Monthly Archives: April 2010

BURMA: Elections without speech (or free press)

The Asian Human Rights Commission out of Hong Kong has been watching the run up to the elections later this year. (No date has been set.)

The AHRC is running a series of position papers on some of the problems it sees — besides the obvious that the main opposition party is not allowed to participate.

The latest in the series is Burma: Elections without speech.

In this paper the AHRC looks at how the repression of media and open discussion basically guarantees the elections will not solve the problems in the country or begin to heal the wounds caused by years of a brutal dictatorship.

When the military government of Burma passed five new laws and four bylaws during March in preparation for planned elections later this year, it attracted a lot of interest, discussion and analysis in the global media. The only place where the media did not pick up the story was in Burma, or Myanmar, itself. Aside from official announcements in the turgid state mouthpieces and some articles in news journals iterating the facts, there was no analysis, commentary or debate.

The absence of debate was not because the persons writing and publishing these periodicals did not want discussion, or even try to have some. According to various reports, journalists have interviewed experts and obtained views that they had thought would be printable. But instead, journals have so far been prohibited from covering anything significant about the laws at all, or the parties now registering for the upcoming ballot. The absurd situation exists of an election having been announced and the process of party registration begun without anything other than formal acknowledgement of these facts in the local media.

Controlling and harassing the media is an old game in Burma. Two years ago a journalist was arrested for shooting a video of a referendum vote.

As Burma heads for an election that was forced on the ruling generals by the rest of the world, the absence of free speech and free media make a strong case that these elections will be a sham.

But the blackout on news about the electoral process is not merely a question of media freedom. It is indicative of far deeper dysfunction that prohibits the possibility of free or fair elections. The problem is not just one of how journalists can communicate with their society but how their society can communicate with itself.

Previous papers on the elections are:

The next one is called “The politics of despair.”

Why should anyone other than Burmese care?

This is an object lesson about the importance of free and independent media to the governing and electoral processes. Without a fair and impartial arbiter to look at what the government and political candidates are saying and doing, the citizenry will not be able to make informed decisions.

Of course, one assumes the people have a say in governance. In Burma they don’t. But in the United States and other democracies they do. And it is the duty of journalists to make sure the citizens are properly informed about what is happening.

I have always liked the maxim (and this is probably not a 100% accurate quote): “We don’t report what you want to hear, we report what you NEED to know.”

And that is what dictators and fanatics have never liked about independent news media. So if you don’t want to learn about different sides of an issue, keep reading DailyKos or the Drudge Report.

BTW, notice that the AHRC is based in Hong Kong. This once again proves that civil liberties in Hong Kong are being protected despite Hong Kong falling under Chinese rule. (Can you think of any objective human rights group operating in mainland China?)

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Filed under Asia, International News Coverage, Press Freedom

Soldier in helicopter video speaks out/Another part of the story

A couple of days ago, Wired magazine published what seems to me the first account of a soldier on the ground following the Apache helicopter attack in 2007 that killed two Reuters journalists and a number of civilians.

U.S. Soldier on 2007 Apache Attack: What I Saw

In July 2007, [Ethan] McCord, a 33-year-old Army specialist, was engaged in a firefight with insurgents in an Iraqi suburb when his platoon, part of Bravo Company, 2-16 Infantry, got orders to investigate a nearby street. When they arrived, they found a scene of fresh carnage – the scattered remains of a group of men, believed to be armed, who had just been gunned down by Apache attack helicopters. They also found 10-year-old Sajad Mutashar and his five-year-old sister Doaha covered in blood in a van. Their 43-year-old father, Saleh, had been driving them to a class when he spotted one of the wounded men moving in the street and drove over to help him, only to become a victim of the Apache guns.

McCord left the service last year. Wired reached him in Kansas.

He makes it clear that those who said people in the video had no weapons are just wrong.

In the video, you can clearly see that they did have weapons … to the trained eye. You can make out in the video [someone] carrying an AK-47, swinging it down by his legs….

