Monthly Archives: July 2010

Georgian editor beaten, MPs implicated

Temur Tskhovrebov, editor of 21st Century in Tskhinvali, Georgia was attacked and severely beaten July 24. His friend Tskhinvali-based human rights defender Besarion Aseev said Tskhovrebov was beaten by around ten people leveling threats against him with guns.

According to Besarion Aseev the attackers included legislators from the local People’s Party and the Communist Party.

Besarion Aseev said Tskhovrebov’s beating is related to his civil activities.

On July 16 he took part in the Georgian-Ossetian civil forum that sent an appeal to the Geneva talks’ seeking a peaceful end to the fighting taking place in Georgia. The appeal was seen as an act of  treason against the separatist Ossetian state interests.

“Around ten people including three incumbent MPs Kazimir Pliev, Dmitri Vaneev and Alan Khasiev launched an attack against Tskhovrebov in Isaak Kharebov Street. Temur has his finger broken on one hand, and the throat slashed. His head and lip have been stitched. Ahead of the incident Osinform and TV aired Boris Chochiev’s speech. He declared the people having taken part in the Georgian-Ossetian forum as traitors. Tskhovrebov’s beating is the consequence of Chochiev’s statement. The latter accused the newspaper editor of betraying the interest of Ossetia.”

Full report: Tskhinvali-based Newspaper Editor Severely Beaten

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Filed under Europe, Press Freedom

How Diario Libre got “THE” picture

There has been a lot of coverage in the Caribbean about the arrest of alleged drug lord José Figueroa Agosto in Puerto Rico and his girlfriend Sobeida Felix Morel.

Figuero is wanted on more money laundering, drug and murder charges than can be enumerated here. (Suffice it to say his operations are said to have made the Colombians look like amateurs.)

Felix was wanted in the Dominican Republic on more charges than she was in the United States so when she was caught in Puerto Rico, the DR government asked for her to be extradited to the Dominican Republic for trial.

The U.S. government agreed.

On July 21 she arrived in Santo Domingo. The arrival was recorded by a lone newspaper reporter. And the picture was dramatic.

The photographer, Tomas Ventura, described for the readers of Diario Libre how he was in the right place at the right time and how he got the picture.

Taking Sobeida’s picture was not easy

The “how I got it” story is one that journalists in free societies around the world can relate to. We have all had our great moments.

And we all love to talk about them.

For now, let’s celebrate with Ventura his tenacity and skills.

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Filed under Corruption, International News Coverage, Press Freedom

Hong Kong freedoms under attack — again

Each year the Hong Kong Journalist Association issues a report on the state of media and civil freedom in Hong Kong. Each year, the report is a little more pessimistic than the previous year.

The 2010 report — “The Vice Tightens: Pressure Grows on Free Expression in Hong Kong” — continues in that depressing pattern.

The report looks at issues where the Hong Kong political and legal establishment are deferring more and more to Beijing or their proxies in Hong Kong.

An issue of direct concern to Hong Kong journalists is the status of government-owned Radio Television Hong Kong.

The government decided RTHK will remain a government department, despite petitions from the public and non-governmental organizations, that it should become an independent public service broadcaster.

The status of RTHK has long been an issue for free-press advocates.

Under its current status as a government department RTHK has limited editorial freedom –although the government said it will issue a charter guaranteeing RTHK full editorial independence.

For many veterans in the battle for RTHK independence, the issuance of a charter is not a victory.

When the Voice of America aired an interview with Taliban leader Mullah Omar September 21, 2001 the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell intervened to kill the story.

He failed.

The attempt by the U.S. government to step in and censor a legitimate news story sent chills of fear among supporters of editorial independence for RTHK. VOA has long been known as a fair reporting news organization. Partly because its charter — signed into law by Pres. Ford in 1976 — protects it.

Point One of the charter states, “VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.” That means no slanting the news to fit a political agenda.

The folks at RTHK got nervous because if the U.S. government could get away with intimidating VOA, what chance did RTHK have against the Hong Kong or Chinese governments.

In the end VOA won and story ran.

RTHK has always faced massive pressure by the Hong Kong government — British or Chinese — to “be more positive.” Since the handover in 1997 pressure on the Chinese language side increased so much that many journalists feared for their jobs unless they tread gently around stories critical of China.

The HKJA also pointed out the government is unwilling to adopt a more open approach towards government information. The report cites an investigation by the Ombudsman that found misunderstandings of the government  code on access to information.

The cure, said the HKJA is enactment of a freedom of information law.

Again, this has been an ongoing issue that has involved journalism groups from around the world in support of the HKJA position. In 2002 or 2003 the U.S. SPJ president spoke on RTHK about the importance of freedom of information laws.

