Tag Archives: Press Freedom

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

Getting UNGA to get real on press freedom

Joel Simon from the Committee to Protect Journalists has a featured piece in Columbia Journalism Review on how the United Nations should — but really can’t — do something about press freedom.

What can the UN do for press freedom?

Bottom line: Not much, but it can make some nice statements.

Responding to an upsurge in media killings, particularly of journalists working in conflict zones, the UN has prioritized the issue of journalists’ safety in recent years. In 2012, UNESCO, the UN agency charged with defending press freedom, launched a Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. The following year, the General Assembly passed a resolution to create an International Day to End Impunity for crimes against journalists, marked each year on November 2.

In July 2013, Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the Associated Press, become the first ever journalist to address the Security Council. She noted, “Most journalists who die today are not caught in some wartime crossfire, they are murdered just because of what they do. And those murders are rarely ever solved; the killers rarely ever punished.” Last May, the Security Council passed a historic resolution reaffirming the international legal protections for journalists covering armed conflict. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon regularly condemns the killing of journalists, and calls on member states to take action.

All of these measures are important, and have tremendous symbolic value. But it is difficult to point to concrete advances in response to UN action. In fact, the level of violence against journalists has increased in recent years, and imprisonment of journalists around the world has reached record levels. Recent high-profile cases—including the conviction of three Al Jazeera reporters in Egypt; the ongoing imprisonment of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian in Iran; and the seven-and-a-half-year sentence handed down to renowned investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova in Azerbaijan—demonstrate that when it comes to imprisoning journalists, repressive governments are increasingly unresponsive to international pressure.

Simon argues journalists, diplomats and other human rights defenders need to use the occasion of the annual opening of the UN General Assembly, when leaders from around the world come to New York to argue for more action to protect journalists in their home countries.

Over the years, the Committee to Protect Journalists, which I head, has used the General Assembly to secure commitments from a number of heads of state, including former President Vicente Fox of Mexico, who agreed to appoint a special prosecutor for crimes against journalists, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who committed during a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations to receive a CPJ delegation in Ankara.

Simon says this one-on-one approach should not let the United Nations, itself, off the hook, but it appears to the only way — for now — to get things done.

He argues journalists should demand accountability from the leaders who speak a the UNGA for their violations of press freedom. By just reporting the speeches and not looking at the records of the speakers, journalists become accomplices in efforts to whitewash media repression.

This item was initially posted at the SPJ International Community site: Journalism and the World.

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China needs to learn from Hong Kong

As usual journalist Frank Ching is spot on in his analysis.

When Hong Kong was handed over to China, people were saying Beijing could learn from Hong Kong how to enter the modern world of finance and politics. But there are lessons Beijing just does not seem to want to learn.

For example, when a major issue dominates the public’s concern, the Hong Kong government sets up commissions to investigate and report back to the people.

Such commissions are part of Hong Kong’s tradition. The British colonial government, between 1966 and the handover to China in 1997, set up commissions of inquiry 12 times to look into such issues as the cause of riots, a fire on a floating restaurant that claimed 34 lives, and the flight from Hong Kong of a police chief superintendent wanted on corruption charges. The strength of such inquiries is that they are conducted by individuals of standing in the community who, while appointed by the government, act independently. Often, such inquiries are headed by judges.

The latest issue is the discovery of lead in the Hong Kong drinking water. The pro-Beijing government in Hong Kong reacted in a way that does credit to the recent history of Hong Kong. They set up a commission.

[T]he commission is headed by Justice Andrew Chan, a high court judge. The commission’s terms of reference are to ascertain the causes of excess lead found in drinking water in public rental-housing developments; to review and evaluate the adequacy of the present regulatory and monitory system in respect of drinking-water supply in Hong Kong; and to make recommendations with regard to the safety of drinking water in Hong Kong.

Frank also points out that the people of Hong Kong know what the local standard is and how it compares to the World Health Organization standard. BTW, 10 micrograms per liter for both.

Now take the explosion at Tianjin — as Frank did — as an example of how not to investigate a major incident that have people concerned for their health and safety.

