Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tweet Your Way to Human Rights Activism (Even if You’re a Twitter Novice)

Ever since it made its mark on the social activism stage with a starring role in the Moldova "Twitter Revolution" and the post-election riots in Iran, Twitter has secured its place as a valuable tool in organizing, information sharing, and activism.

And this handy form of social media isn’t just useful when you find yourself in the middle of a revolution, there are plenty of ways to use Twitter to get involved in a cause from the comfort of you couch. Yes, mobilization can happen even while wearing a Snuggie.

The first step to getting involved in 140 characters or less is to follow the right people, namely those interested in a similar cause. This extensive list of the top human rights activists is a great place to start. At www.WeFollow.com you can browse the top tweeters in categories like “Activist” and even sort them by the city. You can also follow us and see who we’re following at http://twitter.com/pmaward.

Next, set a personal goal to tweet about a human rights issue or a link to a story at least once a week (as Change.org’s Amanda Kloer suggests). Share a fun fact or a recent news story, re-tweet someone’s cause, or encourage others to join in. Whether it be spreading the word about free speech violations, jailed journalists, or the good work of others, persuade your followers to do what they can to help.

Artist and Poet Laureate Larry Jaffe tweeted the Declaration of Human Rights 140 characters at a time on his twitter account. Jaffe is the first to admit he is no Twitter expert, but one tip he has is to use the platform to connect with people. “Despite the appearance that Twitter is a ‘broadcast’ medium, it really is full of rich emotional interaction,” Jaffe says. “Change happens one person at a time even if you are engaging in a dialog of thousands, you still have to connect.”

And the ultimate form of connecting is collaborating with your fellow Twitterers. Collaboration is really the key to putting the social in your social media activism. Use hashtags to organize tweets about a certain topic or event and join groups so others can find your account. Once you have organized a network with your Twitter peers, it’s up to you to decide where and how far you want to take it.

Christian Kreutz at CrissCrossed points out that although social media sites can easily remain a place mainly for leisure, they also have the potential to harness the power of mass collaboration. And for an idea of what that could look like, think to the campaign against FARC in Columbia that lead to mass rallies, or the campaign in Estonia that lead to a 50,000 person turnout to clean up the entire country in a day.

Inspired yet? Click here to start tweeting.

Credit: Flickr, respres

Monday, December 14, 2009

Iranian authorities banned press from national Student Day protests


In the aftermath of massive demonstrations across Iran this July protesting June's controversial presidential election and the the closure of the reformist newspaper Salam, the Iranian government banned foreign journalists from the December 7th annual Student Day protests, and sought to halt the event altogether.

Student Day is the anniversary of the murder of three students from the University of Tehran on December 7, 1953, by Iranian police under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Every year, there are vigils and protests thoughout the country, most organized by students and taking place at university campuses. Once encouraged by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the commemoration in recent years has become an occasion for students to voice support for the free exercise of fundamental human rights. The relationship between student protesters and government officials became increasingly strained after this summer's demonstrations.

Though Iran is notoriously strict in its press freedoms, the event is usually covered by major news outlets worldwide. But this December 5, the national Culture Ministry's foreign press department sent a text message to journalists, photographers and cameramen working for foreign media in Iran, stating that "All permits issued for foreign media to cover news in Tehran have been revoked from December 7 to December 9."

According to Reporters Without Borders, authorities also blocked internet access by drastically reducing web speed, disabled many cell phone lines, and arrested scores of student activists throughout the country.

"The press freedom situation is getting worse by the day in Iran," Reporters Without Borders said in statement on December 5. "Journalists who have chosen not to leave the country are being constantly threatened or summoned by the intelligence services, including the intelligence service of the Revolutionary Guards. Some have been given long prison sentences at the end of completely illegal judicial proceedings." The watchdog organization said that 28 journalists and bloggers were detained.

After the protest, which was reported on mainly by students though cell phone messages and hacked internet connections, U.S. President Barack Obama released a statement saying, "The Iranian people have a universal right to assembly and free speech. If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect those rights, and heed the will of its own people. It must govern through consent, and not coercion."

image: Green Lights for Iran

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hillary Clinton in the Free Speech vs. Religion Showdown

In an apparent attempt to maintain peace, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has been advocating anti-defamation laws to combat religious slander. But a report from the U.S. State Department says the goal should be more dialogue about religion, not less.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke during the release of the annual report on international religious freedom, and came out strongly against the proposed anti-defamation laws.

"The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faith will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions,” she said. “These differences should be met with tolerance, not with the suppression of discourse."

Although Secretary Clinton did not name the OIC specifically, the group of 57 countries has been pushing the U.N. Human Rights council to adopt these resolutions.

Such a broad and difficult to define act like “defamation of religion” could be easily misinterpreted or used to crack down on free speech and ethnic minority groups who are already being persecuted. There is a distinct disparity between defamation and harassment, Clinton and many others agree that there is still much to be done to cut back on the latter. While many can agree that religious persecution and discrimination is a major issue in the Middle East and around the world, this act could easily be used to hurt the cause instead of help.

As the report asserts, free speech and religious freedom can be equally upheld without one compromising the other.

Credit: Flickr, US Army

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

How China Exports its Human Rights Policies

It was reported last week that China now has more billionaires than any other country after the United States. China's budding capital and ability to bounce back from recession is giving it added influence, especially with the new countries they are beginning to do business with.

China has flexed its censorship muscle with American companies like Yahoo and Google, which agreed to filter web pages that appear in a search per China’s demands. A search for Tiananmen Square in China, for example, will return information on the largest urban plaza in the world, with no hint to the bloody riots that occurred there 20 years ago.

And during last week's Frankfurt Book Fair--the largest industry gathering of the year where China was the guest of honor--Chinese officials staged a walkout to protest the attendance of dissident authors Dai Qing and Bei Ling. The book fair's organizers quickly caved to the Chinese and revoked the exiled authors' invitations.

Powerful companies and countries have a history of bowing to China's demands, but as China looks to countries with similarly dismal history of human rights such as Sri Lanka, the monetary protection China provides has only encouraged their bad actions. China provided almost $1 billion in aid to Sri Lanka last year, while U.S. aid amounted to just $7.4 million. This backing by China has not only provided weapons to help end the ceasefire, it has also allowed Sri Lanka to ignore outside pressure from other countries to clean up their human rights acts. China has their back and that is all they need.

As China becomes a leader in the global market and is better able to assert its monetary influence in other countries, it is a heavy reminder that their poor human rights policies--which directly affects journalists attempting to report the news--don't just stop at their borders. They are being monetarily encouraged in every country China does business with.

