Monthly Archives: December 2010

Hungary’s media law: Back to the bad old days

The fall of communism in Europe opened a door to democracy and all the rights that come with it — freedom of press, speech, expression etc.

And the right to elect officials who might do all those other rights in. Such as the good people of Hungary.

The electorate reacted to eight years of bad governance and arrogance by the Socialist party by voted in a center-right candidate who railed against the elites and main stream media.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban proposed and his parliament enacted Dec. 21 a new media law with language that is deliberately vague but pleasant-sounding to the people of the country who dislike elites. The media law that could just have easily been written by the crew that used to run the country 25 years ago. (For the historically challenged, that would be the Communist Party.)

To be sure there was more to the Orban victory in April 2010. But the rhetoric focused on how the government was run by elites who had no respect for the common people.

The “populist” theme was added to the poor showing of the Hungarian economy. Then to tap the last nail into the Socialist’s party chances, a tape emerged of the then prime minister telling colleagues he lied to the voters and that hundreds of tricks kept the country from falling apart.

In April the Socialists were out and Orban was in.

Orban stepped right in to fix the problems of the country. In fact, he pledged to get Hungary’s economy back on track after the country required a bailout from the EU.

The only problem is that he saw any organization or group that opposed him to be part of the problem. And this problem had to be addressed before he could deal with the other issues facing the country. (Sound like a certain Venezuelan leader we all know?)

Anne Applebaum at SLATE reports that since taking office less than a year ago, Orban appointed a council to rewrite the constitution, cut funding for the national audit office and stripped the supreme court of its powers.

But it is the media law that is now getting attention. (After all, it was passed by the Orban-dominated parliament just this past week.)

Running to 180 pages, the law is pretty simple and vague — as is usually the case with people who want to do in freedom of press: “Do what we say or we will break you.”

Under the law:

  • The government sets us a state-run media council — composed entirely of ruling party appointees.
  • The media council is tasked with protecting “human dignity.”
  • The media council can issue fines against  news organizations up to US$1 million is the news reports are not balanced. (No definition on what “balanced” means.)
  • The government has also ordered a limit on crime-related news. Such news cannot take up more than 20 percent of airtime. (And as usual with folks who try to control the media, the law does not define “crime” or mention if government corruption is included under the “crime” category.)

The law also seems to be reaching to give the government the power to censor the Internet. Here the government seems to be relying on the “human dignity” aspect of the law. Can you say “Great Firewall of Hungary”? (Maybe they can cut a deal with China and Iran to get the technology and cheap staff to monitor the Internet.)

To be sure, not everyone is sitting still for this.

Right from the start, journalists in Hungary and Europe stepped up almost as soon as the legislation was introduced: Protests at new media law in Hungary.

And again when the law was passed: Adam Michnik Editorial Criticising Media Legislation in Hungary.

Within days of the law’s passage, the chilling effect was seen in a radio interview.

Journalist Sandor Jaszberenyi was on Radio Kossuth’s morning show Dec. 28.  Before taking a question about plans to open the abandoned Chernobyl reactor site to tourists, the journalist asked for a minute’s silence in protest at the media law.

The show’s host cut short the interview. Listeners then heard the radio station’s theme tune for a while. When the show restarted it was without Jaszbberenyi.

Jaszberenyi said the incident was an example of how self- censorship was already in place in Hungary.

His was not the first act of defiance on the air against the law by working journalists. The day the law was passed,  two Radio Kossuth presenters interrupting their program for a minute’s silence.

They were suspended indefinitely by the station.

This legislation also came at a very embarrassing time for the European Union. Hungary is taking over the rotating presidency of the EU. The EU has raised a number of issues with Hungary over the law.

Hungarian parliamentarians say the door is not locked on making changes.

A leading member of the ruling party in parliament told the BBC that if the law was applied “in a wrong way, or there are problems” parliament would change it.

But then he fell back on the old chestnut of all those who want to stop a free press from looking into how things are done in government. He said they want to “improve” journalism in Hungary and “not to wage a war” against it.

For my money, whenever a government tries to dictate how journalism should be done, it is waging war on it.

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Filed under Europe, International News Coverage, Press Freedom

Vietnam and Facebook – Access or no?

Catching up.

Tom Crampton has a nice little piece on Facebook and Vietnam. (Facebook’s Vietnam War)

Bottom line, as much as Vietnam would like to be as rigid as China on access to social media sites, it ain’t:

As it has been explained to me, unlike China – where the government owns the links to the outside world – Vietnam’s links to the global Internet are run by private companies.

