Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Surveillance Should be Necessary and Proportionate, Say Rights Monitors

Over 100 human rights and freedom of expression monitors worldwide, have signed the ‘International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance,’ which brings together principles governing the relationship between human rights – especially the right to information – and surveillance laws in the age of digital communications.

The document, developed by Access, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Privacy International, “attempts to explain how international human rights law applies in the current digital environment, particularly in light of the increase in and changes to communications surveillance technologies and techniques,” says the Preamble.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

British, French Media Watchdogs Blow Whistle on US

US Army private, Bradley Manning was convicted on July 30 on multiple counts for leaking material related to US national security but acquitted of the charge of aiding the enemy. A few days prior to the verdict, two European organisations that monitor freedom of speech, expressed misgivings about the protection afforded by the US to whistleblowers like Manning and Edward Snowden. Snowden is accused of exposing details of US projects to collect telephone and electronic communication data.

“We are concerned that the US Government is not only unwilling to protect whistleblowers who reveal serious wrongdoings in the public interest, but instead actually pursues them. As a result, its commitment to openness, freedom of information and democratic governance is open to question,” said the UK-based ARTICLE 19 in a statement published July 27.

“ARTICLE 19 deeply regrets the US Government’s knee jerk reaction to such disclosures, consisting in bringing criminal charges against the alleged whistleblowers, instead of properly assessing the overall public interest of the disclosed information or addressing the wrongdoings they may have exposed.”

Meanwhile, on July 29, Reporters without Borders (RSF) expressed “concern” about the recent Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that New York Times journalist James Risen testify at the trial of a CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling who is accused of leaking unauthorised information. Risen used the information in his book ‘State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,’ published in 2006.

“Leaks are the lifeblood of investigative journalism,” said RSF, “given that nearly all information related to national security is considered ‘secret’ and that the DOJ has argued in the past that reporter’s privilege does not exist at all for national security reporters, it is safe to say that this crackdown against whistleblowers is designed to restrict all but officially approved versions of events and information. These developments highlight the need for a comprehensive, federal shield law in the U.S.”

RSF however expressed guarded approval of the Department of Justice guidelines issued in mid-July following the controversy caused by the US Government seizing phone records of the Associated Press and issuing a warrant on Fox News' James Rosen.


Monday, July 29, 2013

Zimbabwe: Only Professional, Ethical Journalism Will Make Incoming Regime Accountable

With presidential elections in Zimbabwe scheduled for July 31, reports are emerging of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party too indulging in strong arm tactics to shape public opinion. Analysing this polarised situation, Zimbabwean media pundits feel that transparency and accountability after the elections could only emerge if journalists play their role professionally and ethically.

The election, in the main, will see a contest between the 89-year-old President Robert Mugabe of ZANU-PF seeking a new term, and the opposition candidate, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of MDC. The president and prime minister of the country are contesting each other because although they are from opposing parties, an uneasy truce through a power-sharing arrangement was negotiated between them after the disputed presidential election in 2008.

According to Voice of America (July 24), despite new newspapers and television stations being established, media freedom is under strict State control – meaning control by ZANU-PF. “

“ZBC dominates radio and television and has been criticised for acting as a mouthpiece for President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party,” writes Andrew England for the Financial Times (July 24).

Mounting a real challenge to ZBC can only come from overseas, which is why 1st TV broadcasts into Zimbabwe from neighbouring South Africa.

“Now, 1st TV, which broadcast for the first time on Friday, is aiming to put a dent in ZBC’s influence as it lays claims to being the first independent Zimbabwean television station,” reports England.

“‘If the media environment was to become more in line with the rest of the continent, we would move immediately back to Zimbabwe,’ says Andrew Chadwick. Chadwick is 1st TV’s executive producer and a former communications director for Morgan Tsvangirai. “[o]ur information is not linked to what the state broadcaster has been doing for the last 30 years, particularly around elections, when it becomes more and more partisan, filled with hate speech and intolerance for anybody outside Zanu-PF,’” Chadwick continues.

However, while Chadwick’s protestations about the partisanship of ZBC hold water, Tsvangirai and party too have been accused of intimidating and assaulting journalists.

Reporters without Borders, the Paris-based media freedom monitor, commented (June 11), “The ruling Zanu-PF party is not alone in showing hostility to the media and in opposing press freedom… Members of the opposition are also responsible for a climate of intimidation.”… “In May, the prime minister himself threatened the media. ‘You cannot have a newspaper with six articles saying Tsvangirai this and Tsvangirai that … That kind of media has no future in a democratic Zimbabwe… I want to tell you this, muchadya izvozvo (you will face the music).’” RSF said.