Even here in the U.S. we have been guilty of overlooking certain actions and putting hard talks on the back burner. On her last visit to China, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that she intends to press the country’s leaders of human rights policies, but that that will have to come second. Clinton was quoted in The Daily Telegraph as saying, "Our pressing on those issues can't interfere on the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis."

Photo Credit: Flickr, World Economic Forum

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Text of Remarks by Marcus Brauchli at the Peter Mackler Award Ceremony


Good evening, and thank you all for coming. I’m Marcus Brauchli, executive editor of The Washington Post and, more important for this evening’s event, a friend of Peter Mackler’s and Catherine Antoine’s from our days together in Hong Kong, back in the mid-1980s.

It’s a great pleasure to be here among so many distinguished journalists and people committed to the cause of independent journalism. And it’s an honor to be here to celebrate the first recipient of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism.

As you have heard, Peter was the quintessential journalist: thoughtful and smart, driven and hard-working, passionate about the facts and a believer in the importance of what we in journalism do. So much a believer, in fact, that he decided to proselytize, to spread the good word about journalism and its ameliorative power. He developed a whole curriculum to teach journalism and raise the standards of journalism around the world through the Global Media Forum. It is a mission that his wife, Catherine, and his daughters Camille and and Lauren, are enthusiastically carrying on. They deserve a round of applause for their extraordinary dedication and this significant accomplishment.

Living in Washington, it’s hard to imagine life without free information flows. Here, as in any capital city, information animates pretty much everything. Saying that knowledge is power is a blindingly obvious truism. Just ask anyone in this room: If you know what the president is going to do on the troop requests for Afghanistan, don’t tell John Moody at Fox, tell us at The Post.

What first set American society apart and has made it an especially interesting experiment for more than two centuries is that it was premised on an idea that everybody should have knowledge, so everybody could share in the power.

The distribution of knowledge and power is one of the fundamental tenets of a democracy. In any open society, democratic or not, independent journalism has been the chief means of collecting and distributing knowledge.

But much of the world isn’t democratic. And in many closed or non-democratic societies, there is no freedom of information. Nearly 2,500 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu said, “People are difficult to govern when they have too much knowledge.”

That axiom may explain an interesting correlation that Chris Walker, the director of studies at Freedom House, discovered. He found that of 20 countries run by “leaders for life,”16 ranked 160 or lower out of the 195 countries measured in Freedom House’s annual media freedom survey. The highest ranking such country (Egypt, a nominal democracy where President Hosni Mubarak has won an impressive streak of reelection by consistently resounding margins) was No. 128, two thirds of the way from the top-ranked country.

Technology has made it harder to suppress free flows of information, though. Twenty years ago this year, the fax machine played a crucial role in China’s Tiananmen Square protests, allowing protesters gathered in Beijing’s central square to know what the outside world was saying of their protests and giving them hope—false hope, as it transpired—that the government might heed some of their demands.

This year, protesters on the streets of Tehran shared information and frustration over what many believed to be a rigged presidential election in Iran using Twitter and Facebook accounts. Something similar happened in antigovernment protests in Moldova, where Twitter posts marked PMAN referred to the initials of the Romanian name of the biggest square in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital. Ukraine’s so-called Orange Revolution was powered by information flowing across social-media networks.

Technology makes even tightly controlled societies porous. For the information-averse, authoritarian governments of some countries, such as North Korea or Burma, the solution is not to introduce the latest technologies in the first place. Or they adopt technology in limited ways and don’t allow them to be distributed to their people.

Authoritarian regimes know that creating cellphone networks or Internet connections is like building irrigation canals, and that once information starts sluicing down those canals, the long-fallow fields of their societies will produce journalism. The harvest will be a freer, fairer and more open society.

As natural as that sounds, some governments inevitably attempt the unnatural and try to suppress the growth of journalism. Russia’s government has forced most major news operations into government hands, and many, too many, good journalists have been assassinated with impunity. Until recently, Zimbabwe intimidated, imprisoned or induced to leave the country both foreign and local journalists. In Cambodia, a journalist and his son were murdered after writing critical reports on the government, and a publisher was imprisoned and fined for “disinformation” and for “dishonoring public officials.”

And yet we have also seen signal advances in the role journalists play in countries around the world. In Colombia , where for years it was tragically routine for journalists to be kidnapped or killed, journalists have uncovered vital stories about official corruption and nepotism; a journalist who was himself kidnapped is now vice president of the country. In Peru, played a critical role in 2008 in uncovering corruption involving lobbyists and officials. Ukraine has become a haven for Russian journalists, who can operate openly and publish freely. Even in China, which still attempts to filter the information sluicing down its high-tech irrigationways, journalists are achieving things that once would have been impossible: their investigations have led to environmental cleanups, have resulted in communist-era detention laws being tossed out and have ferreted out corrupt officials or company bosses.

Doing such good journalism, as the Peter Mackler award recognizes, takes courage. Especially in countries with only recent experience with a free and independent press. Being a pioneer of independent journalism means you often are alone, because you are first. Or you have seen a truth others don’t want you to see. You feel vulnerable. That is true even in a place like Washington, where 35 years ago Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post had to stand up to the skepticism of other journalists and intimidation from the White House when they were pursuing the Watergate stories.

Peter Mackler’s legacy is the recognition that journalism, his profession and ours, has the power to change societies, to improve bad conditions, to challenge the powerful and empower people.

In paying tribute to Peter and his legacy, though, we also must recognize the great accomplishment of his wife, Catherine, is turning his dreams into reality.

It’s been a quarter of a century since Peter, Catherine and I all lived in Hong Kong, but I still remember a story he told. It was early in their relationship, and they’d gone to see a movie, On the Waterfront. There is a scene in that movie where Marlon Brando, playing an ex-prize fighter standing up to corrupt union bosses, delivers a strong, stark soliloquy. And there is a famous moment when he says regretfully, “I coulda been a contender.” And in the darkness of the movie theater, as Peter told the story, a French-accented woman’s voice piped up, “Darling, what is contender?”

Well, Catherine, you are a contender, as Peter was a contender. You are contenders for our respect and for our admiration, as are your daughters, for launching the World Media Forum and the Peter Mackler award in the cause of good journalism in our age.


You can read a recap of the Peter Mackler Award Ceremony here.

Pictured (from left to right): Lauren Mackler, Marcus Brauchli, Camille Mackler, Ronnate Tissainayagam.