Premier Li Keqiang promised to “release information to society in an open and transparent manner.” But the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus has moved in as usual and demanded: “Use only copy from Xinhua and authoritative departments and media…. Do not make live broadcasts.”

Cyanide has been detected in the soil near the blast sites, but a Chinese official, Tian Weiyong, director of the environmental emergency centre of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, was quoted as saying that the level does not exceed the national standard. However, we are not told what the Chinese standard is and how it compares with WHO guidelines.

And just as a side note, Frank points out that even if China revealed the “Chinese standard,” it would probably not be of much comfort to the people. In the case of the Hong Kong lead-in-the-water situation, it would never come up as an issue in China. While the readings in Hong Kong exceeded WHO standards by four times, they would have been within Chinese standards of 50 micrograms of lead per liter of water, or five times that of the WHO.

Frank’s bottom line is something a lot of us have argued for years. When the Chinese people know the information they are getting has been carefully sifted and purified, they reject the official statements and turn to rumors for information. Rumors cause panic. And yet, the Chinese leadership says controlling information is necessary to preserve social stability. They really don’t seem to see how their actions are actually adding to instability. (Or at least they are acting as if they don’t see the connection between media control and social instability.)

Independent commissions to investigate disasters and access to the commission reports have provided stability to Hong Kong society. People may not like the results of the studies, but at least the process is public and the public knows how and why the conclusions were reached.

Frank points out

China can learn from the outside world is the creation of an independent body, such as a commission of inquiry, to show its determination to uncover the truth, regardless of where it leads. Such commissions are used around the world, including by the United Nations.

Setting up such a commission lifts a huge burden from the government’s shoulders. The trouble is that, in China, the Communist Party won’t let anyone else investigate.

He adds another problem finding individuals trusted by the people to serve on the commission. “After all, there is no independent judiciary,” he wrote, “no Independent Commission Against Corruption and no Office of the Ombudsman where people of integrity may flourish.”

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Filed under Censorship, China, Freedom of Information, Hong Kong

More Proof Censorship Fails

We all know the Internet is Cuba is virtually non-existent. (Unless you go to one of the places set up by the US Interest Section or an international hotel.) Well, it does exist but it is so slow you will die of old age before you can download one episode of Game of Thrones.

Face it, governments such as those in Cuba do not like the free and unfettered nature of the Internet. The leaders of Cuba, China, Iran, etc are all afraid of what will happen to their nice cushy jobs if the people found out what is really going on in the world.

No matter how hard governments try to restrict their people from getting information, there are gaps in the security nets. The Chinese have learned how to use their mobile phones and virtual networks to get past the Great Firewall of China. Iranians used Twitter and SMS to communicate during the uprisings that called for free and fair elections.

And now a new twist has shown up in Cuba – thumb drives.

The Only Internet Most Cubans Know Fits in a Pocket and Moves by Bus

It’s called El Packete, and it arrives weekly in the form of thumb drives loaded with enormous digital files. Those drives make their way across the island from hand to hand, by bus, and by 1957 Chevy, their contents copied and the drive handed on.

People want entertainment and they want uncensored news. And they will get it any way possible.

Even by 1957 Chevy.

And yes, there are a few people who know how to get messages out: Yaoni Sanchez (@yoanisanchez) is probably the most famous of the Cuban bloggers — at least to the rest of the world.

Here is the movie OFFLINE mentioned in the article. It is Cubans talking about the Internet (or lack of it). The movie was smuggled out in a thumb drive.

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Filed under Censorship, Cuba, Internet Freedom

Transparency and Free Press

Each year the U.S. State Department is required by law to provide a report on the fiscal transparency of other countries. In general it is a good idea to keep track of how open governments are with their budget process.

Many of the countries that did not meet the minimum level of transparency also do not meet the minimum level of freedom of press, speech and assembly.

To be clear, some of the countries that met the State Department’s minimum level of transparency also have some real problems with press and speech freedoms. For example, Ecuador passes the transparency test put fails the press freedom test. According to Freedom House: “President Rafael Correa and his administration openly disparaged and attacked private outlets and journalists.”

Still, where the freedoms of speech, press and assembly are honored — this is also a problem in Honduras, which also passed the transparency test — generally there are fewer instances of failing the transparency test.

