Monthly Archives: July 2015

Mullah Omar, VOA and the SPJ: An Issue Revisited

The latest reports of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar Mohammad remind me of how the SPJ was a vital part of an effort to stop the George W. Bush Administration from interfering with the editorial independence of the Voice of America.

Soon after the 9/11 attacks a VOA reporter got an exclusive interview with Mohammad. The VOA planned to run excerpts from the interview as part of a larger story on Afghan reactions to a speech by President Bush. Almost immediately, the White House, State Department and Pentagon raised objections to the airing the interview, arguing such a broadcast gives a voice to terrorists.

The Voice of America – and other U.S. government broadcast outlets such as Radio Free Asia — is controlled by an independent board of governors. The creation of the board came about when VOA’s home agency – U.S. Information Agency – was wrapped into the State Department. The idea was to ensure the news organization was not controlled by a policy making agency of the U.S. government.

The VOA Charter that protects the VOA editorial independence from government interference was drafted in 1960 and signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976.

The points of the charter are very clear:

  1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.
  2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.
  3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.

The Bush Administration brushed aside points one and three. It weighed in – heavily – to have the Mohammad interview spiked.

Voice of America reporters responded with letters complaining about the attempted censorship by the U.S. government in violation of the charter. And for a while the issue in the United States was moving in the direction the administration wanted. Fortunately, the SPJ International Committee caught wind of the situation and mobilized support for the news organization.

The SPJ and the Hong Kong Correspondents Club issued similar statements condemning the actions of the Bush Administration and called on it to honor the VOA Charter and the editorial independence of the reporters and editors.

Other groups around the world soon also rallied to the side of editorial independence.

In subsequent years, the SPJ followed the efforts by Bush Administration officials to limit the independence of VOA reporters.

2001 SPJ Convention Resolutions

WHEREAS the Voice of America in September obtained an interview with Taliban leader Mohammed Omar, and

WHEREAS the U.S. Department of State sought to intervene against use of that interview, and its spokesman called the broadcast inappropriate, and

WHEREAS the VOA nevertheless used the interview in a five-minute report in the local Afghan languages and in its English broadcasts, and

WHEREAS the Society of Professional Journalists believes truth is best revealed in the light of contesting opinions.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Society commend VOA for its editorial integrity in this matter, and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Society salute the courage of VOA’s news executives who risked the displeasure of their own government in the service of their mission to inform, and that it find VOA’s practice in this case an exemplar of the most fundamental principles of democracy…

2004 SPJ Convention Resolutions

WHEREAS, the Voice of America has editorial independence protected by law and executive order, and

Whereas, VOA journalists have received numerous awards for excellence in journalism, including several from the Society of Professional Journalists, and

Whereas, the U.S. government has attempted since 2001 to curtail VOA’s reporting, including an exclusive interview with the head of the Taliban, and

Whereas, the independent Broadcasting Board of Governors scuttled a plan in 2002 to shut down all but two VOA bureaus after journalism and human-rights organizations stepped forward to criticize the action;

THEREFORE, be it resolved that the Society of Professional Journalists supports the journalists of VOA who seek to report without bias stories of importance and interest to the world community, and

Be it further resolved that SPJ opposes any actions by the U.S. government to diminish VOA’s news-gathering capability or the integrity; and that copies of this resolution be sent to VOA and the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Unfortunately, the Bush Administration worked slowly and surely to punish the reporters and editors who authorized the interview, conducted the interview and who raised the alarm over the administration’s attempts to censor the organization. Reporters and editors were reassigned to less sensitive areas or strongly encouraged to take lucrative buy-outs and leave VOA.

The battle for editorial independence in VOA continues. Reporters and editors still report of behind the scenes pressure from policy agencies – Pentagon, State Department, White House, etc – to go soft or hard on stories, depending on government policy. The reporters and editors continue to push back and continue to put out excellent and balanced stories.

And these journalists deserve our continued support. There are unthinking members of our profession and within the SPJ who dismiss the VOA as “just another government propaganda” operation. If they paid attention to the VOA and its charter, they would know it is one of the best and most trusted news organizations in the world.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Censorship, SPJ, Terrorism

Poorly written news release blows opportunity to educate on local-global issue

I got excited when I read the headline of a news release from the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide: Summer Fellows from Honduras and Germany

I went to the news release to learn more about how ELAW brought a couple of people from Honduras and Germany to maybe pick up a few pointers on how the USA does environmental law/cleanup and what things the Americans could learn from them.

Unfortunately, if any of my students in public relations writing turned in this news release, it would have been sent back with all sorts of comments that centered on how the writer missed the point.

Paragraph 1

ELAW Fellows from Honduras and Germany are busy this summer learning about waste management in Lane County and environmental tribunals around the world.

Good start. Here are the people and this is what they are going to do. Got the Who, What, When and Where all in the first sentence.

At this point I expect to then learn their names and a little bit more about why they want to know more about waste management.