Photo credit: Adrian Winter



Monday, November 2, 2009

Uighurs Still Censored and Detained Four Months After Riots

Four months after ethnic riots erupted in the Xinjiang region of China, Reporters Without Borders has found that the majority of websites operated by or geared toward the Uighur community are still being blocked.

The majority of people in the region still cannot access more than 85 percent of local webpages, nor can they send SMS messages or in some cases, even make phone calls. The Chinese government's official reasoning for the censorship is to stop "terrorists", which they say utilized these methods to initiate the riots in the first place.

“The official reason given for this blackout, that ‘terrorists used the Internet and SMS messaging,’ is unacceptable.," says Reporters Without Borders. "Do the Pakistani or Afghan authorities suspend the Internet because terrorists sent email messages? No. The Chinese government seems more interested in preventing Xinjiang’s inhabitants from circulating information about the real situation in the province, especially about the crackdown after the July riots.”

On top of the blatant censorship, many of the hundreds of people that were rounded up after the riots have yet to be charged or released.

Hailaite Niyazi, a Uighur journalist, was taken from his home a month ago today. His family was told that he was suspected of endangering national security, but they suspect the arrest is due to the interviews Niyazi gave to foreign reporters during the days following the riots.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Huffington Post blogger blocked from accepting journalism award by Cuban government


Yoani Sánchez, a Cuban blogger for The Huffington Post who garnered attention in recent months for offering frank criticism of her country's Communist government, said last month that she was barred by Cuban officials from traveling to the U.S. to accept a coveted journalism award.

Sánchez has been publishing the blog Generación Y - full of social commentary on daily life and political struggles from her hometown of Havana, and offering some of the most blatant criticism of her country's one-party system found within Cuba - for the past two years. Despite strict government censorship in Cuba, she has managed to keep her blog alive and active by evading police and sometimes emailing entries to her friends in other countries to post. Time magazine listed her as one of the world's 100 most influential persons in 2008, stating that "as one of the under the nose of a regime that has never tolerated dissent, Sánchez has practiced what paper-bound journalists in her country cannot: freedom of speech."

In May, Cuban authorities denied Sanchez permission to fly to Madrid to accept the Ortega y Gasset Prize in digital journalism for creating Generation Y, which gets more than 1 million hits a month.

Then, in early October, she became the first blogger to win one of the Maria Moors Cabot Prizes given by Columbia University for journalism that advances inter-American understanding. But she was again denied an exit visa by the Cuban government, rendering her unable to attend the event where she made history.

She made a video recording in response to her visa denial, which she posted on her blog and which was played at the Cabot Prize award ceremony on October 12. “We Cubans are like small children,” she explained in the message, “who need Father’s permission to leave the house.”

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Media Freedom in Italy: The Slow and Steady Dismantling

The Italian press has a historically rocky relationship with its country's leaders, and tensions came to a head Saturday when a reported 150,000 - 300,000 came out in Rome to protest Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s recent attacks geared towards the media.

“I am gratified by the energy I can feel here. It will take this kind of energy − and much more − to push back against the forces and the trends that imperil journalism and journalists face today,” said Jim Boumelha, President of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

Berlusconi, owner of a large portion of the country's televised and print media, has been increasingly critical of journalists, prompting concerns over a conflict of interest between his role in government and the media. The media mogul turned Prime Minister is suing two left-wing newspapers over their reports of his relations with prostitutes and other young women.

He went on national television to call the media "scoundrels," urged advertisers not to buy in papers that are critical of him, and even outed as gay the editor of a Catholic paper that has been critical of him.

On The Media reporter Megan Williams says, "This kind of cult of personality approach by both supporters and Berlusconi himself triggers constant comparisons to Mussolini."

La Repubblica is one of the papers being sued and released this statement saying, "The libel action against 'Repubblica' is the last in a long list of attacks against this daily which can only be seen as attempts at silencing the free press, at benumbing public opinion, at removing us from the international information scene and ultimately at making our country the exception to the rule of Democracy."

Just three days before the rally, Reporters Without Borders warned that the leader is increasingly closer to being declared a "predator" to the free press.

Italy is currently tied with Tonga for number 73 on Freedom House's Press Freedom Index and is above only Turkey for worst offender in all of Western Europe.

Photo Credit: RSF

Monday, October 5, 2009

Peter Mackler Award Ceremony Recap

The first annual Peter Mackler Award Ceremony was a success, with attendees including a wide range of journalists from around the world, all there to honor the memory of Peter Mackler and show support for the award winner, jailed Sri Lankan journalist J. S. Tissainayagam.

Clothilde Le Coz, Washington Director of Reporters Without Borders, gave an impassioned speech, denouncing J. S. Tissainayagam's wrongful imprisonment and calling for justice to be sought in all cases where journalists have been unfairly imprisoned.

Tissa's wife, Ronnate, accepted the award on her husband's behalf.

“For the last 20 years my husband has endeavoured to pursue the goals that Mr. Mackler believed in as a journalist," she said. "Like Peter, my husband was never too busy to encourage those who wanted to learn to write and has helped many in journalism. Today my husband is continuing to teach me courage and grace in difficult times. For him no matter what the circumstances are; there is no excuse for unkindness. No matter what circumstance fellow human beings must be treated with dignity."

Marcus Brauchli, a friend to Peter Mackler and the executive editor of The Washington Post, was the keynote speaker at the ceremony and gave credit to reporters who face everyday challenges in developing nations or in countries which do not value freedom of speech.

“Doing such good journalism as the Peter Mackler Award encourages takes courage,” said Brauchli.

J. S. Tissainayagam's is a Tamil reporter and editor cited by President Barack Obama as an “emblematic example” of the struggle for press access and freedom worldwide. He was arrested on March 7, 2008 by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) of the Sri Lanka police and has been sentenced to 20 years in jail for inciting “communal disharmony”. He is the first journalist in his country to be convicted under terrorism laws.

You can view a video of the ceremony here.

Pictured (from left to right): Clothilde Le Coz of Reporters Without Borders, Lauren Mackler, daughter of Peter Mackler, Catherine Antoine, wife of Peter Mackler, Ronnate Tissainayagam, wife of J. S. Tissainayagam, and Camille Mackler, daughter of Peter Mackler

Photo Credit: Adrian Winter/PMA, Parameswaran Ponnudurai/AFP

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Statement by Condoleeza Rice on the Peter Mackler Award

I am delighted to hear that you are honoring Peter's legacy by recognizing courageous and ethical journalists with the Peter Mackler Award.  Throughout his distinguished thirty-three year career in journalism, Peter was a champion of the freedom of the press who fought tirelessly to defend the rights of reporters to publish stories without fear of retribution.

