Category Archives: Freedom of access

Countries use of visas hurt journalists

Visas are basically applications to enter a country.

The most common visa is for tourism. Brazilians coming to Florida to visit Disney World. Americans going to Xian to see the Terra Cotta Soldiers. And so on…

And then there are specialty visas.

If a person is coming to the States for just a few days for business — to attend a conference, attend company meetings, participate in corporate training — the visa is straight forward and is included in the same category as a tourism visa.

Different visas are needed if a person is going to live and work in the US. And within that group there are different categories.

Most countries have a special category for journalists.

The United States has the I visa for journalists visiting the US for a short period. (Living and working in the US as a journalists — as in other countries — is a whole other issue and category.)

While deportations of journalists arriving on a tourism visa and then doing journalism in the States are rare (and often involve issues other than journalism), other less open countries use the journalism visa to limit access to the world’s media or to punish news organizations for what they perceive as unfriendly coverage.

China has long been known as a real stickler for enforcing its various journalism visas.

The Chinese government has withheld visas from New York Times staffers assigned to its Beijing bureau to punish the paper for printing stories about corruption and favoritism in the government and ruling party. (New York Times journalist forced to leave China after visa row)

And for journalists wanting to go to China, the process is long, tedious and often ends in frustration.

For example, I applied for a journalism visa to cover a conference in Beijing. I was living in Brasilia at the time. The embassy held onto my passport for more than a month. Calls to the embassy about the status of my visa went unanswered, other than “It is in process.”

In the end, I got the visa, but on the day the conference started. Given that it takes more than 30 hours to get from Brasilia to Beijing, that meant I would not be going to cover the conference. (This was something I realized a few weeks earlier. I had to inform my publisher I most likely would not be going to Beijing.)

When I lived in Hong Kong, I often got e-mails from friends in the business asking if they should lie about their profession to avoid any drama with the Chinese government. I always advised people to tell the full truth. Beijing is notorious for using any discrepancy in a visa application to either deny a person a visa or to deport the person for “activity not in compliance with visa status” if the discrepancy is discovered later.

Unfortunately for journalists the “activity not in compliance” excuse is what is most often used to expel alleged spies. (Then again, the thinking in Beijing is that journalists are nothing but spies anyway.)

No one really expects anything less from the control freaks in Beijing.

And then there are governments such as the one in Indonesia that are officially open and democratic but that also freak out if journalists start asking too many questions.

The latest example is of a British journalist being held in Indonesia for filming while doing a documentary on piracy. Usually journalists are just expelled from the country for visa violations, this time, however, the journalists face five months in prison and a $3,700 fine. (Jail British journalists for five months, says Indonesian prosecutor)

There are examples of people who get away with coming in on a tourist visa, doing some journalism and getting out. However, once discovered, these same journalists can kiss goodbye the chance to get another visa. (India: Let us in!)

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Filed under Asia, Freedom of access, Harassment, International News Coverage, Press Freedom

FOI: It’s not just a US thing

When Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, he told his press secretary, Bill Moyers, that he had just signed into law the most dangerous piece of legislation ever.

And for politicians and regulators who never like having people looking over their shoulders, freedom of information laws are indeed very dangerous.

As more countries threw off the weight of dictatorships — left and right — the citizens wanted better oversight of their government.  In 1990 there were only a handful of countries with FOI laws. By 2004 there were nearly 100. (The National Democratic Institute did a survey of FOI laws in 2004.)

A whole industry with a lot of good guys and gals has sprung up to help journalists and civic society groups understand their FOI laws and how to use them. The latest comes from the International Center For Journalists: Key Tips for Understanding Freedom of Information Laws in Your Country

There is even an International Right To Know Day designed to promote FOI legislation.

American journalists have a long history with fighting bureaucrats to get the information we need. We have worked hard during the past nearly 50 years to improve and expand FOI laws from federal to state to local levels. There is a lot we can do to help other countries just starting out on this same road. And there is a lot we can learn from the experiences of our fellow scribes around the world. Maybe it is time to step up our game and start reaching out more.