RSF said Herbert Moyo of the Zimbabwe Independent was assaulted MDC thugs on June 7, while Mashudu Netsianda of the Chronicle Newspaper was roughed up the day before.

But on June 21, RSF voiced protest at the abduction and assault by masked men of Paul Pindani of NewsDay for a story without a by-line about the arrest of a ruling ZANU-PF party member for the murder of a local businessman. Pindani denies writing the story. “Given the climate of violence and harassment of the media in which the last elections took place, this incident must be taken seriously,” observed RSF.

Assault and intimidation by both parties have resulted in journalists preferring to keep out of trouble by censoring themselves. According to VOA, ““One headline in (Zimbabwean newspaper) NewsDay grabbed my attention: ‘Journos urged to exercise caution.’ A press freedom watchdog, the Media Institute of Southern Africa Zimbabwe (MISA), has urged journalists ‘to avoid risky assignments and exposing themselves to volatile political gatherings ahead of harmonised elections this year.’”

Speaking at an event organised by the Washington DC-based National Endowment for Democracy ‘Beyond Elections in Zimbabwe’ on July 23, Foster Dongozi, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) and president, South Africa Journalists Association said that the ZUJ did not support either political party contesting the election and was at the receiving end of the violence of both Zanu-PF and MDC. He emphasised that "journalists should demand accountability and transparency whoever will come to power following elections." And that it was important the journalists worked "professionally and ethically" if the regime was to remain accountable.  


Friday, July 26, 2013

Obama Goes Gently on Human Rights With Sang

According to the New York Times, US President Barrack Obama meeting his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang at the Oval Office on July 26 had “referred gently to the (human rights) abuses, saying: ‘All of us have to respect issues like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly. And we had a very candid conversation about both the progress that Vietnam is making and the challenges that remain.’”

It is the gentle, inoffensive remarks about human rights abuses in other parts of the world, whether in China, Russia, Turkey, and yesterday in Vietnam, which make human rights activists and most decent people bristle. Given US’s foreign policy initiatives in Asia such as its ‘pivot’ and deep suspicion of China’s expanding tentacles in the region, that verbal non-aggression is the best form of engaging Vietnam is perhaps what Obama’s foreign policy advisors told him.

Another reason for Obama going gently on human rights is because the US is building TPP, or Trans-Pacific Partnership, with countries in the Southeast Asian region which would benefit immensely by the cheap labour in Vietnam.  

This was reflected in a report by Bloomberg (July 25): “The Obama administration, Bower said is seeking to balance human-rights concerns against signs of improvement and Vietnam’s role in the region.” “Ernest Bower, president of Fairfax, Virginia-based Bower Group Asia, which advises businesses on operating in Southeast Asia, said while there are legitimate concerns about human rights, U.S. labour unions also are, ‘threatened by the garment and textile industries’ in Vietnam. Bower said in the long run, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal being negotiated is more likely to boost total U.S. manufacturing,” reported Bloomberg.

Before the Obama-Sang meeting, number of rights organisations highlighted the attention of the US president to various shortcomings in Vietnam’s human rights regime. Of special concern to this blog is freedom of expression. Nineteen human rights monitors initialled a letter to Obama drawing attention to the detention of blogger and lawyer Le Quoc Quan. The letter said, “Given the great importance of international attention to the effort to secure Mr Quan’s freedom, and to enable him to return to his indispensable human rights work, we hope you will seize the opportunity of President Sang’s upcoming visit to request the immediate release of Mr Quan.” (The July 9 post on this blog details the trial of Le Quoc Quan)

Reporters without Borders (RSF) also circulated a public petition asking for the release of 35 bloggers are detained by the Vietnamese government including Le Quoc Quan.

“After the recent wave of arrests instigated by the Vietnamese Communist Party, we decided that our targeted support activities should be reinforced by a global support initiative, so that the fate of all these bloggers is not forgotten,” RSF said.

“We call for their immediate and unconditional release, the lifting of censorship and the repeal of the repressive laws that are used against bloggers and netizens, especially articles 88 and 79 of the criminal code.”

 Human Rights Watch’s statement prior to the meeting was stronger, “[t]he Obama administration should also be asking itself a more fundamental question: Should the United States continue to engage in business as usual with a government that criminalizes the act of calling for democracy, and shows no inclination toward reform?” it asked.