I always welcomed the chance to speak with him when he was a correspondent for Agence France-Presse.  As an educator myself, I was especially inspired by his work to establish the Global Media Forum to train journalists in developing countries so that they too could contribute to an informed citizenry that is at the center of a vibrant democracy.

I can think of no better way to honor the work of such a passionate journalist - and dedicated husband and father - than through the Peter Mackler Awards.  Although I regret not being able to join you at the awards ceremony, I am delighted to join you in celebrating the legacy of Peter Mackler.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tunisian Opposition Leader Beaten by Cops

Hamma Hammami, the former editor of the banned newspaper Alternatives and spokesman for the illegal Communist Party of Tunisian Workers (PCOT), was badly beaten by police yesterday after criticizing the country's government in an interview for Al Jazeera, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Hammami was returning to Tunis from Paris, where he had given the interview - in which he criticized Tunisia's electoral system, human rights abuses, censorship of the press - on September 25th.

Hammami’s wife, Radhia Nasraoui, a lawyer and human rights activist, told Reporters Without Borders that she had taken a taxi to meet her husband at the Tunis airport, because her car's tires had been slashed. “I saw Hamma arrive, his mouth covered with blood, his glasses broken, bruises on his face, surrounded by about 20 policemen who were continuing to hit him," she said, "A policeman came up to me, snatched my mobile phone and threw it away with great force.” Nasraoui added that after returning home they learned that the Tunisian authorities had told France 24 - a 24-hour French news syndicate - that Hammami had arrived back in Tunis without any problem.

“We no longer have the right to express our views in Tunisia,” she said.

According to the BBC, "Human rights activists in Tunisia and abroad accuse the government of widespread abuses, including the torture and harassment of dissidents," and of "using the courts to silence political opponents."

In 1999, Mr. Hammami was handed a nine-year prison sentence for belonging to an illegal organization (PCOT), in what he called an unfair trail. He went into hiding with two colleagues for four years, eventually coming forward in February 2002. Before his court appearance he told reporters that he and his colleagues were not extremists or outlaws, but had "refused to submit to dictatorship... and repressive laws." He said that even if imprisoned "we will continue the struggle from the darkest corners of our cells." His nine-year sentence was confirmed, but he was released in September 2002.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Eritrea Houses World's Biggest Prison For Journalists

A tiny country on the east coast of Africa, Eritrea and its 5 million inhabitants don't often make the international news stage. But it is more politics than population that keeps the country out of the press. Eight years after a government mandate that shut down all private news outlets and ended free speech, Eritrea now matches China and Iran in the number of journalists it has detained without trial.

Reporters Without Borders announced that Eritrea now holds at least 30 journalists in prison, adding that four of the journalists who were detained in the September of 2001 crackdown have died due to harsh prison conditions which included metal containers and underground cells.

Aaron Berhane is the former editor of Setit, the largest private paper in Eritrea before it was shut down. He managed to escape to Canada after the fateful announcement in 2001, one of the few among his peers and colleagues who is not dead or in jail. He writes about the first time he heard the government announcement of the media blackout, saying:

"
I was in bed when my wife turned on the radio to listen to the morning news. 'Starting today, September 18, 2001, the government has ordered all private presses to stop their publications,'" he recalls. "I felt as if I was dreaming. I didn’t move my head. I was still under the blanket."

Berhane got lucky. He wasn't home the night the police came to his house to arrest him and he is still able to practice journalism. He now runs Meftih, a community paper geared towards helping other
Eritreans in Canada.

"
There is no government interference or police harassment here and there is respect for the rule of law. In Eritrea, it’s not the law that rules, it’s one person that rules the law," says Berhane. "I hope that one day my country will enjoy the blessings that I experience here in Canada and that my colleagues will be eventually set free."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Citizen Journalism and Twitter in Uganda

In the midst of riots and anti-government protests leading up to the 2011 elections in Uganda, the government has continued to clamp down on the press. And as the Committee to Protect Journalists reports, citizen journalists and social media sites are helping to fill the void.

At least four radio stations were recently shut down and news broadcasts have been replaced by sitcoms or kept light, with no mention of the protests. A Ugandan talk show host, Kalundi Serumaga, was also arrested, along with four journalists from Uganda's largest daily paper.

Internet availability has almost doubled in Uganda since 2007, boosting blogging and micro-blogging activity and opening up more channels for information. BlogSpirit is one site that aggregates blogs from Uganda and can be accessed from around the world. Although daily papers have so far been allowed to continue to print, Ugandans are turning to these sites for immediate updates and reports.

CPJ writer
Rebekah Heacock says she was constantly checking her Twitter account in hopes of hearing from her friends and colleagues in Uganda. One friend wrote: “Okay. We're like running for our lives.” Another tweeted: "Wow...everyone hurry and turn to [Ugandan television station] NBS for a riveting report on...wait for it...how to play golf."

You can read Heacock's full report at CPJ here.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Please Join Us At the Peter Mackler Award Ceremony

Reporters Without Borders / The Peter Mackler Award

October 2, 2009
6.00 PM

Please,
Join us for the presentation of the First annual

PETER MACKLER AWARD FOR COURAGEOUS AND ETHICAL JOURNALISM

Recipient : J. S. Tissainayagam
Keynote Speaker: Marcus Brauchli

National Press Club - 529 14th Street, N. W.
Washington DC


Cocktail reception to follow with Silent Auction to benefit the Peter Mackler Award

Please, RSVP at info@pmaward.org by September 20.

Rogue Journalism: From Iran to Refugee Camps

What do you do when you have the manpower, the brainpower, and the news itself, but you don't have the right to print? These journalists--one reporting out of a heavily censored country and the other from a country where the refugee residents have no rights--got around the government barriers to create functional and even sophisticated news outlets.

T.P. Mishra is the President of the Third World Media Network and the editor of the Bhutan New Service. In his new online series for Media Helping Media, he is outlining how refugees can start their own media organizations from their refugee camps. Because these temporary camps often become permanent homes where many end up spending the majority of their lives, the need for schools and other community fundamentals arises. But with out any rights in the country you call home, the task becomes even more difficult.

And if you want to fill an information void but can't be on the ground, Kelly Golnoush Niknejad explains in Foreign Policy how she managed to start a remote news bureau in Tehran.

To be based in Tehran means to constantly be censored and to self censor just to ensure you will be able to remain in the country, according to Niknejad. "You are likely to have to work with a semiofficial minder or show your articles to an agent from the intelligence ministry before it is published," says Niknejad. "I was once offered access to any official I wanted, if I were willing to submit. I declined."

