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How Governments Misuse Advertising To Censor Media

The Centre for International Media Assistance (CIMA) in partnership with the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) has published a study on the misuse of government advertising to censor freedom of expression and information. Titled, Buying Compliance: Governmental Advertising and Soft Censorship in Mexico, the research “demonstrates how Mexico’s federal and state governments deploy financial power to pressure media outlets and penalise critical reporting.”
The report is the third by CIMA in a series of studies on soft censorship or “indirect government censorship, includes a variety of actions intended to influence media – short of closures, imprisonments, direct censorship of specific content, or physical attacks on journalists or media facilities.” The earlier reports were Soft Censorship: Strangling Serbia’s Media and Capturing Them Softly: Soft Censorship and State Capture in the Hungarian Media.

“This report focuses primarily on financial aspects of official soft censorship: pressures to influence news coverage and shape the broad media landscape or the output of specific media outlets or individual journalists through biased, and/or non-transparent allocation or withholding of state/government media subsidies, advertising, and similar financial instruments,” says the publication’s executive summary.
Key findings are:
1. Allocation of massive governmental advertising in Mexico on partisan and political bases powerfully shapes media content. Federal and local officials take advantage of weak regulation to influence editorial content. Despite laws and recommendations that demand or encourage regulation, scant progress has been made to establish clear allocation criteria.
2. Many media outlets slant their coverage to obtain more advantageous advertising contracts. Some media owners are active partners in a corrupt symbiosis that rewards propaganda rather than ac curate news reporting.
3. Allocation of broadcast spectrum is a distinct soft censorship mechanism, used particularly to restrict community broadcasting.
4. A profound lack of transparency hinders understanding and reform of government advertising. Efforts to make federal advertising spending public have failed. Opacity also prevails at the state level; more than half of the states withhold details of their advertising allocations. And the majority of Mexican media outlets refuse to release fundamental data on audience or circulation.
5. Regulation of government advertising exists only regarding electoral campaigns, despite constitutional obligations and presidential promises. Article 134 (2007) of Mexico’s constitution barring propaganda in government advertising is often unenforced. President Enrique Peña Nieto’s July 2012 pledge to reform government advertising remains unfulfilled.
6. Arbitrary use of government advertising further concentrates media ownership and creates a false appearance of pluralism. It sustains so-called “pasquines”—multiple media outlets, especially among print media and on the Internet, that survive solely on government funds and have minimal actual audience.
7. The billions of pesos in government advertising that promote individual politicians or political party agendas with no proven positive impact on public debate are effectively subsidies for favoured media outlets. About 12 billion pesos (905 million USD) is spent by the federal and state governments on advertising each year absent any clear indication that the advertising reaches target groups or is effective.
8. Directly corrupt practices persist in most of Mexico, including offering typically poorly-paid journalists bribes—known colloquially as “chayote”—to influence their reporting, as well as other payments allegedly made to editors, owners, and publicists.
Click hereto read the full report in English.

A Timely Publication on Freedom of Information

Freedom of information and freedom of the media go hand-in-hand. The second facilitates the first. As such, this blog which is devoted to compiling current developments on political and other constraints on the freedom of the media, is deeply interested in strengthening FoI where it remains stifled. 
The Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) at the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) published earlier this month a practical handbook on FoI. Titled ‘Breathing Life into Freedom of Information Laws: The Challenges of Implementation in the Democratizing World,’ it is authored by Craig L. LaMay, Robert J. Freeman, and Richard N. Winfield. The International Senior Lawyers Project is associated with the publication.
“Often when people seek information under FOI laws and are refused, they are denied on grounds that have no basis in law, or, if denied under a statutory exemption, without explanation of why the exemption applies. Sometimes requesters are denied for reasons that amount to official inconvenience, told that the request is too time- or resource-consuming to fulfil, or that the records they want do not exist,” write the authors. The handbook is a practical guide to navigate these obstacles.
Craig LaMay is an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where he teaches communications law, and a faculty associate at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research. Richard N. Winfield leads the Media Law Working Group of the International Senior Lawyers Project, an NGO he co-founded in 2000. Bob Freeman is executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.
You can access the document here.

Donor Assistance to South Africa’s Media: Does it Really Help?

