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Bloomberg Abandons “Politically Risky Reporting on China”

Protestors in Paris (Pic. courtesy RSF)

Even as French citizens and international press freedom monitor Reporters without Borders (RSF/RWB) mounted protests against visiting Chinese president, Xi Jinping in Paris, US financial news giant Bloomberg decided the “company was abandoning politically risky reporting on China.”

Freedom House reported that Peter Grauer, chairman of Bloomberg LP speaking in Hong Kong, Thursday, said, “[t]hat the sheer size of the Chinese economy meant that ‘we have to be there.'”

The move follows reporting by Bloomberg journalists in 2012 of massive wealth accumulated by the relatives of then president designate Xi. China retaliated by blocking the site, which was a huge financial loss to Bloomberg. Bloomberg’s biggest source of income is its financial data service, which was now barred from customers in the world’s second largest economy.
Before Thursday’s announcement, Bloomberg unexpectedly pulled out an investigation in late 2013 on Wang Jianlin, China’s richest man, and Communist Party leaders. Matthew Winkler, Bloomberg’s editor-in-chief reportedly told in a conference call “Bloomberg could be ‘kicked out of China’ if it ran the piece.”
In a hard-hitting critique of Bloomberg’s course of action Freedom House said, “Elite corruption, the topic that Bloomberg seems to have specifically shied away from, is perhaps the most volatile and important factor of all, affecting company performance, government functions, and social stability. Businesspeople and other readers will want to know if a company must buy influence and protection from officials, navigate a market warped by corruption-driven spending priorities, or weather eruptions of public anger at official graft.”
Meanwhile in the high-visibility protest in Paris on Thursday, five trucks with photomontages of Xi giving the finger were to be driven near the city’s iconic landmarks to emblemise the Chinese president’s contempt for freedom of information in his country.
“The disconnect between the official discourse about the Chinese dream and the ruthless persecution of independent journalists shows the degree to which Xi Jinping is making fun of the world,” RSF’s secretary general, Christophe Deloire said.
“Article 35 of China’s constitution says that its citizens enjoy ‘freedom of speech [and] of the press,’ but more than 100 Chinese citizens – professional journalists and netizens – are currently in prison simply for trying to report the country’s reality,” he said.
However of the five trucks, four were stopped before entering the city, although one passed in front of the Eiffel Tower. Activists on bicycles weaving the smaller versions of the banner were also in the procession, RSF said.  

Twenty Al-Jazeera Journalists To Be Tried In Egypt

Media freedom in Egypt took a turn for the worse Wednesday, after the prosecutor’s office charged 20 journalists of the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera of “membership of a terrorist organisation” and “undermining national unity and social peace by broadcasting false information.”
The onslaught by the Egyptian government installed after the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohammad Morsi regime last year, has intensified in recent times against journalists seen as supporting the Brotherhood. As far as foreign correspondents go, journalists from media organisations based in two countries – Qatar and Turkey – also seen as supportive of the deposed Muslim Brotherhood government have been the main targets.

The Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) said that on August 28 ‘Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr’ (a Cairo-based Al-Jazeera affiliate) was declared illegal and on September 3, it, and three other channels, was closed on the grounds of “threatening social peace,” “disseminating rumours and false, misleading reports” and “inciting hatred and public disorder.”
On September 10, the Cairo offices of the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) were raided by the police. Mounting intimidation led to TRT suspending its operations temporarily, said RSF.
RSF said of the 20 journalists, 16 who are Egyptian have been charged for membership of a terrorist organisation. The other four are Australian Peter Greste, two Britons and a Dutch citizen. They are charged with “collaborating with [these] Egyptians by provide them with money, equipment and information (…) and broadcasting unreal scenes to give the impression to the outside world that there is a civil war.”
The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said “This is the first instance of terror-related charges against journalists and foreigners since the government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation in December. Al-Jazeera has denied the charges, demanding its reporters be freed.”
Of the 20, eight are already in custody the others have been declared as fugitives by the Egyptian government.
IFJ said Greste, a Peabody Prize winning Australian journalist and former BBC correspondent had written emotional letters, smuggled out of prison, about the conditions in which he and his colleagues are held.  
“In the letters, he said that he had his first walk in the ‘weak winter sunshine’ after spending ten days being locked in his cell 24 hours a day when not being questioned, while he expressed his fear that writing the letters might result in his harsh treatment, saying: ‘I am nervous as I write this. I am in my cold prison cell after my first official exercise session – four glorious hours in the grass yard behind our block and I don’t want that right to be snatched away.”
He said that his two colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were held in worse conditions as they were accused of membership of the Muslim Brotherhood. Wrote Greste: “Both men spend 24 hours a day in their mosquito-infested cells, sleeping on the floor with no books or writing materials to break the soul-destroying tedium.”
“This attempt to criminalize legitimate journalistic work is what distorts Egypt’s image abroad. The government’s lack of tolerance shows that it is unable to handle criticism,” said Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa Coordinator of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “We call on authorities to drop these outrageous charges and release all journalists from jail immediately.”
IFJ and its affiliate Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance have also published statements and written letters demanding the release of the Al-Jazeera journalists.

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.

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.