies the situation in Honduras is tense. The murder rate is the highest in the world. Corruption is rampant and the media reports are putting more pressure to clean up the situation, which threatens a lot of very dangerous people. The drug cartels are using northern Honduras as their own personal staging area. And all this while Pres. Lobo is trying to bring the country back together after the coup in 2009.

To be honest, I would not want Lobo’s job.

One of the positive things to take away from the upsurge in media harassment and intimidation is the fact that the reporting is hitting sore points. The media are doing what H.L. Menken said they should do, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

So far the intimidation (and killings) are coming from corrupt and criminal elements as opposed to being an official set of actions from the government. But many the institutions in the government are infiltrated by corrupt elements, making a full-scale clean up difficult.

That is where the free press comes in.

Back to that ex-pat blogger, La Gringa:

I see the Honduran media as the only possible hope of getting some resolution to the police corruption scandal — which the government is obviously trying to downplay — though of course, the media gets its own accusations of corruption and financial influence as well.

It is significant that many Hondurans agree that the rampant corruption reported in the police force and other government agencies will be addressed and solved thanks to increased pressure from the free and independent media in the country. Yes, there are issues of some reporters being bought off and “getting along.” But there are also enough honest reporters, editors and publishers that the bad apples are seen for what they are.

Besides, the corrupt and criminal elements don’t care about the corrupt reporters. They care about the good ones. And so far, the good ones are setting the tone.

Thanks to the investigative reporting of El Heraldo and others, there is a better understanding of the breadth and depth of the problem. (Rather than just anecdotal accounts.) The reporting and a growing revulsion against the violence is leading to more demonstrations and activities by civic organizations pushing back against the violence. The Youth Against Violence movement in Honduras is growing stronger each day. As are other civic organizations.

For the sake of Honduran society and stability in the area, let us hope that the anti-violence groups grow and that more civic groups step forward to strengthen the democratic institutions in Honduras. And one of the most vital institutions for democracy and a civil society are free media.

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Filed under Central America, International News Coverage, Killings

Honduras to address press freedom issues

I’m not really sure what Pres. Lobo wants to talk about but I am nervous about calling a meeting to study the limit of freedom of expression and how that fits in with defense of economic interests.

Pepe analizará límites a la libertad de expresión

The Lobo Administration has been a strong supporter of press freedom. I don’t think he is proposing controls on the media to limit criticism. But any discussion of linking press freedom and national interest makes me nervous.

In a democracy, maintaining press freedom IS in the national interest.

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Filed under Central America, Press Freedom

Nov. 23: International Day against Impunity

I will just let the organizers explain the day. No comment is really needed.

WHAT IS IMPUNITY?

The International Day to End Impunity is a call to action to demand justice for those who have been killed for exercising their right to freedom of expression and shed light on the issue of impunity.

Every day around the world journalists, musicians, artists, politicians, and free expression advocates are being silenced, often with no investigation or consequences to their persecutors.

WHO ARE WE?

The International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) is a global network of organizations working to defend and promote the right to freedom of expression.

WHY A DAY?

Impunity has always been ranked as a top priority for IFEX members. So it came as no surprise that at the 2011 IFEX Strategy Conference in Beirut, Lebanon, IFEX members announced they were joining forces to launch the first ever International Day to End Impunity on 23 November, the anniversary of the single deadliest attack on journalists in recent history: the 2009 Maguindanao massacre in the Philippines.

Rest of story.

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What’s in a name: Right or Access? Know or Information?

Seems UNESCO is taking the “diplomatic” way out, which probably means no one will be happy with the results.

Seems that advocates of freedom of information/right to know laws want the United Nations to put its seal of approval for an internationally recognized Right to Know Day on September 28.

The problem comes in what to call it.

Since 2002 September 28 has been noted as Right to Know Day. Some call it Right to Access and in the USA it is Freedom of Information.

Whatever the title, the bottom line is that the people have a right to government information and the government process should be transparent. In addition, massive rules and bureaucracies designed should not hinder citizen access.

Of course, the word “citizen” implies a civic society which in turn implies some form of democratic government. But I digress.

Initially it seems UNESCO preferred “Access to Information Day.” Civil society organizations, however, insisted that the emphasis should be on the RIGHT  to access the information.