What might have saved Niknejad's Tehran Bureau is that from the beginning, her and her classmate from Columbia decided that they would not become a purely oppositional outlet. Instead of becoming an underground news source read in small circles, they sought interviews from those with varying political opinions and even attempted to get official accreditation.

Like Niknejad, Mishra also attempted to follow the law as much as possible. In fact, his first rule is to know the country's laws. And as he goes on to explain, to know which ones need to be followed.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

French Journalist Murdered Covering Violence in El Salvador


Christian Poveda, a 53-year-old French photojournalist and filmmaker, was killed on September 2 in El Salvador, a victim of the rampant violence he had hoped to help bring to an end.

Poveda first went to El Salvador in the early 1980s, to cover the Central American country's long, bloody civil war as a photojournalist. He returned after the armed conflict was over to document the brutality and poverty faced by members of street gangs, particularly the Mara 18 and rival Mara Salvatrucha gangs, which "make up a huge criminal network that runs from Los Angeles, where a diaspora of Salvadoreans lives, down through chunks of Central America." He spent 16 months filming the gangs for his film La Vida Loca, a disturbing documentary which won entry and awards in many high-profile South and Central American film festivals. In an interview with The Los Angeles Times in April, Poveda said that while the gang members could be "savage," they were "people of their word" and "victims of society," and that he was not frightened of them.

But while touring his film in El Salvador last week, he was found dead in his car, having been shot in the head, in the rural region of Tonacatepeque. Salvadoran police vowed to work "tirelessly" to find the killer or killers, although - as Poveda's film showed - anonymous gang murders in the country often go unsolved by the overworked police force.

The son of Spanish Republicans who sought refuge in France, Poveda reported from Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship, and during the civil wars of the 1980s in Nicaragua and El Salvador. "Christian Poveda was a respected journalist; a professional who never hesitated to take great risks in the name of freedom of information," said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Peter Mackler Award In The News

In the wake of our announcement naming J. S. Tissainayagam as the first winner of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism, the Peter Mackler Award has been featured prominently in many news outlets. Below please find a non-exhaustive list. Check back often for updates!

-Reporters Without Borders: click here;
-BBC.com: click here;
-MSN.com: click here;
-Voice of America: click here;
-Christian Science Monitor (USA): click here;
-The Washington Times (USA): click here;
-The Hindu (India): click here;
-The Deccan Herald (India): click here;
-Zee News (India): click here;
-Indian Catholic News (India): click here;
-Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka): click here;
-Brisbane Times (Australia): click here;
-The Jakarta Globe (Indonesia)" click here;
-Cyberpresse.ca (Canada): click here;
-Romandie News (Switzerland): click here;
-Saudi Gazette (Saudi Arabia): click here;
-UK Tamil News (UK): click here;
-W Radio (Colombia): click here.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee Speak Out About Their Arrest

Laura Ling and Euna Lee shed new light on the details of their arrest in statement released today and restated their hopes that in the publicity surrounding their case, their original intention for being in the region will not be forgotten.

Of their time in detainment in North Korea Ling and Lee said, "There are things that are still too painful to revisit." For now at least, they hope to keep the focus on the story they were there to cover: the extreme hardship in North Korea that sends people fleeing to China, only to face a different kind of struggle.

Although they express some regret for seemingly crossing the unmarked border, there are clear undertones of defiance towards the country that kept them locked up in conditions they are still unable to describe, and pride in the work they were doing.

"Totalitarian regimes the world over are terrified of exposure," the women said. "Journalists have a responsibility to shine light in dark places, to give voice to those who are too often silenced and ignored."

You can read the statement in full here.

Photo Credit Jae C. Hong/AP Photo

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

J.S. Tissainayagam: Convicted as a Terrorist for Acts of Journalism

As reported yesterday, PMA is proud to announce J.S. Tissainayagam, known to friends as "Tissa", has been awarded the first Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism. Having been sentenced to 20 years in prison in a country crippled by conflict, we hope to bring recognition to both a region and a reporter very much in need of it.

Sources close to the case who will remain anonymous for their own safety say that today Tissainayagam has been moved to the Welikada prison J block. His supporters are pushing for him to be moved to the New Magazine Prison J block, so he will be with other political prisoners.

Tissainayagam's case is unique in that he is one of the only journalists in a democratic state to be arrested under his own country's terrorism law, with the main evidence against him being his own published work.

Vincent Brossel is a reporter with the Asia-Pacific desk of Reporters Without Borders who has followed Tissainayagam's case closely. According to Brossel, charges by the Sri Lankan terrorism investigative division are relatively uncommon in themselves. "In fact, it is the first time a case against a journalist has gone so far," says Brossel. "In the past, journalists have been accused of directly supporting the LTTE, but in the case of Tissa, he wasn’t carrying weapon or actively conspiring."

Instead, the case against him was built with his articles, written for such prestigious publications as the English language Sunday Times and the news site Outreachsl.com, where he is an editor.

Tissa, like many others in the Tamil ethnic minority, does not identify himself with the violent separatist group LTTE, or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

"Even the prosecutor was not able to give any material evidence or witness to link him to terror or LTTE," says another journalist close to the case.

In his many years as a journalist, Tissa has worked with the UN, UNICEF, and Amnesty International, who has called him a "prisoner of conscience". He filmed a documentary on children who were orphaned as a result of violence in the east.

In addressing World Press Freedom Day, President Obama even gave mention to Tissainayagam, saying, "“In every corner of the globe there are journalists in jail or being harassed. Emblematic examples of this distressing reality are figures like J. S. Tissainayagam in Sri Lanka, or Shi Tao and Hu Jia in China.”

In his statement to the court shortly after his arrest in March, Tissa said "I was and am still an advocate against terrorism. I have criticized terrorism in whatever form. I never advocated violence, my objective was to generate non violent means of resolving the conflict, my research, writings and work was towards achieving this."

Lawyer in Tissainayagam’s defense, Anil Silva said his client “was never a racist and he at no time tried to arouse hatred. Now he has been punished for what he wrote as a journalist. This will be a lesson to other journalists, too.”

His lawyers say he will appeal the conviction.

Photo Credit: AFP/Ishara S.Kodikara

Monday, August 31, 2009

J. S. Tissainayagam Announced as First Winner of Peter Mackler Award

NEW YORK, Aug. 31, 2009/- Global Media Forum and the US branch of Reporters Without Borders are pleased to announce that respected Sri Lankan journalist and editor J. S. Tissainayagam has been selected as the first winner of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism. Tissainayagam will be formally awarded the prize at a ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on October 2, 2009. The key note speaker for the ceremony will be Marcus Brauchli, executive editor of the Washington Post.

