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Russia, Other Autocracies Modify Media Censorship To Suit The Times

Using Kremlin’s recent move to crackdown further on Russia independent media by replacing the editorial leadership of RIA Novosti with regime loyalists, two Washington DC-based scholars argue that authoritarian regimes are ‘retooling’ their approach to censorship.
Chris Walker, executive director, for the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and Robert Orttung, assistant director of the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Elliott School, George Washington University say that authoritarian regimes caught between the need for an open media required for the operation of a modern economy while at the same wanting a firm control in the exercise of state power, are re-forging their weapons to exercise “effective media control” rather than oppressive, blanket censorship.

 Effective political control is, “enough for them to convey their strength and puff up claims to legitimacy while undermining potential alternatives. Such state dominance enables regimes to put pro-government narratives front and center while using the power of editorial omission to limit criticism of official policies and actions.”
The article that appeared in the Washington Post is from a longer one in the January 2014 issue of the Journal of Democracy.
The authors analyse this strategy in relation to four sets of audience the media of authoritarian regimes address: the elite, the general public, the opposition, and regular internet users.
They conclude, “Authoritarian governments willfully deprive hundreds of millions of people of authentically plural and independent information and analysis. The intense attention devoted to the rise of new media in recent years has led many to underestimate television’s enduring and powerful role as an undemocratic force in authoritarian societies. But through their dogged control of traditional media, and increasing ability to impede the political content of new media, authoritarian regimes are shaping an entirely different understanding of “breaking the news.” 
Read the full article here

Vietnam Blogger Quan Jailed For 30 Months

Public protests against jailing of Le Quoc Quan (Pic BBC/AFP)

Vietnam’s dissident and blogger Le Quoc Quan, 41, whose most recent brush with the law came when he criticised the preeminent position enjoyed by the Communist Party under the country’s constitution, was jailed for 30 months and imposed an a fine of US$59,000, the BBC reported today. He has vehemently protests his innocence.

Quan who was arrested in December in Hanoi, was not charged with political crimes, but with tax evasion. “Although charged with tax evasion, it was clear that the real reason for his arrest was his blogging and his calls for political pluralism, religious freedom and civil rights,” said the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters without Borders (RSF).
“This clearly politically-motivated sentence is designed to gag and punish a dissident and is part of a strategy orchestrated by the Communist Party to persecute all independent news and information providers in Vietnam,” continues the RSF statement.
RSF also said that Nguyen Van Hai, another blogger, was sentenced to 30 months imprisonment on tax evasion charges, but an additional 12 year sentence was imposed on the eve of his release, this time for anti-government propaganda.
BBC reported following his sentence Quan had said, “I have long been denouncing and fighting against corruption, bureaucracy and the stagnation that is doing harm to this country… I’m the victim of political acts,” before the live feed was cut off.
Meanwhile, RSF that has documented press freedom issues in Vietnam – “Vietnam: Programmed death of Freedom of Information” – and spearheaded a petition campaign demanding the release of 35 bloggers and netizens jailed in the country, tried to meet Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung during his visit to Paris in September, but was rebuffed.
“During the ongoing ‘France-Vietnam Year’ celebrations, dedicated above all to strengthening business ties, we think it is important to know about the deplorable state of freedom of information in Vietnam, where the authorities deal ruthlessly with anyone who calls for multiparty democracy, investigates Communist Party corruption or speaks out on environmental issues,” said Christophe Deloire, secretary general, RSF.
 “Strengthening business ties” was also attributed to US President Barack Obama soft pedalling issues of human rights issues, including Quan, when meeting his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang at the Oval Office on July 26. Commentators said the US’s interest in building trade ties with Southeast Asian countries – Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) could be one reason, while the others suggest military-strategic priorities to counter China’s emerging great power status in the region.
Prior to the meeting, human rights and media freedom watchdogs in a letter to Obama 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.”
Before his detention from December last year Quan was arrested in March 2007 after completing a stint as Reagan Fascell Fellow at Washington DC’s National Endowment for Democracy. He was released without charges after being detained for 100 days. He was arrested again in 2011 and released without charges. In August 2012 he was severely injured in an assault. (Please see here)
According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Vietnam that had nine journalists imprisoned in 2012, one of the worst records in any part of the world. According to the RSF Press Freedom Index, Vietnam ranks 172nd of 179 countries in 20012

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.