While it may seem to make little difference on one level, since these companies will want to obey the government’s orders to block a website, it does also give the companies an economic incentive to ignore something that would be unpopular among their customers.

As a result, Vietnam’s government orders a block on a site like Facebook are follow and ignored in equal measures. There has never been a blanket ban of the sort imposed by Beijing on the Internet.

And remember that access to social media sites is just part of the over all battle for freedom of speech, press  and expression.

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Filed under Asia, Censorship, Freedom of access, Freedom of Information

Internet enemies list; No real surprises here

Reporters Without Borders has a great list of governments that are “Enemies of the Internet.”

And there are no real surprises.

The hostility governments in places such as Burma, China, Cuba exhibit toward freedom of speech, press and expression is well documented. What I like about the RSF Internet list is the detail it provides about those governments.

For example in China we learn more than just the Great Firewall is functioning but also that the number of Internet users in the country exceeds the population of the United States (384 million Chinese Internet users v. 308 million people in the United States.)

We also learn that the average cost of one hour of Internet cafe time is US$2/hour. To me this is interesting because the average MONTHLY wage in China is US$219-274.

And we learn that 72 “netizens” are in Chinese jails, among them Nobel Peace Prize winner Lio Xaiobo who is serving an 11-year jail term for writing his opinions on the Internet and helping launch Charter 08.

We also see more details about the censoring of information in China and its impact on a generation of Chinese:

On the eve of the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square events, a dozen websites such as Twitter, YouTube, Bing, Flickr, Opera, Live, WordPress and Blogger were blocked. The information blackout has been so well-enforced for the last 20 years that the vast majority of young Chinese citizens are not even aware that the events of June 1989 ever happened.

Other countries listed as enemies of the Internet are:

  • Burma: Two high-ranking government officials sentenced to death for having e-mailed documents abroad: Net censorship is a serious matter in Burma. Massive filtering of websites and extensive slowdowns during times of unrest are daily occurrences for the country’s Internet users.
  • Cuba: Despite a few improvements, Internet access actually remains beyond the reach of most of the population because of its high cost and low connection speeds. The regime, which maintains two parallel network, is now taking aim at a small blogger community that is becoming increasingly active.
  • Egypt: Since early 2007, the government has been reinforcing Web surveillance in the name of the fight against terrorism, under the iron fist of a special department of Egypt’s Ministry of Interior. Facebook is monitored, rather than blocked, so that activists can be observed or arrested. Authorities are monitoring their people’s emails and telephone calls without any court order, by virtue of the Telecommunications Law, which requires Internet service providers to supply them with the necessary surveillance services and equipment.
  • Iran: Censorship is a core part of Iran’s state apparatus. Internet surveillance has been centralized, thereby facilitating implementation of censorship.
  • North Korea: Let’s start with an average charge for one hour’s connection at a cybercafé at US$8.19 with an average monthly salary of US$17.74. The large majority of the population is not even aware that the Internet exists. An extremely limited Intranet has been created, but few can access it.
  • Saudi Arabia: Websites that broach the subject of religion, human rights or positions taken by the opposition are rendered inaccessible. Far from denying it, the authorities maintain that their censorship decisions are justified and claim to have blocked some 400,000 websites.
  • Syria: The country is reinforcing its censorship of troublesome topics on the Web and tracking netizens who dare to express themselves freely on it. As a result, social networks have been particularly targeted by omnipresent surveillance.
  • Tunisia: The Internet is seen as a potential threat to the country’s stability and image and is thus the target of pernicious censorship. Very strict filtering, opponent harassment and Big Brother-like surveillance enable the authorities to keep tight control over the news media.
  • Turkmenistan: Very strict filtering is now focused on critical publications likely to target local users and potential dissidents. Opposition websites and regional news sites covering Central Asia are also blocked. YouTube and LiveJournal are rendered inaccessible.
  • Uzbekistan: This country is deprived of independent media outlets. The authorities impose a very strict Internet censorship, while refusing to admit it publicly. Website filtering, sanctions and intimidation are used against potential critics of the regime. Netizens have learned to practice self-censorship.
  • Vietnam: The government claims to filter only content that is obscene or endangers national security, but censorship also affects opposition websites or those that are in any way critical of the regime. Censorship primarily involves blocking website addresses, and particularly concerns sites in Vietnamese.