J. S Tissainayagam is a respected Tamil journalist and editor who wrote for the North Eastern Monthly Magazine and the Sunday Times in Sri Lanka. And is the founder of the website Outreachsl.com. He was arrested March 7, 2008 by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) of the Sri Lanka police. He has been charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) amid allegations of physical and emotional abuse by TID forces and got a 20 year sentence on terrorism charges today. “The imposition of this extremely severe sentence on Tissainayagam suggests that some Sri Lanka judges confuse justice with revenge,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said. “With the help of confessions extracted by force and information that was false or distorted, the court has used an anti-terrorism law that was intended for terrorists, not for journalists and human rights activists.”

According to RSF, Tissainayagam’s case is the first known instance in the democratic world of a journalist being charged under the provisions of an anti-terror law. Jean-Francois Julliard, Secretary General of RSF, stated that “We are happy to reward J. S. Tissainayagam in 2009, a terrible year for Sri Lanka. This country needs journalists who are determined and concerned with finding the truth. J. S. Tissainayagam is one of those and should never have been imprisoned. Sri Lanka will never know peace if the press is not free to play its role of fourth power. Sri Lankans have the right to be informed about what is happening on their island. They have the right to read words written by men like J. S. Tissainayagam.”

About the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism

The Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism was founded in June, 2008 to honor the memory of Peter Mackler, a Brooklyn-born thirty-five year veteran journalist who championed ethical journalism, freedom of expression, and who helped transform the news agency Agence France Press (AFP) into the international competitor it is today. Mackler also founded Global Media Forum, which has helped train journalists and non-profit organizations to use the media as a tool for social change, and Project Plato, which teaches journalism as a life skill to teenagers.

The Peter Mackler award rewards journalists who fight courageously and ethically to report the news in countries where freedom of the press is either not guaranteed or not recognized. The Award ceremony will take place on October 2, 2009 at 6PM at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, 529 14th St. N.W, 13th Fl.; Washington, DC 20045. The ceremony will be followed by a networking hour. There will be a silent auction.

Contact:
Camille J. Mackler
Project Director, Peter Mackler Award
Global Media Forum
Tel: +1-917-655-3548
Email: cmackler@globalmediaforum.com

Clothilde Le Coz
Director
Reporter Without Borders USA
clc@rsf.org

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

African Journalist Threatened by Government Official



According to The International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), a global organization committed to protecting freedom of expression consisting of over 80 NGOs and managed by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, a Burundian journalist's life was threatened after he published an article critical of a government official.

Marc Niyonkuru is a correspondent for the privately-owned Radio Isanganiro, which broadcasts throughout Burundi, an impoverished central African nation of nearly nine million. On July 18th, Niyonkuru broadcast a news story that accused the country's Director General of City Planning, Pasteur Bucumi [pictured], of breaking the law by using a government-owned car to campaign for his political party, The National Council for the Defence of Democracy - Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD/FDD).

According to IFEX's report, immediately after the story was broadcast Bucumi called Niyonkuru, threatening to kill him if the report was repeated or the information broadcast again. The following day, Niyonkuru was summoned to Bucumi government office, where the Director General repeated his threats. Later, Alexandre Niyungero, president of the Burundi Association of Journalists, released a statement in support of Niyonkuru, condemning Bucumi's actions. No further information is available at this time.

Friday, August 21, 2009

365th Day in Captivity for Journalists Detained in Somalia

It was one year ago Sunday when journalists Nigel Brennan and Amanda Lindhout (pictured left) were captured in Somalia, a country that has since been declared the most dangerous country in Africa for reporters.

With little media attention or government action for the freelance journalists, from Australia and Canada respectively, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that the families of the two released this statement:

"Together, the two families continue to work tirelessly to secure Nigel's and Amanda's safe release. With little outside support, the families, who have been united as one throughout this horrendous ordeal, continue to do everything and anything to gain the earliest possible release for their loved ones Amanda and Nigel. Our thoughts and all our love are with Amanda and Nigel, today, just as they have been for the past 365 days, and just as they will be until they are safely home with us. In issuing this brief joint statement the families hope that the media will respect their wishes to be left alone during this particularly emotional time."

Click here to read our earlier post about the kidnapping and the reported conditions under which they are being kept.

Click here to sign the petition for their release.

When The U.S. Is The One To Detain Foreign Journalists

We write a lot about Western journalists being jailed, detained, censored, and even killed while in countries that put minimal value on freedom of speech.

But when Pakistani journalist Rahman Bunairee, 34, sought refuge in the United States, he found himself denied access and detained for 10 days in U.S. custody.

Bunairee covered the actions of Islamic militants in Pakistan while reporting for Voice of America, and it was after these reports that he began receiving threats. According to The Washington Post, Bunairee's home was destroyed with explosives by militants before they came looking for him at his work.

Contrary to the Pakistani government's claims that the Taliban was no longer occupying the North Western region of the country, Bunairee reported that militant gunmen were still patrolling in several of the villages; reports that apparently angered the militant group enough to send them after him.

VOA quickly arranged for a visa to get him out of the country, but because the visa did not mention asylum (it was a for a 1-year scholarship program, which, although related to the work Bunairee was involved in, did not match his story when he arrive in the U.S.), he was detained upon arriving in Dulles International Airport.

After 10 days with out comment from U.S. customs officials or the Department of Homeland Security (who cited privacy concerns) Bunairee was finally released. Although he is out of custody, he is still working with lawyers to secure his asylum here in the United States.

Relieved by his release, the Committee to Protect Journalists released a statement saying, "Bunairee worked as a reporter on the front lines of a conflict of strategic importance to the United States and was brought to Washington by the US-funded Voice of America. We hope that his status in the US will be resolved quickly so he can resume his work as a journalist."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Why China Backed Down on the Green Dam

After the June elections in Iran, the color green was used to symbolize freedom, protest, and the desperate desire for regime change. But in China, attempts at the most expansive internet censorship initiative also aligned itself with this color.

The Green Dam filtering system was supposed to be a part of a mandated program to be installed on every new computer in China, blocking out "harmful" content that would range from pornography to, say, the history of events taking place in Tiananmen Square. But after clear disagreement was voiced by the Chinese, the government is now backpedaling, saying that its intentions were misunderstood and it never planned to take the Green Dam so far.

