Getting UNGA to get real on press freedom

Joel Simon from the Committee to Protect Journalists has a featured piece in Columbia Journalism Review on how the United Nations should — but really can’t — do something about press freedom.

What can the UN do for press freedom?

Bottom line: Not much, but it can make some nice statements.

Responding to an upsurge in media killings, particularly of journalists working in conflict zones, the UN has prioritized the issue of journalists’ safety in recent years. In 2012, UNESCO, the UN agency charged with defending press freedom, launched a Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. The following year, the General Assembly passed a resolution to create an International Day to End Impunity for crimes against journalists, marked each year on November 2.

In July 2013, Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the Associated Press, become the first ever journalist to address the Security Council. She noted, “Most journalists who die today are not caught in some wartime crossfire, they are murdered just because of what they do. And those murders are rarely ever solved; the killers rarely ever punished.” Last May, the Security Council passed a historic resolution reaffirming the international legal protections for journalists covering armed conflict. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon regularly condemns the killing of journalists, and calls on member states to take action.

All of these measures are important, and have tremendous symbolic value. But it is difficult to point to concrete advances in response to UN action. In fact, the level of violence against journalists has increased in recent years, and imprisonment of journalists around the world has reached record levels. Recent high-profile cases—including the conviction of three Al Jazeera reporters in Egypt; the ongoing imprisonment of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian in Iran; and the seven-and-a-half-year sentence handed down to renowned investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova in Azerbaijan—demonstrate that when it comes to imprisoning journalists, repressive governments are increasingly unresponsive to international pressure.

Simon argues journalists, diplomats and other human rights defenders need to use the occasion of the annual opening of the UN General Assembly, when leaders from around the world come to New York to argue for more action to protect journalists in their home countries.

Over the years, the Committee to Protect Journalists, which I head, has used the General Assembly to secure commitments from a number of heads of state, including former President Vicente Fox of Mexico, who agreed to appoint a special prosecutor for crimes against journalists, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who committed during a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations to receive a CPJ delegation in Ankara.

Simon says this one-on-one approach should not let the United Nations, itself, off the hook, but it appears to the only way — for now — to get things done.

He argues journalists should demand accountability from the leaders who speak a the UNGA for their violations of press freedom. By just reporting the speeches and not looking at the records of the speakers, journalists become accomplices in efforts to whitewash media repression.

This item was initially posted at the SPJ International Community site: Journalism and the World.

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Media lessons from ‘The Wright Brothers’: What historic stories are we missing today?

Steve Buttry once again nails it. Media lessons from ‘The Wright Brothers’: What historic stories are we missing today?

The lesson here is to be open minded and look for the unusual.

Today this can also be applied to looking for connections between international and local events.

Maybe local reporters may not be missing out on history, but they could be missing out on excellent stories by not digging deeper into local immigrant communities or economic connections with the rest of the world. (And again, I am not talking about Chinese-made products in the local Wal-Mart or the local Hyundi dealership sales.)

Many American companies are owned by foreign companies. Here is an excellent list: Ten Classic American Brands That Are Foreign-Owned

What they did not mention was how IBM sold off their computer operations to the Chinese company Lenovo. Or how Ben & Jerry’s is really owned by Unilever out of the UK or how a Chinese company now owns the AMC movie theater chain.

Yep, there are a lot of local-global connections, all that is needed is some imagination and willingness to look beyond the surface.

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Filed under Connections, International News Coverage

Justice Breyer Gets the Local-Global Connection

Just as the U.S. economy is connected to the rest of the world, so too are our laws and courts.

Many thanks to Nina Totenberg at NPR for her interview with  Supreme Court Stephen Breyer on the connections between the rest of the world and the United States. (Law Beyond Our Borders: Justice Breyer Is On A Mission)

“I began to understand the important divisions in the world are not on the basis of race or nationality or country or where you live,” Breyer said. “They are really between people who believe in a rule of law as a way of deciding significant issues and those who do not believe in a rule of law — who believe in force.”

In the following years, he began noticing that the Supreme Court docket was very different from when he first became a justice in 1994. Instead of just a handful of cases involving the interdependence of law in this and other countries, he estimates that the cases involving foreign law now have grown to as much as a fifth of the docket.