Then there are countries the RSF is keeping an eye on, such as Australia:

Under the guise of fighting child pornography, the government wants to set up a filtering system never before seen in a democracy. The State of South Australia has passed a law prohibiting online anonymity in an electoral context.

And South Korea:

The authorities are using the criminalization of defamation against their critics and do not hesitate to make examples of them. Since June 2008, a dozen Web surfers have been briefly arrested and interrogated for having posted online comments critical of the government within the context of these demonstrations.


Filed under Asia, Censorship, Freedom of Information, Harassment, International News Coverage, Middle East, Press Freedom

Top 10 stories as seen by China’s media masters

It’s that time of year again when special interest groups and news outlets publish their list of the Top 10 stories of the year. And this being a “10” year, we also get a few Top 10 stories of the decade.

But leave it to the political masters in Beijing to miss some of the great stories in China.

What were China’s top stories in 2010?

By David Bandurski

With a list of candidates for the “Top Ten Domestic Stories of the Year“, an online survey feature released over the weekend and shared on most major news portals, People’s Daily Online packaged a politically tidy version of China’s headlines in 2010. Missing from the list of options to be selected from web users between December 17 and December 27 — with the winners announced afterwards — were not just odd favorites, but critical and defining stories, such as the ongoing burden of housing prices and a series of violent attacks on school children in April and May.

In the comments section at People’s Daily Online, web users noted a number of conspicuous absences. “I think the whole ‘My Dad is Li Gang‘ story deserves to be number one,” wrote one respondent, referring to an October incident in which the son of an influential police official in Hubei province struck and killed two female students while driving his sedan across a university campus.

The Hubei story drew a wave of public outrage after it emerged that the official’s son, when finally stopped by students and security guards, had stepped out of his car and threatened, “My Dad is Li Gang! You just try to sue me!” Bans on the reporting of this sensitive story followed quickly, and the university campus was reportedly under lockdown. Just last week, the lawyer representing the parents of one of the victims was attacked by unidentified assailants.

But no one will be casting votes for the Li Gang story, which didn’t make the short list of candidates at People’s Daily Online. A user sarcastically identified as “the river crab is so yellow and so violent“; (a reference to censorship masquerading under the official banner of ‘harmony’) wrote: “With even Li Gang not on the list, this whole thing is so obviously a fraud!”

Rest of story

As expected there was no mention of the first Chinese winning the Nobel Peace Prize. There were some online commentators who noted this omission, but who — for obvious reasons — played it safe.

In order to remove the obvious red flags, the user replaced the characters for “peace” + “prize”, or heping jiang with the same-sounding characters “crane” + “level” + “palm”, or heping zhang.

The list of 15 stories the censors and political masters put out for the people to “vote” on for the top 10 is a list of self-serving stories about great political strides made by the Communist Party and how wonderful China is.

  1. The Fifth Plenary Conference of the 17th Central Committee of the CCP is held in Beijing (October)
  2. CCP organizations and Party members at the grassroots levels launch intensive campaigns to encourage them to excel in their performance (April-May)
  3. The Shanghai World Expo is held successfully, showing off the fruits of urban civilization (May-October)
  4. The Central Party leadership introduces successive policies to adjust housing and product prices, controlling the rise of property and product prices
  5. The government launches the country’s first medium and long-term talent plan (May)
  6. 30-year anniversary celebrations held for Shenzhen, Shantou and Zhuhai (September)
  7. Strengthening cross-straits economic ties (June)
  8. China’s 6th National Census begins (November)
  9. Implementation of the National Plan for the Medium and Long-term Reform and Development of the Education System (July)
  10. The Chang’e 2 satellite is successfully launched (October)
  11. Track laying was completed for the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway (November)
  12. Guangzhou successfully hosts the 2010 Asian Games (November-December)
  13. An earthquake strikes Yushu County in Qinghai province (April 14)
  14. A mudslide suddenly strikes Zhouqu County in Gansu province, killing around 1,000 people (August 7)
  15. 115 die and 38 are rescued in a mining disaster in Wangjialing, Shanxi province (March)

Of the stories the rest of the world think are significant that weren’t on the list included two about how the Chinese government really sees the whole issue of free press and expression:

  • Xie Chaoping arrested for work of reportage exposing abuses during the building of the Sanmen Dam project in the 1950s (The Guardian: “Writer Xie Chaoping detained in Shanxi”)
  • Google Exits Mainland China (January) (Forbes: “Google Takes on China”)
  • Li Hongzhong NPC shouts at Beijing Times reporter (March)
    • During this year’s session of the National People’s Congress, Hubei Governor Li Hongzhong became furious when a reporter from the Beijing Times, a commercial spin-off of the Party’s official People’s Daily, asked a question about the Deng Yujiao case in 2009. Grabbing the reporter’s digital recorder from her hand, Li fumed: “You’re from People’s Daily and you ask such a question? Is this the kind of mouthpiece you are? Is this how you guide public opinion? What is your name? I want to find your boss!” Hundreds of professional journalists responded with an open letter calling on Li to publicly apologize.