"[China] floats new laws to gauge reaction. If the reaction is negative, the law oftentimes never comes into being,"said Dan Harris on his site, China Law Blog (as noted by CPJ). The government's decision to back off instead of pushing forward with even more force is a good sign that the country might be more willing to listen to its people.

Although the program will not be required on every computer, it will still be installed on public computers. And even without Green Dam, China's censored web will still ensure that any searches on Tiananmen Square won't suggest it is anything more than the largest urban plaza in the world.

"China is the benchmark, the gold standard, of Internet censorship," says Ken Berman whose company is working on a program called "feed over email" which will help users around the world get around internet censors. He told AFP, "The idea is to extend freedom of the Internet; freedom of the press, freedom of inquiry to those that want to know more." (Click here to read more about the project.)

The Chinese people will remain blocked from certain news and accurate information, but this latest move by the Chinese government can still be seen as a rare moment of progress in freedom and free speech.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Corruption in Russia Increasingly Deadly for Journalists and Activists

The headline on the Reporters Without Borders homepage today read "Russia: From Bad to Worse." And certainly after the deaths of activist Nataliya Estemirova and journalist Anna Politkovskaya (pictured above) that made international headlines last month, the situation in Russia seems to be quickly deteriorating.

Two human rights activists, Alik Dzhabrailov and his wife Zarema Sadulayeva, were found shot dead in Chechnya on Tuesday, the same day journalist Malik Akhmedilov was found murdered. The deaths have lead to greater government scrutiny and even harsh words from EU representatives.

"It is important that an investigation into these latest murders is conducted promptly, transparently and thoroughly." said the Swedish president. "The perpetrators must be brought to justice."

It is a point that needs to be addressed in a country that has been unable to find or prosecute many human rights and journalism victims, in some cases undoubtedly because of government involvement. Such was the case in the investigation and trial that went no where for slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

The EU Observer reports that two Chechen newspapers pulled out of the country in recent days due to safety concerns. Two NGOs have also left in recent days.

Amnesty International says, "The light of public scrutiny is gradually being turned off in Chechnya. First, international organizations and journalists were banned from the region, and now, local civil society is being eliminated."

Press intimidation can no longer be considered a rare occurrence in the region. Reporters Without Borders ranks the country 141 out of 173 for press freedom.

For an interesting way to grasp the corruption that occurs in the country, this unique graph from Information is Beautiful breaks down how billions of dollars is spent around the world. According to the chart, bribes to Russian officials come in at a staggering $316 billion. That is just under the $320 billion spent on worldwide drug trafficking, not to mention the $54 billion it would take to feed every child in the world for a year, according to the chart.

Photo Credit: AFP

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Americans Captured at Iranian Border

Their timing could not have been worse. Three American hikers found themselves in Iranian territory while the country was continuing its clampdown on the international community in response to the deadly post-election protests.

Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 30, and Joshua Fattal, 27 were visiting the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya when they were arrested for crossing the Iraqi border into Iran. Shane Bauer is a journalist who has written for The Nation, Christian Science Monitor, Aljazeera.net, and has an article in this month's Mother Jones magazine.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says that all three of the hikers had interests in writing and photography although the reason for this hike was purely sightseeing.

"There is no Lonely Planet Iraqi Kurdistan," said their friend, Shon Meckfessel, who stayed behind on that day's hike to recover from a cold. He said the spot they picked to hike was highly recommended by the locals they consulted and they had no idea it would lead them near the border.

The U.S. has stepped in to seek the release of the three, after over a week of just trying to confirm they were in fact in Iranian custody. Since the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, Iraq has pleaded on behalf of the United States for the prisoners' release.

Shane Bauer, the freelance journalist, speaks Arabic and has been based in the Middle East and Northern Africa for six years. You can see a sampling of his work on his webpage.

Photo Credit: AFP

Monday, August 10, 2009

AFP Announces First Winner of Peter Mackler Scholarship

Agence France Press (AFP) has announced Charlotte Turner of Cardiff University as the first winner of the AFP-Peter Mackler Scholarship. The program, the only current English-language scholarship offered by AFP, was created in honor of Peter Mackler who died suddenly on June 20, 2009. Mackler spent the majority of his career as a journalist working for AFP and was serving as the North Americas chief editor at the time of his death. Mackler is largely credited with having built AFP's English language service and transforming the news agency into a large-market competitor.

The AFP-Peter Mackler Scholarship is not affilated with the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism, which is managed by Global Media Forum and the US branch of Reporters Without Borders. The Peter Mackler Award seeks to recognize the contributions made and risks taken by journalists working in countries where freedom of the press is either not recognized or not guarantied. The first winner of the Peter Mackler Award will be announced August 22, 2009. Please check back on this blog or on our website for more details on the winner and the award ceremony.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Not to be Forgotten: Amanda Lindhout's Latest Plea

As the five month captivity of American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee finally ended today, due to the help of former US President Bill Clinton who traveled to North Korea late Monday August 3, 2009, thousands of supporters worlwide let out a collective sigh of relief. Yet, another desparate plea by another captured journalist went relatively unnoticed.

Canadian freelance reporter Amanda Lindhout has been detained for nearly a year by Somali rebels, along with Australian photographer Nigel Brennan. Lindhout and Brennan's captors have demanded a ransom of over $1 million dollars, but so far neither the Canadian nor the Australian government have made visible attempts to negotiate the two journalists' release.

There has been a large outcry over the detention of several American reporters over the last few months, most notably Roxana Saberi who detained by Iran for 100 days before being freed in April, and Ling and Lee, mentioned above. Lawlessness in Somalia itself has been covered extensively since Somali pirates captured an American ship in April, 2009. Yet Lindhout and Brennan's plight has barely been reported in mainstream media and a petition set up to demand their release has only amassed 1,780 signatures (compare to 88,249 for Ling and Lee or 10,669 for Saberi).

You can watch here to hear excerpts of Lindhout's emotional call, in which she describes severe medical issues she is suffering from and where she describes why she fears for her life.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Breaking: North Korea Pardons Euna Lee and Laura Ling

After today's visit by former president Bill Clinton, the North Korean government has agreed to a "special pardon" for the two journalists sentenced to 12 years hard labor.

As we wrote in yesterday's update, Euna Lee and Laura Ling were arrested on the border of China and North Korea and charged with initiating a "politically motivated smear campaign". It is unclear whether they were arrested on the Chinese side or the North Korean side, or whether their confessions of guilt were real, coerced, or if they ever actually occurred.

The harsh punishment sent down by leader Kim Jong-il is widely believed to be an attempt at gaining worldwide attention and perhaps political leverage.