Let’s face it, any government can say the people have “access” to the information. All they have to do is fill out 20-30 forms, show up in an obscure office down a back alley and wait for the right person to show up to authorize access. (Yes, I know that this does sound how the US FOIA works, but trust me it’s not.)

And the debate also includes the right to “information” or to “knowing.” A previous report on this discussion from FreedomInfo.org goes into the finer points:

“Know” side advocates, besides seeing value in preserving the existing “brand” of the RTK Day, argued that “know” is a more meaningful and encompassing term. The ultimate value of dispensing information is to enhance a right to know, it was said. The obligation of governments is not just to dispense raw information, said one contributor, but also to provide it in useable formats with context.

“Information” proponents, however, called “know” ambiguous. Getting the information is key, one stated, and what happens afterward is up to the individual. They also noted that the right to information is widely referenced in international official context.

Most commenters believe that UN endorsement would be positive, especially if resources followed, though some lamented having RTK Day distanced from its civil society roots.

One person objected that “neither the right to information nor the right to know is enough!” The acquisition of information is only one part of social change and must be accompanied by adequate participatory systems and accountability, a troika known in the environmental movement as “environmental democracy.” She urged the right to information movement to go beyond its traditional scope, but did not suggest a new day name.

The Carter Center has some excellent reports on efforts to make governments more accountable through the use of RTK/FOI laws.

Stay tuned to see if the UN/UNESCO finally get around to establishing Sept. 28 as a day to commemorate the right of people to know what their governments are doing and to get data easily from those governments.

I, for one, would LOVE to see a successful RTK/FOI request in Beijing on the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Hey! I can dream!

 

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Different libel laws cause grief around the world

One of the oddest things I ever saw in Hong Kong was the idea that even if a statement was true a person or organization can still sue  for libel if that statement changed what people think about that person or organization.

As I explained to my journalism students, in the United States if I wrote that someone was a tax-cheating bigamist and could prove it, there is no libel.

Truth is an absolute defense for libel.

Makes sense. But that is not the case in other parts of the world.

Seems Brazil has a bizarre version of this as well.

Journalist Joe Sharkey is being sued by a woman he never met or ever wrote about because he defamed the good name of Brazil. (To me that always sounds like something Beijing says whenever the Western media write a story critical of China: “That report is hurting the feelings of all Chinese people.”)

SIDEBAR: The government of Brazil sued the producers of the The Simpsons often. In a 2002 episode the Simpsons were in Brazil.  The family was robbed, eaten by snake, kidnapped and abused by monkeys. The Brazilian government sued. And the response of the Simpson team: More jokes about Brazil. And more lawsuits. None were successful — at least in the USA.

The Sharkey case goes back to a 2006 air crash over the Amazon. (You can read the details of the crash here and at Sharkey’s blog.) After being held for questioning and released, Sharkey, who was in one of the planes, returned to New York and wrote the story for the New York Times.

Even though nothing in Sharkey’s article has been shown to be incorrect or misleading, the fact that it called into question the air traffic control system of Brazil (something the government admits now is a problem) meant that he libeled the good name of Brazil.

The case was tossed but recently reinstated. See Sharkey’s account here: Brazil Reverses Itself, Finds Me Guilty of Causing ‘Dishonor” to the Nation

What is also interesting in Sharkey’s account of his case is the way some in the Brazilian media go off on bizarre tangents and conspiracy theories. For some reason — political, xenophobic, lack of training — too many reporters are willing to accept conspiracy theories over actually looking into the details of a story.

Brazilian journalists I have met and followed are independent types. Freedom of the press is still only 25 years or so old in Brazil. Efforts to control the media or use “social criticism” to “guide” it are fought tooth and nail by journalists and publishers.

What is missing still is making sure the practice of getting as many varied sources to comment on a story instead of just using one source is the rule instead of the exception. I have seen too many stories that had the reporter just made one extra phone call he/she would have seen that the line being fed was a mixture of lies, conjecture with a few facts tossed in for flavoring.

Brazilian journalists are working on improving their profession. And should be praised for it.

It looks, however, as if the Brazilian legal system — at least as far as free speech and libel laws are concerned — has a way to go.

See Brazilian law still has a problem with press freedom about how a Brazilian newspaper had to pay a settlement to a town mayor for reporting that the mayor was found guilty of corruption. Or Brazilian journalist facing jail for offending candidate seeks habeas corpus.

 

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Filed under Connections, International News Coverage, South America