“It is clear that U.S. policy needs to change — the question is how. The United States needs to start linking its economic and other relations with Vietnam to specific human rights reforms. And the message on this should be clear and public,” said HRW.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

China's New Leaders Throttle the Internet More Deftly

A report by New-York-based Freedom House, which monitors freedom and democracy worldwide, says internet surveillance has grown more sophisticated under the political dispensation of newly-elected Chinese President Xi Jingpin. The findings go to affirm long-term trends in Beijing’s censorship of the web documented by US researchers.

The report titled ‘Throttling Dissent: China’s New Leaders Refine Internet Control’ came out on Wednesday, July 24.

“New regulations made it harder for activists to conceal their identity online. Some circumvention tools, which help users access uncensored websites overseas, were significantly disrupted. And private companies stepped up their capacity to delete banned content, sometimes within minutes,” a press statement issued by the think-tank said.

While Freedom House’s report focuses on recent trends in internet freedom, researchers of the University of California’s Berkeley School of Information say that authorities in China issue different instructions to censors depending on the severity of the perceived threat to the Chinese Communist Party and other agencies of State.

In a comment on July 10 to the New York Times’ NYR Blog, Perry Link says, “Local authorities have a toolbox of phrases—fairly standard nationwide—that they use to offer guidance to website editors about dealing with sensitive topics. The harshest response is “completely and immediately delete.” But with the rapid growth of difficult-to-control social media, a need has arisen for a wide range of more subtle alternatives.”

Link’s opinion piece is based on the findings of Xiao Qiang, adjunct professor at the Berkeley School of Information. Quiang had studied 2600 directives issued to website editors over the last 10 years to both stifle dissent and promote pro-government propaganda.

“Under the scrutiny of Web users, propaganda officials face the unwelcome task of censoring the Internet while trying to appear as though they are not—or at least not doing it ‘unreasonably.’ This forces them to seek balance,” writes Link.

As an example, Link summarises sensitive topics requiring the blue pencil in instructions issued by Beijing to censors in Hunan Province in June 2011. Those which: 1) blackens the image of Party and state leaders or obfuscates the great historical achievements of the Party; 2) attacks our system or advocates the Western democratic system; 3) incites illegal assembly, petitioning, or “rights support” activity that harms social stability; 4) uses price rises, corruption cases, or other controversial events to spread rumours and incite hatred of officials, of police, or of the wealthy that could lead to activity offline; 5) incites ethnic hatred [of Han Chinese] that harms national unity; 6) attacks the Party’s systems of managing the media and the Internet by using the slanderous claim that we limit free speech.

On the other hand, when material seen as elevating the image of the CCP or government agencies was published, other instructions were issued to the editors: “place prominently on the home page” or “immediately re-circulate.”

The sophistication seems to be the result of the activism and boldness of China’s bloggers and users of social media – especially microblog. In a posting in March 2012, the Paris-based international media watchdog Reporters without Borders (RSF) observed that CCP officials were losing the war with dissidents for controlling the internet. “While the Chinese government is not prepared to relax its painstakingly won grip on the Internet, it is increasingly overwhelmed by the immense potential of the Participative Web, and the tension between the regime and cyberdissidents is intensifying.” China ranks sixth from the last (173rd from 179) in RSF’s Press Freedom Index.

Freedom House’s new report highlights these key findings to combat the challenges of the Participative Web:

  • Surveillance exposed more people to repercussions for online activity. December regulations mandated more real name registration online, formalizing existing checks on anonymous communication. It’s still possible to defy these rules, but not for mobile internet users, whose phones are already registered—and more Chinese people got online via cellphone than broadband for the first time in 2012. In Tibet and Xinjiang, police searched mobile handsets for banned content, and jailed dozens for using digital tools.   
  • Private innovation served censors, not customers.  Domestic companies must censor to succeed. To stay ahead of evolving official directives and restrict creative online activism, they’ve produced sophisticated and nuanced controls: Instant messages containing sensitive keywords disappeared, connections using VPN tools were severed, and public microblog posts were quietly made private, visible only to the author.
  • Activism was manipulated for political gain.  Internet users enforced President Xi’s 2013 anti-graft campaign by scrutinizing local officials for signs of overspending—though never top leaders; Bloomberg’s website was blocked in 2012 for reporting on Xi’s own wealthy connections. Sometimes a political faction seemed to briefly lift censorship on content that would discredit an opponent.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Indian Police Beat Up Journalists To Censor News Of Civilian Killings

Indian authorities scrambled to censor news by assaulting journalists and shutting down the internet after four people were killed and 44 injured when the Border Security Force opened fire on a mob in Ramban, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir on July 18. The mob attacked the BSF camp after news spread that a youth was roughed up by a BSF patrol earlier that day.Other reports said six civilians were killed.