Paragraphs 2

Paul Zepeda Castro is an attorney with the Instituto de Derecho Ambiental de Honduras (IDAMHO), based in Tegucigalpa where thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest the alleged embezzlement of social security funds. “We are a warm and peaceful people,” says Paul who is part of a group of young Hondurans calling themselves “Los Indignados” (the outraged). The group is urging the U.S. to suspend funding to Honduras until the government purges corruption.

Our introduction to the guy from Honduras. Okay, he is a lawyer for the Institute for Environmental Rights in Honduras. And we know that there are demonstrations against corruption and that the U.S. should stop funding Honduras until the corruption ends.

So, why is the guy in the U.S. studying waste management? We don’t know.

We do know a bit about the politics of the the guy. And who can complain about demonstrating against corruption? But he is in the States to study waste management practices. How about telling us what Honduran waste management practices are? How about telling us what the guy hopes to learn from his time in the States?

So, we go on to the German.

Paragraph 3

Paul was recently joined by ELAW Fellow Sebastian Bechtel, a legal intern at UfU (Independent Institute for Environmental Concerns). UfU co-hosted the 2014 ELAW Annual International Meeting.

While in Eugene, Sebastian is exploring the feasibility of opening a Europe-based ELAW service center and also conducting research on environmental courts and tribunals.

Okay, we know a little bit more, but what the last paragraph says about what the German is doing in the States does not match up with what the opening paragraph said. Is he here to explore “the feasibility of opening a Europe-based ELAW service center and also conducting research on environmental courts and tribunals.”? Or is he here to study waste management practices?

And then we get the boilerplate about the group.

Wearing both my editor and professor caps at the same time, the writer of this news release threw away a wonderful opportunity to engage news organizations not only on the issue of the environment but also on how dealing with the issue of waste and pollution is something that requires global cooperation.

I would have had both participants discuss the wast management situation in their countries and describe what they hope to get from their visit to the States.

I would have kept the anti-corruption demonstrations out of the release (unless there is a compelling reason to do so). The politics in Honduras is not the focus of the release. The focus is the two guys coming to the States to study waste management.

All the background for the German is not needed until after he explains what is going on in Germany and how he hopes to learn about the American options to waste management.

Bottom line, this was an excellent opportunity to show the international nature of the work ELAW is doing. It would also help educate editors and reporters about the local-global nature of their work and of the issue. And this news release did not do that.

Getting local news organizations to do stories that show local-global connections is hard enough. Organizations, such as ELAW and so many others, need to smarten up their writing so that editors and reporters are drawn into the story and want to expand on it and publish it.

Local-global reporting is vital in an ever connected world. And yet most of local newspapers and broadcasters have little, if anything, about how international events affect their local readers/viewers/listeners. At the same time, these same news organizations are often ignorant of events and organizations in their own communities with international connections that have (or can have) an impact locally or globally.

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Filed under Connections, International News Coverage

How Chinese censorship hurts US businesses

I have long argued that when a government engages in censorship, it makes it difficult to do business in that country.

Sure, companies can cut deals to build factories and export goods. But part of doing business is working with reliable numbers. And governments that engage in censorship do not stop with just making sure the media report the latest bit of propaganda. They reach into every bit of information, including economic data necessary to make solid business decisions.

Freedom House has a report that explains the impact Chinese censorship has on US businesses.

How Beijing’s Censorship Impairs U.S.-China Relations

And is not just about cooking the books to make an economic plan look good. In China, it is all about controlling everything and limiting outside information that might challenge the official line.

  • Between May and September 2014, photo-sharing applications Flickr and Instagram.
  • Virtually all Google services were blocked.
  • In December, Gmail access from third-party applications like Outlook or Apple mail was also disrupted
  • Last summer, Dropbox and Microsoft’s OneDrive were rendered inaccessible.
  • In November, segments of Verizon’s Edgecast were blocked, affecting commercial platforms like Sony Mobile

In short, Chinese government policies make it difficult to work online and to get independent data necessary for business planning.

This impact on US (and other Western) companies has a direct relationship to our economic well-being.

So I would think, for our own understanding of the economy and economic development, we would need to have more and better reporting on the censorship policies of our trading partners.

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Filed under Censorship, China, Freedom of Information, International News Coverage

Keeping it simple does not mean being simple minded

Yes, I know this has nothing to do with international journalism, but it does have to do with communicating complicated ideas in a simple manner. And that is part of what journalists need to do with international affairs.

Scientists are not natural communicators. There are the exceptions, such as Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, Phil Plait, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and a handful of others, but these are the few in a field of hundreds, if not thousands.

I just saw the latest NASA press release about the SLS — the Space Launch System.

The text is fine.

For those lucky enough to be at or near Kennedy Space Center when a Space Launch System rocket leaves Earth for the first time, it will be an unforgettable experience.

Any rocket launch is amazing to witness in person, but the rise of a truly powerful launch vehicle, like the space shuttle or the Saturn V, is a different thing altogether. It’s not merely impressive; it’s visceral. It’s not something you witness; it’s something you experience, a brightness that seems like the sky has split open, a sound that you hear with your entire body, a power that passes into and through you.

