Tag Archives: Press Freedom

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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Turkey keeps sliding in press freedom actions

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been on a serious campaign to get Turkey’s press under control.

In the latest move, Erdogan is suing a news organization for espionage because it posted evidence that the state’s intelligence service haphazardly supported anti-Assad forces in Syria in 2013 and 2014. Some of the rebels receiving help later turned out to be key players in the Islamic State movement.

Turkish president Erdoğan wants editor jailed for espionage in video row

Erdogan’s administration has used not only government powers to limit and block all versions of free press and expression.

Last year the government blocked Twitter and the Internet exploded. The action came as more Turks began discussing a growing corruption scandal that reached to the presidency.

When the plug was pulled on Twitter Erdogan showed bravado that was later shut down.

“The international community can say this, can say that. I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is,” he said.

What he saw was an uproar not only around the world but even within his own ruling party.

The Freedom House rankings for Turkey have dropped from Partly Free to Not Free.

In the past two years his government has passed new laws that expanded the government’s authority to close down websites critical of the government and increased the state’s surveillance powers.

The country holds national elections June 7. Erdogon’s ruling party, the AKP, is expected to remain in power.

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Filed under Censorship, Harassment, Turkey

China plays games with journalism visas

But at least it is not as bad as 2013.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China conducts an annual survey of its members (and a few outsiders) on the visa renewal process.

The bottom line for the 2014 survey period: “In general, the visa renewal process went more smoothly this year than last.”

The survey of 2013 was a damning indictment of the pettiness of the Chinese government authorities:

This year it became more obvious than ever that the Chinese authorities abuse the press card and visa renewal process in a political manner, treating journalistic accreditation as a privilege rather than a professional right, and punishing reporters and media organizations for the content of their previous coverage if it has displeased the government.

The most public cases were the denial of visas (or slow walking of the paperwork) to the New York Times and Bloomberg for their reports on how wealthy family members of prominent Communist Party members became and where they are hiding their money.

(See summary here.)

The 2014 report showed that while the visas were handled in a more professional manner, there were still cases of intimidation and out-right threats.

“In one run-in with the authorities, they made perfectly clear they would see us again at the end of the year for visa-renewal. In that sense it was a covert threat.”

“In case of new hire, visa delay was explained by MOFA in a meeting with bureau chief as being the result of concerns about bias in her previous job.”

“I had two interviews where I was questioned about my reporting on Xinjiang and told that the Foreign Ministry would need to be satisfied with my attitude in order to approve my press card. In the end they said they were and that my card would be approved.”

Animosity toward Western media (and Japan is counted in that group, oddly enough) has been a standard feature of how Beijing deals with the press. When we lived in Shanghai — 1992-1994 — the two Western journalists allowed to live there (Reuters and — I think — Asahi Shinbun) had their phone lines cut and received extra shadows in the lead up to the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

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