Friday, November 1, 2013

US Media Moghuls Helping China Export Repression?

Meeting of WMS's Presidium, October 10 (Pic. The Atlantic)


In ‘Exporting Repression,’ posted in March on the blog of the New York-based think tank Freedom House, Daniel Calingaert speaks of countries governed by authoritarian regimes cooperating with each other to consolidate power over “discontent at home and international criticism.” Calingaert says opposition to the respect of human rights and democracy makes these unlikely allies collaborate.     
“This cooperation, which might be dubbed ‘authoritarian internationalism,’ presents a significant challenge to democracy around the world and has likely contributed to the decline in global freedom registered by Freedom House over the past seven years,” wrote Calingaert, who is Freedom House’s executive vice president.


He goes to speak about the Chinese model of “with its combination of rapid economic growth and political repression, presents an appealing policy model for other authoritarian regimes.” However, as challenges to this model of governance rise from within China as well as through liberal internationalism, Beijing is reacting by tutoring other authoritarian regimes which are fragile kleptocracies on the principles of sustainable authoritarian governance. The idea of course is that an international coalition of authoritarian states with a common global vision of strangling democracy would keep them in power.

Calingaert goes on to describe eight aspects of authoritarian internationalism: 1) Close ties between dictatorships, 2) Replicating worst practices, 3) Technology exports, 4) Security service collaboration, 5) Military intervention, 6) Challenging international norms, 7) Undermining international institutions and (8) Counter-organizations.

While all these are important, of particular significance to this blog are technology exports. On this Calingaert discusses China’s use of technology to censor content on the internet and how, “it has reportedly supplied telephone and internet surveillance technology to Iran and Ethiopia and provided several Central Asian governments with telecommunications infrastructure that may increase their ability to spy on their own citizens.”

Another article on the subject titled ‘Authoritarian Black Market’ by a Freedom House researcher Andrew Rizzardi also refers to Chinese export of telecommunication technology. Rizzardi goes on to say, “China’s improvements to a country’s telecommunications infrastructure are often accompanied by more advanced censorship and surveillance capabilities for the local government. “China is assisting Zambia with the installation of deep-packet inspection (DPI) technology that enables the government to monitor and potentially block social media and ‘unfriendly’ websites,” says Rizzardi to illustrate of the operation of the authoritarian black market.

The importance Beijing places on technology to censor content on the internet shows only too clearly the importance of state propaganda and the role authoritarian regimes, be it China, Venezuela, Iran or Zambia assign on controlling the information reaching their citizens and the international community.

Seen in this light, an article that appeared in the October 31 issue of The Atlantic is food for thought. Titled, ‘Legitimising the ‘Civilized Internet’: China’s Seduction of U.S. Media’ it discusses a meeting of the presidium of the World Media Summit (WMS) held in Hangzhou on October 10, sponsored hosted by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua. WMS is the brainchild of a former Chinese deputy propaganda minister and present chairman of Xinhua, Li Congjun. What is significant is that the presidium is the decision-making body of the WMS and that among the attendees at the meeting were representatives of top US media organisations – “Google, The Associated Press, News Corporation, NBC News, The New York Times Company and Turner Broadcasting System. Other participants included Reuters, BBC, Al-Jazeera…” In the presidium is also Kasturi & Sons, publishers of the India’s English daily, The Hindu.

The Atlantic goes on to point out the dangers of these media organisations attending the meeting without mincing words: “Whether they were aware of it or not, these highly influential media brands were lending credibility to an opaque organization that the Chinese government created expressly to further its global propaganda goals. Moreover, their meeting took place while China is escalating its crackdown on online speech and investigative journalism. For these reasons, it is perhaps unsurprising that this event has received no attention in the Western press.”

The article goes to describe the thinking behind the Chinese leadership on using media as a source of soft power, and the sophistication needed for information control. It quotes David Bandurski of the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, “‘One of the best ways to legitimize censorship is to make it look voluntary. This is why China has sought in recent years to push censorship and control through what look like voluntary professional organizations, which then make self-discipline pledges, come out with resolutions mirroring official policy...’”

The Atlantic suggests that one of the reasons these organisations are in the presidium is to improve the penetration of their media businesses into China. The New York Times, BBC, Google and CNN websites have been blocked on and off in China in the past and reporters from The Times and Al Jazeera not granted visas to enter the Chinese mainland.

“‘I can understand the interest in engaging with China, which is a major potential market for these media organizations,’ says China Media Project’s Bandurski. ‘But I question the decision to become governing members of an ostensibly non-government organization that is clearly associated very closely with the Chinese leadership. If this is indeed an independent organization, then the members should be able to explain to us publicly how its governance works and how it is financed.’”

The Atlantic adds, “There is no evidence suggesting that the WMS presidium meeting in Hangzhou has altered coverage of China by publications belonging to any of the presidium’s non-Xinhua members. However, the growing profile of the WMS does raise significant questions: What is this organization’s agenda? And whose agenda is it?”

The questions become more all the more relevant because the World Media Summit’s next general meeting will be hosted by The New York Times, while Al-Jazeera will do the honours in 2016. For China, a country that is accused of sponsoring international authoritarianism that’s no mean achievement.

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