The HKJA also noted an increased lack of interest by the Hong Kong government to defend its citizens from harassment in China. Two major incidents last year involved the detention of a journalist and a cameraman in Chengdu on trumped-up drug charges as they tried to report on the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake.

In another case Hong Kong journalists were beaten and detained by local officials in Urumqi. The journalists were covering the ethnic riots in that region.

The Hong Kong government promised to follow up on these cases but nothing concrete emerged.

The HKJA said in its report that the government is not living up to its international commitments – under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – to uphold freedom of expression and press freedom.

The Hong Kong government has also been lax in protesting arbitrary rules set up by Beijing to keep out journalists from news organizations, such as Apple Daily.

All in all the past year was another one of concern for supporters of civil liberties and free press in Hong Kong.

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Filed under Asia, Press Freedom

Catching up: Censorship without borders, China’s heel heavier on Internet; Least free places

Sorry folks, got a little behind in my review of material from Freedom House. (And if you haven’t visited their web site, you should. FH has the infamous Index of Freedom and Freedom of the Press Index. Both are necessary readings for anyone interested in international affairs.)

Censorship without Borders

I’ll just take the introduction straight from the FH web site:

In conjunction with the release of Freedom of the Press 2010, Freedom House hosted a panel discussion in the Knight Studio at the Newseum. The panel, titled “Censorship Without Borders,” focused on new and innovative tactics used by non-democratic governments (and some democratic governments as well) to restrict freedom of expression, outside of their borders as well as within. Panelists included Bob Boorstin, Director of Corporate and Policy Communications at Google; Frank Smyth, Washington Representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists; Christopher Walker, Director of Studies at Freedom House; and Karin Karlekar, Managing Editor of Freedom of the Press. Below are a series of video excerpts from the panelists, covering a number of issues that have a cross-border impact on freedom of expression including violence against journalists, the use of libel laws to discourage the expression of opposing views and growing censorship on the internet.

Topics such as censorship in China, defamation, libel, violence against journalists and much more are covered in several different video snippets.

Well worth a visit.

China’s heel on the Internet

The ongoing blockage of Facebook and Twitter in China continues to be a problem for freedom of expression in that country. Now add to that shutdowns of Twitter-like sites.

[F]our major Twitter-like micro-blogging services providing only limited services due to “maintenance” or “testing” – often euphemisms for strengthening internal self-censorship systems following government pressure; restrictions on at least one Chinese micro-blogging platform being able to link to any overseas websites—including non political sites like Geico Insurance; and the shutdown of an estimated 60 plus blogs by prominent legal and political commentators.

China has one of the most sophisticated Internet blocking operations in the world. It reaches down into the ISP level to make sure “improper” information is not provided to the Chinese Internet community. The technology seems to be mostly home-grown.

Clearly, the Chinese development of Internet censorship requires a lot of people — there are a lot of ISPs in the country. But China has a lot of people. So Internet censorship can easily be seen as a full-employment program by the central government.

Compare how China does it with Iran — another country that is nervous about the Internet.

Thanks to technology — hardware and software — purchased from Western Europe, Iran blocks sites such as Twitter and Google at the point where the Internet connection enters the country.

Back to China, Freedom House says the censorship of the Internet is an issue the international community can no longer ignore.

“The Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to control the internet affect much more than just its own citizens,” said Robert Guerra, director of Freedom House’s internet freedom project. “In addition to its domestic censorship practices, a growing number of sophisticated technical attacks are originating in China against organizations and companies outside of its borders.”

And let us not forget that the European Community is also looking at Chinese Internet censorship as a barrier to free trade.

Least Free Places On The Earth

Freedom House put together a travelogue of the least free places. Foreign Policy magazine picked it up and posted it online with pictures and commentary.

A very interesting read.

And one of the key things about all these “wonderful” garden spots is the lack of free media. Phrases such as “the government controls all broadcast media and restricts independent print publications” or  “a monopoly of political power” or  “human rights defenders, and others continue to face harassment and arbitrary detention and torture” are common in each country.

Proof once again — as if any was needed — that political freedom and press freedom go hand in hand.

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Filed under Censorship, International News Coverage, Press Freedom

Why was call for freedom of information law in Afghanistan ignored by media?

With all the to-do about the International Donors Conference in Kabul this week, one item got little (dare I say, no) mention in the media reports and government statements: the need for a freedom of information law.

One of the key points of the conference was the need to reduce corruption in the Afghan government. (Let’s face it, no one expects to eliminate corruption. The best anyone could do is limit it.) In response to that call, several Afghan civil society groups and media organizations launched a campaign highlighting the need to have access to government documents. And the best way to do that is to enact a freedom of information law.