Just as Main Street USA is linked with factories in China and banks in England and companies in Brazil**, so too are many of our laws. This is just one more example of why local journalists need to be curious about how local events are directly affected by global events.

First posted at SPJ International Committee Blog.

**Just in case you were wondering: Budweiser is owned by a Brazilian company. So people who enjoy a cold Bud while watching a game, you are also helping the Brazilian economy.

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Filed under Connections, India, Supreme Court, Treaties

Open Letter to Obama to Pressure Xi on Press Freedom/Human Rights Issues

From the SPJ International Committee blog site:

Journalism and Human Rights Groups Call on Obama to Pressure China

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Filed under Censorship, China

Bags that tell a dramatic story

The International Rescue Committee put together a great series of questions, answers and photos to show what refugees have in the bags as they flee the violence of Syria. (Organized by Medium).

WHAT’S IN MY BAG? What refugees bring when they run for their lives

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Filed under Middle East, Story Ideas

Using Sports To Make A Global Connection

Friday night (9/4) the U.S. men’s soccer (football) team played the Peruvian national team in a friendly match in Washington, DC. It was an exciting and fun game. (Yes, I was there.)

The total number of folks at the game came out to just a bit more than 28,000. From just looking at the crowd, about half were supporting Peru.

And that got me thinking…

How many Peruvians are in the Washington, DC area?

Fortunately, the U.S. Census Bureau can tell me that.

Here are some basic numbers:

Location Peruvian Population Population
Washington, DC 1,400 620,000
Maryland 19,000 5,800,000
Montgomery Co. 13,000 972,000
Prince Georges Co. 1,700 863,000
Baltimore Co. 1,000 805,000
Virginia 34,000 8,100,000
Alexandria 1,600 149,000
Arlington Co. 1,500 208,000
Fairfax Co. 15,000 1,100,000
Prince William Co. 4,600 402,000
TOTAL DC AREA 39,800 5,119,000

So, we now see the raw numbers – as of 2013. What percentage is the Peruvian population of the geographic areas?

Location Peruvian Population Peruvians As Percentage of Total Population
Washington, DC 1,400 0.23
Maryland 19,000 0.33
Montgomery Co. 13,000 1.34
Prince Georges Co. 1,700 0.20
Baltimore Co. 1,000 0.12
Virginia 34,000 0.42
Alexandria 1,600 1.07
Arlington Co. 1,500 0.72
Fairfax Co. 15,000 1.36
Prince William Co. 4,600 1.14
TOTAL DC AREA 39,800 0.78

Assembling that information took about 15 minutes using the Census Bureau website. That amount of time included looking at – and recording – the numbers for 2009-2013.

So, even though the Peruvian population in the greater Washington, DC area is less than 1 percent, the US-Peru game provided an opportunity to look at the 40,000 or so people who came from Peru and settled in the area.

Especially when you think that 28,000 people showed up for the game and it looked as if half of those in attendance were supporting Peru. For the math-challenged, that is about 14,000 people, or about one-third of all the Peruvians in the area.

No matter how you look at it, that is a lot of people.

What kind of work do they do? Yes, we all know the best chicken in the area is Peruvian-style rotisserie. But what other areas of the local economy do Peruvians fill?

Why did the Peruvians in the area come here? Why not someplace else?

These are all questions that could have been asked in a run up to the game or as a follow up to the game. But, alas, I saw nothing in the DC area media about the Peruvian population.

The lack of creativity to find these little, but significant, ways to link a local community to the rest of the world is a shame.

Part of the role of a free and independent press in a democracy is to educate the people about things to help them be informed participants in that democracy.

How can voters make a decision about immigration of international trade when the press is dominated by political arguments about who will build a bigger fence or who will be the first to call for an embargo of imports?

Immigration is more than people crossing the border without proper documents. And trade is more than trying to bring back jobs that will never come back. The issues are complex and personal at the same time.

  • What are the stories of the immigrants?
  • What skills and benefits do they bring to the United States?
  • How has trade affected their desire to live or leave the United States?