Two journalists, Mohammad Jaffer and Abdul Qayoom, of the English-language Rising Kashmir newspaper were assaulted by officers of the Central Reserve Police Force on July 20 at Peerbagh in Kashmir, when on their way to collect the final version of the latest edition of the paper, the Paris-based media freedom monitor Reporters without Borders (RSF) said on July 23.

“We are outraged by this police attempt to block information in Peerbagh and the violence used to achieve their goal,” RSF said. “We hope that the internal investigation being carried out under the command of a police superintendent quickly identifies the police officers involved in attacking journalists.”

“‘They kicked us, abused us and threatened us with dire consequences if we came again,’ Rising Kashmir quoted Qayoom and Jaffar as saying. Jaffar had to be taken to hospital for treatment to his injuries,” says RSF’s statement.

RSF said the copies of Raising Kashmir and two other newspapers were collected later and the police had stated investigations into the incident had commenced.

Meanwhile, following the BSF shooting on the 18th, a clampdown on internet and 3G mobile services throughout the Kashmir Valley was ordered by the Indian government said an internet provider, which was however denied by the authorities, says RSF.

“‘We received a verbal communiqué to take down the GPRS and 3G services,’ a representative of BSNL, the leading telephone and Internet operator, told the Kashmir Reader on condition of anonymity. ‘The speed of the broadband connections has also been reduced,’ the RSF statement continues.

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported July 22 internet services were restored later that evening. The police had said the suspension of the internet was “a precautionary measure” CPJ said.

“There is always the assumption that any demonstration will be violent in nature. Authorities have resorted [to] clamping down any time tensions run high, and it has become a pattern since 2010,” Parvaiz Bukhari, a Kashmir-based journalist with Agence France-Presse, told CPJ by phone. Bukhari said authorities increasingly resort to “non-declared curfews,” during which journalists are unable to get the curfew passes that allow them to report freely during official curfews. Even during official curfews, he said, journalists’ curfew passes have sometimes been torn up by security forces, CPJ reported.

Commenting on media freedom in Kashmir, the New York-based Freedom House says, “India’s 1971 Newspapers (Incitement to Offences) Act, which is in effect only in Jammu and Kashmir, gives district magistrates the authority to censor publications in certain circumstances, though it is rarely invoked.” In its 2013 Freedom of the Press report, Freedom House details a number of restrictions that apply to journalists in India, but makes special mention of Kashmir with Chhattisgarh, Assam and Manipur “where reporters face pressure from both the government and insurgents.”

RSF has placed India in 140th position among 179 countries in its press Freedom Index, “[i]ts lowest since 2002 because of increasing impunity for violence against journalists and because Internet censorship continues to grow.”

Jammu and Kashmir in Northeast India borders Pakistan has been disputed territory between the two countries since partition in 1948. They fought wars over it in 1948-49 and in 1967. The Simla Agreement of 1972 recognises the Line of Control which formalises the areas India and Pakistan hold.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Secret Handshakes of Turkey's Corrupt Media Bosses

The media in Turkey is coming under increasing intimidation as journalists asking uncomfortable questions about the Erdogan government are dismissed from service because heads of media institutions are hand-in-glove with the political authorities.

A press conference organised by the Turkish Journalists Union (TGS) on Sunday in Istanbul announced that 22 journalists had been dismissed from service and 37 others were forced to resign.

“These dismissals and resignations are mostly related to censorship policies followed by some media outlets in dealing with the Gezi Park resistance,” the English-language Today’s Zaman of July 22 quoted Gokhan Durmus, head of TGS’s Istanbul branch telling the press conference. He said that media workers are “trying their best to resist the pressure exerted by media bosses and the government.”

Pressure on journalists following demonstrations at Gezi Park in Istanbul and elsewhere were highlighted in this blog on June 28 and July 2.

“Our colleagues worked hard for the public’s right to be informed, and they paid for it with their jobs. Some have been censored, some had their TV programs shut down. There are even journalists who have been sacked due to their tweets. A colleague has been dismissed from his job just for saying hi to a [Gezi] protester,” said Durmuş at the press conference.

In a forthright guest column for the New York Times’ Sunday Review, Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar, the ombudsman for the daily Sabah and a columnist for Today’s Zaman has described how corrupt media bosses have secret deals with the repressive government of Prime Minister Tyyip Erdogan. “Dirty alliances between governments and media companies and their handshakes behind closed doors damage journalists’ role as public watchdogs and prevent them from scrutinizing cronyism and abuses of power. And those who benefit from a continuation of corrupt practices also systematically seek to prevent serious investigative journalism,” he wrote in an opinion piece published on July 19.