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Filed under Connections, Freedom of access, Freedom of Information

Nicaragua keeping canal plans under wraps

One thing that remains constant with governments such as those in Nicaragua and Venezuela, the government does like to control things.

The Committee to Protect Journalists now reports that details of the massive — as in US$50 billion — canal project are hard to find. In fact, it was even hard for reporters to attend the gala groundbreaking ceremony in December. (Reporters covering Nicaragua waterway project obstructed by lack of information)

Government officials told [journalists] to wait in a Managua hotel for a bus that would transport them to the ribbon-cutting ceremony, according to the Nicaragua Dispatch. But the bus never showed up. Tim Rogers, editor of the online news outlet, said that journalists who traveled to the Pacific coast site on their own were turned back by police.

To be honest no one should be surprised that the Ortega govenrment is being tight lipped about the project.

First, it is not in the nature of the Sandanista governments (and Ortega in particular) to be too enamoured with the idea of public scrutiny of government projects.

Second, the Sandinistas — like their patrons in Venezuela — have no great love for free and independent media.

Third, let’s face it , governments in the region in general are not hospitable to having people looking too closely at how money is spent.

And lastly, the partner in the canal is a firm that has an office in Hong Kong but whose founder is all up close and tight with Chinese state industries.

So you have a nice coalition putting the canal together by people who really don’t think it is anyone’s business but their own to know what is going on.

Given the global financial and political implications of another canal cutting through Central America, I would think there would be more pressure from U.S. and European business groups, governments and media outlets to see the paperwork on the building of this new canal.

Remember how conservatives in the U.S. got all hot and bothered when the Panama Canal was returned to Panama? Besides the whole “We stole it fair and square” stuff, they were also going crazy because Hong Kong businessman Li Ka Shing won the contract to handle the ports on either end.

Screams of how the Chinese communists were taking over the canal were heard across the land.  Unfortunately for the screamers, Li is no communist. He is from Hong Kong — a place Heritage Foundations loves for its economic freedom — and has no love for the rulers in Beijing. (In fact, Li is moving a lot of his holdings from Hong Kong to Bermuda. That should say something about how “lcommunist” he is.)

So now here comes a company, also registered in Hong Kong, but whose CEO is all about mainland China.

So, where are the stories? At least stories about how much we don’t know about the project.

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Filed under Central America, China, Freedom of access

Freedom House: Where the attacks are

Once again Freedom House does a great job of putting things into perpective with thos nasty things called FACTS:
Democracy Is the Best Defense Against Terrorism

Just off the top of my head I can see a handful of useful articles that tie in domestic and international issues.

  • What are the conditions that lead to this conclusion? (If poverty is a major contributing factor — and in many cases it is — then maybe development aid programs and greater diplomatic involvement are a more cost-effective way to address terrorism and security. That means a closer look at the non-military international affairs budget.)
  • Why are there fewer attacks in democracies? (I would argue becuase there are fewer domestic terrorists. People have a legitimate way to fight back against the government.)
  • How do adherence to human rights and civil rights affect violence and terrorist acts? (Again, if a society offers decent treatment to its people in a fair and equitable manner, there are fewer reasons to engage in terrorism or any acts of violence against society.)
  • How are free and independent media operations important to democracy and limiting home-grown terrorism? (Access to information not slanted for poltical or governmental purposes goes a long way to easing tensions.)

I am sure there are more, but I am still groggy after a 10-hour drive back home.

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Filed under Censorship, Freedom of access, Freedom of Information, International News Coverage, Press Freedom, Story Ideas, Trade

Now Beijing is going after puns

Seems the language purity police in Beijing are going after anyone having fun with words. (Nowhere to Pun Amid Crackdown on Wordplay)

The official target seems to be advertising copy that plays on famous Chinese idioms. The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television calls these puns and twisted words an affront to Chinese culture.

The problem is that wordplay is a classic form of Chinese humor.

For example, a standard greeting in Mandarin for the New Year is Gong Xi Fa Cai (Wishing you wealth.) But by making a small change to Gong Xi Bai Cai (Wishing you white cabbage), you can bring down the house. (And it works in Cantonese as well.)