The most moving part of the interview, however, is McCord’s description of what he saw when he arrived at the scene of the shooting, the wounded families and the aftermath, including the reaction of McCord’s sergeant.

When McCord said the injuries to the children caught in the attack affected him and he wanted to see a mental health professional.

I was called a pussy and that I needed to suck it up and a lot of other horrible things. I was also told that there would be repercussions if I was to go to mental health.

Later that same night the sergeant told McCord the children would survive.

I didn’t know if he was telling me that just to get me to shut up and to do my job or if he really found something out. I always questioned it in the back of my mind.

I raise this because reaction of the sergeant goes against what the Pentagon mandates.

I get the Armed Forces Network here in Brazil. AFN shows current television programs (including all the news programs). Instead of having commercials about soap and cars, the breaks are filled with PSAs from the services. One of the most common themes in these PSAs is the need — the importance — of getting proper mental treatment.

And the reasoning behind those ads is clear: Last year 334 members of the US military committed suicide. Compare that to the 297 who died in action in Afghanistan and the 150 killed in Iraq and one can see what is greater threat to the troops.

There have been occasional stories about the toll service in Iraq and Afghanistan is taking on our military. Yet, it strikes me that there have not been enough. (GBT seems to be doing a pretty good job with his series the past couple of weeks.)

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Filed under International News Coverage, Middle East

Transparency saves lives.

Discussions about what to do following the release of the video of the Apache helicopter attack that showed the killing of two Reuters correspondents continues. The video was released by WikiLeaks earlier this month.

Many praised the organization for making the video public. Others complained that WikiLeaks released the video to promote a political agenda. (Something WikiLeaks does not deny. Just the hede the company gave the story — Collateral Murder — bespeaks a political agenda.) And others said the video did not tell the whole story. (There were snipers in the area and fighting taking place just block away.)

Even with all the discussion that has taken place, questions remain.

David Schlesinger Reuters editor in chief, wrote in the Guardian yesterday:

It was impossible for me to watch and not feel outrage and great sorrow – but this is not about trying to tell anyone else what to feel. This is about trying to find out exactly what happened and how to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

What I want from the Pentagon – and from all militaries – is simple: acknowledgment, transparency, accountability.

What does he mean by these three points?

  • Acknowledgment means both understanding at headquarters and training in the field that journalists have a right to be on the battlefield.
  • Transparency is vital. This is the honesty for all to learn lessons from what has transpired.
  • Finally there is accountability…Let’s fully understand the rules the military were operating under.

Schlesinger is not calling for anyone’s head on a platter. He wants the horrible events put in context.

Let’s dig behind the video. Let’s fully understand the rules the military were operating under. Let’s have a complete picture of what was going through the fliers’ minds.

My guess is that we would all be better off if there was more acceptance, transparency and accountability.

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Filed under International News Coverage, Killings, Middle East

Journalism in Zimbabwe — BBC Over to You 4/18

The Beeb has a great program — Over to You — that is about the state of media around the world.

This weekend they had a story about the changes in Zimbabwe.

In Zimbabwe there is only state-run broadcasting. This year the government created the Zimbabwe Media Commission with the declared intention to promote and protect the media.

The guest this week was Gerry Jackson, a Zimbabwe exile who runs a radio station aimed at Zimbabwe from England, says the only difference between the policies of the Mugabe government before and after the unity government came to power and the new media commission is that the overt violence against free media has subsided.

Private news outlets are still banned. It is still against the law to call the 86-year-old Mugabe “an old man.”

Other discussions included the use of labels such as “left wing” and “right wing” to groups.

This is a good radio program that is available live and on podcasts from the BBC web site.

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Filed under Africa, International News Coverage

Ash cloud, European travel and the USA

So far the most I have seen on the reporting about how the volcanic ash cloud is affecting European travel has focused on just European travel. There have been a few comments about how the airline groundings have affected flights to/from the States but I have yet to see any stories about what the groundings really mean.