The think-tank Carnegie Europe supported by the Open Society Foundation recently completed a study on Turkey’s media. Co-authored by Marc Pierini, former Ambassador of the European Union to Turkey and Marcus Mayr, the report received the international publication of the year award in the Prospect Think Tank of the Year Awards.

According to OSF, Pierini’s report looks at Turkey’s media from a European perspective. “The report proposes several steps to take for Turkey to move forward and promote progress in the area of press freedom, such as ending dispute over the numbers of the jailed journalists, continuing the judicial reform process, enhancing the role of civil society in protecting press freedom, and reviving the EU accession process.”

The report presents the following key findings:
  • Turkey currently has the highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world, but the government and civil society organizations strongly disagree about the exact number. This creates an antagonistic atmosphere that hinders constructive reform.
  • The judicial system tends to equate criticizing government policies and sympathising with radical ideology. Journalists who report and comment on sensitive investigations or court proceedings as part of their job can face judicial prosecution.
  • Many imprisoned journalists are detained on charges relating to terrorist activities linked to Kurdish separatism.
  • The government filters content online and blocks websites, seemingly targeting content that it deems unwanted or illegal.
  • Large conglomerates control major media outlets, so economic interests cloud media decisions and undermine editors’ and journalists’ ability to provide truly independent, critical reporting.
  • The government directly interferes at times in media affairs by lashing out at journalists or outlets in response to personal and policy criticism.
  • A judicial reform package was adopted in mid-2012 to address some of these issues, but more drastic reforms are needed. A fourth judicial reform package should be adopted soon.

Reporters without Borders (RSF) places Turkey 154 of 179 countries in the Press Freedom Index.  




Friday, July 19, 2013

Media Repression Hits New Low in Russia

Alexei Navalny (37), a prominent dissident and an important figure in the opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin was sentenced on July 17 to five years in prison  for embezzlement, but released soon after on bail pending appeal.

Navalny, whose conviction in a court in Kirov follows years of persecution for his grassroots activism against corruption and abuse of power by Putin’s United Russia party, first rose to prominence as a blogger.

“This whole case reeks of political vindictiveness for Navalny’s corruption revelations and political challenge to Putin and United Russia,” said David J. Kramer, president of the New York-based rights organisation Freedom House.

Another victim of Russia's suppression of the media is Ilya Barabanov, deputy editor of Novoye Vremya, who was awarded the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism in 2010. Speaking of the brutal censorship in his country, Barabanov said in his acceptance speech in October 2010, “Over the past 10 years an unhelpful notion has developed that any media outlet in Russia which allows itself to write about politics without adjusting its position to that of the Kremlin, is, by definition, in opposition.”

Although Navalny’s bail application was accepted hours after his conviction there are two competing theories for the reason, and neither of them have anything to do with the law. Some are of the opinion that public protests against the sentence, some which turned violent, had persuaded the authorities to agree to bail. Others attribute a more sinister motive. Navalny is contesting municipal elections in Moscow scheduled September 8.  The proponents of this theory believe that he was freed to contest elections and lose, hoping the loss would undermine his legitimacy as a credible opponent of Putin.

Analysing trends in Russia’s media freedom in 2012, Freedom House said on May 3, “Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has emerged as a laboratory for the development of methods to suppress media freedom in the post-totalitarian era. Outright censorship has been eliminated, and outlets are left relatively free to pursue commercial success with entertainment programming, sports coverage, and news content on non-sensitive subjects. While their reach is limited, a few niche publications with more critical material have been allowed to survive.” Freedom House observes that influential media platforms such as television stations were brought under direct state control to serve as propaganda instruments of the Kremlin and journalists like Navalny are “depicted … as extremists, criminals, and traitors, paid by shadowy foreign interests to undermine Russia.”

Other instruments pursued Russian leaders are much harsher. One of them is murdering journalists. To commemorate the death of Natalia Estemirova, a Russian journalist from the North Caucuses killed exactly four years ago, and six others, a meeting was organised in Paris by Reporters without Borders (RSF) on July 17. RSF says 30 journalists have been killed in Russia from 2000.

“This (North Caucus) region’s population lives in fear of reporting the violence and abuses it has to endure, and those whose job is to report the violence no longer succeed in breaking the silence. The situation in this region is alarming, and journalists and human rights defenders can barely operate there,” RSF’s secretary general Chritophe Deloire said.