These are questions that need to be asked regularly and of different communities. The reasons about 40,000 Peruvians came to the DC area are most likely different than those of the Indians or Koreans in the area.

What are those differences? And why do they matter?

Doing these kinds of stories does not require any foreign travel. All it requires is for an editor and a reporter to be curious about the local community and then to find the proper hook to help tell the stories.

The opportunity in the DC area was lost on the Peruvian community. Maybe the Boston papers will pick up on the Brazilian community connections in time for the US-Brazil friendly September 8.

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Filed under Connections, Immigration

China needs to learn from Hong Kong

As usual journalist Frank Ching is spot on in his analysis.

When Hong Kong was handed over to China, people were saying Beijing could learn from Hong Kong how to enter the modern world of finance and politics. But there are lessons Beijing just does not seem to want to learn.

For example, when a major issue dominates the public’s concern, the Hong Kong government sets up commissions to investigate and report back to the people.

Such commissions are part of Hong Kong’s tradition. The British colonial government, between 1966 and the handover to China in 1997, set up commissions of inquiry 12 times to look into such issues as the cause of riots, a fire on a floating restaurant that claimed 34 lives, and the flight from Hong Kong of a police chief superintendent wanted on corruption charges. The strength of such inquiries is that they are conducted by individuals of standing in the community who, while appointed by the government, act independently. Often, such inquiries are headed by judges.

The latest issue is the discovery of lead in the Hong Kong drinking water. The pro-Beijing government in Hong Kong reacted in a way that does credit to the recent history of Hong Kong. They set up a commission.

[T]he commission is headed by Justice Andrew Chan, a high court judge. The commission’s terms of reference are to ascertain the causes of excess lead found in drinking water in public rental-housing developments; to review and evaluate the adequacy of the present regulatory and monitory system in respect of drinking-water supply in Hong Kong; and to make recommendations with regard to the safety of drinking water in Hong Kong.

Frank also points out that the people of Hong Kong know what the local standard is and how it compares to the World Health Organization standard. BTW, 10 micrograms per liter for both.

Now take the explosion at Tianjin — as Frank did — as an example of how not to investigate a major incident that have people concerned for their health and safety.

Premier Li Keqiang promised to “release information to society in an open and transparent manner.” But the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus has moved in as usual and demanded: “Use only copy from Xinhua and authoritative departments and media…. Do not make live broadcasts.”

Cyanide has been detected in the soil near the blast sites, but a Chinese official, Tian Weiyong, director of the environmental emergency centre of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, was quoted as saying that the level does not exceed the national standard. However, we are not told what the Chinese standard is and how it compares with WHO guidelines.

And just as a side note, Frank points out that even if China revealed the “Chinese standard,” it would probably not be of much comfort to the people. In the case of the Hong Kong lead-in-the-water situation, it would never come up as an issue in China. While the readings in Hong Kong exceeded WHO standards by four times, they would have been within Chinese standards of 50 micrograms of lead per liter of water, or five times that of the WHO.

Frank’s bottom line is something a lot of us have argued for years. When the Chinese people know the information they are getting has been carefully sifted and purified, they reject the official statements and turn to rumors for information. Rumors cause panic. And yet, the Chinese leadership says controlling information is necessary to preserve social stability. They really don’t seem to see how their actions are actually adding to instability. (Or at least they are acting as if they don’t see the connection between media control and social instability.)

Independent commissions to investigate disasters and access to the commission reports have provided stability to Hong Kong society. People may not like the results of the studies, but at least the process is public and the public knows how and why the conclusions were reached.

Frank points out

China can learn from the outside world is the creation of an independent body, such as a commission of inquiry, to show its determination to uncover the truth, regardless of where it leads. Such commissions are used around the world, including by the United Nations.

Setting up such a commission lifts a huge burden from the government’s shoulders. The trouble is that, in China, the Communist Party won’t let anyone else investigate.

He adds another problem finding individuals trusted by the people to serve on the commission. “After all, there is no independent judiciary,” he wrote, “no Independent Commission Against Corruption and no Office of the Ombudsman where people of integrity may flourish.”

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Filed under Censorship, China, Freedom of Information, Hong Kong