Filed under Asia, Censorship, China, International News Coverage

Wikileaks: Offers Local-Global Reporting (that should have been done all along)

This week’s WikiLeaks’ dump included a cable reporting on the visit to Honduras by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, (R-Calif.) earlier this year. And the New York Times jumped on it. (Private Links in Lawmaker’s Trip Abroad)

Overall it was a good story and it showed what happens when members of Congress travel abroad. (And I have met a lot of Congressional Delegations — Codels — in my time as a Foreign Service spouse. Some of the Codels are clearly pleasure junkets and others — a vast majority — involve real work.)

But what I was wondering is why there are not more reports about what members of the House and Senate are up to when they travel overseas on the taxpayer dollar. One would think that local news organizations would be anxious to get as much information about what the elected officials really did while traveling at taxpayers’ expense.

Sure you get a few notes about overseas’ trips from folks like Al Kamen at the Washington Post. But often his comments are glib and snarky. (And often deserved.) Rarely are there reports about a trip and — more importantly — the trip’s aftermath.

And this includes overseas’ trade missions led by governors, mayors or county executives.

The funny thing is that the cables written by the embassy staff are not that secret. I looked at the Rohrabacher cable and most of it was classified SBU — the lowest form of classification. One paragraph was marked “Confidential” and that is why the whole cable had that designation.

What I found out from a couple of quick calls was that the SBU portion is not secret but it is not for “public distribution.”  And it is subject to Freedom of Information requests.

Any reporter interested in the aftermath of an international trip by a local member of Congress could request the State Department cable about the trip. (And a cable is ALWAYS done after a Codel visit.) A reporter who has developed a relationship with someone at the State Department might be able to get a peek at the cable — and not violate any serious secrecy rules.

Why is this necessary?

If a reporter were to ask the press office of an embassy or the State Department about the congressional visit, all that reporter would get would be the itinerary of the visit. And then the reporter would be referred to the appropriate Congressional office for more details.

As if a congressman’s office is going to say: “Oh yeah. While in country X we totally told the government there that they shouldn’t listen to the State Department or president.”

Or: “The congressman made sure his business buddies were part of his delegation at every meeting that could be of financial benefit to them and the congressman’s family.”

That stuff  often comes out in an after-action cable from the embassy. And that is stuff LOCAL people need to know about their local officials.

The reports can also help explain why the Codels are important. (And I do believe that most are vital to helping the lawmakers understand the complexities of global affairs.)

Either way it is a win-win for the local news organization. If it would only have the interest in getting the information.

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Belarus elections and dirty tricks against media

Hal Roberts at the Watching Technology blog at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society has an interesting report about how the Belarus government seems to be playing dirty tricks on the opposition candidates and media outlets in that country.

Roberts, who monitors access to the Internet and Distributed Denial of Service attacks has been receiving reports of DDoS attacks against a number of media and opposition party sites leading up to Sunday’s election. He points out that a DDoS is the first step any dictator uses to prevent the opposition from building up a following.

There are also reports that the international connections necessary to send securely posted content to places such as Gmail, Facebook and Twitter are being blocked. And the blocking seems to be for all international sites not just ones the government might find offensive.

But just to make sure that the opposition does not get a fair break online, BELPAK, the Belarussian national ISP, apparently was redirecting requests from independent media sites to copies presumably run by pro-government forces and maybe the government itself. (Kind of like a government sanctioned Yes Men.)

That means as people — or news organizations — try to access the opposition parties or independent news media, they are diverted to a fake site that looks like the original. The benefit for the government is that it can remove anything it doesn’t like and no one would be the wiser.

By election day some of the diverting ceased, according the Roberts’ sources.

Why is it important for journalists to know about this?