The most recent victim was Akhmednabi Akhmednabiev of the Dagastan-based Noveo Delo newspaper who was gunned down on July 9. “We have no doubt that Akmednabi’s murder was linked to his work. He was the paper’s political editor and wrote widely about the rights of Muslims and extra-judicial shootings. His latest story, published on 5 July, was critical of the region’s governor,” the deputy editor of Noveo Delo told RSF. RSF places Russia 148 of 179 countries in its 2013 press freedom index.

Meanwhile there is thinking that with the conviction of Navalny for embezzlement, a line has been crossed in the persecution of dissidents and whistleblowers in Russia. Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution and author of ‘Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin’ told PBS News Hour on July 17, that Navalny “[w]as dispensed with from the Kremlin point of view in a very public and humiliating fashion… What they have done is to turn around on Navalny the accusations he has been throwing at the system of corruption...”

Hill said there was a lot of "cynicism across the board of the political game being played out in Moscow.” She went on to quote a survey by the Lavada Centre showing 20% of Russians interviewed seemed to believe that the whole system was full of corruption and the opposition people too were in the game of enriching themselves.”  She said the conviction would have a chilling effect on the opposition


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Examining Media Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa

“Is what was dubbed ‘the miracle’ of the South African transition from apartheid censorship to democracy and freedom of expression coming undone? Does the country now have the diverse and vibrant media culture essential to any functioning democracy?”

These are some questions Libby Lloyd asks in a report titled ‘South Africa's Media: 20 Years after Apartheid’ sponsored by the Centre for International Media Assistance (CIMA), a project of the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

Lloyd points out how of the newspapers that defied racism, censorship and repression of the pre-1994 apartheid regimes only one survives and the consequence of contracting funding for media projects. At the same time she explores how the drive for profits has led to the explosion of broadcast journalism in the country at the cost of content and editorial integrity.

The report also casts a critical eye on regulations that govern the freedom of expression in South Africa and the role the judiciary and public debate.      

Written as South African media faces mounting difficulties with diminishing sources of funding for high quality journalism, the report however says, “it is clear from this study that the few cases in which dedicated, targeted support has been provided for quality news content it has contributed to the development of islands of investigative journalism excellence. This in turn has ensured that those with economic or political power are held to account, and it has drawn attention to ongoing struggles for social justice.”

In a move striking deep at media freedom, South Africa passed a law known as Protection of State Information Bill (POSIB) in April this year. Media watchdog Reporters without Borders (RSF) said the Bill “would undermine freedom of information by exposing journalists to draconian penalties and forcing them to censor themselves. Sentences of up to 25 years in prison for revealing classified state information would pose a major threat to journalists, who often base their stories on leaks.” The Bill awaits President Zuma’s signature.

RSF says since 2009 South Africa plummeted by 52 places and is in 52nd position of 179 countries in the 2013 Media Freedom Index.  


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

In Somalia they call me a dead man walking

“In Somalia they call me a dead man walking,” said Mustafa Haji Abdinur of Radio Simba and Agence France Presse (AFP), in a succinct summing up of the threats faced by Somali journalists where 18 members of his profession were killed last year. He was addressing a special session of the United Nations Security Council on July 17 on international protection for journalists covering war zones and post-conflict zones.

The meeting, convened by the United States mission to the UN, also had contributions from three other journalists: NBC correspondent Richard Engel, Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad of the UK Guardian, and Kathleen Carroll, vice chair of the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and executive director of the Associated Press.

Speaking about the vulnerability of journalists in Somalia where Liban Abdellah Farah of the UK-based Kalsan TV was killed on July 8, (see this blog of July 8) Abdinur asked how safe it was for journalists to do their job when they could be thrown in jail because an official was not pleased with their story. He lamented the crippled judicial system in Somalia that encouraged impunity and asked the international community to help by building a impartial and functioning judiciary.

Engel in his remarks set out to address the complexities of defining journalists before examining how they should be protected. He said information from war zones today were disseminated by activists, freelancers and citizen journalists working side-by-side with orthodox journalists. Drawing from a long experience of covering conflicts he spoke about activists carrying cell-phones and cameras in one hand and weapons in the other, although he emphasised that the information they put out was vitally important. Stressing on non-partisanship of a journalist as opposed to that of an activist, Engel defined a journalist as someone who could say something that could go against one’s cause.

He suggested that in such a complex environment two standards might have to adopted in protecting those who cover events in war zones: one, for activists who should be protected by laws covering free speech, while professional journalists are accorded legal immunity and other protections that make them akin to diplomats.