Experts discussed the role development aid plays in fostering a vibrant and independent media in South Africa 20 years after apartheid, and in other countries in southern Africa as they grapple with repressive and violent governments.
Titled ‘The Role of Media Development in Democratic Transitions: the Case of Southern Africa,’ the discussion on July 25 was sponsored by Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA).
The core of the discussion was a review of the study ‘South Africa’s Media 20 years after Apartheid’ by Libby Lloyd, a radio and print journalist who is now a consultant on media policy in South Africa. (Please see the July 18 posting on this blog). The discussants included Dave Peterson senior director of the Africa Programme at NED, Amadou Mahtar Ba (CEO, Africa Media Initiative) and Jerri Eddings (programme director, International Center for Journalists). The moderator was Reed Kramer CEO of the AllAfrica Global Media. 
Presenting her study via Skype Lloyd said that freedom of the media and freedom of expression in South Africa did not emerge only by signing a new constitution in 1994. Media freedom had evolved in the post-apartheid era in the face of many challenges.  One such challenge was distrust of the media from the apartheid days when it was a preserve of the urban, white minority. Today, constitutional freedoms allowed journalists to work without fear and the media facilitated citizens engage in noisy debates. Although that was a hallmark of democracy, the question was whether the media helped promoting other rights of citizens enshrined in the South African constitution.
Lloyd said threats to journalists remained. Politicians taken to task by the media were known to turn against journalists. However, freedom of expression and access to information was protected by the constitution and also by a number of landmark judgements by South African courts. There were impediments to exercising these freedoms such as the proposed Bill to restrict access to State information which has been sent up to President Zuma for his signature.
Another danger confronting South African media Lloyd said was the “over-concentration” of media organisations in the hands of few owners. The problem, present mostly in the print media, was similar to the situation during the days of apartheid. This was the result of budget cuts and drive for profits, which had led to “conformity of opinion and benigness” in editorial policy.
Speaking of the role development agencies played in funding media organisations, Lloyd said that due to the withdrawal of foreign funding the media was less diverse today than it was 20 years ago under apartheid. At that time foreign funding helped to promote a range of anti-establishment, independent newspapers, she said. Of them only one remained in publication today. 
However, the few instances of dedicated, targeted media support had contributed to “islands of excellence” in investigative journalism in the on-going struggle for social justice, Lloyd said. She also drew attention to stories written about South Africa by international news agencies like Reuters and AFP, which catered to audiences other than South Africa’s. She emphasised the importance of South African media writing stories for its own audience with a pithy phrase: “Until lions learn to write, the story of the hunt will come from the hunter.”
She concluded by stating the importance of developing models of donor funding where the output was not only independent of the development agencies but were perceived as such too. This would dispel suggestions that the media was serving foreign agendas and contribute to make the products more credible.
Dave Peterson of the NED responding to Lloyd’s statement that development agencies preferred to fund programmes where the impact was more easily measurable than it was in media projects, replied that measuring impact was a problem in all programmes promoting democracy. He said, in certain ways measuring the impact of funding the media was easier because it could be done by analysing circulation, size of the publication, reader responses and the content and quality of the product.
Peterson’s presentation, which was largely an overview of NED’s assistance to media organisations in southern Africa, also served as a commentary of the state of media freedom in those countries. Speaking of Zimbabwe he said it reminded him of South Africa under apartheid. He said the public was afforded a degree of access to information and permitted limited criticism of the government. However, ZANU-PF dominated the media space, he said.
Peterson said a challenge facing the media in southern African countries was colonial era press laws, financially sustaining media institutions and restrictions of access to information. However, the internet, including Ushahidi had emerged as an important alternative media platform by expanding the access of the public to information.
In conclusion Peterson said that media was not only a vehicle that promoted accountability and the delivery of civil services but had intrinsic value in furthering the values of democracy.      
Amadou Mahtar Ba of the Africa Media Initiative said that while it was true that colonial era laws that circumscribed media freedom, African countries were trying to change their constitutions to “open up” by including laws for media freedom.
Mahtar was however sceptical of the benefits of foreign donor funding in improving the domestic media in African countries. He said funding to assist African media was not really helpful because many of the media organisations in Africa were not professional. It was important these organisations operate professionally from governance and disclosure perspectives. Disclosure by the media organisations was important for the public to identify the owners of these organisations, so they could interpret  the slant of the news that was being disseminated.
Jerri Eddings of ICFJ said that the financial viability of news organisations was important. If the media organisations were unable to generate sufficient revenue journalists working for them would be corrupt and underpaid. She said it was important to take advantage of modern technology to cut costs and thereby generate revenue to help organisations function more professionally.
The presentations were followed by Q&A.

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.