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.