  1. As with the democracies, the websites of the media and political parties are important tools in getting more information about the campaign.
  2. With few foreign correspondents on the ground in Belarus, the Internet connections to conduct e-mail interviews and to research the campaigns are vital.
  3. Knowing about the hacks and attacks on independent media and political parties helps provide more information about the nature of the government of a country. And knowing the nature of a government helps explain (or put into context) government and opposition statements about social issues and the elections.




Filed under Europe, Freedom of Information, International News Coverage

From forced marriages to aid projects, the next two years are going to be interesting

A lot of us who pay attention to foreign affairs have resigned ourselves to at least a couple of years of serious attacks on the foreign policy apparatus in the United States along with efforts to make every international issue a U.S. domestic blood-sport issue.

Members of Congress can often get away with taking pot shots at the foreign affairs apparatus with impunity. Practically no one back home cares. So, as long as the House member or Senator takes care of constituent services, he/she will not face any grief on anything related to diplomacy or development.

And because the bean counters at major media outlets still think that only LOCAL! LOCAL! LOCAL! will save their news outlets, the U.S. media are pretty quiet about most international issues. This allows many of the international issues and programs to be attacked.

The GOP leadership has already indicated it wants the State Department budget cut and to shift the emphasis on U.S. aid to force overhaul at the United Nations.

And now, even before they take over the House, the GOP House leadership blocked the passage of a bill that Senate Republicans overwhelmingly supported. The bill would have committed the United States to combating forced child marriages abroad.

First they objected to the cost. And when that argument failed, the GOP leadership shifted the focus to the threat that money used to protect girls from forced marriages would be used to fund abortions.

I’ll let Republican Congressman Stephen LaTourrette of Ohio talk about what happened:

“Yesterday I was on the floor and I was a co-sponsor with [on] a piece of legislation with [Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN)] that would have moved money, no new money, would have moved money so that societies that are coercing young girls into marriage… we could make sure that they stay in school so they’re not forced into marriage at the age of 12 and 13. All of a sudden there was a fiscal argument. When that didn’t work people had to add an abortion element to it. This is a partisan place. I’m a Republican. I’m glad we beat their butt in the election, but there comes a time when enough is enough.”

And for the record, the bill did not include any funding for abortion activities. U.S. government funding for abortion activities is already prohibited by the “Helms Amendment,” which has been standard language in appropriations bills since 1973.

The issue of forced marriages is becoming a major issue on the international scene, which is probably why not many Americans are aware of the issue.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, about 60 million women in developing countries between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before they reached 18. The Population Council estimates that number will increase by 100 million over the next decade.

The fact that a bill that received massive support from Democrats and Republicans (even very conservative Republicans) could be so easily derailed is symptomatic of a public disengaged with the rest of the world.

Sure I blame the politicians for being crass and looking for every advantage. But that is what politicians do. It is expected.

But educating the public and making them aware of what is going on so that the citizens of a democracy can be well-informed and weigh in on issues of concern is what the media are supposed to do. And in that job, we are failing.

The issue of forced marriages got only one brief article in the past month. It was written by the Institute for War and Peace and carried on the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader website. (Only the Foreign Policy magazine website had a story about the House action.)

Sure we all saw the horrific picture of the 20-year Afghan woman who was mutilated by her father-in-law when she tried to escape from her abusive husband.(And yes, that was a forced marriage.) But after that, the issue dropped. The issue of forced marriages in Afghanistan is a daily concern to girls in that country.

It is not hard to find stories about forced marriages in the United States. The hard party is first realizing it is an issue and then connecting this global embarrassment with the local community.

Here are some ideas:

  • Go to the UNICEF website and search “forced marriage.” You will find dozens of articles and videos from around the world about this issue. This place will give you some basic information about the issue.
  • Does your area have a large group of immigrants from the countries mentioned in the UNICEF articles? If so, go interview civic and religious leaders from that community to see what they have to say about the practice.
  • Talk with local school counselors. What are they seeing in terms of young marriages. Are they seeing any U.S. versions of forced marriages (think “shot-gun weddings.”)
  • Talk with local religious leaders about the issue of young marriage and forced marriages. What do the various faiths have to say about forcing a 10-year old-girl to be engaged to a 40-year-old man?
  • Talk to junior high and high school students — especially girls — and ask them what they know about this issue. What are their reactions?

I will bet you will see more local connections to this story than you might think.

This does not have to be a crusade or a campaign against any one country or faith. But it will be a way to get local people looking at a global issue.

And maybe, just maybe, it will get local citizens urging their elected representatives to look at the big picture of foreign affairs instead of the political points that can be scored.

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