Of course, the real target might be the millions of Netizens who use puns to attack government officials and policies.

One of the classic plays is using May 35 (5/35) to denote June 4, the day in 1989 of the brutal crackdown in Tiananmen Square. (Of course, eventually the censors began blocking “May”, “35”, and “35th”.

The Grass-Mud Horse is a great example of how the Netizens in China started wordplay to express their feelings toward the government.

One of my favorites is bird anus. This one is dedicated to government spokesman Qín Gāng.

Because the names of government leaders and officials often become sensitive words, netizens frequently invent creative (and pejorative) homonyms to sidestep scrutiny and censorship. A career diplomat, Qin Gang (秦刚) has held a number of official posts at China’s Foreign Ministry since 1992. He is currently a ministry spokesperson and head of the ministry’s information department. The characters in his name are homophonic with those meaning “bird anus.” A netizen explains why this nickname fits Qin:

The anus is from where one farts and shits. In other words, if the bird wants to fart, the anus must let the fart pass—the anus cannot decide what kind of fart to fart. That is why he is called “Bird Anus.” [In Chinese “to fart” can also mean “to speak nonsense.”]


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Filed under Censorship, China, Freedom of access, Harassment, International News Coverage, Press Freedom

Nice to know China’s hatred of criticism is not limited to free media. (NOT!)

I really have a hard time understanding how the rulers in Beijing think they can get away with dissing the world and not get more bad press.

Once it became difficult to shut out the world completely, the rule makers/breakers in Beijing decided that Western news organizations that act, well, like Western news organizations, will have a harder time getting visas for their reporters. The latest is the ongoing battle the New York Times has staffing its offices in China.

The “problem” with the Times came to a boiling point when the paper ran a story about the wealth accumulated by the families of the ruling elite. (Billions in Hidden Riches for Family of Chinese Leader)

Beijing delayed renewing visas for Times’ reporters in place and denied visas for their replacements.

And it is a situation that just keeps getting worse: New York Times editor on China visa problem: ‘We’re a little bit hostages’

And now, Beijing says certain British members of Parliament are not allowed into Hong Kong. (China Says British Lawmakers Would Be Banned From Hong Kong)

Maybe Beijing did not understand the terms of the agreement that turned Hong Kong from British rule to that of China. The agreement guarantees 50 years (from 1997) of protection of the civil, political and economic rights of Hong Kong residents. In addition, because the agreement is an international treaty, the British government (and members of Parliament) along with other governments — the U.S. included — may conduct investigations into any violations of that agreement.

Beijing might argue that investigators do not need to go to Hong Kong. In fact, they do argue that all the other countries have to do is take Beijing’s word for what is the problem and that Beijing has the best solution.

And just to be clear that Beijing does not want any “trouble makers” in their territory, they have denied visa requests into China proper by other members of Parliament, members of the Occupy Central movement, students in Hong Kong who supported the demonstrations for more democracy in Hong Kong and the odd journalist here and there.

Basically, anyone who has raised a critical voice about the way China is being run.

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Filed under Censorship, China, Freedom of access, Hong Kong, Press Freedom

Press Freedom at Lowest Point in Decade

Freedom House released its 2014 Press Freedom Report today. And the news is not good for lovers of free and independent media.

The decline was driven in part by major regression in several Middle Eastern states, including Egypt, Libya, and Jordan; marked setbacks in Turkey, Ukraine, and a number of countries in East Africa; and deterioration in the relatively open media environment of the United States.

“We see declines in media freedom on a global level, driven by governments’ efforts to control the message and punish the messenger,” said Karin Karlekar, project director of the report. “In every region of the world last year, we found both governments and private actors attacking reporters, blocking their physical access to newsworthy events, censoring content, and ordering politically motivated firings of journalists.”

A quick glance at the map makes it clear that press freedom is in danger. (FYI: Green is good! And you will notice that there is blessed little green on this map.)

You can view the panel discussion when the report was released here:

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Filed under Censorship, Connections, Freedom of access, Freedom of Information, Press Freedom