AFGHAN CIVIL SOCIETY LAUNCHES ACCESS TO INFORMATION CAMPAIGN

Too bad no one in the West reported on it.

The issue of corruption in Afghanistan is indeed serious.

According to Transparency International, Afghanistan is just one point away from being the most corrupt country in the world. Only Somalia is more corrupt — and that is a country that barely has a functioning civil society. That makes Afghanistan more corrupt than well-know spots of corruption such as Sudan, Iraq and Haiti.

So, how does one combat corruption?

The idealists and political science modelers will say: “Enact anti-corruption legislation and then enforce it.” But the very people who depend on corruption for their standard living are also the ones in charge of enforcing the law. How serious do you think they will be in enforcing the law?

What is needed is a way to shine sunlight (the best disinfectant) on government projects. And that is where an FOI law comes into play.

The Afghan civic and media groups explain the need for an FOI law succinctly:

Citizens will be able to know essential information about the provision of public services, such as land distribution and its criteria, timeframe for issuing passports or identity cards, school construction costs and electricity distribution.

Where ever FOI laws are enacted and enforced, one thing is true, more citizens and citizen groups than journalists ask for the data. It makes no difference if it is the USA or the Dominican Republic, the story is the same. Requests under the FOI laws come overwhelmingly from individuals or civic organizations rather than journalists.

And yet it is journalists who argue the loudest for freedom of information laws.

Promises to put data on the Internet — as Afghanistan has promised to do — is all well and good. IF people have access to a computer and the Internet. Posting on the Internet is not the same as having an open government and making data available to people

In Afghanistan, population 29 million, only 500,000 people have access to the Internet.

So tell me again, how posting everything on the Internet in a country where less than 2% of the population has access to that data is helpful. It reminds me of how people praise the near 100% literacy rate in Cuba, while at the same time failing to note that WHAT the people can read is severely limited by the government under pain of long jail sentences.

It is indeed a pity that so many people focused on the speeches by the big participants in the Kabul conference and all the talk of development aid while ignoring some simple basic things that Afghans are calling for to help make their own government more accountable.

Would it really have taken that much time to add the FOI message to a story about the conference?

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Filed under Corruption, Freedom of Information, International News Coverage, Middle East

State Dept. getting the point of social media (Sort of)/Now how about the media

Interesting story in the Times magazine this weekend: Digital Diplomacy.

It got me thinking that just 10-15 years ago the State Department was at the absolute bottom of rankings in use of technology. The main State HQ in Washington and the embassies around the world still depended on WANG work stations as late as 1996 when the rest of the government was moving to PCs.

Shortly after that, State was focusing on moving some of its records to an electronic system accessed using only GOPHER while the rest of the world was uploading databases using FTP and linking to it with Mozilla (and later Navigator and Internet Explorer).

Eventually State caught on and is now using new technology to carry out its mandate. Even with the technology in place, the problem still remains with the suits who don’t get this Internet thing. (They get e-mail, but Twitter? For most, not really. And the bureaucratic mindset still doesn’t get it.)

To be sure that is changing. But the bureaucracy is tied to a paper and ink mentality. Just taking a look at many of the websites or Tweets offered by some of the embassies shows that the folks in charge of those postings see the Internet only as a means of transmitting press releases instead of actually engaging the public in the US or in the host countries.

The strength of new technology at the State Department is focused on the Public Diplomacy section and Consular Affairs. And that is how it should be. After all these are the two sections of State that have the most contact with the general public.

The U.S. embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia does get it. According to a report back in April, the embassy has 128,000 “friends” for its Facebook page. And this is out of 161,000 “friends” for ALL U.S. embassies.

Making diplomacy less “pinned-striped cookie pushers” and more relevant to the American people can only help. this means using technology to engage people in a discussion about foreign affairs instead of just pushing information out. The technology allows American diplomats to establish a dialogue with the American people and the people of host countries more easily but only if the diplomats understand how to use it. (And so we come back to Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, the focus of the NYT article.)

And let’s face it, the problem of demystifying diplomacy and international relations is not limited to the diplomatic corps. The news media also play an important role.

A role they often fail to fulfill.

Until the US media and diplomatic corps get the point that domestic and international issues are linked, there will be less understand and limited support for our international activities. And more confusion about what is going on in the world.

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Filed under Connections, International News Coverage

Former Cuban prisoner reflects on his release

A few days ago Cuban journalist Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times about his release from Cuban prison. He has an interesting way of looking at the past seven years he spent in jail for promoting free media and democracy.

Out of Prison, Still Not Free

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