A quick review of the countries failing the transparency test also shows countries with limited or no press freedom. Here are a couple of examples:

China failed the transparency test:

The budget proposal is not made publicly available before the budget is enacted. Budget documents do not identify financial allocations to state-owned enterprises.

And it fails in press freedom (Freedom House):

For the first time in several years, professional journalists from established news outlets were subjected to long-term detention, sentencing, and imprisonment alongside freelancers, online activists, and ethnic minority reporters.

One of the best ways to cure lack of transparency — and to attack corruption — is a strong and independent media.

Oh, by the way, the test for transparency is not that difficult to pass (not if Honduras passed it):

The FY 2015 fiscal transparency review process evaluated whether the identified governments publicly discloses budget documents including expenditures broken down by ministry and revenues broken down by source and type. The review process also evaluated whether the government has an independent supreme audit institution or similar institution that audits the government’s annual financial statements and whether such audits are made publicly available. The review further assessed whether the process for awarding licenses and contracts for natural resource extraction is outlined in law or regulation and followed in practice, and whether basic information on such awards is publicly available. The Department applied the following criteria in assessing whether governments met the minimum requirements of fiscal transparency.

So the points are:

  1. Did the government publish a public budget?
  2. Did the government describe how much each agency gets?
  3. Is there an auditing procedure?
  4. Are their rules for the exploitation of natural resources?
  5. And is all this information public?

To be honest that is a pretty low bar to pass. But, if a government doesn’t want free press, it surely does not want its people to be seeing how the money is spent.

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Filed under Corruption, Freedom of Information, Press Freedom, Transparency

If Xi is serious about fighting corruption, release the media’s shackles

China Digital News summarizes a series of articles about the impact of the anti-corruption campaign of President Xi Jinping.

Seems there has been a regular drop in the number of college graduates looking to enter China’s public sector. At the same time, civil servants are fleeing government work in favor of more lucrative jobs in finance and industry.

A Chinese job-search website, Zhaopin.com, reported that in the three weeks after the lunar new-year holiday in February more than 10,000 government workers quit their jobs to seek greener pastures, mainly in the finance, property and technology industries—an increase of nearly one-third over the same period in 2014. The company attributed this to a new emphasis on frugality in government work. Lavish meals are now banned (much to the chagrin of restaurants, which have suffered falls in profits). Governments are no longer allowed to build fancy offices for themselves.

This reminds me of some lectures I gave journalism students at Shanghai universities in 1992-1994.

Before I started talking about the role of journalism — granted a Western view, so one at complete odds with what the Chinese government wants — I asked the students why they wanted to be journalists.

They were nervous about offering any views, so I offered some suggestions:

  1. You are curious about what is going on and want to tell the stories about those events – One or two hands went up
  2. Being a reporter is a steady job that does not require much physical activity. – A few more hands went up.
  3. You want to know more about stuff that is not generally known to the public so you can earn extra money on that information. – Just about all the hands went up.

The problem President Xi faces is that he wants to eliminate corruption, he is not giving the Chinese people the best weapon against it: A free and independent press.

It is no surprise that the countries with the highest corruption ratings are also those with the lowest ranking of press freedom.

David Bandurski has a great piece in the China Media Project that describes how China views press freedom issues and how some more brave mainland China media groups are fighting back: Breeding tigers, and China’s caged press


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Filed under China, Corruption, Press Freedom

Turkey Elections Rebuff Erdogan Power Grabs

The ruling AKP did not get enough votes to control the Turkish parliament. That means unless a coalition government can be formed, new elections will be needed in 45 days.

Some of the reports coming out indicate Turkish voters are upset with the way President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been running things.

The presidency in Turkey is largely ceremonial, but during his term, Erdoğan has been slowly accumulating more power for the office. At the same time he has been promoting legislation and executive actions that have severely limited freedom of the press and assembly.

In the 24 hours since the election results were called, the discussion has been about whether the AKP can form a coalition to continue its governance. The other thing that has come out over and over in commentary, is the vote is a clear repudiation of Erdoğan’s efforts in limiting individual freedoms.

The question now: Will the other parties turn back Erdoğan’s efforts of will they use the restrictions of freedom of speech/press to their own advantage?

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