Abdul-Ahad, in his contribution, emphasised the vulnerability of local journalist and stingers in war zones. He said that established newspapers as the one he represented (Guardian) sent and brought back foreign correspondents but asked, “What about local journalist, people we leave behind to be ground by the wheels of conflict?”

Among the country representatives who addressed the session, the UK said journalists should not be differentiated from civilians in conflict zones and accorded the same protection. He too emphasised risk faced by local journalists who were most in need of protection.

The representative of China said that while journalists should be protected by international humanitarian law, the country concerned should be their primary protector. The Russian representative said that journalists should not contravene the laws of the country.

On July 16, 11 organisations monitoring media freedom in the world wrote to the UN Security Council. They said, “[i]n light of the distinctive threats faced by journalists … the Council should: (1) recognize the particular vulnerability of journalists in its resolutions on crisis situations, and (2) in situations where peacekeeping missions are deployed, mandate the mission to ensure the protection of journalists as a group of civilians under imminent threat of physical violence.”

In 2012, the UN adopted the Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists where it adopted a number of measures where its agencies could work to protect journalists and create a safe environment for their work by strengthening UN mechanisms, working with states and other non-governmental institutions and raising awareness. Resolution 1738 adopted unanimously by the UN Security Council in 2006 calls for journalists to be accorded the same protection as civilians during conflicts and all warring parties.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Somalia Passes Restrictive Media Law

Close on the heels of the murder of journalist Liban Abdellah Farah in Galkoyo (see posting on this blog of on July 8) Somalia is about to pass highly restrictive media laws that will take away even the little manoeuvrability that journalists have to critique the government and its leaders.

“The draft law contains several articles that would interfere with Somali journalists’ ability to operate independently and could expose them to a range of restrictions for ill-defined offenses. If the draft is passed into law, journalists will be forced to disclose their sources, media houses will be compelled to name their unnamed reporters and those working for foreign media will be discriminated,” said the International Federation of Journalists in a July 15th statement.

“We call on federal government of Somalia to amend the draft media law and ensure that the final version restores media freedoms, in line with Somalia’s national and international commitments. The draft restricts journalists’ and citizens’ rights to freedom of information,” said Gabriel Baglo, IFJ Africa Director.

Reporters without Borders (RSF), which places Somalia as 175th out of 179 countries in the Press Freedom Index says 18 journalists were killed in 2012.


Monday, July 15, 2013

SrI Lanka Bans Film at French Embassy Film Festival

A film festival hosted by Embassy of France in Sri Lanka scheduled to end on Bastille Day, July 14, was ordered suspended a day earlier by the Sri Lanka government for screening a film that “insults the government and its security forces.”

Igilena Maalu (Flying Fish), a Sinhala-language film directed by a Sri Lakan film director Sanjeewa Pushpakumara, premiered in 2011 and won numerous awards at international competitions.

Associated Press (AP) reported on Monday, July 15, that “Lakshman Hulugalla, the director general of the government’s Media Centre for National Security, (said) the film Flying Fish was banned in Sri Lanka because the film’s creators used images of the Sri Lankan military uniform without permission from the Ministry of Defense.” AP reported Hulugalle saying that legal action would be taken against “those involved in the making of the film.”

Meanwhile the French mission in Colombo reacting to the Government’s order to suspend the festival stated categorically that Flying Fish was permitted to be screened by the Public Performance Board (PPB).

The PPB, appointed by the Government, censors films if they are deemed inappropriate for depicting the military in a bad light and for explicit sexuality among other reasons.

In a statement reproduced in the Colombo Telegraph on July 15, the Embassy said “The Embassy received from the Public Performances Board the certifications authorising the screening of all these movies (screened at the festival). The conditions put to the screening of Flying Fish, such as its one time only presentation to a selected invited audience without children have been respected.”

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror (DM) said on July 14, “PPB Chairman Gamini Sumanasekara claims he has not given any such certification.” Sumanasekara told DM the PPB was requesting legal advice because it was “not equipped with the legal provisions to take action against screenings of any films that might contain material that might not agree with local audiences, at foreign film festivals held in Sri Lanka.”

On July 15, DM said the Criminal Investigation Department CID had questioned Asia Digital Entertainment consultant and movie director Kelum Palitha Mahirathne. “I was questioned by CID officials concerning basic details about the film such as inspirations or influences that led to the making of the movie.” He said the film was not expected to be screened in Sri Lanka and that he was prepared to cooperate with the CID investigation

While the immediate source of controversy appears to as to whether or not PPB certification was granted to the Embassy to screen Flying Fish, the larger issue is the censorship of films in Sri Lanka for their content. According to AP, Hulugalle had said the distribution and screening of the film had been stopped in Sri Lanka.