The cancellation of so many flights has to have a social and economic impact on not only Europe but also on individual communities in the United States.

For example, a couple of friends are stuck in Sweden because of the ash cloud. He teaches journalism classes at a Washington, DC-area university. He made arrangements for other profs to cover his classes last week but now he has to make arrangements for this week because he cannot get out of Europe.

How many other business men and women are stranded in Europe? And what kind of impact does that have on getting business done?

Yes, I know with smart phones and high-speed Internet connections, a lot of what once had to be done face to face can now be done in virtual meetings. But I still figure there has to be an economic impact on having key corporate people stuck on the other side of the pond. (Europeans stuck in the US and Americans stuck in Europe.)

I wonder: Are the State Dept. and Department of Homeland Security allowing European visitors to overstay their visas because of this situation?

Are local businesses, churches, charities, etc. being affected because people cannot get in or out of Europe?

CNN just reported the industry figures it is losing $200 million a day. What do the losses the aviation industry mean to the average person? Will the rest of the industry follow Spirit Air and charge for carry on bags or follow Ryan Air and charge for use of the toilet? How about imposing a new “disaster recovery” fee per ticket?

What about other industries? Have the travel restrictions affected more than just the aviation industry? How about UPS or FedEx? How about companies that depend on air cargo? (Can Americans get their brie? Has the cost of real brie gone up?)

I would bet anyone looking at his/her own community could come up with a local, local, local story that show the local, local, local connection to this incident. It just takes a little looking and asking.


Filed under International News Coverage, Story Ideas

Revisiting WikiLeaks and what it means to journalism

A while back (April 7, to be exact) I wrote about a piece in Foreign Policy about WikiLeaks and the future of journalism. At that time I expressed the same concern as the FP author: Is WikiLeaks the future of journalism?

I, and other journalists, are concerned that the use of WikiLeaks material is feeding into a political agenda. And let us be clear, WikiLeaks has a political agenda.

Sadly, one of the best interviews exploring this was done by Stephen Colbert. (I am having problems embedding the video, so just click here to see the interview.)

In addition to the Colbert interview that bastion of liberalism, Mother Jones, has also called into question the journalistic credentials of WikiLeaks.

I worry because so many news organizations are depending on groups such as WikiLeaks rather than going out and being competitive in the field of investigative journalism.

It bothers me because journalism is supposed to be about remaining true to the readers/viewers/listeners rather than a political agenda. WikiLeaks makes no bones about having such an agenda. Assange openly admits he and his team used “hot” words to title the video and that they edited the video before making it public.

As and editor I would like to know what happened before and after the video. I would like to know what was edited out of the video. In other words, I would like to know the context of the shots.

We don’t get that from WikiLeaks. Nor did we get it from many of the news organizations when they ran the video. (Yes, later we got some more information. But shouldn’t we have had that info the first time the video was run?)

It is fair to report what WikiLeaks has but it is beginning to look as if some news groups are willing to let WikiLeaks lead the way in getting material.

I repeat what I said before, I am concerned because the news organization has no way to judge the material. Without an active role in the gathering and editing process, how can news editors really trust the material.

We are seeing more outsourcing of reporting by major news organizations. And I am not talking about using freelancers (like me) to get stories. Groups such as WikiLeaks and Current News have journalists working for them and developing stories. But these are groups with political agendas and no news organization should be beholden to them.

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Filed under Freedom of access, International News Coverage

Bolton looks at the Obama administration

This may not be journalism related but the speech did take place at my favorite place: The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong.

Last week, Amb. John Bolton, former ambassador to the United Nations for the United States, was in Hong Kong. He stopped by the FCC to share his views of the Obama administration.

This podcast is courtesy of past FCC president Matt Driskill.

John Bolton at the FCCHK. April 8, 2010

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Filed under International News Coverage