Click here for the New York Times' update on the story.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

Monday, August 3, 2009

Update on Laura Ling and Euna Lee

We posted last month on Laura Ling and Euna Lee, American journalists who were arrested on March 17 by North Korean forces while filming refugees on the China/North Korea border and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. The families of both women have stated that they worry that this era of the 24-hour news cycle, their story will fade and the urgency of the situation forgotten. So - while the tight-lipped North Korean media has offered little to report in terms of concrete developments - we bring you an update on their situation and some reactions to their imprisonment:

*A few days after their arrest, North Korean officials announced that Ling and Lee had confessed to a "politically motivated smear campaign" against the communist regime. No one knows, however, the circumstances surrounding the confession, or whether it happened at all.

*On July 10, Secrety of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a statement to North Korean officials, asking that the two be granted amnesty and returned home. Later, she commented to ABC News that North Korea's leadership of late has behaved like "teenagers demanding attention." An unnamed North Korean official quoted by the state-run KCNA news agency fired, bacl, calling Clinton unintelligent and "funny." The war of words seems to have gotten Ling and Lee nowhere.

*On July 29, reportadly fed up that US State Department efforts seemed to be making little progress, UN chief Ban Ki Moon said that he has "taken [his] own initiative to free the journalists," though he refused to discuss details.

*On July 28 Mallika Chopra, a friend of Lee (and daughter of Deepak Chopra) posted a blog entry on the website Intent, stating that based on "press accounts, briefings by the US State Department and his limited correspondences with Euna in the last 4 months, Michael [Sladate, Euna Lee's husband] believes that Euna and Laura are currently being held in a Medical Detention Facility ... Michael is confident that his wife and Laura are being treated “fairly,” and have not been transported to the infamous North Korean labor camps as their sentence deems."

*Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times offers his insight about the experience of reporting in the region, and posits a (generally hopeful) theory about the circumstances of their arrest and what will happen from here. Disturbingly, however, Kristof thinks that "Ling and Lee may have been sold to North Korea by a local guide. If the guide said that it was safe to cross, or that they were still on Chinese territory, they would have believed him ... at a time of crisis, when it is undergoing a leadership transition and a confrontation with the West, North Korea would probably pay well for a few extra bargaining chips in the form of American journalists."

*And, most importantly, an updated link (the previous one crashed) to the petition to free Ling and Lee.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Chavez Claims Media Violated Free Speech, Shuts Down 34 Broadcasters

Protesters rallied on Saturday to object to the government shutdown of 34 radio and television stations. Crowds of at least 200 gathered outside Contatel, the country's communications regulator who broke the news. This move follows the shut down of two oppositional television stations just two years earlier.

“In any country that respects the rule of law, a broadcast media suspected of using a frequency in an irregular manner would have been warned in advance that proceedings were being initiated against it and its representatives would have been given a chance to defend themselves or file an appeal,” says Reporters Without Borders.

The crowds outside Contatel in Caracas called Chavez a dictator, while the president says that the outlets are to blame for abusing free speech. "Freedom of expression must be limited,"said Luisa Ortega, Venezuela's Attorney General.

The government is also claiming that the move serves to "democratize" the media and take it out of the hands of the elite. And for yet another inconsistent excuse, a representative from Contatel says the shut downs were due to administrative errors where the stations failed to update their licenses or let them expire.

This assortment of explanations come just one day after Chavez expressed support for new legislation that could further restrict journalists and send them to jail for "media crimes." According to the Latin American Herald Tribune, one area of the proposed bill states that "any person who divulges false news through the media that upsets public peace ... will be sentenced to between two and four years in prison." "False", "manipulated" or "distorted" reports that "harm the interests of the state" would be reason enough to jail journalists for six months to four years.

Government interference isn't a new tactic for silencing media critics; In 2007 RCTV, a known government critic, was not allowed to renew its license. Self censorship was apparent in at least two other stations that noticeably modified their programing after the 2007 incident.

"With the exception of Cuba, Venezuela is the only country in the region that shows such flagrant disregard for universal standards of freedom of expression," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Walter Cronkite and Journalistic Courage

By Katie McNish

Since his death on July 17th at age 92, Walter Cronkite has been endlessly memorialized as “the most trusted man in America.” The anchor of CBS Evening News from 1962-1981, Cronkite covered such major events in American history as the Moon landing, JFK’s assassination, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. And while archival footage of the former two broadcasts – in which Cronkite echoed the nation’s emotions, steadily reading on while holding back tears – it was his commentary on the latter that set him apart.

Though his comforting on-camera demeanor and reliable nightly presence earned him the moniker “Uncle Walter,” columnist Frank Rich of The New York Times points out that, “what matters about Cronkite is that he knew when to stop being reassuring Uncle Walter and to challenge those who betrayed his audience’s trust. He had the guts to confront … those in power.”

That courage was apparent during Cronkite’s broadcast one February evening in 1968. His reportage on the Vietnam War to that point had been standard, generally supportive of the U.S. government. But on February 27, having recently returned from a trip to Vietnam covering the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, he closed his broadcast with an editorial:

“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds,” he said. “It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” He went on to suggest that “the only rational way out [of the war] will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

In 1968, a year long before Fox News, MSNBC, and rest of the plethora of sources of journalistic criticism from all sides of the aisle, Cronkite was one of the first mainstream reporters to speak to truth to power. In a statement revealing the incredible impact of such criticism from a man as universally popular as Cronkite, President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." Several weeks later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

Then, in 1972, Cronkite helped to bring the Watergate scandal to the public. The Washington Post was one of the only news sources investigating the issue, and CBS had no fresh reporting of its own, but Cronkite took 14 of his broadcast's 22 minutes on October 27th to repackage The Post's coverage (crediting the paper, of course), pointing out the importance of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's reporting and the gravity of the corruption. Following this bold move, other networks began to follow suit, helping to bring attention Woodward and Bernstein's historic work and fueling public outcry over Nixon's actions.

After his retirement, Cronkite continued to fight for governmental openness to the public through media. For example, hee worked with the Alliance for Better Campaigns on an unsuccessful lobbying effort to have an amendment added to the McCain-Feingold-Shays-Meehan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2001 that would have required TV broadcast companies to provide free airtime to Presidential candidates.

As Frank Rich writes, "the real test is how a journalist responds when people in high places are doing low deeds out of camera view and getting away with it.” It was this - bringing the truth about Vietnam, Watergate, political campaigns, etc. to the public when it would have been safer and easier not to -that made Cronkite so trustworthy.