DM quoted Flying Fish director Pushpakumara saying, “As a filmmaker, I use film as a media to narrate my life experiences and this film too was influenced and inspired by such experiences. However, the film like all other art works can be interpreted differently by various individuals. The film is a multi-narrative and the story of the military officer is only one among the three. So describing the entire movie as an expression of derogation of the armed forces I believe is unfair.”

This is not the first time films depicting ‘inappropriate content’ for Sri Lankan viewers have been banned. In the past too, the PPB has been hard on films that have portrayed the military in anything but crudely triumphalist.

In 2006 while the Ceasefire Agreement between the Government of Sri Lanka and the rebel Tamil Tigers was still in force, a Sinhala TV series Suthu Kapuru Pethi (White Camphor) was banned by the State-run television station Rupavahini. Chairman Rupavahini, Newton Gunaratne, was quoted by the World Socialist Website (WSWS): “Some parts of this bring disgrace to these soldiers and their self-respect.” According to Panini Wijesiriwardene of WSWS two senior military officials had met a group of film makers “and said those who failed to produce pro-military movies when war resumed against the LTTE would ‘face the consequences.’”

Another film that was controversially denied permission to be screened in Sri Lanka Asoka Handegama’s Aksharaya, which was not because it brought disrepute to the military but because it violated child protection laws. Below is a link to an interview with Handagama with Young Asia Television.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Assailants of PMA-winner Akhmedyarov convicted

Four persons accused of attacking Kazakh journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov in April 2012 were convicted and sentenced to jail terms between 11 and 15 years the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported.

Akhmedyarov, a journalist with the Uralskaya Nedelya received the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism in October 2012. (Please see June 24th post on this blog)

CPJ emphasised that the masterminds behind Akhmedyarov’s attack should be apprehended.

“Authorities deserve credit for bringing the assailants to justice, but their work is not done,” said Muzaffar Suleymanov, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia researcher. “The people who plotted this vicious assault must be apprehended and prosecuted.”

“Akhmedyarov told Uralskaya Nedelya in an April interview that he believed regional authorities had ordered the attack. ‘The probe against masterminds is ongoing, and I hope that we will learn the overall picture of the crime,’” said CPJ.



Rohani makes encouraging noises on Iran's shackled media

With the presidential elections over and Iran’s President-elect Hassan Rohani expected to assume office in August, international opinion continues to debate whether the new leader would help lifting restrictions on the media. 

This blog alluded to the debate in a post on June 21, where some commentators pointed out that even if he was pro-reform, Rohani remained under the control of conservative Spiritual Leader Ali Khameni. Others meanwhile said that Rohani was no friend of  reform but ‘permitted’ to win the election by the Iranian elite because of the international community's perception of him as a moderate would help navigate the country out of the morass of economic sanctions.

The debate remains, although optimists are encouraged by Rohani’s statement at a press conference soon after his election where answering a question on the closure of the offices of the Association of Iranian Journalists (AOIJ) he said: “guilds and associations are the best ways to run social affairs of the society.” On July 2, he had tweeted, “Widespread web filtering will only lead to increase in distrust between people and government.”

In an interesting posting on July 8, the Committee to Protect Journalists guest blogger Solmaz Sharif said, “The president-elect benefited from the support of reformist journalists inside and out of Iran.” Politicians are often known to reward journalists who helped their election to enjoy better access to them once ensconced in office. But Iran’s new leader will first have to release some journalists now in Iranian prisons and permit the return of others in exile. Will, and can, he do it?  


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Crackdown on media continues in Egypt

Media freedom in Egypt remains at risk as the military-backed interim government continued cracking down on the press and TV stations perceived sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood-run government of deposed President Mohammed Morsi. Violence on the night of July 8 which left 51 dead, included a photojournalist from the newspaper Al-Horreya-Wal-Adalah, Ahmed Samir Assem El-Senoussi who was covering the protests.

International media freedom monitors Reporters without Borders (RSF) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) have expressed concern. RSF’s statement called on “interim authorities to immediately cease arbitrary censorship, arrests of media personnel and denial of access to information. They must respect their own road map and must quickly establish a civilian and democratic government that ensures that everyone, without political distinction, enjoys fundamental freedoms, including the right to information.”