The accompanying graphic, however, not so much.

I mean, really? WTF is an “Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage”? Give us the plain English version. A simple “Upper Stage Unit” would have been nice. Save the technical, official terms for in-house and geeks.

Now compare the NASA descriptions with Randall Munroe’s (of XKCD fame) blueprint of the Saturn V rocket:

Up Goer Five

Maybe the description for the “Part that falls off third” could have included how it gives the spacecraft a big boost to get to the planet they want to go to.

While Munroe takes some of the idea of simplifying terms a bit too far — but who will deny a cartoonist the right to reach to the extreme ends of an idea — he makes a great point that too many in communications forget: Make the information understandable to the general public. That goes for journalists and public relations types.

My university journalism and public relations students learned early on that I frown on big words when little ones will do. See the rules of writing at the end of George Orwell’s essay on Politics and the English Language or  Mark Twain (“Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”)

To be clear, scientists are not the only ones who get lost in the terms of their industry. One of the most boring meetings I ever had was when an official of the US Agency for International Development briefed a congressional team about work being done in a particular country. The AID activities were exciting and groundbreaking.

Unfortunately, the official giving the briefing used acronyms and terms specific to the development community in a monotone voice. I was interested in learning more about the projects — I only knew bits and pieces — but within 5 minutes I was fighting to stay awake.

I would not have been surprised if the congress critters and their staffers hustled back to the States and tried to cut the AID budget just to get back at being bored to death for more than an hour.

To be clear, I have also seen really good AID briefings. So there has been some progress.

International affairs, the law, science, development, economics and the arts all have specific terms that are vital to making sure people within those fields understand what is being said. For the rest of us, however, we need every day English.

When I covered the law, I took a page out of the Lyle Denniston book.  If a lawyer could not explain a Supreme Court decision or new law without using legal terms, I would search out a lawyer who could. I needed to understand the issue in terms my readers would understand. And my readers were not dummies. They just weren’t lawyers.

For an example of how Denniston addressed the very complicated issue of the Affordable Care Act and birth control, read his blog entry on this subject: The ACA birth-control controversy, made simple. Simple words but not simple analysis.

Same goes for all the other professions. We need scientists, diplomats, artists, etc who can explain their fields in short declarative sentences without using terms of art.

And we need reporters who demand these professionals fully explain what they do and why in simple direct language.

Footnote: Munroe has a book coming out called Thing Explainer. It is a larger treatment of the “Up Goer Five” cartoon above. He looks at loads of highly technical things and explains them using only 1,000 of the most common words in the (American) English language.

You can advance order the book here. It comes out November 24, 2015.

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Filed under Connections

China’s campaign against bloggers

Just in case anyone ever thought good blogging (hell, even bad blogging) about events is not a form of journalism, they should look at China.

The Chinese government has been on a two-year rip against bloggers. The campaign matches the massive efforts to tighten the screws on press freedom.

In the case of bloggers, the problem is much greater. With the news outlets, the government can fire or re-assign reporters and editors who do not bow to their wishes. Bloggers, however, are individuals. That means the government has to go after each person one at a time and figure out how to apply pressure to get that person to stop. Failing that, out comes the hammer of prosecution and jail time. (Yep, in China “violators” of the rules of what can and cannot be published are given a fair trial, just before they are sentenced to jail. Funny how one always follows the other.)

China Digital News has a great summary of a larger piece by the Australian Financial Review on how the Chinese government has cracked down on bloggers.

From China Digital Times: How China Stopped Its Bloggers

Original Australian Financial Review piece: How China stopped its bloggers

Just like anywhere else in the world, China’s popular bloggers ply their craft via social media and are an eclectic mix of lawyers, academics, celebrities, investors, public intellectuals, food critics and journalists.

Yet they occupy a unique position in China as the only alternate voice to the party, and they speak to the world’s biggest internet population of 650 million people. And while they have never been accepted by the party, these so called “opinion leaders” were once tolerated, in what many saw as a necessary loosening of control in the age of social media and mobile internet.

That was until mid-2013 when the party resumed its previous role as the sole arbiter of what information the public should be told.

One example China Digital News brings up is the prosecution of Wu Gan, a provocative online campaigner.

From the South China Morning Post:

Observers said the government wanted to incriminate Wu Gan, 43, an influential online campaigner famed for his loud and colourful protests, to warn other activists not to target and embarrass even low-level officials.

Yan Xin, Wu’s lawyer, said prosecution authorities in Xiamen told him on Friday that they had granted police permission to arrest his client on two criminal charges – “inciting the subversion of state power” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.

Remember that the Chinese government considers any discussion of a controversial issue or any questioning of government action to be “provoking trouble” and subverting state power.

The bottom line is that the administration of President Xi Jinping will not allow any dissent during his term. And he is going after not only the mainstream media but anyone who has an opinion not cleared by the central committee of the Communist Party.

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Filed under Censorship, China, Freedom of Information, Harassment